ethics

Peace in Our Day (Tranquility in a Time of Ruin)

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The Blue Marble, a famous photograph of Earth taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972. (Photo source unknown.)

I was raised a Catholic. As it is, I don’t much go to church anymore. (Mea culpa.) On Sundays now I’m more apt to sit in front the window in my kitchen, drinking coffee and waiting for the peculiarities of life to bubble up from out of where only God himself knows.

Every Sunday, at church, there was a long procession down the center aisle, under a colorful velvet light that flooded in through the stained glass on either side of the sanctuary. Smoke wafted from the acolyte’s censer and projected translucent shadows onto the walls. Then the priest, at the helm of the procession, halted in front of the altar, and the liturgy was spoken and intoned.

Then, about two thirds of the way through the Mass, after the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, the priest would say an embolism. In Latin it used to go, “Libera nos, quæsumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, da propitius pacem in diebus nostris…” Since the 60s a less literal version of the English translation has been used:

“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day…” Every Sunday he said that without fail.

My little trepidations and larger concerns were, at one point in my life, overshadowed by an unshakable faith. After all, what’s on the news, or beyond the horizon, or down the street that can stand against a firm sense of religion?

God is a bulwark for the mind. That I quickly came to realize. I understood, though I was young then, that the world could be harsh, and sometimes so harsh, in fact, that only its creator and superior could circumvent disaster. Thus, he could also intervene in the mind. What was there to fear, then? What could happen to me or anyone else that divinity couldn’t rectify?

Of course, people change. People are always changing.

So it was at some point, now vague in my memory—sometime in adolescence—that my faith was shaken. I can’t really remember what lead me to my current outlook, or why, but that’s beside the point, anyway. I have since understood, in my own way, that God doesn’t deliver us from every evil. Very much the contrary, actually: In fact, evil seems to be closing in at every turn.

The insistence is always that, as we humans are now the masters of our destiny, and that we have within our power the ability to create something that at least approaches utopia.

Yet the reverse is hard to ignore: We are the “masters” of our collective fate inasmuch as a heroin addict is of his individual one. Let’s own up to the facts: We are myopic creatures, addicted to our own greed, wrath, and ignorance. We are the supposed stewards of this planet, but our bang-up job has so far consisted of an unconscionable destruction of the world’s ecology and a destabilization of the climate which makes it humanly habitable in the first place.

We are the makers of the Anthropocene, a time when, as they say, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and more than ever that being true. The ability (and incentive) to act responsibly on a global scale is being crippled, however, as governments falter under the pressure to preserve what’s left for a world that consumes and pollutes and reproduces with unbridled apathy toward an inevitable and unspeakable outcome. And, while some positive steps are being taken—e.g. COP21, the historic climate agreement that took place in Paris this past December—I’m left to wonder how effective these will really prove over time.

My news for you is this: God is not coming to save us in the event of a massive disaster, whether it’s a protracted problem like anthropogenic climate change; or a relatively sudden one, such as a nuclear attack. There is no deus ex machina built into the equation of human flourishing, or even the basic survival of species. Pray to whatever being you please, asking for “peace in our day.” (I am not debating the existence of a deity, benevolent or otherwise. On that matter I’m agnostic.) But the fact remains that nearly all of the creatures which have, at one point or another, called this planet home, have gone extinct, and neither we nor our cherished way of life are immune to the same fate.

Peace neither of mind, nor in the world at large, has ever been guaranteed. Throughout history all manner of turmoils have been commonplace. It is at this pivotal junction in the story of the human race that we may either choose prosperity or destruction, love or hatred, greed or charity. If we have any concern for the collective life and flourishing of this world, we must act immediately and without restraint to combat the forces which threaten to undo everything good we have secured for ourselves.

I worry. I worry about the world and how the people in it will fare in the coming decades. I know worrying never makes up for action, and I was tired of never acting on my worries, so I put down the cup and decided to write. These words were born of that impulse, and from the desire for “pacem in diebus nostris.” That is, “peace in our time,” and, at that, for all time to come.

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Acceleration

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Memento Mori (woodcut), by Alexander Mair. (Image courtesy of Mundabor’s Blog.)

A RAMBLE:

“Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death.” So said Jean Cocteau, French playwright and filmmaker. Similarly, Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor of Rome, notes in his Meditations, “Yesterday sperm, tomorrow… ashes.”

I suppose it all wouldn’t feel so brief if time simply stayed at a regular pace.

Granted, this is a nonsensical statement, at least at first glance. How can time have a speed?

Actually, I don’t really think I need to spell it out. We all (or at least most of us) feel the acceleration of time, even if that feeling makes no sense when we try to translate it into physics. However, it should be rather obvious, just observing the simple math of it, why we feel this way: The longer you live, the smaller any particular unit of time becomes relative to the entirety of your life. In other words, when you’re two years old, one year is half of your entire life; when you’re fifty-two, it’s only 1/52 of your life.

What has always tripped me up is the fact that I don’t like to be rushed… I should also note that most things makes me feel rushed. Even if I have to do something in two months, the gulf of time feels as if it dissolves in a matter of days. At first it may seem as if I have some slack, as if I can shrug it off and say, “Hey, I’ve got two whole months,” but then things become a bit unbearable as the days, almost suddenly, turn into hours or minutes.

There’s that strange feeling in the gut, or the head, or somewhere… I’m not sure where it is, or even what… But it’s there: That your life has been an instant, and its contents seem “thin” or [thus] trivial, somehow.

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A bust of the emperor Marcus Aurelius from L’Image et le Pouvoir: le sicle des Antonins at the Musee Saint-Raymond in France. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I always say, in regard to myself, that it’s been something like “an hour between now and when I was sixteen.” It often does feel that way. Thinking of it, I’m reminded of a particular moment when time seemed to accelerate, surreal though that may sound:

I was in a buffet, in Waterbury, a city maybe forty minutes away from where I live. I was roughly thirteen. I think I was there for my birthday. I’m not sure. All I know is that somehow, for some reason, I associate the moment that I stepped up to the exit of the restaurant—glass double doors—with a weird contraction of time.

Since then, it’s felt like very little time has passed. And that was eleven years ago.

This is a paradoxical impression, of course, considering that, while often times the past, present, or future seem short, there are also those moments when life is actually quite long.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes there’s this creeping feeling that you’ve been alive a thousand years. I mean, again, logically that’s obviously no the case—but it feels that way. This feeling comes to the forefront of consciousness in the examination of remembrance, and especially in recalling something that you’d thought you had forgotten. One of those “oh, yeah!” moments, you know?

A freshly-renewed memory marks a particular point in time, and breaks up the monotonous blur that is often one’s sense of retrospection, and the general notion of what constitutes one’s life. Hence in that “oh, yeah!” or “aha!” moment, you’re compelled to do a double-take, and think, “Well, if I didn’t remember this [at first], what else am I forgetting?”

There’s another way of looking at the problem of “acceleration”: What if the issue isn’t something like “Well, time flies when you’re having fun” or (more simply) “Life is short!” but rather a lack of action, and ultimately a lack of contentment?

Perhaps the dismal feeling one has when thinking “Life goes by too fast!” really boils down to “I haven’t actually used my time wisely!” Even more so, perhaps it’s “I want more” or “I wanted more” or “If I had done this, that, and the other thing, that would have made me proud of myself, and confident, because I accomplished what I felt would have made me happy in a reasonable amount of time!”

That is to say, what we’re maybe, ultimately just looking at is a lack of fulfillment. I think we all have some notion or another that the materialistic, mundane tasks pitched to us by modern, consumerist society and culture—making a lot of money, or having a lot of sex, or being famous—do not really constitute the “good life”. We are, most of us, well aware of other things, things we usually think of as being nobler, some how. Things like love, and peace, and charity, and so forth. Even if we don’t pursue these as regularly as the former, and “fall into temptation,” as they say, we’re aware of the latter, maybe “higher” values.

Yet imagine a person of moral excellence. Even in the pursuit of upright things, is he not, at the end of the day, still itching for just a bit more time? Isn’t even the “good man,” if not afraid of death, infatuated with the prospect of life? Isn’t even the most miserable, suicidal individual, in the back of his mind, thinking “If I just had a happy life… if I just had the means, the time, to make a happy life… If I could just go back in time and start over…” Doesn’t he just want, if not more time, then a better time?

Experience is all there is for us, and experience is entrenched in time—intimately bound to it. All we know, as conscious beings, is “now,” and “then.” For every choice we make, no matter how pure or perfect or pragmatic, in its wake we leave an infinite number of possibilities—“what-ifs” and “had-beens.” And, what’s more, there is no real time to contemplate: Life is relentless, and the seconds press on with locomotive force.

Sometimes, in the midst of this barrage, it seems as if you’re juggling the entire universe.

Certainly, use your time wisely. But also admit to the fact that, in every moment, there are a thousand million ways to act.

Can you, in that moment, “perfect” yourself?

Can you at least try?

And is trying good enough?

As the emperor Aurelius himself said, “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

‘Of Course We’re Doomed’ (Video Transcript and Expansion)

LOGOS I (SoundCloud / YouTube)


I’ve been itching to reboot my YouTube account for a while now. I used to do some sparse reviews and music video mashups and all that. I figured, I’ve still got it on there, and decided to start uploading again.

THIS is my most recent yammering. An impromptu monologue in line with « Forever and Ever (and Ever and Ever and…)—a Little Rant… », on the collision of value and virtue. Part of a new and ongoing series with the provisional name of LOGOS:

I’m not a bona fide philosopher. But I like to talk my ass off.

Gustave Doré: illustration of Lucifer falling from Heaven (1865), for Milton's Paradise Lost.

Gustave Doré: illustration of Lucifer falling from Heaven (1865), for Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The transcript:

“Of course we’re doomed. That’s a given. But, I think we often wonder how and when… I mean, you can’t honestly expect the human race to survive, say, the heat death of the universe; and, we know in all likelihood that it will be much earlier than that, that the species meets its demise. I mean, I think it was said [that] that would occur in something like 10 to the hundreth power (10100) years or something—some wildly ridiculous number like that… the heat death of the universe… the “degenerate era,” or whatever. But I guess the problem boils down to one of infinity and immortality… you know, this idea that we need to preserve something… Why? I mean, you see monuments and statues and all sorts of things erected all over the world all the time in honor of so and so or such and such; and you do have to wonder, you know… several billion years from now the Sun is going to engulf the Earth… and you have to wonder exactly what people are thinking. Like… this is being left for posterity? [I mean] it’s short-sighted. If you’re long-sighted you realize none of it lasts, and there’s no point in doing anything with a sense of I’m preserving something… [That] I’m preserving some kind of artifact, especially… that, you know, is really ultimately a product of my ego. And I think this is where we boil down to a lot of moral philosophy… that here and now, what can we do to alleviate the suffering of sentient creatures? I think that ultimately that’s what we care about, even if we don’t realize it. “We all want to be happy.” I think that’s what the Dalai Lama said, right? But… “what can we do to make ourselves and other people [truly] happy?” Not, “what can we do to gratify ourselves and make us feel like we’re somehow memetically (sic) immortal?” Because, we won’t be, and none of this—none of the grandiose structures… none of the art, the literature, the music, the philosophy—nothing that humans have ever done is going to be a lasting thing in the universe at large (sic). So, what do we do now? Here and now? I think that’s the real question.”

~

I think that if we take this view to its logical conclusion we realize the general importance of empathy and compassion. Now, there are moral relativists, and solipsists, and other types who think that morality, generally speaking, doesn’t have a set state, or that suffering is either non-existent (and thus a non-issue) or dulled for other minds. (If there even are other minds.)

Anyway, there are a lot of different ways of looking at morality. But I think that most of us can agree that, if there is such a thing as morality or virtue, it ties into our sense of empathy and the existence of suffering for both ourselves and others. Poor old Schopenhauer had this in mind when he, in his On the Basis of Morality, wrote:

“If an action has as its motive an egoistic aim… it cannot have any moral worth… the everyday phenomenon of compassion… the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it… Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none.”

Now, that being said, I will say that pity is something I think should more often than not be avoided. I mostly agree with Crowley’s assertion on this issue, as presented in his article “On Thelema” (c. 1926-1927):

“Pity implies two very grave errors…

The first error… is an implicit assumption that something is wrong with the Universe, and that moreover one is so insidiously obsessed by the Trance of Sorrow as to have completely failed in the task of solving the riddle of Sorrow, and gone through life with the groan of a hurt animal—”All is Sorrow.” The second error is still greater since it involves the complex of the Ego. To pity another person implies that you are superior to him, and you fail to recognize his absolute right to exist as he is.”

Crowley was, of course, speaking from the perspective of Thelema, a rather (I would argue) Nietzschean occult system which promotes the divine sovereignty of oneself and the primacy of joy over suffering (“Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains…”—Crowley, Liber Legis sub figura CCXX), putting it somewhat at odds with Schopenhauer and Buddhism (which I will mention further down). Schopenhauer and Buddha both seemed to have as their emphasis the nature and problem of suffering (“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance…”—Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism), whereas Nietzsche promoted—in his disagreement with Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity—amor fati, the love of one’s fate (despite pain), and Thelema seems to have a vaguely similar idea of things. (“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”—Nietzsche, The Gay Science.)

Frankly, I find all four—Gotama Buddha, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Crowley—to be incredibly wise in their own ways, and it is difficult to “side” with any particular one in terms of ethics and value. We’re talking about some very profound thinkers and articulate writers and orators here.

Anyway, true compassion, to my mind, does not involve any kind of power exchange or other faulty dynamic. It must be a recognition that what is within oneself is also within another.

Despite Crowley’s admonishments of those who are “obsessed by the Trance of Sorrow,” the Buddhist view (particularly in line with the Mahayana) is one very close to my heart on this issue. As is noted by the Buddha of the Diamond Sutra, in speaking to his disciple Subhuti:

“…Subhuti, in the practice of compassion and charity a disciple should be detached. That is to say, he should practice compassion and charity without regard to appearances, without regard to form, without regard to sound, smell, taste, touch, or any quality of any kind. Subhuti, this is how the disciple should practice compassion and charity.”

In this context, compassion is something that must exist without regard to condition—the condition of ourselves, others, or the world at large. It must be self-existent and be provided to all beings.

But this brings me back to my original point: In a world so transient (as the Buddha, speaking of Buddhism, was so eager to point out), suffering and happiness must be our chief concerns. Looking to impermanent objects or projects for a lasting sense of meaning, security, or peace of mind is ultimately folly and is destined to fail. We are very much “doomed,” both as individuals and a species. We will not and cannot go on forever, and the idea that we persevere through objects/products/creations is a trick of the ego. Plus, considering the current state of our little planet’s climate and ecology, there’s a distinct possibility that we won’t be around much longer anyway. Given that, it is time to afford ourselves and other creatures a perfect measure of respect and love. I think that, despite any philosophical debate, we must come back to the fact of suffering and do something about it. What can we do otherwise?


» Check out the LOGOS! podcast on Soundcloud and the video series version on YouTube.

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