It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.

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The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.