Friday, 29 November 2013

Charles Taylor on the Desire for Eternity

"Now the implication of much atheist discussion of Christian or in general religious ideas of eternal life is that it is another facet of the childish attitude which takes its wishes for reality, that growing up means abandoning this. Death is final ("an eternal sleep", in the words of a French revolutionary dechristianizer). We have to start from here in order to direct our attention to this world, and making it fit for humans.

This dismissive attitude often assumes that our desire for eternity is simply one to live on, not to have our lives stop. It is this kind of desire which the famous Epicurean reasoning is supposed to still: as long as you're aware of the problem, you're alive; when you're dead, it will no longer be a problem for you. But there is something shallow about this understanding of what's wrong with death.

If we could separate happiness as a thing of the moment from any meaning, then we could enjoy some great moments now, and after pass on to some great moments later; rather as we enjoy good meals. Maybe in the old days, there was another kind of cuisine. We regret mildly its passing. But there is good food now, so let's tuck in.

But that's just the problem. The deepest, most powerful kind of happiness, even in the moment, is plunged into a sense of meaning. And the meaning seems denied by certain kinds of ending. That's why the greatest crisis around death comes from the death of someone we love.

Alle Lust will Ewigkeit; not just because you might want it to go on and on, as with any pleasant experience. Rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn't last.

And when you look back on your life together, those happy moments, those travels in the sun, were bathed in the awareness of other years, other travels, which seemed to come alive in the present one. This is the Great Return, the real "ewige Wiederkehr"; not just the recurrence of something similar, but the return of what was undying in that moment. This is what Proust seems to reach to, and not just the recall of what is lost forever.

But even just holding in memory is akin to keeping the time alive; even more if you can write about it, capture it in art. Art aspires to a certain kind of eternity, to be able to speak to future ages. But there are also other lesser modes or substitutes for eternity. One can make the eternal be the clan, the tribe, the society, the way of life. And your love, and the children who come from it, have their place in the chain; as long as you have preserved, or better enhanced, that tribe or way of life, you've handed it on. In that way, the meaning continues.

This just shows how joy strives for eternity, even if all that is available is a lesser form of it; and even if something is left out that matters to us highly individuated moderns, as the particular things that meant most to us are gradually lost in the general impact we've made. And of course, this eternity can't preserve those who are really forgotten, or those who haven't left their mark, or those who have been damned, excluded. There is no general resurrection in this "eternity" of grateful posterity. This is what exercised Benjamin, the unfilled need to rescue those who were trampled in history.

Now all this doesn't show that the faith perspective is correct. It just shows that the yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as. The Epicurean answer copes with (some faces of) "la mort de moi", but not at all "la mort de toi", or the death of meaning.

And so what? Doesn't the fact that this is a serious, an unstillable longing just show up even more the courage you need to be a clear-sighted atheist? Perhaps, but it also shows how the yearning for eternity reflects an ethical insight, the one expressed in the Nietzschean phrase, which could be put negatively, that death undermines meaning. Something important is lost when one forgets this."

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. Print. pp.721-722.

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