A few days ago, I was going over some things in my notebooks which were originally cut from various past writing projects, to see if any of them can be rewritten, edited, or otherwise salvaged for future projects. Between two of my last three books, and the one I finished writing last month (to be released in 2012), there’s a consistency of interest. I tend to be writing about broadly similar problems and themes: environmental issues, political and social justice issues, the interpretation of mythology and history, the pursuit of a meaningful and worthwhile life. And I began to wonder if perhaps the cluster of ideas that I’ve been laying before the public in my book should be given a name.
Naming something doesn’t have to mean solidifying it into a ‘doctrine’ (in the pejorative sense of that word). But it can make the problems and themes under discussion, and the methods of investigating them, easier to identify. Symbols are helpful for this purpose too.
So while musing openly on FB about naming my work, a commentator (who found names for intellectual schools of thought a little tedious and boring) suggested that it might be better to first try and define it in one sentence.
This makes a lot of sense. A strong, precise, and recognizable one-sentence description may be more helpful than a mere name. The great world religions, for instance, even though they may have thousands of years of history and thousands of books of theology that one can study, certainly can be encapsulated in a single sentence formula. I’ve blogged about that before. Philosophers sometimes produce short, tract-length explanations of their ideas, so that interested people can then go and read the longer, book-length treatments. Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” comes to mind as an example.
So I looked over my books, my blog posts over the years, my song lyrics, some of the social or political causes I’ve supported, and the like, in search of a basic presupposition which, while perhaps not suppressed or unstated, nonetheless goes unquestioned. This is a basic philosophical procedure: in good intellectual work, no proposition is unstated, no presuppositions are left unexamined. Even the procedures of reason itself are subject to the critical scrutiny of reason, which sometimes ties us up in strange knots of apparently self-refuting logic, but there you have it anyway.
The way to do this kind of investigation is to see if there is any proposition which always serves as a starting-place, never as a finishing-place, in an argument about the highest and deepest things. If I hold some idea true because of some other idea also held to be true, then that idea isn’t yet the highest and deepest idea. My political commitments were thus ruled out. For although I’ve been fairly consistently left-wing for many years, I have those commitments because of another commitment, which is more important, more basic, more deeply held. It is the same for my involvement in my spiritual community: that involvement is also not an end-in-itself for me, but rather an enactment of a deeper commitment. And it is the same for my commitment to reason itself, which is more important to me than my political or spiritual commitments, and yet also based on a further, higher and deeper idea. What is that idea?
It is the idea that human life on earth is worthwhile, beautiful, deserving of celebration, and good.
There you have it: a one-sentence description of what my work is about. And yet this sentence is not enough. It prompts other questions: what is the source of that goodness? What is the evidence for it? How can one sustain this commitment even while the world is obviously home to drudgery, lies, bigotry, hatred, ugliness, and oppression? We might call this the problem of evil.
I have often argued in favour of this proposition by way of arguing against the alternative. The only logically consistent response to the alternative proposition, that human life is worthless, ugly, and meaningless, is nihilism, despair, and suicide. But this explains the basic proposition in the negative. We also need something positive.
I go back to my sources; I go back to the root of my mind; I look a little deeper. I find that another, related starting-place in my thinking is the proposition that the beauty and the goodness of life is not simply a truth that the world gives to you, and which you passively receive. It is, rather, a question to be answered, a project to be undertaken, and an achievement to be worked and struggled and adventured for. That question and that problem is placed before you whenever you encounter in your life a natural immensity.
The idea of an immensity haunts nearly every page of my last three books. It means a presence which seems, at least at first, to stand over you, as something inevitable and powerful, and which calls your life into question, yet which also invites a response. The four examples that I study are: the Earth, other people, death, and loneliness. These need not be the only immensities, but they seem the most important ones. There is no way to move through life without encountering these things. And yet while meeting them is a destiny for us all, there is nothing written in the stars about how that meeting must play out, and what its consequences must be.
With that in mind, let me revise the one-sentence description that I gave earlier. The basic proposition is that Human life is good, beautiful, and worthwhile, and that the goodness, beauty, and worth of life emerges when you have the right kind of relationship with the immensities.
This handles the objection raised earlier about the problem of evil. But it prompts new ones, especially: just what is the right kind of relationship with the immensities? Well, that very question is among the questions put before you by the Immensities themselves, and thus it must be answered by each person for herself. But I think I can say something about how to find an answer. An immensity is not a command to be obeyed: it is a presence to be experienced. Thus a relation with an immensity is also not a rule to follow. It is a presence to be revealed by one’s way of being in the world. Thus to find and create a worthwhile life, full of the beauty and goodness of things, one will have to investigate one’s various ways of being in the world. Some ways of being in the world lead to the experience that life is desirable and worthwhile. Some ways of being in the world lead to the experience that life is undesireable and worthless. Shades of grey may also be discerned in between these two poles. Each person must observe, study, and examine herself, to learn what ways of being in the world uplift her, and then adopt them. She must also learn what ways of being in the world oppress her, and then reject them. This is a process of self-discovery, self-transformation, and self-creation. It has personal, social, political, and environmental dimensions. Perhaps some day we shall discover it has cosmic, interstellar dimensions. And it need never be finished: it can carry on throughout one’s life.
This idea is perhaps not only my own. It appeared to me in a series of dreams back in October of 2003, in which I dreamed of a conversation with Herself about these and other matters. But I shall say no more of that right now.
I welcome thoughts, comments, and criticisms.