What is Modern Philosophy? Part 1

In 1972, I was asked to give an appreciative talk on modern philosophy at our high school’s Arts and Humanities Festival. It was an evening program for interested students, parents, staff, and community members. What follows is that presentation, which, as will be apparent, is a young man's take on modern thought and represents his best efforts at conveying, in a spirit of empathy, what he felt modern philosophy is about.

One derives little comfort from modern philosophy. Anyone wanting from its pages a certainty, a reassurance, an answer will go away hungry. But were one to reseat oneself at its table, it would be less to satisfy one’s hunger for answers to the enigmas of life than to cultivate a deeper understanding of those enigmas obscured by those answers. The answers, if there are any, will come unbidden if they come at all, which would be a pity for it’s the enigmatic that keeps us alive.

It has been said that the truth is sometimes sad. Now, who is there who can say that modern philosophy is true, but for those who believe that it is, there is much sadness. In fact, it were as though certain experiences had driven them to a point where they needed to understand modern philosophy to understand themselves, as if, contrary to what is usually supposed, it is not the mind that seeks understanding, but the heart.

One can enjoy a prodigious verbal command over modern thought, a pyrotechnically dazzling mastery of its works and ideas, and an unrivalled grasp of its intricacies, yet still be denied entry, for modern philosophy is less an invitation to intellectual discovery than a primordial night sea journey into uncharted waters. Conventional charts, maps, and treatises offer little assistance in finding one’s way around its questions, whose answers may lead into desolate regions where resilience of spirit is needed even to listen to, much less accept, what one hears.

To those for whom the inherited answers of Western civilization still are intact; for whom the religious interpretation of the universe with its eternal verities of the existence of God and the comforting solace of an afterlife still reign supreme; for whom traditional religion with its immutable absolutes and the moral grandeur of its divinely bestowed laws still pulsate as a sustaining force in their lives, bringing peace and security, certainty and comfort; for all these believers, modern philosophy is and, of necessity, will remain a sealed book forever. For they will read its pages less to understand than to refute, forgetting that what is written from an experience of loss can never be refuted.

Not that what was lost was lost suddenly. There were six centuries of preparation: the gradual breakdown of the medieval synthesis, which had given Western believers a fixed place in the universe for over 1500 years; the Renaissance, which enabled men and women to rediscover themselves as something new, self-sufficient, and beautiful; the Age of Discovery and Exploration, which shattered the insular and self-confident view of a European world in having to confront all manner of troubling theological questions about how to account for all those previously unknown and different peoples on the other side of the world where, by rights, they shouldn’t have been at all;

The social and political convulsions of Europe’s Wars of Religion, which taught that little, if anything, in theology could ever be proven, as each denomination exposed the weaknesses of its opponents’ doctrinal systems; the rise of 17th-century Rationalism and Empiricism, which shook the metaphysical foundations of Western philosophy and theology; the Enlightenment’s Scylla and Charybdis, Voltaire and Hume, whose jaded mockery and urbane eviscerations of everything that had once seemed so unassailably true still trouble readers; the hallowed phenomenon of Immanuel Kant, whose epistemological critiques about what could and couldn’t be known about this world and beyond have yet to be answered;

The Four Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse – Copernicus, who overturned the centuries-old geocentric view that this Earth was not, after all, the center of the universe, but an insignificant planet revolving about a minor star in one of a myriad of galaxies; Marx, who suggested that philosophies and value-systems, far from emerging from a dispassionate search after truth, simply arise as weapons to legitimate or challenge a ruling elite’s view of the world; Darwin, who posited that the first human being was not fashioned from the clay of the earth, but blindly evolved, without purpose, from lower life forms; and Freud, who believed that reason was not humanity’s crowning possession, but the puppet of blind passion and unconscious promptings.

These four seminal thinkers, as well as the social sciences of history, depth psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, biblical criticism, and comparative religions with their positivistic and historicist underpinnings all culminated in the anguished cry of Nietzsche’s “God is dead!” However, few have understood this cry or felt the profound sense of grief out of which it arose. Certainly not those for whom modern philosophy is but the empty prattle of the cocktail hour with its glib familiarity with fashionable clichés.

Unaware of this six-centuries-long historical process that led to the breakdown of traditional certainties, many have dismissed these three words as the delirious ravings of a madman; the sacrilegious blasphemy of a crazed creature railing against his Creator; the sound of the gauntlet thrown down in hubristic challenge to usurp the Divine Throne, whereas, in fact, it was none of these.

Rather, it was a clinical description that, as far as many 19th-century Western men and women were concerned, God was dead as a psychological fact, dead as a meaningful Presence in their lives, dead as a result of this six-hundred-year-long period of disintegration. But the irony of it was that Nietzsche’s contemporaries hadn’t yet realized what had happened or what it portended for religious belief. Allow me to quote Nietzsche himself in abbreviated form as he relates this transfixing tale of the “madman” in all its soul-stirring pathos:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and incessantly cried: "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who didn’t believe in God were just then standing by, he provoked much laughter. Did he get lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Thus did they shout and laugh.

The madman jumped into their midst and riveted them with his eyes. "Where did God go?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? Do we hear nothing yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? God is dead. And we have killed him.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in amazement . . . "I have come too early," he said. "My time has not yet come. This tremendous event is still on its way; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder take time . . . .

Modern philosophy takes this cry of desolation and moves beyond it by exploring the implications of this cataclysmic event for the modern soul. For if God is dead, if insofar as Western civilization is concerned there is no God, afterlife, or moral order as the expression of God’s will, what would this mean for living our lives? Would everything stay the same or be changed beyond recognition? Would we look at life differently, live our lives differently, carry on as if nothing had happened, or create for ourselves a new vision of life? These are the concerns of modern philosophy in relation to which all else is trivial.

Modern philosophy is then an attempt at reorienting ourselves to living in a new mental, emotional, and psychological landscape, with everything we had ever known, felt safe with, and were certain about suddenly gone and having to make our own way forward, alone. It introduces us, perhaps for the first time, to life’s ultimate questions but leaves us to find our own answers, rather than inheriting them with little reflection from the family and culture into which we were born. The meaning of life would no longer be given to us as a book of instructions passed down from one generation to the next, but be something we’d have to create on our own.

We’d have to confront human existence in all of its mystery as once did the Greeks as they stood upon the shore of the Aegean and, looking up into the dark night of a mysterious universe, felt its crushing vastness with its terrifying silence and grandeur. Transfixed by the unimaginable scale of it all and the searing awareness of their own insignificance, they were overwhelmed by the enigmatic, an experience so rarely felt in our modern world of practicality, distraction, noise, and sick hurry.

Perhaps it is only youth that can relate to this wonder that lies beneath the surface of things, since the young are still young and not yet benumbed by the dead hand of custom. The riddle of life would not come pre-interpreted for them to save them the trouble of becoming adults, but would be born afresh in each of them to find their own meaning as thinking, searching, and inquisitive beings. This, at least, would be the ideal.

As we age, however, in this workaday world, we are no longer given to such vaulting inquiry, for to continue interrogating the universe about the meaning of things is to risk losing our certainties. Our inherited beliefs, truths, and values, all the things we hold most sacred might sadly prove false; everything we believed was fixed, secure, and meaningful might lack foundation and set us adrift in an eternal night as Nietzsche suggested.

And who is there who dares face this when one’s entire life might lose direction? How go on without immutable standards, a guiding North Star, when one’s beliefs and values might be irretrievably lost, and in their place the indifference of a silent universe that mutely looks on? To expose oneself to this vertigo risks everything, perhaps even oneself! Small wonder then that, for many, modern philosophy isn’t true, cannot be true, for the simple reason that it dare not be true!

Consider for a moment Matthew Arnold’s memorable poem Dover Beach of 1867, a staple of every high school British literature course. It reveals how a serious poet like Arnold was himself reeling under the impact of a skeptical Zeitgeist that was slowly unfolding in Victorian England and casting doubt upon the inherited view of the world. Or Thomas Hardy’s poem Hap, written at the same time, with an even darker message.

But why bring up those Greeks as they contemplated a mysterious universe? Because many of them no longer believed in their ancient myths but were ready for a deeper understanding of the enigma of life. This was precisely what Greek drama gave them in profoundly moving experiences in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These playwright-theologians invited their audiences to explore life’s enigmas in their retelling of the myths that went beyond their literal meanings that no longer spoke to their times.

What was happening on the Greek stage was also occurring in the Athenian marketplace with Socrates as a one-man Enlightenment, asking questions, exposing fallacies, challenging, confounding, provoking, infuriating, delighting, inspiring, liberating, and talking to everyone who needed a physician of the soul. This renaissance of the spirit continued into the next generations with Plato, Aristotle, and their successors. This unprecedented ferment in the theater and philosophy became the intoxicating new wine for generations of Greeks that inspired them to more reflective lives and altered the sensibility of the ancient world.

What was happening during that halcyon high noon of classical Greece has also been occurring in Western culture for the past few centuries when, for some, traditional answers to the eternal questions no longer ring true. Instead, they have turned to modern philosophy and its attempt to answer those questions in a way that speaks to their times and view of the world.

We have then two dramatically different outlooks on life. The traditional understanding believes in a Heaven, Hell, and this earthly life as a testing place, a time of trial, a preparation for the life to come. We must be on our guard against this world, for it is strewn with temptations, snares and delusions. While being in this world, we must never be of it lest we lose our way in its worldliness.

If we are good, we shall go to Heaven; if not, to Hell! The afterlife is, after all, our sole reason for living, the stage on which we work out our salvation. If there weren’t an afterlife with God, this life wouldn’t make sense. There would be no point to living or being good. To die without reward after a good life or without punishment after a bad one wouldn’t be fair. There would be no justice in the universe!

Why even be born unless to be tested for the afterlife, without which this life would have no meaning or purpose. It is only the hope of Heaven and the fear of Hell that keep this world from becoming a jungle. As Ivan Karamazov said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted!”

This world would also be an unbearable nightmare if, after so much suffering and struggle to lead a good life, everything ended in the grave! The human heart cries out that there must be something after death! This world cannot be our home but merely a place of exile where we are but pilgrims passing through to our heavenly home above.

The afterlife gives us instant perspective on the trials of this life because everything that happens has a divine plan and purpose. God will give us the strength to endure whatever he sends us, and by accepting it as his will our burden will be lightened, and we shall enjoy a peace passing all understanding. Attitude is everything, and seeing whatever happens through the eyes of eternity is the most potent medicine against despair.

This majestic narrative is compellingly set forth in the 15th-century morality play of Death summoning the Rich Man to give an accounting of himself in Everyman, a work that shows the vanity of this world and the meaning of life. It is a moving work that nourished the devotion of generations in the Western world, and a German reworking of this play, Jedermann, is still yearly staged before Salzburg Cathedral.

John Bunyan’s immortal 17th-century classic Pilgrim’s Progress is also a guide through the thickets and brambles of this world. Its message is still captivatingly haunting in its allegorical, charmingly old-fashioned style and riveting in its single-mindedness. It is a work that stirred the Western imagination until a few generations ago, and is still a cherished possession that touches the hearts of many as an eloquent commentary on the meaning of life.

To be continued . . . . .

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