Every human life ends in death. A long time ago I noted that we often forget this fact; and we shouldn’t. But granted that we acknowledge that we are all going to die, just how significant is the fact of our deaths? A little while ago I treated it as a significant problem, whether for an egoist or for one seeking the good in politics: whatever we achieve comes tumbling down in the end.
There’s a strong philosophical allure to consequentialism, the view that the best actions are those that produced the best consequences (of whatever sort). But a problem with consequentialism is that consequences, by definition, happen in the future – and eventually there will be no future. A traditional Buddhist will believe there are potentially infinite futures ahead; but if we do not get reborn, and I do not think we do, then our lives come to an absolute end. At that last moment it is foolish to do anything for one’s own future, for there is no future left. One must live in the present. Even a few seconds before that moment, it would seem strange to act for the sake of the very last one, when one has so few left. At that point if not before, egoistic consequentialism is completely futile.
A similar point applies even to altruistic consequentialism, of which utilitarianism is a species. The future we can affect is always short-term, when we look at the big picture; even the greatest world-builders will someday be forgotten. The time from the ancient Egyptians to now is a blink of an eye in geological terms; the ecological lessons we have recently learned, about the fragility of the systems on which human life depends, should give us reason to believe that human life will not last forever. A life lived solely for the future, one’s own or others’, seems unsatisfying. Thus a major part of the appeal of ascent philosophies, which seek to take us beyond the transient world of change and death and connect us with something that endures.
In his comment on the earlier post, Thill properly questioned whether this way of thinking is justified. Our life achievements and enjoyments have value, he says, even if impermanent. “We don’t cease to enjoy a song because it has an ending!” Such a claim would certainly be disputed by the Buddha of the Pali suttas – the impermanence of conditioned things is central to their being unsatisfactory, dukkha. But I don’t agree with him; if I did, I’d be a monk now.
Still, there’s room for further reflection on the role of time in human ends. I had once asked why the Epicureans’ philosophy, one of the few in history that depends neither on politics nor the promise of an afterlife, had not lasted; later I referred to death as a possible answer. Now historically that could be the case – it could be that Epicurus’s answer to the big questions did not resonate with the wider world – but we must note that Epicurus still had an answer. It is the answer that Pierre Hadot, explaining Epicurus, quotes from Goethe: “only the present is our happiness.” The Epicurean theory of happiness is eons away from utilitarian maximizing: a single moment of happiness is as good as an eternity of it. Where a consequentialist examines every action with reference to the future, the Epicurean considers only the present – as with Thill’s reference to the song we enjoy despite, or even because of, its ending.
And that Epicurean view takes me back to the East Asian Buddhist tradition of sudden liberation – the view, as I understand it, that we can be liberated in a single moment. As I noted before on the subject, I used to dismiss this idea but have begun to come around to it. Now the liberation that is spoken of in sudden traditions must be quite different from that spoken in the earlier, gradualist Buddhist traditions. Nibbāna to a Theravādin or nirvana to Śāntideva is not something you can lose; those eons of effort pay off forever. Sudden liberation, on the other hand, disappears; for those who have attained it so often slip back into their old bad habits. I’m not quite sure I’m giving an accurate portrayal of sudden liberation as it is described in Ch’an or other traditions; but what I’m describing strikes me as a good and helpful picture of self-improvement. I previously expressed my skepticism about the Third Noble Truth: I’ve never met anyone I would consider to have attained nirvana, a fully liberated one. But the idea that one could be fleetingly perfect just for the space of one vanishing instant, that one could get everything right just at that time: now that makes sense to me.
A while ago I felt I didn’t really understand Epicurus for these very reasons. If only the present moment is our happiness, why bother with any spiritual practices of self-cultivation? Why build an Epicurean garden if you can just go ahead and carpe diem right now?
Well, because it’s not as easy as all that. Being happy and embodying virtue even within one fleeting moment is pretty tough. The same critique can be, and has been, made with respect to Buddhist sudden liberation: why bother with Ch’an practice, or any other, if you can be liberated right now? Those who’ve studied East Asian Buddhism in more detail than I have tell me that even the advocates of the sudden path typically admit that supposedly sudden liberation usually only comes after a long period of significant effort. There’s a gradual path leading to sudden liberation; the two are not as far apart as they might first seem.