Thursday, February 2, 2017

Unyielding Despair

My classes have been talking about the view of life called existentialism this week, so I thought it might not be out of place to offer a little mood music here on VP to perhaps nudge us toward reflection upon what's sometimes referred to as our "existential predicament."
The question this song by the group called Kansas raises is, if it's true that all we are is dust in the wind what meaning or point is there to our lives?

The great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer perceived the problem more clearly than most when he noted that, "Unless the point of life is to suffer there is no point," and this depressingly droll observation: "Life is bad today, tomorrow will be worse, until we die," and, "Life is a task, the task of staying alive and staving off boredom." The world, for Schopenhauer, is a "penal colony" in which "happiness is measured by the absence of suffering." He titled the book from which these quotes are taken, Studies in Pessimism. It's not hard to see why.

Alex Rosenberg, the philosophy department chair at Duke University, frames the problem of our predicament succinctly when he writes: "What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto."

Bertrand Russell put the same dispiriting thought this way:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
What these thinkers are urging us to recognize is that death annihilates all, it's the big eraser, obliterating everything we do and rendering our existence on the planet a pointless exercise in absurdity. Those who insist on the one hand that death is the end of our existence and on the other that there can nevertheless be some purpose to our lives are a bit like a prisoner who insists on making his bed and brushing his teeth before accompanying the executioner to the scaffold.

At least that's how the existentialist sees life, and he's probably correct if indeed death really is a personal annihilation because unless what we do matters forever it's hard to see how it matters at all.

Maybe, though, what we do in this life does matter forever. If so, that changes everything.