Truth and Transcendence

From an interesting article on Vaclav Havel at The New Republic (via Arts & Letters Daily):

His third idea was the fuzzy one—the idea about the multiculti new god, or the something-or-other “above,” or the capital-B Being that he drew from Heidegger and did not want to be associated with Heidegger: the idea that I tried to talk about during my moment at the Castle. This was always the least fashionable of his ideas. Now that he has died, I think I see the pertinence of this last and fuzziest of ideas a little more clearly. Havel was frightened by atheism. In his eyes, communism was atheism’s apotheosis. Communism led everyone to focus on material circumstances and to dream of improving the circumstances, and to dream of nothing else. For why should anyone dream of anything more than material improvements? More does not exist. Such was atheism’s message. To pine for a new automobile made sense, but there was no point in contemplating the state of your soul.

Communist despotism in the “post-totalitarian” period depended on people drawing this kind of distinction—between the reality of material things and the non-reality of things having to do with the soul or with Being. So long as everyone adhered to materialist principles, the Central Committee could get along without firing squads. The regime stayed in power merely by manipulating the distribution of products and privileges. You wanted a Skoda? You mumbled the communist slogans, and you avoided mumbling anything else, and after a few years of reliable obedience your own name would ascend to the top of the waiting list, and—oh greatest of all conceivable joys!–a Skoda would be yours.

Truth-telling, by contrast, required a belief in something that seemed to you preferable to material things—a more that was better than a car, therefore something for which you might willingly sacrifice your chance of getting a car. Your own personal dignity was something to consider. But you needed to be able to explain, at least to yourself, what was so great about your own dignity. Havel’s capital-B Being, whatever its provenance in Heidegger, was at bottom a retort to Marx, who had famously proclaimed that “life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life,” meaning material life.

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Even during my more atheistically inclined days, I found myself drawn to those atheists and agnostics who were, to a certain extent, ‘spooked out’ by atheism; people like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus, Kaufmann – the usual suspects. As much as I admired the likes of Hume and Epicurus, I was never quite comfortable with their worldliness. I liked the people who were hungry and suffered for it. Yet it was difficult to articulate just why one should torment oneself in some unending quest for truth in a manner that was purely rational. As Kaufmann underlined in his famous Harper’s article:

Moreover, I am so far quite unable to justify one of my central convictions: that, even if it were possible to make all men happy by an operation or a drug that would stultify their development, this would somehow be an impious crime. This conviction is ultimately rooted in the Mosaic challenge: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”

As for why one couldn’t have a drug that made people happy and did not stymie them, it’s pretty clear that once we start taking the truth seriously we smash pretty hard into the nature of the world: the world is lacking in meaning, the world is lacking in explanation, human beings are finite and flawed, everything goes away eventually. And we for some reason take offense at all this, as if it were against our birthright. So why is the pursuit of truth, and all the alienation that it brings, a worthwhile pursuit? Why is it that in the Matrix, when that one guy decides to plug back into the Matrix, we feel that he’s doing something profoundly wrong (over and above the betrayal that goes with it)?

The materialistic answers feel wrong too: suppose truth-seeking is an evolutionarily advantageous trait. But then truth has become subordinate to utility, and so evidently if it wasn’t advantageous to us our species would be content with lies. We don’t want to relativise truth in that fashion, not to mention all the people who choose death over survival in matters of truth and falsehood. And we don’t want to say that truth is just a personal preference without any particular value, that some have a taste for it and some prefer lies (although to a certain extent this is how we are today: you can study philosophy if, you know, logic, critical thinking and tackling serious questions about existence are your thing; you can be a Christian or Jew if it feels right to you…). But it’s difficult here to maintain truth as a value – in itself and so it becomes difficult to avoid, if not outright impossible, the endgame Brave New World scenario of keeping everyone materially happy and pathologizing those who want the truth.

As Kaufmann and Havel seemed to understand, it seems that the pursuit of truth is sensible to us only to the extent that we’re at least haunted by the notion that we have a spiritual vocation above and beyond our natural existence. And we only feel that the nature of the world is meaningless and indifferent to the extent that we feel that we’re not quite of the world, that there’s some standard that the world is failing to meet. But if the world is all there is, then where is this standard coming from? If there is a standard at all, wouldn’t it be the world itself? Our ‘subjective’ standard could only really be accounted for as an aberration to be corrected. But not even Nietzsche succeeded in his attempt at a total affirmation, a total yes-saying to everything in the world. It’s part of our human nature to say no, to find that the world fails to live up to how it should be, to find that we fail.

Human existence is either an abomination, as Schopenhauer thought, or something with a destiny that is beyond what we can imagine. Which is perhaps why so many materialist ideologies, in the course of making war against God, often find themselves at war with man.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Politics as Opium, Stuff other people said, What Is This Beast Called Man. Bookmark the permalink.

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