Under the Aspect of Eternity
By Manfred Weidhorn
Man is, Sir Thomas Browne said in a passage famous for its eloquent restatement of an old idea, "That great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds; for though there be but one to sense[s], there are two to reason, the one visible, the other invisible." The traditional Christian rendering of these two realms describes one as material, natural, mutable, unjust and worldly, and the other as spiritual, supernatural, perfect and celestial. The modern version of that distinction, of course, deletes all reference to a supernatural dimension and speaks rather of the difference between time and eternity, calendar and geological time, years and eons, the quotidian and the cosmic. God may be marginalised, but man remains, ontologically speaking, an amphibian.
One of these two realms is overly familiar to us, while the other is rarely accessible. The difference is ultimately due to that basic instinct of self-preservation. Every person is born into a frightening world in which she cannot be sure of anything except that danger lurks everywhere. Life under these conditions being barely tolerable, we – both individually and collectively – resort to shelters made of habits, routines, conventions, myths, lies and, especially, narratives about how we got here and where we might be going. With such flimsy straws, we build a structure of normal life, which enables us to pass the time in relative peace and ease. That peculiar version of Occam's razor hides from us, and hides us from, the ungraspable world out there. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality," laments T.S. Eliot. And fortunately so. Only by not contemplating Pascal's darkness that surrounds us on all sides – darkness intergalactic and darkness internal, as well as darkness metaphysical out of which we are born and to which we return – do we avoid panic or paralysis.
One can therefore argue that the workaholic's submersion in everyday activities, no matter how remunerative, is as escapist as is someone else's passively watching TV all day. The cost of – or the reward for – dwelling in the cocoon of a stable, busy quotidian life is to rarely confront that anxiety-inducing cosmic dimension. Yet, if habit and routine make possible the pursuit of happiness through work and leisure, they also severely shrink our awareness of a goal or purpose in life. If avoidance of habit and routine requires the constant reinvention of the wheel, immersion in them results in spiritual deadening. A creature of habit is not really alive or, less hyperbolically, is morally and intellectually asleep.
Many people thus go through life without ever emerging from the maelstrom of laundry, committee meetings, love affairs, family gatherings, money-making, and TV or smart phone addiction. A few – religious people, philosophers, literary folk, eccentrics – endeavour to disengage from the microscopic and look at the larger picture. That relatively rare activity was given a lasting name by Browne's near contemporary, Spinoza. In his Ethics, he speaks of reason's intrinsic viewing of things sub specie aeternitatis, "under the aspect of eternity" – meaning that, even as we remain trapped in our bodies, in our subjective egos and daily affairs, we yet can, either by our own effort or by selective external stimuli, enlarge the mind to contemplate that other realm of eternity and infinity.
The most lucid example of the Spinoza pivot – from diurnal to cosmic – was given by a once popular North Carolina journalist, Harry Golden: In a restaurant, the waitress had brought him as a side dish of unappetising lima beans instead of the peas he had ordered. He was about to call her back, when it occurred to him that he was but one of six billion [at that time] people who dwelled on one of nearly 10 planets, which circled a sun that was part of a huge galaxy, which in turn resided in a universe of untold galaxies 14 billion years old – so did it make any difference whether he ate peas or lima beans at this moment? So, eternity having briefly absorbed him, he did not call the waitress and he did resign himself to eating the lima beans.
In traditional society, "eternity" is equated with the numinous, and one of the functions of religion is to raise awareness of the divine frame of the universe. And while religion as practiced by many people often does the reverse – getting bogged down in minutiae of morals and ritual (how many Hail Marys have I uttered? Did the meat dish touch a piece of dairy? Is mentally undressing a woman a mortal sin?) – the larger aspiration is still lurking there. Religion thereby shares with literature the attempted explanation of our place in the universe – it does so by means of prayer, introspection and ceremony, while literature uses narrative strategies meant to jolt us out of the norm in order to shed light on our moral, psychological, ontological and political condition.
What these strategies have in common is presenting the everyday world in an unusual or distorted way, rather as a scientific experiment tampers with everyday reality in order to gain an understanding of that reality. One literary device is the medieval dream vision, which reached a climax with Dante's Commedia. Another approach favoured in the Middle Ages was the animal fable, based on the notion that what we are unable to see about ourselves in a direct rendering of reality we can more easily detect when animals exhibit human foibles. With human dignity not so much at stake, we are readier to criticise. Hence the related stratagem used by the wily prophet Nathan when accosting David over the latter's sinfulness. Direct accusation would result in denial or even lashing out; so Nathan tells a story about a hypothetical sinner, and David falls victim to the all-too-human love of narrative. The king can then readily pass judgment on a stranger, as he would not have been able to if he himself were presented as the culprit in the tale. Nathan is thereby the Biblical inventor of that form of non-scientific heuristic thought-experiment known as literature.
Close to the animal fable is Swift's manipulation of human size in the story of the Lilliputians. Their being small and therefore different from us makes it easier for the reader to see their many human flaws objectively (petit=petty). Yet another variant is the Persian Letters effect by Montesquieu (actually pioneered in Thomas More's Utopia and, even further back, by Herodotus and Plato) in which a pretended visitor from Persia walks the streets of Paris and notes the many absurdities which someone unfamiliar with local customs immediately notices but of which the Parisians, sunk in their routines, are oblivious. Related also is Brecht's "estrangement effect" in the theatre. Poets have even managed to convey the Spinoza pivot – the cosmic bifocal vision – in highly compact form. Henry Vaughan opens a lyric with the arresting "I saw eternity the other night." Dante articulates the coexistence of the two realms in just five words when a character in heaven says, "Cesare fui, e son Giustiniano [Caesar I was, and am Justinian]," meaning that social status, supremely important in this world, does not even exist in the other.
Literature likewise reveals how liberation from the workaday world, that Spinoza pivot from dailiness to timelessness, is frightening. Those whom circumstances have ejected from that placid-seeming and routinised norm desperately try to regain ingress. Take Falstaff, who has "dropped out" of society. He asks, "Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?" Prince Hal answers appropriately, "What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?... I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day." Falstaff, having no career, no duties or responsibilities, no structured life, cannot claim that one hour or day is different from any other; all of his life is a vacation, not a vocation. His quirky question is therefore a half-hearted attempt to find some meaning in his days, as if the time of day mattered to him, and it probably explains his confessed bouts of melancholy. If he suffers from no Pascalian-Kierkegaardian fear and trembling as a result of his exile from the workaday world that is only because of the high alcoholic content of his blood, which is just another way of hiding in a cocoon.
Or take the case of Faulkner's Joe Christmas in Light in August. Fleeing from the authorities who are closing in on him for having committed murder, he comes across a wagon and asks its driver, "What day is this?" What possible difference – we would ask with Prince Hal – could the answer to that question make to someone who has emigrated from conventional life and whose days are quickly coming to an end? The days of the week being the contrivance and the tool of busy, career-oriented people, that bizarre-seeming question is his desperate unconscious attempt to re-insert himself into normality, to tell himself there is still structure in his life, to ignore the fact that he has now loosened all social bonds, to deny, in short, that he is set adrift in eternity, where all bearings and meanings and hopes terrifyingly evaporate.
One person who, unlike Falstaff and Joe Christmas, has willy nilly negotiated the Spinoza crossing from structured to unstructured time is Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich. In an advanced stage of terminal illness, he thinks, "Whether it was morning or evening, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, it was all just the same… What were days, weeks, hours, in such a case?" As if to accentuate the point with a contrast, the narrator says of the attendant family doctor that, after performing a routine, superficial check-up of Ivan (which the latter thinks of as a charade), he, like all of us time-bound, overworked people, "looked at his watch."
The literary urge to make us think about the cosmic framework and the larger cycle of existence, specifically about the central question of life and death, has two versions. One, which is melancholy and which we might call "terrestrial", takes the form of reminding us of our return to the earth from which we sprang. The other, which is celebratory and "celestial", anticipates NASA and Google Earth by going in the opposite direction from the terrestrial and providing us instead with an image of the earth seen from far away. Both sorts of experience jolt us out of normality.
The terrestrial motif is best expressed by Villon, the poet of the calamities of old age and of sad ubi sunt reveries:
Death is here shown to reveal two inconveniences:  the futility of all worldly striving that must end, sometimes abruptly;  the ultimate abolition of all class and social distinctions. The implicit question is, "What was all that brief earthly tumult [aka life] about?"
Gray's Elegy similarly uses the cemetery to remind the affluent, influential reader that:
Shakespeare alters the theme in Clarence's dream in Richard III: The jailed Clarence reveals to his keeper that he had a nightmare in which, pushed into the sea by Richard, he saw at the bottom:
The hidden treasure trove is meant to remind us that all ambition, rivalry, piracy and wars result in a watery death for some and, implicitly, in an unfulfilled life for those who managed to avoid doom at sea and managed to accumulate wealth.
Joseph Addison finds an epiphany neither in a graveyard nor at sea but inside the majestic Westminster Abbey. It induces in him a "not disagreeable kind of Melancholy" or thoughtfulness. The many traces of dead people, who led lives of ambition and achievement, as well those who led modest lives; the commingling under the pavement of friends and enemies, the famous and the obscure, rich and poor – all of that is mind boggling. He, like these other writers, inevitably reflects "with Sorrow and Astonishment on the little competitions, Factions and Debates of Mankind." Then, enlarging the scope of the inquiry, he moves from the terrestrial vision to the celestial, as his thoughts turn to that "Day when we shall all of us be contemporaries and make our Appearance together."
In the celestial version, indeed, something edifying is added to the lugubrious. As early as the time of the Gilgamesh epic, one sees an attempt to extract positive meaning from life by turning to the extra-terrestrial; in the wake of the death of his best friend Enkidu, the hero takes a voyage to a magical garden of the gods, where he hopes to find some sort of revelation. Similar trips to the underworld are undertaken by the protagonists of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Odysseus's experience, in particular his meeting the ghost of Achilles, definitively dramatises the difference in perspective – the contrast between the mindset of people in our temporal earthly life and that of dwellers in a timeless realm. Achilles, when a youth, had been given a choice between living a long life in obscurity and a short life of achievement and fame. Like all men of heroic disposition, he chose the latter; indeed, laying down one's life for some grand cause, even if it be only one's own fame, is the very definition of a hero. But in the Odyssey, Achilles in the afterworld regrets his choice and would gladly rather be the lowest peasant in this world than the ruler of the kingdom of the dead. That may be a pessimistic version of seeing life under the aspect of eternity, pessimistic because it shows us normally to be ignorant of the larger framework and consequently to be making the wrong choices. Yet it can also be considered optimistic, insofar as the gloom of the afterworld may make us (once we are aware of that) appreciative of our brief span on earth and more eager to seize the day.
A happier version of the afterworld in Book 10 of Plato's Republic introduces a new dimension to the discussion. The warrior Er, killed in battle, unaccountably returns to life and reveals that in the other world he had been chosen to be a messenger to earthly people. What he had seen in that rarefied realm, what he came to tell us, is that both the good and the bad people there receive their just desserts, tenfold. This moral arrangement will become the necessary basis of the Christian version of the afterworld; that is, the advent of the belief in an all-powerful, all-merciful God coerces us into regarding the universe, despite many contrary appearances, as built on justice. So the manifest unfairness of life in this world must surely be righted in some other realm. The evil persons who thrive here – as they often do – will get their punishment hereafter, even as the many suffering innocents will be compensated there. Without that inverted mirror image of our world, the only ruling force would be either injustice or randomness, both equally appalling. In the Christian reading of events, the suffering here can be borne with confidence if one but looks at matters under the aspect of eternity. These supernatural journeys thus remind the reader that temporal life in this world is merely, as it were, one room in a large house and that the concerns that people have in the here and now are not only trivial and transient (as the terrestrial vision indicates) but also are superseded by eternal entities.
In the definitive exploration of the afterworld, Dante achieves an astronautical effect in his flight past the heavenly bodies circling the earth. When Beatrice urges him to "look down and see how much of the universe I have already put beneath thy feet," he smiles at the earth's "paltry, sorry semblance," asserting that he who "holds it for least… and he whose thoughts are on other things" is wise. Looking like a "little threshing floor that makes us all so fierce," our globe is clearly negligible. This is not a dead man talking, nor someone who perceives too late an important aspect of life, for Dante is alive. He will return from his special journey and will try to impart its essentials to mortals, who have yet time left in which to adjust their philosophical eyeglasses.
What Dante portrays here is the impact that viewing the earth from afar, as do our astronauts, may make on worldly values and habits. Torquato Tasso availed himself of the medieval genre of the dream vision (and of Cicero's Dream of Scipio) to achieve the same effect. In the Jerusalem Liberated, the protagonist Godfrey of Bouillon experiences a divine dream which provides the enlightenment that comes with seeing the earth in its cosmic setting:
What Villon and Addison see in the ground, what Clarence sees at the bottom of the sea, Dante and Godfrey see from outer space – all being forms of the larger vision. That outer space is for these authors God's heaven, and the news – for Christians like Addison, Dante, Godfrey but not for scapegraces like Achilles, Villon or Clarence – is good.
One of the results of looking at life under the aspect of eternity is the temptation to summarise the whole of the human story in a sentence or two. When the earth looks like a small ball in space, its inhabitants (and, as we like to think, its possessors or landlords) seem to be open to making a summary judgment that is unavailable to someone lacking the necessary detachment in a crowded subway train or at a stock exchange or a ballpark. Staring in an off moment at heavenly objects – especially the now common experience of gazing from afar, via various hi-tech instruments, at our home planet – is conducive to gravitas, because of the stark contrast between our ant-like existence and the vastness of the universe. What kind of thoughts does it then produce? A major recurring question, one that follows from the two basic ones – why anything exists and how conscious life came into being – is whether human existence is meaningful.
Perhaps the most direct form of the riddle is expressed in the Talmud. That book aims at providing, through dialogue and debate, guidelines for moral and ritual living; one thing it is not famous for is sweeping philosophical judgments in the ancient Greek manner. So it is with some surprise that one comes across the following passage:
For two and a half years were Beth [the House or School of Rabbi] Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created.
Although unknown to thinkers in the mainstream of Western culture until quite recently, this passage is a classic statement of the Problem of Evil (even if the concept is not named by the rabbis), one that deserves to be set beside the famous and enigmatic four-part formulation by Epicurus and Lactantius of the conundrum of how can an all-powerful and all-good God coexist with evil.
The details in the Talmudic passage tantalise. The two-and-a-half-year span devoted to debating is evidence of the complexity of the question and the diligence of the rabbis in seeking the answer. And then to have the rabbis vote is also intriguing. On the one hand, it is an early tribute to the democratic process, with no overbearing authority figure like a high priest or a Pope shaping the discussion. On the down side, it is somewhat reckless to settle a philosophical question by a mere vote rather than by citing a definitive text or deferring to some leading sage. If in the sciences – as Galileo would later insist – votes do not settle disputes or establish facts, why would they in metaphysics?
This passage fascinates in another way. It daringly puts God and his Creation on trial, or at least subjects Him to philosophical judgment. The rabbis occasionally show such out-of-the-box thinking, as when in another place they make God accede to a rabbinic ruling that seems to go against Him! Here, allowing candour to trump reverence, they presumptuously suggest that God Almighty erred. What the passage means, practically speaking, is that the paintings of Leonardo, the music of Bach, the plays of Shakespeare, the science of Newton, the technological marvels of Edison and Jobs are not good enough to make up for the horrors of slavery, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. The trade-off is not worth it; the price paid for civilisation and culture is just too high. The human experiment was a mistake on the part of God.
Having ventured this far out on a limb, the rabbis immediately rush back to the safety zone: "But now that he [man] has been created, let him investigate his past deeds [to make amends] or, as others say, let him examine his future actions [before committing them]." God having made his decision for reasons we cannot fathom, we must not question it too far and we need rather to put together the broken pieces as best we can. All's well that ends well.
Still, considering the source of this near-heretical ruling by spokesmen for a religion that is normally optimistic about this world (more so than is Christianity), God could not have had a good day. To be fair, though, one notes that in both the Judaic and pagan traditions texts exist that convey a similar pessimism: "I praise the dead more than the living… but better than they both is he that hath not yet been born," says the author of Ecclesiastes. "Not to be born surpasses thought and speech. / The second best is to have seen the light / and then to go back quickly whence we came," echoes Sophocles independently.
This severe assessment of the meaning of life was enhanced much later by Dostoyevski. While the rabbis seem to humbly ask, Dostoyevski defiantly judges. He changes the framework of the discussion but arrives at a similar indictment. In a definitive literary dramatisation of the Problem of Evil (the concept which the rabbis left unnamed), the sceptical if not necessarily atheistic Ivan Karamazov declares that he is willing to accept God and His wisdom, but "it's the world created by Him I don't and cannot accept." What makes the passage memorable, what Dostoyevski adds to the rabbinic foray, is that the Problem of Evil is encapsulated in a single poignant detail. The crux is the suffering of children, those innocents; even if they will be compensated for their pain in another realm, that is not good enough. Unwilling to accept their plight as the price for the triumph of the truth, Ivan would hand back to God the entrance ticket to the universe. In a daring manoeuvre on the author's part, Ivan asks his brother Alyosha whether the latter would accept a harmonious world if it would cost the "essential and inevitable torture to death of only one tiny creature. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?" With this reductio ad absurdum test, Dostoyevski, a born-again Christian, makes the pious Alyosha reluctantly agree with Ivan: "No. I wouldn't consent." By thus allowing a model Christian to give his stamp of approval to the heretical assertions of his non-believing brother, Dostoyevski would seem to agree with the rabbis about God's error.
Even Shakespeare joins the rabbis and Dostoyeski on this matter. The only half-tameable Caliban blurts out to Prospero in the Tempest,
Interpretation here must be nuanced. If Caliban is meant to represent the cannibals or "savages" of the recently discovered New World, or the "lower orders" of the European nations, then this remark merely expresses a patrician (or, now, Ayn Randian) view that the bulk of the human species is naturally inferior and irremediable, that it must be ruled for its own good. Caliban may, however, be seen as representing the whole human species, and his words are then in the spirit of Hegel's pronouncement: "Experience and history teach that people and governments have never yet learned from history, let alone acted according to its lessons." Neither Shakespeare nor Hegel directly addresses the question of the validity of the creation of mankind, but if we are unable to learn from experience, and if history consequently is, in Hegel's words, "a slaughter bench at which the happiness of peoples… have been sacrificed," are not the two thinkers implying that the great human experiment was a failure? What Hegel says, or what Caliban's outburst comes to mean, is that no matter how many advances are made in civilisation and technology, mankind always (or usually) finds a way to put these breakthroughs to destructive uses. Knowledge is indeed power, as Bacon asserted, but all too often it means the power to do evil. We discover explosives and – observed Rabelais half a millennium ago – then use them to make cannons. We split the atom and erase entire cities.
That same Shakespeare is – typically – capable of giving the opposite viewpoint. In King Lear, Cordelia, the daughter whose goodness is no more recognised by the old king than he recognises the evil of the two older daughters, comes to shine morally in the course of the play. Her character begets the observation by a gentleman that:
Her goodness more than compensates for the evil of her two sisters. The wording in the second line, replete with universal and theological overtones, implicitly applies to mankind and not just to one family. In this calculation, the high points of civilisation – though few and far between – do after all make up for the atrocities committed under its watch, and Bach is worth Auschwitz. Cordelia, though people like her are rare, is equivalent to the putative 10 good persons in Sodom on whose behalf God was willing to spare the city (in a Biblical tale which seems initially to counter the pessimistic conclusion of the above Talmudic passage).
This affirmative view is given a classic expression by Milton. After the angel Michael unfolds for Adam the whole sweep of human history up to the Last Judgment, a grateful Adam, having overcome his prior dejection over his fall, excitedly proclaims,
In other words, Milton believes that it was good for man to have been created and to have chosen wrongly because the horrors of life (painfully spelled out by him earlier in the epic) are justified by the happy outcome of this lapse into time, history and human error. This is the famous "Paradox of the Fortunate Fall", according to which the human adventure was indeed worth it. Of course, why undertaking a painful detour before resuming blissful life in eternity is better than not doing so is left unexplained. All one can conclude is that Milton would agree with another poet that it is "Better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all," that human experience is a value in itself.
The guarded optimistic view is expressed in a secular and perhaps perverse form in Karel Capek's R.U.R. In this science fiction play of 1920 (which gains in relevance daily), the robots (now they would be computers), originally meant to serve us by lightening the workload humanity bears, have become so powerful that they rebel and then dominate mankind. Faced with the unintended long-range consequences of human inventiveness and even with the possible extinction of humanity, a character draws the obvious conclusion (one which some thinkers have drawn about nuclear energy, especially The Bomb): "It was a crime to make Robots." Yet Domin, the protagonist, who had thought that a human civilisation based on the exploitation of robotic power would (in a quasi-Marxist hope) eliminate hard toil and usher in a utopia, responds that, even if he had known the disastrous outcome, he would do it all over again. "No, I don't regret that even today,… the last day of civilisation. It was a colossal achievement… It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labour." In other words, the human experience was worth it; the sheer human creativity, no less than the noble intention, redeemed the catastrophe.
Capek here poses the central riddle of modernity: Has the replacement of God with the idea of Progress been an advance? Has the arguable notion that we, instead of being trapped in original sin, are moving to a manmade utopia affected our view about whether humankind should ever have arisen? Capek's answer appears to be positive. Even though the earth is doomed to crash into the dying sun (in the secular, scientific version of the end of days) and all traces of humanity will disappear in a cosmic black memory hole, leaving "not a wrack [=cloud] behind," the splendid Scientific and Industrial Revolutions that made robots possible are some sort of tribute to mankind for not having remaining passive observers (like the animals) while on its brief visit to the universe. Capek would stand with Pascal in seeing man as a thinking reed – that is, we go under with the rest of creation but we at least know that we do, which no other species does; that little detail appears to give us dignity and raison d'etre. It is no little thing to have mastered (we think) an understanding of the universe through pure science and to have vastly reshaped the earth through applied science.
Milton's optimism was based on his faith in God; Capek's is based on human intelligence and creativity. Even if, to the modern mind, there is no God or indeed any audience out there, humanity will have to serve as its own audience, will have to answer only to itself the question of what we did during our very brief existence. And, even without God, that answer does us proud, regardless of the impending oblivion. However we came by it and regardless of how we misuse it, human ingenuity is our badge of honour. Our species is like an artist who writes, paints or composes without seeking money or good reviews or even an audience but simply because she must and because it fulfils her. Consider Domin's / Capek's words a fit of secular mysticism.
Judging from the conflicting results of these thought experiments on the meaning of human existence under the aspect of eternity, one can arrive at only one conclusion – an ambiguous one, at that. If one believes that creativity is the dominant factor in human history, then the long line of atrocities is merely a severe embarrassment; if one believes rather that the atrocities arising from innate depravity are central, then the creativity is a minor but unexpected uplifting counterweight. Either we are so bad (depraved) that we do not deserve credit for anything good that we do, or we are so good (creative) that we do not deserve blame for anything bad that we do. The answer to that eternal question is elusive, but one judgment remains the same: Either way, humanity does not deserve itself.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019
Copyright © 2001-2023 The Authors