Sunday, January 3, 2016

Is Life Inherently Tragic?

1/3/2016—The most important questions are sometimes easy to pose. One such question concerns the meaning of a human life. Rather, I guess you could say that the question is whether there is any such meaning or could be?

Apparently alone among animals, humans know that we die. As I age, the slow breakdown of the functions of my body in my 60’s heralds that coming end. I will never be as energetic and flexible as when I was younger. As I get older, there will be more functions that break down and daily pains will grow. Eventually I will weaken and then die. As I do, my loves and friends will die along with me. If I live long enough, I will die without contemporaries.

And this is if I am lucky. Life can be, and often is, a lot worse than that at the end.

Is knowledge of this reality tragic? It can feel tragic. Many people feel that it is tragic and don’t want to think about it. If they thought about it, they could not answer the question, "What then is the point of living?"

Traditional Christian thinking saw human existence differently. As I wrote on this blog at Christmas, the Christian view is one of comedy—-the term used essentially for happy endings. We reunite on the day of resurrection of the body or in heaven before that. Many religions find ways around death as final—-as in reincarnation in Hinduism and Buddhism.

For those who view death as the end of consciousness—the end of me—is there anything but bleak despair?

This is an important question for secularists, who view human life as at least premised on natural, material existence. When the brain dies, we die, and nothing of us could survive.

But not all natural religion shares a tragic outlook. One surprising example is early Judaism. This is Judaism before the notion of a Messiah and the end of history took hold. In Genesis, Abraham is told that the meaning of his existence is to produce blessing for all the world through his descendants, who will introduce the world to the one true God and will live in accordance to God’s will. He can die secure in the knowledge that his life is the beginning of that chain. He dies knowing that he lived in accord with the truth.

You don’t have to be religious to see things this way. In an essay on the whig history of science in the December 17 issue of the New York Review of Books, Steven Weinberg, whom I judge to be among the hardest of atheists, shows that he is dedicated to “the slow and difficult progress that has been made over the centuries in learning how to learn about the world… .” Weinberg is part of that chain in just the way that Abraham is part of the chain of blessing. Indeed, both consider their ways to be blessings for future generations. Marxists used to see things this way--history was the unfolding of the utopia of communism.

On the other hand, the same NYR issue, in a review of Selected Poems by John Updike, shows Updike as increasingly bitter as his life is ending. Updike writes, “Is there anything to write about but human sadness?” He writes this even though, as the reviewer, Jonathan Galassi, points out, Updike had earlier urged us all to excel to perfection in our lives.

The difference between an Updike and a Weinberg or Abraham is an understanding of, and commitment to, truth—-enduring truth. For Updike, his writing had not been in the service of any form of truth, but instead, had been his “own brand of magic.” He called his life in all its parts “The whole act.” And now that beautiful act, that amazing performance, simply ends.

Updike could not even commit to believing that his act was worth imitating. He could not rest in the assurance that he had taught truths to future generations. He could not even believe that he had performed as a human being should. Naturally he died in despair.

The deeper problem for Weinberg is his disdain for purpose. For him, the mistake of early thinkers in trying to learn about the world was the search for purpose. Aristotle and Plato thought “that it is only possible to understand things when one knows their purpose. These ideas stood in the way of learning how to learn about the world.”

But Weinberg himself acts like a man who knows the purpose of human life. The purpose of human life is to learn about the world. Not everyone becomes a scientist, but everyone participates somehow in this endeavor. And knowing the world is not just something to do. Knowing the world is valuable in itself. His version of human life is true in just the traditional religious sense. Knowing the world is not just a hobby. Maybe it is not the truest thing a human being can do, but it is one of the true things a human being can do.

We experience our own lives in just such purpose laden ways. In retrospect, our lives feel preordained. Joan Friedberg uses the Yiddish term "bashert" today in the Post-Gazette to describe her chance meeting with her future husband in 1949: something that was meant to be. She knows it did not have to happen. But this life she has known is part of her purpose.

Weinberg’s problem is that he also believes that reality has no purpose. Reality is just blind forces. But if that is the case, then his belief that his life has purpose is an illusion. Humans just try to impose purpose on meaningless matter. We fool ourselves in order to live without despair.

But this view that we are just fooling ourselves, which Weinberg ought to share but cannot quite accept (I am guessing here), just masks a deeper mystery. Why did humans evolve this way? If the universe is without purpose, why are we purpose seeking in the way we are? How could such a universe produce us?

It is comforting, but I believe also reasonable, to reject this view and to conclude instead that the universe is fit for us. That our searching for meaning can produce worthwhile and lasting results. That the universe is not cold and indifferent but warm and welcoming to us. No, there is no invisible being arranging all this—-no God in that sense. But there is some larger whole into which humans and all nature are meant to fit. And if one spends a lifetime searching and studying that whole, one has lived properly. One can even then die with satisfaction. That life is not tragic.


  1. . . . I am more familiar with John Updike's work . . . I recall his view (from somewhere) that truth should not be forced; it should simply manifest itself. For me, the simplest yet most mysterious element of truth is love. Where does it come from? Surely it means something more than a comfortable familiarity or the type of "purpose" that succeeds in getting us from point "A" to point "B." It has been and remains my experience that truth, in any context, is a difficult conquest. But this does not mean I shy away from it, needlessly complicate it, or otherwise try to pry up the floorboards and see what lies beneath it all. For me, I am happy to say . . . it is simple. Truth is love, genuine, authenticate, unbridled, love. It is the essence of beauty in any form . . . every form. For those who realize this (in their work, their partnerships, their marriage, their faith, their secularism) . . . I say . . . well done! A diet of gloom and doom do not mix well with love. Yes, we live with a good bit of gloom and doom. But its presence in our lives is not the harbinger of our fate. It is neither the beginning, nor the end of our existence . . . it is only a part of it. To live a life resigned to waiting for one's final breath is to put it kindly . . . empty. Actually, for those so resigned, I can see why purpose would be a meaningless pursuit. For them, it seems to me that love would be tantamount to a comfortable familiarity. I am brought back to Updike who would agree with me (how bold is that!) that love should not be forced. It is here, there and everywhere among us. We simply must be open to its embrace. This is where purpose begins. And this is where the mystery of eternity rests.

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  3. For those who view death as the end of consciousness—the end of me—is there anything but bleak despair?
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