A couple of my recent posts have explored the idea of anti-politics – the idea that concern with affairs of the state is typically detrimental to a good human life. The anti-political view is one for which I have great sympathy. Now, as the previous post might have suggested, I also reject the supernatural; I believe that natural science is our best guide to the causality of the physical world, and that we would do well to look with skepticism on belief in celestial bodhisattvas, the multiplication of tooth relics, or an afterlife.
But if one takes up the resulting position – neither supernatural nor political – then one has relatively little company in the history of philosophy. From Yavanayāna Buddhists to Unitarian Universalists, those who have sought to move beyond the supernatural have typically also believed in political engagement. The vast majority of political quietists like Śāntideva believed in a vast panoply of unseen worlds far beyond those supported by empirically tested evidence.
I continue to wonder: is there something I’m missing? Is there some reason why so many in the end tend to supernaturalism, politics, or both? (Epicurus is perhaps the clearest example of a figure who avoided both supernaturalism and politics – but Epicureanism as a system did not last, and even those who sought to resurrect Epicurus’s philosophy have sometimes ditched his anti-politics.)
Last time I mused on the subject, I turned to an explanation from Simone Weil: “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” Humans, Weil seems to imply, will always seek some sort of absolute perfection: the choice is to seek it in an otherworldly realm, or in the future of this one. Eric Voegelin appeared to see the same choice as Weil, and view the latter choice as disastrous: there will always be an “eschaton,” a Final End that human life aspires to, and if we immanentize it – that is, set it in this world instead of a transcendent world beyond – then we will end up with totalitarian states that goosestep over the messy imperfections inevitable in human life. Whether or not there were any other world in which to transcend, according to Voegelin, the absence of belief in such an other world leads us to terror in this one.
But I asked before: do we really have to seek an absolute good? What about just seeking modest improvements, trying to minimize suffering without eliminating it? As non-supernaturalists, shouldn’t we just try and make sure that people set their eyes lower than Weil and Voegelin do?
Well, one answer that comes to mind for that question is: death. The existence of a final death seems to pose a major problem for any sort of egoistic consequentialism, any idea that one should seek out the best consequences for oneself – including the virtue and tranquility that Epicurus himself seeks. For eventually, there will be no further consequences no matter what one does. At the last moment of one’s life, there is no future, nothing to maximize and no reason to do anything. And at the previous moment, all the egoist can act for is something better in that last moment. In the earlier moments of life, the moments that one can improve will run out before one knows it. As important as this one life looks while we’re in it, it begins to look pretty small when one faces impending death, whether it is impending in seconds or in decades.
By contrast, an absolute good – an “eschaton” – outlasts the individual self, it is something bigger to strive for. Even striving for the good of one’s immediate circle of friends and relatives seems hollow when their death will follow in a few decades as well. But the state – that offers the promise of something more lasting. The Jacobins are long dead, but the capitalist world unleashed by the French Revolution is still with us. The possibility of a classless communist society offers the same intoxicating thought of a world in which one’s contributions live on long after death, a world where one’s life is more important than its mere length.
Politics, then, offers a way to transcend death through what Freud called cathexis – as might one’s children and one’s work. We break down the boundaries of our selves and identify them with something that outlasts ourselves, such as a state or new classless society.
But there remains a basic problem with transcending death through cathexis in this way: the object of cathexis has no guarantee of immortality either. Lenin’s classless society lies in ruins today. What guarantee have we that the perfect society we think we’re building will not do the same? Let alone the more minor improvements we might make to politics as it is. This seems to me the greatest problem with descent philosophies of whatever variety: however much one might accomplish, in the end it comes to naught. Lucretius is right that when we die we won’t care about that nothingness. But that doesn’t stop it from casting a shadow over all we do in life, raising questions about the point of it all, whether it’s really worth bothering or we’re just fooling ourselves.
And so I start to turn to ascent philosophies, views that turn us in some respect away from the world we see. But then we are back to the original problem: most ascent philosophies, especially the ascending intimacy philosophies, are supernaturalist. They depend on an afterlife, turn us away from this world toward the one that is supposed to come after death – but to one who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, it would seem like there is no such thing.
However, those philosophies of the afterlife have one thing in common with the descent philosophies. They both put the absolute good, the eschaton, in the future, whether a transcendent or immanent future. A great appeal to me of Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta philosophy is that it gives us an eschaton which is beyond time itself, and therefore essentially not in the future. We have an absolute good that is already there at all times; it’s just a matter of realizing it. Does Śaṅkara get us entirely beyond the supernaturalism-or-politics quandary? Probably not – he believed in rebirth himself, after all, and the main point of bothering to realize the absolute good would be that one would do so in the future and avoid the suffering attached to future ignorant births. It makes for an interesting alternative way of viewing the problem, but not necessarily a solution to it.