Monday, June 25, 2012

Higher than the Animals, Lower than the Angels, Yet Unhappier than Both...

When thinking about the problem of evil and suffering that philosophers and theologians commonly grapple withI think also of animals and their lot in life (so memorably described in that poem by Walt Whitman (see below*), how little they complain despite all the "injustices" they endure on this earth, their constant struggle to survive, the harsh elements they're exposed to, their soon-forgotten pains and deprivations, their subordinate position relative to us, the hostile forces that that make them expendable as creatures, their scary self-reliance, locked in (as they all are) to the vicious cycle of predator and prey, forced to kill or be killed, lacking the comforts of technology and civilization. No matter how nightmarish their environment may seem, their limited, insular, brutish mode of awareness keeps them somehow "placid" and "self-contained" - even "serene" - as Whitman might say, while we humans, by contrast, emerging from the same environment, have taught ourselves (over time) the art of unhappiness - fueled by feelings of outrage, indignation, disappointment, regret - which we see as normal because we can imagine better outcomes unconstrained by fate or necessity; we have dreams and ideals, we build,  we create, we envision - thereby leap-frogging over our fellow mammals who never expect much more beyond than what already is. Our more restless form of consciousness -  wired as it is to visions of possibility and transformation -  seems like a major anomaly, the source of greater pride, dominion, feelings of superiority, but also greater misery.  Animals in general seem more normal and well-adjusted precisely because of their complacency; by contrast, we are the sick ones possessed by expectations that can never be fully satisfied, who make demands that defy plausibility, who measure ourselves against the status and privilege of others, who crave increased levels of power and control over circumstances, who "live for" improvements sometimes to no avail - and when our demands are rejected,  this lack of "progress" infuriates us,  embitters us, renders us,  by turns, angry or distraught, headstrong or hyped-up. But are we correct to react this way? Do we have rationality and morality on our side here? Isn't there something entirely needless and gratuitous about this tendency of ours to "make a stink" whenever anything goes wrong? Unhappiness seems unnatural. Because to be human (if it means anything) calls for us to reject the way of animals and seek for something higher. But by claiming this spiritual ground beyond what Fate or evolutionary biology has ordained for us, we cannot help but stumble upon a theology* of sorts in which some God or vision of God comes to mind as the goal - i.e. the model for the type of existence we are aiming at, as well as the invisible antagonist to our immediate demands. God's transcendence helps fill the vacuum, helps account for our human rebellion against the [harshly impersonal] "way of the world." One could look at this refusal of our lower animal nature in one sense as a necessary rebellion, born out of our first burgeoning awareness of this strange malady - our unique unhappiness, our sense of what might have been if only... our feeling of being out of joint as creatures within the natural horizon.  Out of such misery, there grows a desire for healing,  a demand for justice,  an inchoate faith, a search for answers, a quest for wholeness. As faith - it is a in fact a rational striving, a yearning to bring about whatever is intangible - i.e.  "not fully present" or "not fully actualized" "not fully humanized" in response to some sacred/divine prompting to "overcome" the world. Understood in this sense, faith would appear as our most basic human tendency - a secular tendency - the underlying attitude with which we project ourselves freely, defiantly and willfully into the future so as to negate the present set of circumstances/injustices. But if faith (so defined) does indeed represent a new stage of human development, a form of consciousness that is teleological - i.e. oriented toward a higher set of goals - released from the constraints of animal life,  then it would seem that the question about God (about who or what God is) would emerge simultaneously as a form of discourse relating to this self-conscious activity. Call it religion or religious speculation, or even mere story-telling or myth-making about God or gods. Such a discourse, as evidenced by a particular mode of civilization, is necessary to help us imagine that upper echelon of divine perfection, the ideal realm, which always relates by way of contrast to our present sense of identity. [Note: If at this point, you are tempted to interject: that this higher realm comprised of God, heaven, angels, etc. is a mere product of imagination and has no physical reality - i.e. science has no evidence of such realities - is it also the case that as an upper echelon of possibility - a category forever hovering above and beyond our present state of existence - that it has no ontological status? I'm not so sure we can simply dismiss this question - despite its metaphysical overtones.]

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”
― Walt Whitman

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