It was not long ago that the rhythm of daily life enjoyed a mixture of science, mythology/religion and practical wisdom that sought from each of these only what each could offer in helping us to understand ourselves and the mystery of human existence.
Remaining vital in their approach and scope to human reality, these disciplines were certainly nowhere as distinct from each other, as they have become in our time. This more settled, holistic way of life was still felt, for all practical purposes, late into the nineteenth century, when fanaticism about keeping these disciplines separate can be said to have begun in earnest, with the advent of positivism.
The major impact that this seemingly scientific paradigm shift has had on Western culture is that today this positivistic outlook on life dominates all aspects of human life, where the unsuspecting are treated to a daily confectioner’s delight of illusory and self-contradicting sense of reality.
Any age that gives itself over to the slavery of merely being content with killing time from day to day, without recourse to the meaning and purpose of things, is also an age that is incapable of wisdom. Ours is a technological sensual age. Ortega y Gasset is correct in suggesting that human existence is defined by resistance and a perpetual having-to-do. That is, we have to remake today what we left unfinished yesterday. Of course, this demands much perspicuity and work on our behalf. This existential grasp of human reality even requires love. However, our engagement with the many daily tasks that we must address becomes merely biological exigency, if not enlightened by an overarching sense of transcendence.
Daily life is a contingent reality. We do not need to be reminded that our lives and well being hang on the balance by the thinnest of threads. Yet to be able to recognize universal and eternal truths, one must retain a distinct longing for the sublime. In the absence of such pathos, we find that we become, as Ortega y Gasset has convincingly argued, demoralized. The triumph of destructive demoralization, the annihilation of transcendent values that inform life and death, meaning and purpose, and rhyme and reason, is the most glaring argument that can be made against sterile philosophical materialism in all its contemporary variations. Our current delight with nihilism and destruction of the sacred is akin to Aesop’s Fable about the cat and the cock, where the moral of the story is that “the want of a good excuse never kept a villain from crime.”
The major problem that our time has encountered, and which is choking our humanity, is that we no longer find the need to tell ourselves stories that convey a transcendent meaning. Our stories, today, whether cinematic or in the printed page, only seek to help us kill time. We have been effectively convinced by sophomoric minds that we no longer have a need for the lessons of “moralizers.” This is truly regrettable, for the exigencies of living in complex times demand that we make sense of reality.
Mythology might be just that – myth - but if we take that line of thought, we eventually discover that we paralyze our capacity for understanding. Notice that I did not say for knowledge, for technical know-how we have plenty of, possibly in excess. Understanding and technological knowledge might be neighbors, but they don’t necessarily need to visit each other’s house.
Myth enables us to separate ourselves from the grind of daily existence. It is only when we are allowed to reflect about our own existence, and our place in nature and society that we have a fighting chance of attaining self-knowledge. Doing so allows us the luxury of finding out what beliefs we actually live by. In the absence of myth, we rarely come to the full understanding of the values that we uphold, often until we are confronted with tragedy. The marketplace of “ideas” often serves as a vital source of communication – or misinformation, in many cases – but man needs much more than ideas in order to fulfill his vital substance.
Our sweeping eradication of tradition, Ortega y Gasset points out in The Revolt of the Masses">The Revolt of the Masses, is a recent aberration that has never been achieved in recorded history with such ease and which has created such defoliation of Western culture. It is only recently that man turned his back on history.
Contemporary man – what is undoubtedly the gross embodiment of the new man – prides himself in creating a minimalist cultural and moral desert that make no demands on our modish nihilism. The creation of the status quo of our radicalized demoralization is not only a major source of suffering, but also serves as the impetus for the establishment of aberrant practices and beliefs that have been normalized.
The eclipsing of all historical valuation has made contemporary man dizzy with the baggage that this new embodiment of “freedom” from duty entails. Yet existential freedom has more to do with what we ought not to do than about picking and choosing from an extensive repository of hedonistic delights. Freedom that is not backed up by sound moral/spiritual values is a one-way ticket to tragedy. Ironically, what we truly encounter today is no other than a childish flight from existential freedom, where freedom has been negated because, in its authentic form, it always works to keep us honest.
Post the 1960s; we have heard time and again, how all our traditional institutions must be toppled. We have brought down all literary, philosophical, and artistic values from what critics considered their high-brow perch. Today we employ a species of charlatan known as the “life coach,” a parasitic guru whose job it is to literally coach us through living. It seems that circus acts were never as ridiculously comic or tragic.
The failure of modern psychology - which is incidentally still dominated by Freud’s thought whether most people in that field recognize this - is evident every time that we witness the abysmal distance that exists between belligerent academic cynicism, and the freshness and healthy naiveté of a child. When we consider that most of the latest research done by psychologists and sociologists has very little to do with people of flesh and bones, we quickly come to understand the depth and scope of our malaise. Our current predicament demonstrates to what degree we have rationalized all aspects of life.
Myth serves as an explanation of the order of the Kosmos and man’s place in it. Like a sculpture in high relief, myth helps us to jump out of the background of nature, for man is truly an extra-natural entity. Myth accomplishes this by giving us a framework by which we can measure the parameters and limitations of human reality. With the apparent ensuing death of organized religion, our age is now dominated by a vacuous secularism that lacks all capacity to engage the sublime. Words like transcendence and sensibility, whether poetic, moral or philosophical, sound corny, or simply ridiculous to our fashionable twenty-first century ears.
Myth’s greatest asset is its ability to embrace the imagination. Myth never smothers or destroys this vital aspect of human existence with demands for scientific proof. Hence, myth has always been a practical measure of what we can achieve given our limitations. In myth, we recognize human limitation and finiteness as a settling of accounts with our embodied reality. However, Human limitation becomes an asset to us when we recognize that human existence is always besieged by resistance. The recognition of this basic fact ought not to frighten us. On the contrary, it should re-direct us to embrace our genuine possibilities as persons.
It is not very difficult to realize why today we have given up on the power of myth and religion as vehicles that communicate a sense of transcendence. Transcendence makes demands on us that go beyond the pale of our sensual, spatial-temporal reality. The best proof of this is that while we enjoy the fruits of a highly technological civilization, the average person knows and cares virtually nothing about science. Today, we only care for the fruit, not the tree. This should strike us as odd. Most people today view science with a sense of entitlement that looks only to the gadgets that applied science can furnish us with.
What can we assert about the future of man by simply taking our cue from the past? A highly technological age has the added burden of being a time of necessary participation between people and science. Free will has never seemed so crucial a tool for human survival. There can be no easy way around this glaring fact.
If applied science is perpetually supplying us with newer and more efficient tools to aid us in living, then this particular aspect of science must remain at the mercy of man’s fundamental spiritual/moral nature. Fortunately, most of the creations that science allows us to enjoy are life-affirming. Again, the practice of free will is a fundamental component of human existence that every individual must contend with.
Having said this, we ought then to concentrate our attention on those aspects of man’s future that appear to be in dire straits at the present moment. The most pressing of these concerns is no less than our ability to continue to be moved by the sublime. The aforementioned is an element of human reality that is characteristic of spirit. Yet the recognition of man as manifested spirit is one of the great taboos of today. The negation and subsequent disappearance of spirit from the human condition threatens to deliver us to a time of bare existence, one which merely takes its cue from sensual/biological laws.
By reducing spirit to the utility of the day-to-day, we become victims of the servitude of our own passions, what is tantamount to being slaves of the sensual. We have become masters of resisting resistance. It does not take much imagination for us to conceive of a not so distant future, when man is merely viewed as a mechanical/biological machine. This stage of human history might even come to be viewed as the pinnacle of liberation. Sure, there will remain stalwarts who rebel against this aberration, those who will continue to want more out of life, but the great mass of people might come to see themselves as conscious multi-celled organisms.
Such a state of moral savagery also brings about the greater question of the role of spirit in human existence. Of course, perhaps a more meaningful and proactive question is: what moral/spiritual mechanism must we have in place in a civilization in order to safeguard spirit? This not-so-science-fiction scenario is hardly a new one, even though it has now taken on a contemporary hue. We do immeasurable daily damage to the human psyche through the continual push by progressives and other dystopians who continue to create institutions that aim at engineering human perfection.
Those who want to reduce man’s being to mere biologism, physicalism, or trans-humanism, to name a few of these blatant forms of materialism, take great pleasure in the pursuit of absolute power. Apparently, these people have learned very little from human history. This incessant and sophomoric desire to make man into something that he is not capable of being, or meant to be, is one of the dangers that spirit must contend with in our world in the twenty-first century.
The future will continue to excite us but only as long as we respect the fact that it is autonomous persons that populate the human universe, and that it is individuals who recognize their lives as self-conscious existence. When we deviate from this basic truth, we also make the tragic mistake of politicizing the human condition. Science cannot strip us of the sense of mystery that we represent to ourselves in the greater scheme of ultimate reality, only our negation of free will can achieve that task.
Books by Dr. González
Dr. Pedro Blas González is a Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami, Florida and is finishing a book on Ortega's The Revolt of the Masses. Professor González's professional interests include the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-knowledge, personal autonomy and philosophy; ancient Greek philosophy; the thought of Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Louis Lavelle, Karl Jaspers and the relationship between form and philosophical vocation. He blogs at Castle to Castle.