Sunday, April 10, 2005

Our existential crisis, addendum

For me, my last post prompted as many questions as answers. Sure, it may well be that the only thing I know with any real certainty is that I know nothing, but writing that post only left me more baffled by the incalculable uncertainties of existence than before. Perhaps I should stick to politics and pop culture in this space, if only for the sake of my own sanity, but, after all, I have stated publicly (see blog description, above) that The Reaction will address philosophy, if not itself allow me to attempt to philosophize. Anecdotally, I must mention that the closest I've ever come to collapsing into nervous breakdown came while reading, and attempting to grasp, Heidegger's Nietzsche for a course on postmodern political thought back during my undergraduate days at Tufts University.

I hope you're not put off. I will return to the world of the shadows soon enough, perhaps even later today. For now, here is a brief follow-up to my last post, as my thoughts continue to form:

Why were the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II so significant, both to me and to so many others? It may be simply that their deaths -- or, more accurately, their respective stories of which their deaths were a culmination, prolonged aftermath notwithstanding -- temporarily lifted the veil of self-forgetting that allows human beings to live their lives without having to confront the fact of their mortality or the various questions that surround the possibility of immorality, the immortal individual soul and hence eternal life generally. On this, I defer to the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, contemporary and sometime friend of Heidegger, and one of the founders of what would become existentialist philosophy. Jaspers referred to everyday existence, existence lived under the veil of self-forgetting, as Dasein. But human beings truly confront their humanity, and the limits of their humanity, when they are confronted by what Jaspers called "limit situations," or Grenzsituationen, such as death, chance, suffering, and other such eternal truths of the human condition, or what he called Existenz. To live an authentic human life, and hence to be truly free, means removing the veil of self-forgetting and confronting these limits. (This is the basis of Gestalt therapy, which aims to liberate human beings from ignorance and deception and thereby to allow them to live freely and authentically.) There is a certain Platonism to Jaspers's thought in this regard, and one need only think of the famous cave parable in Book VII of the Republic: Only the philosopher leads an authentic life, while the rest of humanity remains chained in the cave, away from the light, mistaking the shadows of objects on the wall in front of them for the objects themselves, that is, mistaking lies for the truth. This is the human condition, says Plato's Socrates, and Jaspers wouldn't much disagree.

What has happened here is that the two very public deaths of Terri and John Paul have lifted the veil of self-forgetting from the lives of people who, I suspect, would rather not have had it lifted. Most people are content to live in ignorance, if not downright (self-)delusion, at least concerning the most important things, because to live an authentic human life, a life of true freedom, isn't easy. Plato knew that the philosopher was the most courageous of human beings precisely because he, and only he, confronted the fact of mortality, the truth of human existence. Most people, including me, just aren't that courageous, and we don't want to lead our daily lives haunted by the fact of mortality and the existential truths of death, chance, suffering, and so on. We'd lose our minds if we did. And so the bombardment of 24/7 media coverage of those two stories, one right after the other, could not have gone on much longer. After a time, a saturation point is reached, where most people just can't take anymore and want simply to go back to the banal, trivial, and mundane realities of their "normal" lives, that is, to the self-forgetting of Jaspers's Dasein. But for a brief moment in the grand scheme of things, that veil of self-forgetting was lifted, and, if only temporarily, many of us caught a glimpse of, if not actually confronted in any philosophical way, the eternal truths of human existence, Jaspers's Existenz. It was painful, but enlightening and ennobling, and, in the end, we can only hope that something positive comes of it. Ignorance may be bliss, and most people may prefer to live in the shadows, unfree, but a little light every now and then isn't such a bad thing.

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  • Only the philospher has confronted mortality?
    What about medical/health sciences? Where mortality is dealt with on a day to day basis. Where life and death issues are a constant? And you have to support others with coping with death and dying issues? It requires an acceptance of life in its full spectrum.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:40 PM  

  • Yes, only the philosopher has truly confronted mortality, because only he has learned to die. This is the great lesson of Plato's Phaedo. The philospher, in a quest for self-knoweldge, comes to two conclusions. First, that absolute knolwedge is impossible to attain, so all we can truly know is that we know nothing. Second, knolwedge of one's ignorance is knolwedge of one's limits and, therefore, knolwedge of one's mortality. When Socrates says "to philosophize is to learn to die" this is what he means. Certainly doctors, nurses, and medical workers all see death everyday, but it is questionable whether they truly confront their own death. Confronting death is an understanding that you are mortal and will expire, and this irreducible fact is the reason that we need to live the just and good life: we only have one chance to get it right. The bio-ethicist comes closer to this self understanding than any doctor. The philosopher, however, understands this more than any other human.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:33 AM  

  • Well, Michael ... I agree with most of this. But herewith three questions that have long bothered me: (1) Why now? Why is the crisis you write so eloquently about peaking now? Of course it isn't new (the influence of Mathew Arnold on your views is evident), but it seemed to most of us that until recently secular humanism was managing to become a satisfactory replacement for religion, at least for most people, and at least in the "West." (2) Why is the United States, among the prosperous democracies, so much more inclined toward religious revival, particularly of a sort that rejects liberal humanism, than Europe? (3) Why are the currently popular religious responses to the existential crisis so often steeped in fundamentalism and supernaturalism? There are alternatives. Why not, for example the kind of rational Buddhism that Jaspers acknowledged as an influence --- a "religion" that begins by confronting the existential problem that haunts our species, and does not require re-inventing gods and rejecting naturalism?

    I have some notions about these things, but I'm more interested in hearing what you think. I'll just end with another question -- have you encountered the recent work of Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, who used to think that as technology and liberal democracy progresses, religion inevitably declines, but now advances what he (tongue in cheek, I think) calls a "supply side theory of religion" --- that people fill the erxistential void with what's available in the market, which in the US in particular is well-funded, high-profile fundamentalism.

    Keep up the good work,

    Michael Finley

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:11 PM  

  • Terry Fox, a courageous individual who faced death and gave his all too brief life meaning, who embodied a passion, a purpose and a sense of self-sacrifice and showed that one individual really can make a difference and galvanize people, even in these sedentary and blasé times

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:11 PM  

  • By Blogger BRSMAN, at 3:34 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:05 AM  

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