THE NECESSITY FOR ESCHATOLOGY
Eschatology – The striving of humans toward eternity
The preoccupations of philosophers are rarely shared by non-philosophers. The nature of truth, of reality, of knowledge; the distinction between appearance and essence, self and the universe, being and nothingness—all these traditional problems with which philosophers have wrestled through the centuries are of little interest to most individuals, whether little or highly educated. This is perhaps one reason why metaphysics, which historically has been a significant part of philosophy in western culture, has been replaced by phenomenology, commonly regarded as “scientific” philosophy. The direction was set by Kant who insisted metaphysics must be scientific. One can hardly say that this has resulted in any increase of interest in philosophy among the general population. It has led, however, to a certain Selbsthass among philosophers, causing Leszek Kolakowski to say in his entertaining essay Metaphysical Horror (2001) that “for well over a hundred years, a large part of academic philosophy has been devoted to the business of explaining that philosophy is either impossible or useless or both.”
Nevertheless, there is another point of view. It is that metaphysics is indispensable to the human condition. To return again to Kant, he asserts in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that, in spite of the difficulties (notably posed by his own major opus on the subject), it is as little to be expected that human beings will give up metaphysics as they will give up breathing! Western history has borne out the correctness of Kant’s prediction. It is worth quoting at length from the prologue of Mauricio Beuchot to La Metafisica como Necesidad (1994), a scholarly monograph by Kuri Camacho (my translation):
“…we confront a negation greater than metaphysics has ever known. Throughout history, many have decreed its death: the skeptics, the Epicureans, the nominalists, the empiricists, the epigones of Kant, the positivists, and now one sees, not a frank discarding of metaphysics as announced by Carnap, but what was espoused [its disparagement] by the later Heidegger, and in a certain manner, the later Wittgenstein. But metaphysics always has returned to have its fueros.”
It is revealing that Beuchot uses the term fueros or “privileges” to describe the place of metaphysics. The term refers to special rights, notably those enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church in Hispanic societies. There can be little doubt that metaphysics found a congenial home in the dogmas of institutionalized religions and this association continues to the present day. With the exception of minor islands such as New England transcendentalism – long disappeared except in history books – the metaphysical aspirations of European-descent peoples have been met through theistic religions. Christianity has always been jealous of its fueros in the area of metaphysics. In earlier centuries, one would face the stake by expressing metaphysical ideas outside the established churches; today one merely has to accept the role of an eccentric, ignored by the doctors of the churches and the universities alike.
How is one to reconcile the apparently contradictory observations that the metaphysical questions are of no interest to most persons with the evident persistence of metaphysics in religion as still a fundamental ingredient of society? I submit that the metaphysical questions enumerated in the opening paragraph above are not the questions that concern individuals outside of academia, where the admonition of Kant to make metaphysics scientific has never been forgotten. To succinctly jargonize the matter, it is eschatology, not ontology or epistemology that interests the thoughtful individual. The non-philosopher has only a vague interest in the abstractions of universal ideas, what he really wants is to apprehend the meaning of his own life. This inevitably becomes a matter of eschatology.
The essential problem of philosophy for the thinking individual, homo sapiens, has to do with the meaning of his own life. All the other metaphysical questions are significant only to professionals of philosophy who are concerned with its history and certain of its ideas from the past that have become revered traditions. But concern with the meaning of one’s own life – not human life as an abstraction - is an intuitive concern for every reflective person, testifying to the depth of his mind. Every reflective person wants his life to be significant; his problem is how this is to be accomplished. This is the principal task of the conscious mind. I use the term mind in the sense of Geist in German, inclusive of mind, spirit, self, intellect – not merely as a describer of adaptive activity. Without a sense of the metaphysics of mind, one cannot deal with this issue other than in a spiritless and uninteresting manner.
The Xenophontine Socrates is said in the Memorabilia to have summed up his approach to life as follows: “I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends. And that I may say, is my constant thought.” Plato in Phaedo and The Republic has Socrates dwelling on eschatology in the form of myth-making. How could it be otherwise since what would be the point of growing in goodness if it did not possess some ultimate meaning? The later rejection of eschatology probably weakened Greek philosophy and paved the way for the spread of Christianity in the antique world. The approach attributed to the founding father of the schools of Athens should have been taken more seriously by his epigones and by later European philosophers. Perhaps Plato himself, with his fertile imagination, introduced too many irrelevancies into philosophy.
If western philosophy gradually lost interest in eschatology, this was not true of western religion. The foundation of Christianity is the idea that aligning oneself with Christian belief is aligning oneself with God; the consequence is the winning of eternal life. The details of this alignment and the nature of the eternal life has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Christian churches, but the basic eschatology is the same – believe and you will find salvation. The success of Christianity is based on the appeal of its eschatological doctrines. Believers find meaning in their lives. A similar story can be told about the successes of Islam.
It is hard to question the evidence that the need for an ultimate meaning in one’s life, i.e the necessity for eschatology, is why religion still exists in an age of science. Science does not provide meaning. However, a rational person cannot believe anything, no matter how seductive the belief, without the ability to be able to incorporate it into one’s rationally organized experience of the world. The dictum that what is impossible for man is possible for God has lost its persuasive power in the age of science. We are fated to think, as D.R. Kashaba puts it in his stirring writing Let Us Philosophize (1998), and one form of thought is the emergence of an intellectual conscience. This is what Kant must have meant by his appeal for a “scientific” metaphysics. For him, wissenschaftlich meant rational, coherent, capable of fitting into knowledge as a whole. Every age seems to create its own eschatology, reflecting its own mental evolution. Simple minds have always needed a simple eschatology. Christianity, in spite of the prodigious labors of some of its theologians to convert dogmas into symbols, rests fundamentally on a simple, almost embarrassingly naēve belief structure. There is an absolute requirement for faith and little demand is made on the intellectual conscience. On the basis of the experience of his descent from generations of Lutheran pastors, Nietzsche concluded that faith is cowardice.
Things were supposed to be different in the new age of science. In the first part of the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte worked out his celebrated “law of three stages” in which the human mind first turns to theology (fiction), then to metaphysics (abstraction), and finally to science (positivism). It has not worked out that way. The majority of the western world has not gotten past stage one. This is because, as I believe, there have been no meaningful eschatologies evolved for stages two and three. Science explains how things work but not their meaning. The absurdity of life looms as the inevitable consequence of a mind without an eschatology.
It is not quite accurate to say that there have been no competitors at all to religion in the domain of eschatology. If eternity is not held out as a possibility, then aligning one’s Geist with movements extending it in time or space is perhaps not an unreasonable alternative. Thus one may align himself with societal movements—nationalism, socialism, communism, racial or ethnic identifications, even humanity as a whole, any plausible movement that allows one to feel his life has a meaning beyond the limitations of his own being. Hitler and his followers were willing to forego Christian salvation for the sake of a thousand year Aryan Reich in which the social compact was not extended to non-Aryans. It was notorious that committed communist ideologues did not feel the need for religion. However, in time, most societal ideologies break down and are no longer significant substitutes for metaphysical meaning.
A weak substitute for a vital eschatology is the biological one in which the solution to the problem of the meaning of life is found through procreation papered over by handing down ancestral traditions. This is patently absurd, for how can meaning in life be achieved by merely propagating it? One cannot foist one’s own metaphysical responsibilities onto his or her children. They then do the same. This basically reduces one to an animal state where the instinct for procreation reigns supreme. A very limited intellectual perspective is required for the biological answer to be completely effective.
Every age requires the formulation of eschatological concepts reflecting its intellectual development. Eschatology is not dogma, but the individual’s intuition of the eternality of his existence. Even physics is not a reproduction of reality according to Niels Bohr (quoted by Kolakowski), but rather a schematization of experience, performed with the aid of artificially constructed instruments. So it is with eschatology except that the experience is of the life of the mind rather than that derived from technology. It is the subjective self instead of the object world that is the teacher. The conception is similar to that expressed by Socrates in Phaedo when he says that no man of sense should expect the story he had just related about the journey of the soul be exactly as he had told it. But Socrates thought one may venture to believe that something of the kind is true.
No contemporary man of sense should imagine that the picture of reality obtained through scientific study could be completely or even mainly true. It is a useful scheme for mastering nature and surviving a threatening world but it can hardly reflect the full reality of homo sapiens. The accumulated intuitions of mankind indicate a reality transcending physical nature. However, concepts that purport to reflect the human condition must conform to reality in all its forms to the extent they are known. Metaphysics cannot exclude the physical world from its purview. Descartes, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Teilhard de Chardin knew that and their philosophies were enriched. That they may have gone astray at times with their science is beside the point.
An individual searching for eternity cannot afford to ignore the discoveries of modern physics about the nature of time. In general, the deductions of Kant about the mind forming perceptual schemata (the a priori forms) have been shown to be remarkably prescient. Beyond Kant’s simple schemata, Einsteinian relativity radically altered the concept of time in the twentieth century. That development is often compared to the Copernican revolution on notions about the universe and man’s place in it. No longer can time be considered as an absolute stretching back into the past and forward into the future at any moment called “now.” Time is relative, a function of the state of the various objects existing in the universe. This must affect concepts of eschatology that are predicated on an “end” of time. But time does not end because it does not have a beginning, there are only different points on an infinite continuum representing the “nows” of all possible observers. The physicist Bryant Greene points out that it is better to imagine time as a continuous block of ice than as a flowing river (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004).
This is a concept difficult to encompass by the mind just as it is difficult to imagine bending of a pluridimensional space. The human mind is constructed to visualize reality in a certain way as was discovered by Kant. Just as individuals had to learn to change their intuitive perceptions that the earth is flat or that the sun rotates around it, so one has to learn that linear time is a construct of the mind only schematically representing reality. The emerging problem is to rethink the notion of the “now.” What is its significance if, as Einstein has said, the now has no place in the conception of time of modern physics. This bears greatly on an eschatology indicating the meaning of one’s life.
In my book In Love with Eternity (2005), I put forth the metaphor of a pointillist canvas of eternity referring to the concept of an Eschaton. I do not expect this metaphor to satisfy everyone (perhaps no one) but I think individuals should strive to create their own eschatology instead of depending on external authority figures to provide it readymade. These traditional schemata may temporarily rouse the mind but should only be used as points of departure. An individual is maintained in a mentally infantile state by relying on others for the most important things. Intellectual individuality is the hallmark of homo sapiens, however much certain leaders of religion may preach otherwise. History should be used not abused. In this regard, it is worth remembering Nietzsche’s view that the will to power permeates societal institutions of every type.
The “pointillist canvas of eternity” refers to a notion I have that every individual existence can be imagined as a brush stroke in a vast canvas called eternity. Past existences have not disappeared, they exist as a metaphysical stroke on the canvas. What takes form in life – and I mean all life, not just human life – determines the quality of the stroke. The unique human consciousness of “now” indicates awareness of the coming-into-being of an individual life. This “now,” however, may be a peculiar human thought that is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. If I am asked to what end this cosmic canvas, I have no answer and must fall back on docta ignorancia, intellectual ignorancia. If I were a mythmaker, I might rise to the occasion, but I know my limits. I do know that a profound sense of peace is felt when the specter of transitoriness in existence is expunged and one can intuit a meaning to his life, albeit this meaning is hidden from him. To those who think philosophy should be science and mysticism is treason to it, I say like the American patriot Patrick Henry who stood up for his convictions, “If this be treason, then make the most of it.”
But I suggest that the conception of a timeless canvas of eternity on which is etched the phenomenon of individual existences is in accord with the most reasonable view of the nature of reality and is not an imaginary idea that violates one’s intellectual integrity. It is founded on an understanding of one’s existence within a rational reality. As much as the need for meaning, homo sapiens has a need for rationality in his conceptions. Beliefs must fit into a total experience of reality. On this is founded Kantian critique. One may despair of rationality amidst the bizarre beliefs that motivate people; still, it is an ideal to be sought after.
The most important thing of all, Nietzsche said, is that we think well of ourselves. How can one think well of himself, however, when he learns that he is a speck of sand in the limitless expanse of the cosmos, destined to exist no more than a nanosecond in the infinity of time? It is this sense of meaninglessness, not the fear of death that underlies the Angst of Kierkegaard, the Sorge of Heidegger, the absurdité of Camus and the horror metaphysicus of Kolakowski. How can a thinking being not be depressed by the thought of the transitoriness of his being? It is impossible for a serious person to ultimately be content with his meaningless miniscule movements within society. There must be something more in order that cynicism and ennui not be the final victor in human life. But if an individual is capable of angst, then he is capable of discovering more in life than what a technology-burdened society has taught him.
A human being wants to make something meaningful of his own life. The thought that his individual development has no significance in the scheme of things is what drives him to sacrifice himself on the altars of dubious causes. The brilliant Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, whose horizons of thought went beyond most individuals, said that his own development was the most he could accomplish in his lifetime and that he could not really know, much less provide, what was needed by other individuals. This is heresy in a culture dominated (albeit hypocritically) by values of the social good. But Pessoa more than most is a vibrant part of the canvas of eternity. It was to be expected that his life within society was beset with difficulties. The truly developed individual usually dies young.
There are those who say they find their meaning in life from a consciousness of God. They have been vouchsafed direct access to the source of all meaning from a church, from holy scriptures or directly from deity itself. They claim to be the fortunate recipients of divine grace. Those who have not received this grace can only be envious or skeptical. That God should make himself known to some and not to others seems to be the ultimate absurdity. Beyond that, God says different things to different people. The religions of the east know nothing of him at all. Perhaps, however, a divine providence moves in mysterious ways and it may be that those who are the recipients of grace are given it because they are incapable of finding meaning on their own. They are the ones who, unlike Gotthold Lessing, want to be given truth rather than to search for it.
My intuition that I have my place in the panorama of eternity strengthens me to build my life as I think it should be built and not chase after the evanescent gratifications that exist in all societies. This is a confession of faith, but it is a faith based on a rational conception of reality. Writing this essay develops my self. The purpose of philosophy, as I conceive it, is to give direction to the spirit and not to construct spiritless theories of knowledge. Eschatology takes precedence over epistemology. What is unanalyzable should not be analyzed.
Richard Schain is an independent philosopher who works as a neurologist in a California State Hospital. His recent publications include In Love With Eternity (2005), Radical Metaphysics (2002) and The Legend of Nietzsche’s Syphilis (2001).