What is Modern Philosophy? Part 2

Read “What Is Modern Philosophy? Part 1” here.

Modern thought, on the other hand, believes that this earthly life is all there is, with nothing after death, and that life’s only meaning is what we ourselves give it. The purpose of life lies in the living of it; there is no other purpose, and if we don’t find it in the here and now, we’ll never find it anywhere.

It’s precisely the brevity of this life that makes it so precious, and life’s tragic beauty is that it does have an end. This is why we love it so dearly because it’s all that we have, and parting with loved ones will be forever. We anticipate the heartbreak of this everlasting farewell by appreciating all the more deeply those few brief moments we have now together.

The first step toward maturity is accepting the universe as it is, not as we would like it to be; that it doesn’t have to conform to our wishes or sense of justice; and that it’s indifferent to us and our feelings. It was here first for billions of years before we were born, and will remain billions of years after we’re gone. Once we grasp this, we see how insignificant we are in the overall scheme of things.

Now imagine God and the afterlife as simply figments of our imagination, with no existence outside our mind. If you have a sense of adventure, try to internalize this feeling over the next several days. If this little exercise starts to change your sensibility, you’re beginning to understand modern philosophy.

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, said the Roman poet Horace. Seize the day, trusting not in tomorrow! Live in the now, which is all that we have and find fulfillment and happiness in this life alone. When we die, we’ll cease existing, body and soul. Knowing this, we’re not torn between this life and the “next,” but are rooted in this life, expecting no reward since this life is itself the reward.

Living life deeply, intensely, and reflectively is all that matters; experiencing as much of this life as we can, since the secret of life resides in the moment; loving this life no matter what happens; facing it head-on, not running from it, not sugar-coating it, but affirming it in all its confusion and turmoil, the good and the bad, embracing its mystery wherever it leads.

Nor is our life part of some grand scheme, purpose, or Providence, however flattering this may be to our ego, for we aren’t the main character in some cosmic drama. Life simply happens, point-blank, blindly, randomly, without plan or design. We accept this and find the strength to do so in ourselves and our family, the only source of our courage.

Nor is there a cushion to soften life’s sorrows. We suffer because we must. We have no other choice, and its only meaning is what we ourselves give it. Suffering can embitter, ennoble, or even destroy us, so that how we accept it is very important, for it will determine how we’ll live for the rest of our lives. This is why we keep reminding ourselves that misfortune is coming to make sure that we’re ready.

If we let it, suffering can even make us sympathetic to the suffering of others. When we see someone in pain, we’re on holy ground, and do all that we can to lessen their pain, even that of innocent animals. All of us are here together until death claims us all, who share the same fate and vulnerability.

Keats says in one of his letters, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” Pain gives us eyes to see with the heart and not be indifferent to the pain of others. Accepting pain in this way can make us less self-centered, help us to grow as persons, and be a comfort to others.

Nor is there an eternal moral order that pervades the universe, no cosmic “oughts,” “shoulds,” or “Thou shalt not’s.” Life simply is, and wisdom consists in accepting this. This doesn’t mean that we ourselves don’t have our own moral code. In fact, we reject Ivan Karamazov’s view that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted because this assumes that the only reason for being good is that Someone above is watching, and if we’re bad will punish us.

Fear of punishment is a primitive reason for being good, since there are mature motives that have nothing to do with reward or punishment. Being good isn’t lacking the opportunity to be bad, being afraid of getting caught, helping someone for selfish reasons, or not hurting someone, but not even wanting to.

Perhaps you recall Plato’s famous story of the magical Ring of Gyges in Book 2 of his Republic. This ring could make you invisible, so that you could do whatever you wished and never get caught. If you had such a ring, would you still be good? Oh, you have to read Plato while you’re young or young at heart if you want to be swept up into the glorious realm of philosophy.

The Golden Rule is still the best guide for being good because what it’s saying is common sense. If you’d want help if you were in someone’s position, then that’s what you should do for them. All morality can be reduced to these three simple words, Do unto others.

You don’t help people because it pleases God or to get a higher place in Heaven, or are afraid of getting a lower one if you don’t help them, but because they need help and you’re there and can help them. They’re your fellow human beings. You don’t walk away because you don’t think there’s a God! However, to be fair, Ivan was still a young man when he made that comment and probably regretted saying it later in life.

Finally, because this life is all there is, we feel a special urgency to rid this world of social injustice. Accepting injustice as part of God’s will is wrong since such thinking only perpetuates injustice, makes people despair and be passive, and plays into the hands of oppressors.

Once you realize this, you seethe with anger and distrust the powerful, who always succumb to the lust for more power. We should never accept our lot in life because contentment makes us lose heart and retire from the battle. If we want to improve this world, we don’t wait for Godot.

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In broad outline, this is the worldview of modern philosophy, and it goes without saying that those who see the world in this way also lead lives of integrity, but without the traditional motivations of love of God, hope of heaven, or fear of hell. Modern philosophy for them is not some cerebral affair of discussing esoteric “problems” around a university seminar table or writing technical papers for some learned guild hermetically sealed from the pain of the world

Rather, it is a way of life, an ethical journey, a lifelong endeavor of self-overcoming and living a good life without God. Nor does it see why God is needed for living a good life or making the world a better place when natural reasons alone suffice. At times, these modern believers may falter in living up to their lofty ideals as do their comrades-in-arms, religious believers, but this only binds these two groups together in human solidarity. Humbled by failure, they never despair but continue the struggle.

Believers in modern philosophy continually wrestle with questions: If modern philosophy is true, how can I lead a meaningful life without God? If I believe I cannot, have I been told so often that I can’t that I’ve convinced myself of its impossibility? How do I remain true to myself in a world that is blind to everything I cherish? Do I need the approval of others to be validated in my own eyes? Are there objective answers to the questions of life, or must I create them myself in a world where there seem to be no answers at all?

Are beliefs true if they don’t make me grow or bring some measure of happiness? Does wisdom consist in following tradition, or is this mindless conformity? When can causes, loyalties, and ambitions keep me from becoming who I am or striving to become? Should I be ashamed of my failures or use them as stepping-stones to become someone better? Why shouldn’t I give up after so many failures, or is this the only real failure?

How much of my life is theater, pretense, and ritual? How much of my relating to others is sincere or keeping-at-bay? Do I talk and talk and talk so as not to have to reveal myself? When can my position, role, image, or “best interests” take over my life? How much of the world am I responsible for? Must I succeed or only try to improve my corner of it? How do I know when I’ve done enough?

What assures me that every question must have an answer, or that only one answer is right and not a succession of answers for life’s different stages? Or that these answers aren’t the creations of my own needs, or is this the only sound basis for answers?

Religious believers also ask many of these questions and have been for centuries, but with different motives. These questions and others like them are simply an old-fashioned examination of conscience that allows both groups to focus on the essentials of life while reminding them of their weaknesses, the recognition of which is the first step toward self-overcoming and keeping close to their souls.

Like the intrepid Ulysses, both groups stop up their ears lest they become bewitched by the siren call of an escapist, one-dimensional culture which would keep them on the surface of life. Like the Greek Stoic Epictetus, they cannot choose their external circumstances, but they can choose their response to them. Both live “the examined life” by taking different paths to the mountaintop where they live their lives before God or their conscience.

*****

We have then two different visions of life with the same concerns and struggles. Does each have a blind spot which the other can heal? Does each embody the other’s self-doubt? Does modern philosophy entail more faith and religion more doubt than either would care to admit? Is doubt a sign of weakness or strength? Does it matter what one believes as long as it’s done with integrity or is this anathema?

Or is modern philosophy even true, or does it need to be true for its believers to grow? Could illusion bear fruit in their lives? Is it the truth of a belief that helps one to grow or the belief in that truth? Is suffering for a belief more important than its truth since suffering develops character?

Modern philosophy might very well be false and yet be very important as its believers’ only possible form of integrity. Their disbelief in God would preclude traditional spirituality, but they possess their own by living “the examined life,” keeping first things first, helping others, showing compassion, standing up for right, and practicing the only religion they understand -- kindness to others.

They have natural, not religious, motives for living a good life: doing the right thing because it is the right thing; helping others out of human compassion, not because it’s God’s will. They don’t drink, do drugs, or dissipate themselves not to please God, but to keep themselves from an early grave.

They’re modern-day Pelagians, those 5th-century “heretics” who refused to accept that human nature was “innately depraved” and that God’s grace alone could make them good rather than their own human effort. They believed that telling people they were inherently evil was so destructive that it created a self-fulfilling prophecy that caused them to become the very thing they were warned against.

They read the lives of their saints -- Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Voltaire, Hume, Orwell, and Camus among others. They take their inspiration from wherever they can find it – from living their lives, talking to others, walking in nature, going to a plays, listening to music, playing with their pet, doing everyday things that make life worth living.

Religious believers could see in their shared values and example another way of living one’s life that had no less integrity than their own and that could foster ecumenical discourse. They could also accept natural reasons for leading good lives and revisit as adults their inherited beliefs learned as children.

Modern philosophy helps us rediscover our beliefs in a larger context by considering the role of chance in our lives. We are taken aback when realizing that we could just as easily have been born in a different culture with different beliefs, which we would have held just as fervently as we now do our own. However, it just so happened that we were born in this culture with its beliefs. What would this say about our present beliefs?

Modern philosophy invites those who desire to live “the examined life” to become what philosophy had always intended its initiates to become 25 hundred years ago in the Golden Age of Athenian Greece – “φιλόσοφοι,” “lovers of wisdom,” philosophers. They pursued their calling not only as a way of earning their bread, but also of living noble lives by adopting, after a critical review of the evidence, a personal vision of what they believed was true, instead of subscribing to a fixed canon of beliefs of some school, institution, or tradition.

Modern philosophy, as philosophy of old, still engages in this love affair with wisdom, still learning to love the old, but eternal questions by encouraging its followers to become young again, young enough to pursue the beautiful, the elusive, and the mysterious with an open mind and heart.

In conclusion, let me end with an extended quotation by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German author of the 18th century. “The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather its pursuit which broadens his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession of the Truth makes one passive, indolent, and proud.

If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent striving for Truth, although with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one -- pure Truth is for You alone.”

“Well, this is all very well and good,” someone might say, “but what if modern philosophy is wrong and there is a God, an afterlife, and an eternal moral order as traditionalists think? Wouldn’t a believer in modern philosophy then be in trouble with the Lord – and, not to put too fine a point on it, wouldn’t there be hell to pay?”

Not at all! For if on the Last Day this person found himself before the Judgment Seat of the Almighty, the Lord would simply look into his heart and, seeing his sincerity, beckon him into Heaven, for the Lord wouldn’t be the Lord if he weren’t more open-minded than his poor erring creature who had only followed his conscience and thought he was doing right!

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