34. Angst and the Paradox of Courage
The most fundamental question of all ontology is: Why is there something (or being) rather than nothing (or non-being)? This question is the ultimate basis of all existential wonder. For the question, Why is the world here? leads directly to the question, Why am I here? and from there to a host of questions about the meaning of life. The latter has been among the most frequent topics addressed in my students' insight papers. This is particularly true once we recognize that most questions about death are also, at least indirectly, questions about the meaning of life. For the awareness of non-being first raises the question of being; and in the same way the awareness of death first raises the question of the meaning of life. In Lecture 35 we will examine how the inevitability of death affects the mystery that arises when we search for life's meaning. But first let's focus on a closely related paradox that arises within us any time we choose life in the face of death.
According to most existentialists, any time we come face to face with the possibility of our own non-being (e.g., as when we reflect upon our eventual death), we have a natural "existential response" involving a very special kind of fear. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the German existentialist philosopher who, with Wittgenstein, is generally regarded as one of the two most influential twentieth-century philosophers (see Week VI), distinguished between this special existential fear and ordinary kinds of fear in the following way. Ordinary fear is a person's empirical response to a threatening object within the world: it usually requires us either to fight the object in hopes of overpowering its threat, or to flee from the object in hopes of escaping from its threat. In both cases we can say the person who is afraid of something in the world responds by trying to push something out of the world-either the feared object or one's own self (see Figure XII.1a). By contrast, existential fear is a response in the depths of a person's being to the general human situation, especially when that situation reveals within us the presence of non-being or "nothingness" in some way. The natural human response is to flee from the threat, since it seems impossible to fight against "nothing"! But in this case we flee not by seeking to escape the world, but by immersing ourselves more fully into the empirical objects of our ordinary experience (see Figure XII.1b). This may be done in many ways, such as by pursuing hobbies, watching television, becoming an avid sports fan, or even becoming a scholar and immersing oneself in books. Heidegger's point is that the usual (unhealthy) way of escaping from the threat of non-being is merely to pretend it is not there, by immersing oneself in being.
(a) Ordinary Empirical Fear (b) Existential Fear ("Angst")
Inappropriate Responses to Two Kinds of Fear
Using Heidegger's distinction as an introduction, let us now look back to the ideas of an earlier philosopher, who also had much to say about the nature and function of existential fear. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally recognized as the father of theistic existentialism (as opposed to the atheistic existentialism fathered by Nietzsche). Kierkegaard (pronounced "Keerkagore", meaning "churchyard"-i.e., graveyard) was a lonely Danish philosopher who wrote twenty-one books (as well as 8000 pages of unpublished papers) in twelve short years, and whose ideas were never well received during his own lifetime. He expounded his main philosophical ideas in a series of books written under several different pseudonyms (some arguing against each other!). But in the last few years of his life he wrote a number of books using his own name, mainly attacking the corruptions he perceived in the Christianity of his day. Of his many interesting ideas, the only one we will have time to investigate here is his use of the Danish word "angst" to refer to what I have called "existential fear".
Although angst is sometimes translated as "dread" or "anxiety", neither of these words captures the full depth of the existential fear of non-being Kierkegaard intended this word to denote. Dread is too often associated with extreme displeasure or apprehension at the thought of facing some empirical threat, as when I say I dread going to the dentist. Likewise, anxiety is too often associated with ordinary "stress", as when students say they feel anxious about their ability to pass an examination. In order to guard against the temptation to connect angst too closely with ordinary empirical types of fear, many scholars have adopted the habit of simply using the original Danish word-a practice I shall follow today. When I do refer on several occasions to dread or anxiety, we should, of course, identify these with angst, not empirical fear.
Kierkegaard's first book, Either-Or (1843), distinguished between two basic ways of life, the aesthetic and the ethical. The former is based on feelings and focuses on enjoying the pleasures of life; the latter is based on duty and focuses on doing what is good. As such, this distinction corresponds to the distinction we discussed in Lecture 22, between utilitarianism and deontology. Those who first read the book debated over which of these two opposing points of view the author actually wished to support. But Kierkegaard's true intention was to demonstrate that either choice on its own is as absurd or incomplete as the other. For he later published another book, Stages on Life's Way (1845), wherein he argued
that the aesthetic and ethical stages both point beyond themselves to a third stage, the religious, which synthesizes and surpasses the two earlier stages (see Figure XII.2). He defined the religious way of life in terms of an attitude of "inwardness" that transcends the "outwardness" required for theoretical reasoning and scientific knowledge.
In The Concept of
Figure XII.2: Kierkegaard's Three Life Stages and Two Leaps
Anxiety (1844) Kierkegaard developed his idea of angst by analyzing the Christian idea of sin. Angst, he claimed, is a psychological state arising naturally out of the essential, ontological nature of man: our freedom gives us infinite potential for the future; yet our presence in time makes us finite and ignorant. In other words, angst arises out of the tension between the sensuousness of our body (rooted as it is in time) and the freedom of our soul (rooted as it is in eternity). Our ignorance insures that the choices we make for our own future will eventually plunge us into sin, so that angst comes to be experienced as "entangled freedom" (CA 320)-that is, as the infinite tangled up in the finite. Sin, then, as the normal state of the human spirit (see Figure XII.3), is the first of two "qualitative leaps" we must make in order to progress through the stages of life shown in Figure XII.2. After leaping from innocence to sin (as in the story of Adam and Eve), the second leap is from sin to faith (as in the story of Abraham). The first leap corresponds to the change from the aesthetic to the ethical (or vice versa), while the second corresponds to the change from the aesthetic/ethical choice to the religious. Paganism is rooted in the aesthetic stage, where the leap of sin is experienced as
fate and the leap of faith as providence; Judaism, by contrast, is rooted in the ethical stage, where the leap of sin is experienced as guilt and the leap of faith as atonement. Christianity surpasses both of these by actually being rooted in the properly religious stage of absolute faith in God.
Kierkegaard's analysis of angst and sin suggests that the lack of angst is the worst possible psychological state, since without angst we could
Figure XII.3: The Ontological Origins of Angst and Sin
never progress to the stage of spirit. In the original state of innocence angst arises as a response to the "nothing" (i.e., the person's ignorance) of the future: "anxiety is freedom's actuality as the possibility of possibility" (CA 313). To ignore this freedom is actually idolatry when it causes the person in the aesthetic stage of life to grasp innocence, peace, happiness, beauty, etc., as if they were good in and of themselves. For to do so is to separate oneself from the spiritual depths of one's own human nature: "The most effective means of escaping spiritual trial is to become spiritless" (385). Yet once this freedom is utilized, an awareness of sin arises, causing a new kind of angst, in the form of "anxiety about evil" (381-386). This comes in three forms: (1) the desire to return to a state of innocence; (2) the threat of falling deeper into sin; and (3) the wish that mere repentance were enough to atone for sin. Unfortunately, the attempt of many religious people to overcome such anxiety by means of outward goodness only gives rise to more angst, in the form of "anxiety about the good" (386-420).
The truly religious person turns away from both aesthetic and ethical aims in order to become inward. "Inwardness" refers to immediate self-understanding in action (CA 408), requiring a person to be open to the eternal in one's own self. To turn toward oneself in this way is therefore identical to turning toward God. As a result, it always begins by heightening a person's awareness of guilt:
In turning toward himself, [the religious "genius"] eo ipso turns toward God, and ... when the finite spirit would see God, it must begin as guilty. As he turns toward himself, he discovers guilt. The greater the genius, the more profoundly he discovers guilt....
In turning inward he discovers freedom....
To the degree he discovers freedom, to that same degree the anxiety of sin is upon him in the state of possibility.... (376-377)
Such a person will then recognize that anxiety really points beyond itself to faith:
The only thing that is truly able to disarm the sophistry of sin is faith, courage to believe that the state [of sin] itself is a new sin, courage to renounce anxiety without anxiety, which only faith can do; faith does not thereby annihilate anxiety, but ... extricates itself from anxiety's moment of death. (385)
In other words, the proper response to anxiety is to stop being anxious about anxiety, accepting it in the belief that it exists for a higher purpose. Whereas pagan anxiety expresses itself most profoundly as fate, and Jewish anxiety as guilt, the anxiety of the true Christian (whom Kierkegaard regarded as practicing the most advanced form of religion) is therefore expressed in the form of suffering (see Figure XII.2)
Kierkegaard argued that the key to solving the problem of angst is to learn to face it courageously, with the paradoxical feelings of "sympathetic antipathy" and "antipathetic sympathy" (CA 313). Anyone who "has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate" (421). For "anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends" (422). Despite its apparently negative character, the suffering caused by angst is therefore essential to our spiritual growth: "the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man" (421). Kierkegaard had numerous other philosophical insights, not only concerning the human experience of angst, but also about numerous other topics, such as the paradoxical relationship between history (the finite) and subjectivity (the infinite), and the true nature of Christian faith as requiring a subjective willingness to die. However, we will be unable to pursue these or other interesting topics here.
Instead, I want to point out that, given Kierkegaard's analysis of angst, the relationship between dread and death is analogous to the relationship between love and life: just as love is the moving power of life, so also dread is the moving power of death. Whereas the former is the power of being, driving us toward the unity of opposites, the latter is the power of non-being, driving us toward the diversity of opposites. In other words, dread is the driving power behind the "estrangement" Tillich regarded as the necessary prerequisite for love (see Figure X.5). The struggle between these two powers is, in fact, what keeps us alive, while at the same time giving us a glimpse of our eternality in the midst of our finitude. In other words, dread, in spite of being a primarily negative experience, reminds us of our capacity for self-transcendence. Together, the powers of love and dread remind us that, on the one hand, we are not at home in this world, and yet on the other hand, we are not entirely strangers either. Recognizing this paradox can help us respond to real experiences of angst in a way that is appropriate to the eternal dimension of our lives.
The failure to balance the powers of eternality (love) and temporality (death) in our lives usually results is some type of psychological disturbance, and can eventually lead even to insanity. Insanity does not come from paying too much attention to the paradoxes of human experiences; rather, it results from the attempt to run away from them to the security of either the infinite or the finite on its own. As long as the two powers are engaged in a struggle within us, our mental health will be preserved. But the loss of either eternality or temporality can drive a person insane: for the former would limit us to an application of analytic logic, thereby causing us to see the world as an unbearable diversity of fragmented and disconnected bits, while the latter would limit us to an application of synthetic logic, thereby causing us to see the world as an overwhelming unity, without discrete and intelligible parts. The former describes the form of insanity that stems from an overemphasis on reason over imagination, as when paranoid schizophrenics interpret their experience within a narrow set of limits (e.g., "everyone is against me"); the latter describes the form of insanity that stems from an overemphasis on imagination over reason, as when the elderly lose themselves in the limitlessness of senility.
Tillich argued that we are all guilty of losing our eternality to some extent. The best explanation for the angst we feel when we think honestly about our own death, he claimed, is that we all know deep down inside that we deserve to die, because of the inauthentic way we have lived. Too often, people's response to this guilt is merely to flee from it into the safety of philosophical arguments for immortality or a religious hope for eternal life. Yet the latter only increases the philosopher's over-dependence on logical reasoning, while the former only increases the believer's over-dependence on religious imagination. In other words, these common "solutions", though not in themselves wrong, can sometimes backfire by intensifying the loss of eternality that comes from denying one side of the paradox.
The only proper response to the loss of eternality revealed in our experience of existential dread is, according to Tillich, to face the threat of non-being with an existential courage to be. In his book, The Courage To Be (1952), he described this response in the following way:
Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of non-being upon itself by affirming itself ... Courage always includes a risk, it is always threatened by non-being ... Courage needs the power of being, a power transcending the non-being which is experienced in the anxiety of fate and death, ... in the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, ... [and] in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. The courage which takes this threefold anxiety into itself must be rooted in a power of being that is greater than the power of oneself and the power of one's world.... There are no exceptions to this rule; and this means that every courage to be has openly or covertly a religious root. For religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being itself. (CB 152-153)
Like Kierkegaard, Tillich therefore saw the threat of non-being as an existential problem whose only adequate solution is essentially religious. This word "religious" should not be misunderstood as referring to religious practices, such as going to church, singing hymns, etc. For as we saw in Lecture 33, such things can be misused to keep us away from truly religious courage. Instead, the point here is that to be religious means to be open to an experience of the Being who, by transcending the distinction between being and non-being, can alone supply us with the courage to be.
This basic experience of receiving the gift of the courage to be is closely related, according to Tillich, both to mystical experiences of participation in God, and to more ordinary experiences of a personal encounter between man and God. Such experiences are rooted in a recognition that the presence of non-being within us estranges us from our true nature, and that this problem can be solved only if we are willing to be "grasped by the power of being itself" (CB 153). For only when we "participate in something which transcends the self" (161) will we be prepared to experience the most profound manifestation of the courage to be, in the form of the "courage to accept acceptance" (159-166). This courageous self-affirmation is not merely "the Existentialist courage to be as oneself. It is the paradoxical act in which one is accepted by that which infinitely transcends one's individual self." Nor does this ultimate acceptance require us to deny our guilt, for "it is not the good or the wise or the pious who are entitled to the courage to accept acceptance but those who are lacking in all these qualities and are aware of being unacceptable" (160-161).
At the beginning of the process of accepting acceptance, we experience the courage to be as the bare "courage of despair [angst]" (CB 170):
the acceptance of despair is in itself faith on the boundary line of the courage to be. In this situation the meaning of life is reduced to despair about the meaning of life. But as long as this despair is an act of life it is positive in its negativity.
By living our life in the paradoxical power of the courage to be, we will eventually be ready to welcome death itself not as a tragic confirmation of angst, but as the final step in this life-long process. Along these lines, Tillich claimed that Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul were "attempts to interpret the courage of Socrates", who had clearly recognized that "the courage to die is the test of the courage to be" (164). We will look more fully at the experience of death itself in the following lecture. For now, however, it will suffice merely to summarize Tillich's theory of courage in terms of the following map:
Figure XII.4: Courage in the Face of Non-Being
The religious basis of the courageous acceptance of life in the face of death, of being in spite of the dreadful prospects of non-being, is made explicit in the biblical notion of the "fear of the Lord". The Old Testament references to fearing God are too often watered down to the point where they are taken to mean nothing more than being careful to obey the Law lest we be punished. But they refer far more profoundly to the fact that the God of the Old Testament, as the Being who holds all beings in His hand, is the ultimate source of life and death; as such, anyone who is courageous enough to approach this Being must do so with the utmost reverence and awe. As Mitchell put it: "Fear of the Lord is being in awe, aware of the shocking, silent, presence of God" (IPW 75) -a comment reminiscent of Otto's notion of awe in the presence of the numinous (see Lecture 31). Throughout the Bible this fundamental, other-worldly fear is depicted as an existential response to the human situation which, if we accept it, will give us otherwise unattainable strength to cope with the fearful situations that arise in the ordinary world. This could indeed be regarded as the basic message of the Psalms and Proverbs: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (e.g., Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7) means we will learn best how to respond to the threats within the world only when we have courageously responded to the threat outside the world. In other words, angst and wisdom are best regarded, paradoxically, as two sides of the same coin.
If we do not merely ignore the basic ontological question raised at the beginning of this lecture, then we seem to have a choice between two possible answers: either the existence of the world is meaningless and the courage to be has no basis, or else there is a God who is, paradoxically, beyond the very distinction between something and nothing, and who thereby lends meaning to both being and non-being, thus forming the ultimate basis of faith, and so also of our courage to be. But as Kant, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and many other religiously-minded philosophers have pointed out, this God cannot lend meaning merely by being a doctrine imposed on us by the social pressures of a religious community; rather, we must experience God as a reality that gives us power to cope with the paradoxes of life, providing us with faith in the face of doubt, peace in the face of turmoil, acceptance in the face of guilt, and courage in the face of dread.
35. Death and the Mystery of Life
One of my students once defined silence as the state of no longer needing to ask any questions. This suggests an interesting paradox in the claim that the final goal of philosophy is to experience inner silence, since one of the philosopher's main tasks is to raise questions whose answers are usually not immediately apparent. Yet I believe it expresses a deep insight into the nature and purpose of doing philosophy. If silence is actually a questionless state, then have we merely been wasting time raising so many difficult philosophical questions here in Part Four and throughout these lectures? Not at all! Such questions must be raised, or the deeper levels of silence can never be enjoyed: for the questions stir up in us the wonder that draws us out beyond the noise of the world to meet the meaning of the world. Wittgenstein expressed this basic paradox by saying the meaning of life is found outside of life, which is why he believed we cannot speak about that meaning. Our inability to give scientifically verifiable answers to most philosophical questions does not, however, mean the questions (or our attempted answers) are meaningless. For their final purpose is not to be answered in words-this may or may not be possible-but to help us discover the meaning of life and of the world in the silence that such questions tend to induce.
In the previous lecture we learned about the paradox of courage in the face of the dread of non-being. This leads us directly to the ultimate philosophical question, for the inevitability of our own non-being-that is, of our own death-raises the question of the meaning of life; and this question itself directs our attention toward the ultimate silence beyond life. As far as we can judge by what we observe when a person dies, death marks the end of our capacity to use words, and thereby ushers in a silence unlike anything we have experienced during life. The mystery of what, if anything, happens after we die is one of the primary sources of the "angst" we all feel from time to time-this being, as we have seen, one of the primary concerns of existentialist philosophers. This angst has therefore driven ordinary people-even those who know nothing about philosophy-to propose various ideas about what happens after death.
Is there a life after death? If so, what is it like? There are four basic ways of answering such questions, though each type of answer, of course, has many variations. We can analyze these four ways of envisioning the "after death" experience as arising out of two questions: (1) Does our consciousness of our own identity continue after we die? and (2) Will we acquire a new body after our present body dies? With these questions in mind, we can map the four traditional answers to the question of life after death onto the 2LAR cross, as shown in Figure XII.5. This is probably not a "perfect" 2LAR, since it is highly unlikely that all four possible answers describe what actually happens after death. Although two or three of these views might be simultaneously true in different ways, most people feel constrained to choose only one as the best hypothesis. So let's compare these four possibilities in a bit more detail.
The theories of extinction and reincarnation both agree that the part of me that enables me to remember who I am (often called the "mind" or "soul") will not survive my death; but they disagree as to whether or not
Four Basic Ways of Conceiving Life After Death
I will acquire a new body. If not, then I will simply cease to exist (--): my individuality will discontinue altogether-though in some versions of extinction, such as the mystical application of Aristotle's "spark of the divine" (see Lecture 6, especially Figure II.9), something other than my body and mind continues to exist. If, by contrast, I do acquire a new body, then I will reappear as another person (-+), whose memory will be discontinuous with my present memory. People who believe in reincarnation often claim we can learn to become conscious of memories from our "past lives". We have to learn how to regain such memories precisely because there is normally no conscious continuity between our different reincarnations, even though there may be some deeper spiritual "core" connecting the lives of these apparently different persons.
Those who, like Plato, believe in the immortality of the soul are actually closer to those who believe in extinction than to those who believe in reincarnation. For, although the immortality theory disagrees with both of these two theories by claiming that we have a soul (i.e., a capacity for continuous, conscious memory) that survives our body's death (+-), it actually agrees with the extinction theory's claim that our dead body will not be replaced with a new one, as the reincarnation theory believes it will. This might seem rather surprising, especially to those who view Plato's belief in the immortality of the soul as the ancient Greek equivalent of the Christian belief in life after death. The latter, however, is not based on any logical arguments for the necessity of the soul's immortality, but on a religious hope that people will be saved from extinction through divine intervention in the form of resurrection.
The theory of resurrection must be clearly distinguished from each of the other three theories. As the direct opposite of resurrection, extinction is properly regarded by those who believe in resurrection as being our natural fate, should resurrection not occur. By contrast, the other two theories share with resurrection common factors that sometimes overshadow their differences. Like immortality, resurrection assumes a person's conscious powers will continue, more or less uninterrupted, after death. And like reincarnation, resurrection assumes a person will have a new body after the present body dies. But in opposition to Plato, resurrection focuses primarily on the body, assuming like Aristotle that, without a resurrected body, the soul itself would also die. And in opposition to reincarnation, resurrection views the new body as a new kind of body, not just another body of the same kind. The pictures that sometimes appear in religious literature, of bodies floating out of their graves up into the sky, misrepresent the real meaning of resurrection. For in the New Testament, a person's earthly body is described as a mere "seed" in comparison to the fully matured "spiritual body" to be given after death (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-44). That is, our conscious life in the present body will somehow be united in a continuous way with this new spiritual body (++), so that all our unrealized potentials in this life will blossom and bear fruit in the life to come.
Although we do not actually experience our own death from within our present life, we do experience other people's death as the ultimate end of their life as we know it. As a result, none of us can know for certain until after we die which of these four views best describes what lies on the "other side". Perhaps this is why philosophers are often less interested in the questions death raises about a possible afterlife than in the questions it raises about life itself. Plato, for example, insisted that the fear of death is appropriate only for those who are still bound to the "cave" (cf. Figure II.7). Transcending this fear by "learning how to die" is one of the basic tasks any good philosopher must perform. Plato was referring here, I believe, to the lifelong task of learning how to live with the darkness of the unknown, even before we die; for when we do so, we discover that this absolutely real mystery paradoxically sheds light on how we should live. In other words, by raising the question of the meaning of life, death points us directly toward the need to live what existentialists call an authentic life.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to the authentic or truly human life as the life that attains "self-actualization". This now common term has often been wrongly criticized for promoting a selfish, "do your own thing" lifestyle that permits a person to ignore the needs of other people. However, this is a gross misunderstanding. For Maslow and many others have been careful to point out that the inward focus of self-actualizing people does not mean they care only about their own egotistical interests, but that they are self-transcending people, whose understanding of themselves has led them to reach outward to others in love and compassion. Interestingly, one source of the misunderstanding of such terms is that the self-actualizing life is itself essentially paradoxical. The more he studied self-actualizing people, the more Maslow came to realize that they are people who can resolve paradoxes within themselves: instead of being either selfish or unselfish, they are somehow both (see e.g., TPB 139). Socrates' famous "know thyself" carries essentially the same message: we know ourselves not in order to become self-enclosed solipsists, but in order to become self-giving saints. And the more we know ourselves (i.e., the more apparently selfish we are), the more we are capable of knowing others (i.e., the more unselfish we can be).
Learning to transcend ourselves in this way will prepare us to accept death with open arms as a gift. For we can view death as the ultimate gift only if we have learned to live with death-that is, to live with our own non-being through such acts of self-transcendence-while we are still alive. As we saw in the previous lecture, the importance of recognizing the presence of non-being in all beings was one of the key insights of the existentialists. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, expressed a similar insight when he claimed non-being is actually more useful than being (TTC 11). For example, a window would be useless for seeing through if not for the blank space in between the edges of the frame. And a cup would be useless for holding liquids if it were not hollow inside. Such examples show that what is would often be unable to fulfill its proper function if it did not make use of what is not. Likewise, people should view their own death as a natural part of the life process.
The two ways of describing transcendent reality, as either "being-itself" or "nothing" (see Figure VI.2), suggest two corresponding ways of viewing the "natural" relationship between life and death. I would guess nearly all of us feel more inclined to hold one or the other of these two views. According to Lao Tzu, a person who treats death as a natural part of life will no longer need to search for the "infinite", or "eternal life". Viewing death as the ultimate end of all life, he believed such a search is bound to fail, and will only succeed in producing anxiety (see Figure XII.6a). Yet the anxiety we feel at the prospect of our own death need not cause us to give up the search for the infinite, provided we view death as a boundary, with the object or purpose of our quest lying on the other side (see Figure XII.6b). Only in this latter sense does it make sense to regard death as a gift that can truly be affirmed as a natural part of life. If there is nothing after life but death and extinction, then regarding death as a natural part of life makes no more sense than regarding the wall as part of the window, or the space outside the cup as part of the cup. A boundary is part of the thing it defines; but the space outside the boundary is wholly other.
(a) Anxiety as the Boundary (b) Death as the Boundary
Figure XII.6: Two Views of Life and Death
Whichever view of death is correct, the issue raised by Lao Tzu highlights the central paradox of life itself: an essential part of the human task is to seek after the infinite, yet this search is bound to fail because death makes life itself finite. But the search "fails" only if success is judged in terms of analytic logic. If we affirm the paradox, if we affirm (with Lao Tzu) the presence of non-being within all being, if we affirm (with the existentialists) our finitude in the very process of seeking the infinite, then we have grounds for hope that meaning will break through in the midst of our struggle. Even if this breakthrough occurs only after our death, it legitimates the search within this life. Indeed, Lao Tzu's real point is not that the search itself is wrong, but that we should not expect to discover the infinite in a form we can grasp within this life.
We must therefore always be careful not to think we can resolve the paradox of life by making something less than infinite the source of our life's meaning. For example, I cannot count the number of students who have written insight papers claiming "happiness", or perhaps "satisfaction", is the purpose for which people ought to live their lives. Yet the problem with this view is that, as we learned from Tillich in Lecture 30, once happiness is reached, it ends. Those who live their lives in order to fulfill their own desires inevitably end with a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, even if they are lucky enough to have those desires fulfilled. Satisfaction is not ultimately satisfying. So the paradox is accentuated to the point of absurdity if we direct our lives toward a finite end. Lao Tzu's advice, coming from a person whose basic message was that we must live in the presence of the mysterious (i.e., infinite) "Tao", should not be taken to imply that there is nothing infinite worth searching for; rather, it implies that the ultimate goal of the quest for the infinite is to teach us that it is present now in the midst of our finitude, so that we can give up the quest in order to rest in that presence.
The lesson we learn by facing the paradox of death, in other words, is that the search for the infinite must be pursued in the context of a recognition of the finitude of life as we know it. The need for a recognition of both human finitude and an eternal context beyond human life is an insight recognized by most religions. For example, one of the many ways the Bible expresses this paradox comes in Isaiah 40:6-8:
... All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of the Lord stands forever.
This "word" here is the same word John spoke about at the beginning of his Gospel; and it is, paradoxically, a word that can be heard only in the depths of silence: "'In the beginning was the Word....' The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it" (HMD 90-91).
The latter quotation suggests that life is to death as words are to silence. Similarly, just as life ends in death yet draws its meaning from the mystery that death veils, so also, as I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture, the questions of philosophy end in a silence that no longer has use for questions. Life is, in fact, full of such mysteries and paradoxes. The few we have touched upon here in the fourth part of this course only represent the tip of the iceberg. Our dreams, for example, put us in touch with a huge area full of mystery and paradox. If we had more time we could look in greater detail into some of these other dark and interesting aspects of our lives. Indeed, I devote an entirely separate course to the subject of dream interpretation and the unconscious aspects of self-knowledge (see DW). So instead of developing that topic any further here, we shall return in the final lecture to the question this course began with, in order to examine how it too reveals the paradoxical mystery at the heart of human experience.
36. What is Philosophy?
This course began with a discussion of the question "What is philosophy?" Some of you offered some interesting suggestions, demonstrating that even before taking this course you had some good ideas about what philosophy is. Perhaps this is because every thoughtful human being has a philosophy of one sort or another, though many never bother to work it out very precisely. The problem is that most people never get beyond the stage of having "my philosophy". That is, although many, if not most, people have established for themselves a particular philosophical point of view, very few people seriously work at expanding that personal point of view in such a way that it can be regarded as having a legitimate range of application beyond their own personal opinions. Yet this step is crucial if we are ever to understand what philosophy really is. My philosophy must go beyond the stage of being "my philosophy" and must become philosophy before I can rightly say "I am a philosopher". That crucial step is one I hope you have begun to take while studying this course.
In Lecture 1 I said I hoped by the end of this course you would know less about philosophy that you did at the beginning. Some of you laughed at this suggestion. Others seemed to be confused. Still others thought I was confused. Most of you probably thought it was just a joke. But in fact, I was quite serious. At several points during this course I have argued against naive versions of relativism, on the grounds that certain boundary lines are absolute. More adequate versions of relativism always recognize that the very possibility of "relativity" depends on something that is, by comparison, "absolute". In physics, for example, the theory of relativity was able to acknowledge the relative character of events in our time-space world only after physicists agreed to treat the speed of light as a "constant" (i.e., as an absolute). I now want to add that the ultimate purpose of all philosophical inquiry is to become more and more aware of such absolutes; for the more we do so, the more fully we can appreciate the beauty of the "mystery" we have been talking so much about here in Part Four. Indeed, the final ontological paradox is that this mystery makes itself known first as my philosophy, but gradually reveals itself to be the source of philosophy itself. In other words, it is both absolute and yet the source of all relativity.
To explain how this can be so, I like to compare philosophy to a huge diamond with many facets carved into it. At first, all I am aware of is that my own perspective, the facet I can see most clearly, is true. When I take a step back, I recognize that other facets on the diamond-other legitimate perspectives-are equally true. This might seem to justify a belief in relativism: your facet is true for you and mine is true for me. However, when I step back far enough to see the whole diamond, I suddenly recognize that there is a pattern: each facet is related in such a way that the whole does, in fact, display an absolute (fixed) design, in spite of the great diversity of the individual facets. Those who continue to view philosophy as entirely a matter of subjective opinion, and fail to see its potential for bringing us to an objective truth, are merely chaining themselves to their particular facet of the diamond, much as the prisoners in Plato's cave can see nothing but the shadows on their particular section of the wall. But if you have begun to take the step from a philosophy that suits you to a philosophy that can be true for everyone, then I think you will have learned at least something of the importance of the principle of recognizing your ignorance: we can never see all the facets of the diamond at once, no matter how far back we step! When you have learned to distinguish between "my philosophy" and "philosophy", and when you have begun to transform the former into the latter, you will then be prepared to begin constructing a truly philosophical answer to the question "What is philosophy?"
You may have noticed that this entire course has, to a large extent, been an attempt to answer this basic question. With that in mind, let me suggest one last answer. When we consider how philosophy is different from other academic disciplines, its virtually unending concern with self-definition stands out, suggesting that philosophy may be defined as "the discipline whose purpose is to define itself"-or more simply, "philosophy is the self-defining discipline." For when any other discipline asks the question of its own nature, it strays into the realm of philosophy. A history teacher is doing philosophy, not history, when he or she asks students to reflect on the very nature of history. But throughout this course we have discovered that the focal point of most (if not all) good philosophers is precisely this question: what am I doing when I practice philosophy? Of course, defining philosophy as the self-defining discipline relates only to its form; the content (i.e., the details of how philosophy actually goes about defining itself) has been the topic of this entire course.
Having now finished my attempt to introduce you to philosophy in such a way that you can begin to participate in its self-definition, I shall take this opportunity to summarize the entire course by relating the myth of the tree of philosophy to the account of mystery given here in Part Four. We began this course by treating metaphysics as the roots of the philosophical tree; in so doing we found in Part One that, in order to study these roots without killing the tree, we had to recognize our ignorance. Without establishing an area of necessary ignorance, nothing could be mysterious, since everything would have to be regarded as a "knowable object". There would be nothing hidden. No roots. In such a case we might think we understand the words we use, but we would inevitably commit one of two mistakes: we would conclude either that all mystery is nonsense (as does the skeptic), or that we could (or have) actually attain(ed) knowledge of that mystery (as does the dogmatist).
Both skepticism and dogmatism result from a failure to gain a proper understanding of the logical trunk and the scientific branches of the philosophical tree. For as we learned in Part Two, logic teaches us that, instead of giving up the mystery by treating it as either meaningless or knowable, the mystery itself has its own kind of logic. Having distinguished between knowledge and ignorance, we learned how to use analytic logic to understand words describing the former and synthetic logic to understand words describing the latter. In this way we clearly defined the boundary between knowledge and ignorance. Just as the branches of a tree show us, as it were, the natural purpose or implications of the trunk, so also logic remains abstract and meaningless unless we use it to gain knowledge ("science"); in so doing, as we found in Part Three, we can discover some of the implications the mystery has for what is not mysterious. The latter is the task of wisdom, and can be fulfilled only if we know where to place the boundary lines around different kinds of knowledge, and when it is appropriate to break through those boundary lines. In other words, only by learning to love wisdom can we honor the mystery for what it is, while at the same time allowing it to enlighten what need not be mysterious.
Finally, by treating our meaning-filled experiences as the leaves of the philosophical tree, we have learned in Part Four how we can actually become personally acquainted with this mystery, through opening ourselves to experiencing the wonder of silence. By allowing the mystery to invade us rather than trying to take it by storm, by allowing it to grasp and possess us rather than trying to grasp and possess it, the diversity of our knowledge can be unified by the power of the mystery. The paradoxes of life then cease to be so troublesome. They are still paradoxes, for the reality of our ignorance is not diminished but intensified by our experience of the mystery. The difference is that we now have within us an ultimate concern enabling us to cope with the fact that there are some things we can never hope to know. Kant aptly expressed this ability to cope with ignorance when he wrote (CPrR 148): "the inscrutable wisdom through which we exist is not less worthy of veneration in respect to what it denies us than in [respect to] what it has granted."
The capacity to wonder in spite of, or even because of, our ignorance is actually one of the main characteristics distinguishing a good philosopher from a bad one. That wonder is childlike may be why some philosophers, wishing to appear "mature", shun the temptation to wonder. This is also why children so often make such profoundly philosophical statements. The difference between a child and a full-grown, childlike philosopher is that the latter has added self-consciousness to the original instinct to wonder. The problem is that self-consciousness tends to negate the instinct to wonder: self-consciousness puts up with ignorance in its search for the unity of the "I", whereas wonder wants to achieve knowledge in response to its apprehension of the diversity of the world. Bad philosophers, as we have seen, limit the philosophical task to only one of these two opposite goals. Good philosophers, by contrast, will continually seek after the best way of resolving (or at least coping with) the tension between these two forces. One of the best ways of doing this, I believe, is to direct our self-consciousness to the higher goal of self-understanding. For the never-ending task of coming to "know thyself", rightly recognized by Socrates as the ultimate goal of doing philosophy, requires us to reach ever-increasing levels of both self-consciousness and wonder.
With this in mind, I would like us to consider a passage from a book that encourages us to hear the wonder of silence throughout the busyness of our everyday life. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's little book, Gift from the Sea, is a series of meditations on her holidays at an island beach, focusing especially on the symbolism of the activity of collecting sea shells. In considering the following summary of her reflections on the prospects of returning home (GS 113-116,119-120), let's interpret the "island" as a metaphor for studying philosophy, and the "shells" as a metaphor for having insights.
As she packed her bags to leave the island, Lindbergh asked herself what she had gained from all her meditative efforts: "What answers or solutions have I found for my life? I have a few shells in my pocket, a few clues, only a few." She thought back to her first days on the island, and realized how greedily she had collected the shells at first: "My pockets bulged with wet shells ... The beach was covered with beautiful shells and I could not let one go by unnoticed. I couldn't even walk head up looking out to sea, for fear of missing something precious at my feet." The problem with this way of collecting shells (or having insights) is that "the acquisitive instinct is incompatible with true appreciation of beauty." But after all her pockets were stretched to the limit with damp shells, she found it necessary to become less acquisitive: "I began to discard my possessions, to select." She then realized it would be impossible to collect all the beautiful shells she saw: "One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few." Can we say the same for philosophical insights? Perhaps so. For Lindbergh herself generalized the lesson she learned by saying "it is only framed in space that beauty blooms. Only in space are events and objects and people unique and significant-and therefore beautiful."
This insight, that beauty requires space and selectivity, prompted Lindbergh to reconsider the reasons why her life at home tended to lack the qualities of significance and beauty, so characteristic of her time on the island. Perhaps life seems insignificant not because it is empty, but because it is too full: "there is so little empty space.... Too many worthy activities, valuable things, and interesting people.... We can have ... an excess of shells, where one or two would be significant." Being on the island, by contrast, had given her the space and time to look at life in a new way-as I hope this philosophy class has done for you. "Paradoxically, ... space has been forced upon me.... Here there is time; time to be quiet; time to work without pressure; time to think ... Time to look at the stars ... Time, even, not to talk." The problem in going home is that in many ways the island had selected what was significant for her (as this course of lectures may have done for you) "better than I do myself at home." She therefore asked herself: "When I go back will I be submerged again ...? ... Values weighed in quantity, not quality; in speed, not stillness; in noise, not silence; in words, not thoughts; in acquisitiveness, not beauty. How shall I resist the onslaught?" She answered by suggesting that, in place of the island's natural selectivity, she will need to adopt "a conscious selectivity based on another set of values-a sense of values I have become more aware of here.... Simplicity of living ... Space for significance and beauty. Time for solitude and sharing.... A few shells."
In the end Lindbergh discarded most of the shells she had collected on her island holiday, and took with her only a few of the most special ones. Her experiences on the island, she explained, now serve as "a lens" that she can take home with her in order to examine her own life more effectively: "I must remember to see with island eyes. The shells will remind me; they must be my island eyes." In the same way, I hope this course has provided you with a new way of seeing yourself and the world. For the real reason the university requires you to take a philosophy course is not to train you to participate in academic debates on technical issues, but to enlarge your capacity to experience the unifying beauty of life-that is, to enable you to "see with island eyes", even when the examination is over and you have returned home, to the ordinary world of your infinitely diverse personal concerns.
In Shel Silverstein's story of The Giving Tree, the little boy does not learn this lesson until the very end of his life. During his life he forgets all about the carefree days of his childhood, when the tree was almost like part of his own self. Instead he goes off on his own, in search of happiness and fortune. The boy simply ignores the silent screams of the tree as she allowed herself to be torn to pieces by the boy's selfish desires. Only as an old man is the little boy once again able to sit and rest with the tree, enjoying with her the wonder of silence. To some extent this process of leaving the tree, venturing out on our own, and finally returning to it in the end, describes the paradoxical steps each of us must inevitably pass through in our search for a suitable philosophy of life. The tragedy of that story is that, unlike the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the main character virtually destroys the source of his wisdom in the process of looking for a meaningful life, leaving only a stump in the end. My hope is that this course will have supplied each of you with "a few shells" to help you avoid such a fate. With these in hand, I hope each of you, even those who will never study any more philosophy in a formal way, will be able to live with a continuous, silent awareness of the mysterious tree of philosophy and will always respectfully wait to receive from the endless supply of gifts she has to offer.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER THOUGHT/DIALOGUE
1. A. Is it possible to choose both the aesthetic and ethical ways of life?
B. Is it necessary for human beings to sin?
2. A. Does angst actually help us to cope with ordinary, empirical fears?
B. Could resurrection and reincarnation both be true?
3. A. What would a "spiritual body" be like?
B. Could an unhappy person live a meaningful life?
4. A. How is philosophy like a tree?
B. What is philosophy?
1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, ?, "The Concept of Anxiety" (CA 313-316).
2. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Ch. VI, "Courage and Transcendence" (CB 152-183).
3. Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being2, Ch. 10, "Creativity in Self-Actualizing People" (TPB 135-145).
4. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching.
5. Plato, Phaedo and Book X of Republic (CDP 40-98, 819-844).
6. John Hick, The Fifth Dimension: An exploration of the spiritual realm (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999), Ch. 26, "Death and Beyond", pp.241-252.
7. Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).
8. Stephen Palmquist, The Tree of Philosophy4 (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 2000).
Send comments to the author: StevePq@hkbu.edu.hk
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