Wednesday, February 03, 2016

In conclusion: All Things Shining

 individualist autonomy, it seems, leads at least to wick-edness or tragedy, and more likely to nihilism or even suicide. The Enlightenment embrace of this kind of metaphysical individualism, in such a view, was indeed a dramatic turn in the history of the West. But rather than standing as the final and most advanced stage in the history of our understanding of who we are, it seems instead be the final step in the decline from Luther to Descartes to Kant Nietzsche, a self-conception that destroys the possibility of a mean-ingful and worthwhile existence.

As an antidote to this condition we have been arguing that the basic phenomenon of Homeric polytheism—the whooshing up that focuses one for a while and then lets one go—is still available in American culture today. This source of meaning, of course, stands in direct contrast with the ideals of Enlightenment individualism, for at least the simple reason that whooshing up takes its start in the re-sponse of a community rather than of the individual. It is in this kind of community, for example, that Ishmael felt he could go on squeez-ing spermaceti forever. And the moment of exultation in a ballgame can be like that as well: one wishes it would last forever while know-ing that it can't. That sort of moment offers what autonomy cannot: a sense that you are participating in something that transcends what you can contribute to it. There is something enormously hopeful in the idea that we might be able to resist the sense that life is meaningless by appropriating and developing our receptivity to this ancient phenomenon. And if things were easy we would be able to stop the story here. But the potential cost of this appropriation is apparently prohibitive. For surely no way of living that leaves us open to fascist rhetoricians is tenable. We are stuck, therefore, between Scylla and Charybdis: a nihilistic and mean-ingless life on one side, a meaningful but potentially abhorrent one on the other. Unfortunately, we cannot steer between these dangers simply by embracing Homer's polytheism. There are things in Homer by which we are rightly repulsed, and it would be regressive to call for a return to them. In the Iliad, for example, after Achilles kills Hector, he drags the body around the walls of the city of Troy for three days straight in a kind of manic heroic madness. Homer does not applaud this notori-ous action. But he doesn't condemn it either; he just describes how it affects Hector's father Priam. We must position ourselves so that we can condemn an act like this even if we find ourselves in a crowd drawn to applaud it at the time. Homer is dangerously noncommittal on this crucial point.


 But the loss of reverence is important for another reason. Reverence reveals us as cultivators of meaningful distinctions. To revere the timber, after all, is not just to hold it up as worthy of our amazement, but to care for it and bring it out at its best—to let it shine. As technology strips away the need for skill, it strips away too this noble understanding of our-selves as cultivators of meaning. Understood in this context, the march of technology presents a grave danger. The danger lies not in particular technological advances or technological gadgets, but in the understanding of ourselves and of what we can aspire to that a technological way of life encourages. To aspire to a life that requires no skill to live it well is to embrace the flat-tened world of contemporary nihilism. The appropriate response to this danger is not to reject technology per se, but to accept individual technological advances while preserving the poietic practices that re-sist a technological way of life.
Caring for the goods of a worthwhile domain and cultivating the skill for revealing meaningful distinctions within it are necessary for resisting the technological way of life. But you can't just decide to care about a domain, any more than you can make a decision about whom to love. How is anyone to discover what is worth caring about? The fact is, whether you know it or not, you already care about a whole range of goods. Just as the world is pregnant with meanings waiting to be revealed, human beings are filled with modes of car-ing that they have hidden from themselves. This may seem surpris-ing. The idea that our cares exceed our understanding of them seems an affront to fundamental principles of self-knowledge. Surely, if I care about something then I am in a position to know that I do. The Enlightenment tradition of autonomy suggests such a principle, and contemporary philosophy takes it virtually as an article of faith. But to be an embodied being as we are, open to moods that can direct us and reveal the world as meaningful, just is to be a being who extends beyond what we can know about ourselves. The project, then, is not to decide what to care about but to discover what it is about which one already cares.

If a coffee cup is exchangeable in the activity, then so are you. To treat the cup as a mere resource is to treat yourself as a mere resource too, to dehumanize yourself by failing to recognize the care you might have shown for that domain. Now, perhaps there is nothing wrong with this some of the time. One cannot expect every moment of one's existence to be a sacred celebration of meaning and worth. Indeed, there is probably something about us that resists this or even makes it impossible. But to endure the absence of meaning is one thing, to embrace it another. If we are to be human beings at all, we must distinguish ourselves from others; there must be moments when we rise up out of the generic and banal and into the particular and skillfully engaged. But how is one to know whether the coffee-drinking ritual is one of these moments? The answer is that one must learn to see. That you already care about coffee drinking is something you may have hidden from your-self. To find out whether this is so, ask whether you take the routine to be functionally exchangeable. The morning ritual is delightful in part because it wakes you up. But would anything that woke you up be equally good? Would a quick snort of cocaine substitute in a pinch? Or if that's too extreme, then perhaps a small caffeine pill that one could swallow on the way to the car?

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