THEOSOPHY, Vol. 51, No. 11, September, 1963
(Pages 311-313; Size: 9K)


[Article number (11) in this Q&A Department]

Sometimes, as one observes the people surrounding one, it is natural to wonder about their motivations in life -- and about one's own motivations as well. What are the assumptions "about life" which commonly underlie actions? What are most people trying to achieve during these short harried years on earth?

You can easily avoid this question by declaring it impossible to answer, since every individual has slightly different assumptions about life, and therefore different motivations. But the queries are no less important, nor would it necessarily be impossible to answer them, at least in a general way, if only you could show that there are certain characteristics of our civilization which make it generically different from past civilizations, and which require (or at least make difficult to avoid) a new kind of stance in the face of life, a new set of assumptions.

There is one such characteristic, which indicates that the whole quality of civilized life has undergone a change during the last half-century: the present lack of faith in the Judeo-Christian scheme. Regardless of any statistics about church attendance, most men's belief in the God of Abraham has in general been undermined by our mechanized way of life and in particular by modern science, which declares ridiculous the idea of a heaven above the firmament or a hell beneath the earth. This is not to say that science has disposed of Christianity, for, as always in the past, Christianity has changed with the times, become more sophisticated, and now declares God to be infinite and invisible -- though, unfortunately, still a Being. Nor is it to say that all Christians before the advent of modern science had crude and narrow ideas about God. Augustine, for example, in the fourth century, had far wider conceptions and deeper convictions than most men since. All that the statement implies is that it is now quite difficult for the "common man" to believe in God, for common men are so called because of their "commonness," and they are no longer allowed to form mental pictures about a benevolent Father sitting among the clouds.

There is no space to inquire into the various other distinguishing characteristics of our times -- primarily characteristics concerning man's present psychological self-consciousness. But this one characteristic of spiritual solitude, this "silence d'un Dieu disparu," is certainly sufficient to account for many of mankind's assumptions and motivations.

As indicated at the beginning, people are individuals, and may not without injustice be reduced to types. But can it not be said that generally people assume the universe to be vast and cold, blindly evolving through chance mutations, and yet, at the same time, that people basically dislike these brutal "facts of life"? If these uncomfortable assumptions are real to many, then there seem several attitudes that one can take towards them, depending upon inner strength and disposition. First of all, one may to all practical purposes ignore the assumptions, and go through life as though the universe were made expressly for man to go on forever, eternally chatty, and comfy and kind (to animals). Living such a life is like wearing a tuxedo in the jungle, in the face of another assumption that life really is blind and predatory. Perhaps, then, the supposed rise in church attendance primarily represents a wish to transform the jungle into a lush Eden, a sort of garden party where tuxedos are always in order. One does not want to be too harsh, but it does seem that the wishes of many to avoid confronting the world's apparent meaninglessness make meaninglessness inevitable.

Others there are whose basic assumptions are in no way different, yet who lead what seems an almost tragically heroic existence, simply by facing the "facts" and yet choosing positive moral action in spite of the universal absurdity. This is "l'acte gratuia" of Anouilh, the free action of a free spirit, uninfluenced by the exigencies of worldly life. There is real strength and beauty in this attitude, though one sometimes wonders if some of the proponents of this existential view of life might not be actually disappointed if they found out that there is meaning and purpose to the universe.

Yet these same assumptions have been transformed into human action through still another attitude, a much more prevalent (and completely unheroic) one. It is the attitude of those who, convinced that the universe is a heartless jungle, have "gone native." These are the scoffers, the cynics, who think themselves ultramodern, whereas in reality they are completely atavistic. These are the people whose heroes have been stereotyped in detective and adventure stories, those who don't feel that it is particularly wrong to stab someone in the back (or undercut him in business, or throw away tons of food to keep prices high, etc., etc.), but that such behavior is simply in accordance with the law of life, which means the law of the jungle.

These, then, are a few of the attitudes and ways of life which result directly from the single assumption that life is without direction. The two jungle inhabitants, the one in dinner dress, the other in war-paint, represent different but equally perverse attitudes. The one blithely goes on with his pleasant conversations as though his personality were immortal, the other fights through life for whatever pleasures he can get, as though at any instant he would be cut off in mid-stride. Put a little differently, the secret unspeakable enemy of the one is death, of the other, life. What a tragedy it would be for James Bond or Richard Diamond if the world were not blown up as expected, and they had to live on to the age of ninety-three!

It seems, then, that none of the attitudes spoken of, perhaps not even the existential "realism" of men like Anouilh, is in any ultimate sense realistic. If men really must be convinced that they live only once, would not at least some of them want to discard all "stances" whatsoever, and spend every waking minute searching for meaning -- out of the very basic fear that they might come to the end of their precious fleeting years only to discover that they had not lived?

Fear of letting life pass by unseized -- this can be one of the most urgent incentives to man's search for knowledge. And yet, as one begins to learn something of the real nature of that search, one cannot help faltering a bit in spite of himself; for it becomes evident that in order to have even the most basic credentials for knowledge, one must struggle ceaselessly to feel everything -- all the hatred and love, pity, beauty, wonder, all the intense and unrelieved suffering, of mankind. One must realize from the bottom of one's heart that there are children in this world who are starving! One must truly feel the derisive laughter of the teen-age gang that passes him in the street, for that laughter was meant to hurt. One must, in short, make one's heart available to the world, like a great unprotected wound which will not heal until this whole sick world is healed.

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(October 1963)
[Article number (12) in this Q&A Department]

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