One has to grant the Western religious traditions their due: They charge us with a purpose, even if it has little to do with our concrete experience. Nonetheless, surely, according to them, there comes a final reckoning, a judgment day when all wrongs are righted, and we at last achieve the purpose for which we have presumably been created.
But – this is really too easy. And all it has accomplished for modern culture is a resiliently recurring angst that many simply shrug off by resorting to sensory distractions. Many moderns are rigidly insistent that religion can save their souls; but rarely do we find any practicing this.
Any imaginable Armageddon in the Judeo-Christian tradition would bring upon the Earth a devastation leaving none standing; the souls of the Saved will be entirely transformed beyond our capacity to recognize them. But despite their total usurpation of Western religious rhetoric, many moderns remain only pagans in the last analysis. They do not wish to be saved into the City of God, they want to triumph as masters of this Earth; their divinity really plays at creation like a hyperactive adolescent at a video game. All reality is virtual, and after one dies three times, one simply feeds coins into the slot to start again. Nothing hurts, and even the pain one’s opponents manifest, is but performed as pleasure for one’s self. This is as true for Islamic fanatics cutting off the heads of unbelieving victims, as it is for Christian American soldiers listening to heavy metal via MP3 players in their helmets. Their ‘beliefs’ may be dogmatically, religiously apocalyptic, but their practice is Bacchanalian distraction from the banal necessities of common daily life.
Yet, how can we condemn them? The vacuous entertainments with which we amuse ourselves, secure in the supposed privacy of our own homes, away from any tangible social intercourse or community, is just as surely a pagan worship of private gods – sports heroes, musicians, movie stars – and irrational political pundits blathering bytes sounding vaguely like truisms, when all they can give us is a depleted rhetoric that effaces, rather than confronts, our shared reality.
Surely we must find something deeper than this – not because there really is such, but because in the search for it, we delve deeper, and build deeper, into ourselves as something more lasting than our distractions. So we think, to find something beyond the given – the possibility, the possibilities, of what it might mean to be human beyond our predilections for greed, fear, violence – and distraction.
For the time being, then, the way of intellect is the way of preserving the idea of a different possibility than the cultural reality into which we have been born – of more than one possibility – of the ability of human intellect to discover new possibilities.
Civilization in the West sometimes appears headed into eclipse; if so, we do not as yet have any sense that a new civilization will develop out of its ruins. But the hope that is at the origin of every civilization, the hope that the community of men and women do walk this Earth as human – not crawling on their bellies in fear, not raging at the sun because it shines on one’s self and one’s rivals alike, not wasting resources in self-celebratory demonstrations of extreme gluttony, as if all that the naked ape could accomplish is embarrassment to any claim of superiority for the primate family as a whole – but as men and women, humans capable of reason, of moderation, of compassion for others, and of passing these virtues down unto the next generation, and the next, in language, in writing, as the principle inheritance of the rational animal – this hope cannot vanish from the world of human beings as long as there are human beings – who speak, who read and write, who imagine, who think. And when there are no longer such, that world ends. Given our current predilection for continuing old self-destructive behaviors, while inventing newer behaviors, equally self-destructive, this may well prove inevitable.
The universe would not mourn our passing. The universe does not mourn. We are the entities who mourn. That is our lot – to reflect on our own passing. Once we are gone, there would be nothing to mourn, for there would be no mourning.
But until then: It is my belief that human life and intelligence – which really are inseparably dependent occurrences – are also accidental occurrences. The universe could have been wholly other than it is, there certainly could be some other life forms on other planets, there could even be some form of intelligent life unimaginable to us, even on this planet; and of course, there could be neither life nor intelligence at all. Any of these could be the case.
Yet that is the wonder of our confrontation with existence, that it is somehow never within the compass of our thinking or our hopes. We only have, at any moment, exactly what we do have, and nothing more. This is what we draw on when waking, and which we let go when we sleep. Yet somehow, every day, we must meet the universe anew, on its own terms, in an attitude of discovery and creative sharing.
This attitude is confrontational; but not in a conflicting sense. We are here to face the universe, and through it ourselves; for if there weren’t either of these, there would be neither of them. And eventually, that will be the case, whatever we do; so we might as well cooperate with it as long as we are able.
Throughout his career as a thinker – which had little to do with his employment as a university professor – Martin Heidegger attempted to draw our attention to what he believed had been long neglected and yet of utmost importance, the question concerning being: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why can any thing be?” This is not a call to metaphysics, as usually charged; the nothingness he speaks to is from whence we came and to where we are destined. We are born; we die. What made you think there was anything beyond this?
Yet, there is: Recognition that there is any ‘something’ simply because we are here, with our conscious and confrontational intelligence. Our living is precisely why there is being. Without us, only nothing could be known – but there would be nothing that could know that. So the question could only linger as a ‘ghost in the machine’ that would effectively cease to exist.
It is difficult, in this positivistic, materialistic culture, to struggle along the path of thought into the recognition of the real implications of this question; yet, once accomplished, it becomes clear: The question does not in itself have an answer; the question is itself an answer to a much more difficult problem, which we each confront, even while we distract ourselves from it by whatever means:
To be or not to be, that is the question;
whether ’tis nobler in the mind
to suffer the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune;
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing, end them.
Why are we born? when surely all we finally achieve is death? Some refer this to a divinity we cannot know; others to biological imperatives that cannot possibly explain how the individual can comport himself or herself to the flood of unceasing experience, both physical and social. We are always at sea; no explanations guide our vessel. The question becomes one we can only answer with what we do. And this changes moment by moment. Sometimes we find a calm; all too frequently we face a storm and yet must still, knowing as little as we do, navigate as best we can.
Some claim the question is frivolous; but that is only so as long as one has hypnotized one’s self with the sensory pleasures of the moment, or with the intricate details of our daily professions. Yet, at any moment of suffering, the question arises anew, as if for the first time, and yet as unyielding to any demand for an answer as it ever was.
In the tradition of Buddhism, we are taught that the First Noble Truth is that life is disappointment, which is suffering; and that disappointment arises inevitably for a desiring, demanding organism, programmed to think primarily of its own self-satisfaction, which can never be fully achieved; but we are also taught that de-construction of this self-centeredness provides us with relief from such suffering.
But any relief from such suffering must begin with the acknowledgement that such suffering exists. Primitive peoples need not make such acknowledgement, because their tribal living is itself that acknowledgement, as a direct response to such suffering on a daily, even hourly, basis – hunger, child-rearing, environmental threat.
But many moderns (perhaps even more so post-moderns), now refuse to make such acknowledgement, and everywhere and always re-enact and perform the suffering, on themselves and others.
Only those philosophically informed, and critically aware of the human condition, can admit the issue to intellect in an honest attempt to think it through, and to think through it to some possible solution. Yet it even then takes quite a while, and quite an effort, to reach the recognition, that this honest attempt to think itself provides a moment of realization into the end of this suffering – which, following whatever calculation one chooses, will always be found, finally, in living compassionately for others still suffering; this itself constitutes the only possible perfection of the rational animal.
At the start there is nothing; then gradually, our consciousness comes to existence; only to confront an inevitable, unknowable darkness down the path to our mortality. We are this darkness we confront; yet the confrontation itself becomes our guiding light.