Sunday, July 31, 2011

Self-Creation/Knowledge (Literature, Part 3): The Willed Beginning from Zero

"Don Quixote has created himself and he leaves at dawn, the beginning of a new day, of a new life, and sets out on the Montiel Plain alone. It is a willed beginning from zero, from a voluntary severing of ties with any possible determining force except for the loss of chivalry and for literature. It is a moment of freedom, of freedom achieved, freedom from the past.” Professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

“And because waking I often observe the absurdity of Dreames, but never dream of the absuridities of my waking thoughts…” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

He wandered aimlessly.  The sun was setting.  A special form of misery had begun to oppress him of late.  There was nothing poignant; nothing acute about it; but there was a feeling of permanence, of eternity about it; it brought a foretaste of hopeless years of this cold leaden misery, a foretaste of an eternity on a square yard of space.”  Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment

“But if it please thee, I would gladly know, How far we have to journey: for the hill Mounts higher than this sight of mine can mount.  He thus to me:  ‘Such is the steep ascent, that it is ever difficult at first, but, more a man proceeds, less evil grows.  When pleasant it shall seem to thee, so much that upward going shall be easy to thee.” Dante, Purgatorio

"It is common, then, to all beginnings to be the first point from which a thing either is or comes to be or is known...Hence the nature of a thing is a beginning, and so is the element of a thing, and thought and will and essence and the final cause- for the good and the beautiful and the beautiful are the beginning both of the knowledge and of the movement of many things." Aristotle ("the philosopher"), Metaphysics

Because (as human beings) we are all fallible and filled to the core with self-love, we rarely take seriously the notion  that the moral and ethical foundations of our lives are seriously deficient or misguided.  Hobbes correctly states that we are quick to appreciate the abundant absurdity of our dreams but rarely appreciate that our waking thoughts may be as absurd.  Blessed that (alone among living creatures) we are endowed with intuition, moral sensibilities, and intelligence (Kant famously expressed that “the moral law within us” was one of two things that filled the mind with wonder the more one considered it), there are moments in our lives where we get strong “inklings” that our old habits, thought patterns, and ways of interacting with the world have become ineffectual, spiritually vacuous, and bankrupt.  We get what we want and it doesn’t make us happy; catastrophe strikes, a loved one passes, and we feel shattered; we are laid off or fired by a company that we had devoted literally the majority of our adult life to and feel that all of our contributions to the company were never valued.  Less dramatically, we (like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) “wander aimlessly” feeling stuck in a “square yard of space” feeling a sort of generalized misery that is neither poignant nor acute but (even worse) permanent. 

As humans blessed (and cursed) with moral sensibilities and intelligence, how do we deal, if at all, with these “inklings”, these ways in which our body and soul are literally screaming to us that dramatic change is necessary? Our first response may be to dismiss the inklings as passing incoherent thoughts; indeed, scientists tell us that the human brain generates an astounding 60,000 thoughts per day.  With these many thoughts circulating in our brain, many are likely to be rubbish.  This may be the correct approach if the inklings truly are fleeting and infrequent; if they are not, it rarely will be the correct choice.

Another response may be to rely even more heavily on the same habits, thoughts, and ways of being and hope that if we “try/push a little harder” or “do things a little differently” or “get a little luckier” the results will (somehow) be different/better.    Predictably, this strategy fails because it never had any chance of succeeding to begin with.   

The third response would be to stand up, declare our values, thoughts, and ways of being in the world as vacuous and bankrupt, and immediately begin a project of willed self-invention from ZERO:

A human being is the starting-point of a certain kind of change; for an action is a change...and many of such things are in men's power and of such things they themselves are the starting-points. 
(Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics)

Many of us are fearful of selecting this approach because it is filled with uncertainty and requires great courage and tenacity.  The cages and chains surrounding us are in some ways more comforting as they are FAMILIAR.  In our failure to exhibit courage in this way, we (as individuals) fall very much short of the ideals of the very culture in which we live, a culture that has experienced and celebrated many willed beginnings from zero.  Can we characterize the American Revolution, the re-establishment of the Union after the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, or the re-building of NYC after 9/11 as anything but willed beginnings from zero? What would the US look like without these willed beginnings from zero? Nothing like it does now.  Nothing like a nation that we would wish to live in.

Turning the thought inward, what will our lives look like 30 or 50 years from now if we never embark on the Quixotic willed beginning from zero? Is any type of true meaningful freedom possible for us without the willed beginning from zero, whether it takes the form of freeing ourselves from an oppressive marriage, job, addiction, misguided goals, or self-destructive behavior/thoughts, etc.? Must the willed beginning from zero be something we do alone?  How difficult is it to truly start at the bottom….from zero?

As the Pilgrim is told in Purgatorio, the ascent to a new beginning and a better life is a steep one, ever difficult at first, but growing easier and more pleasant the more we engage in it.  Our inclination is to short-cut the process as we often want to know (even before we take the first step) how difficult the journey will be, how long it will take, is success assured, and what is “in it for us”? It would appear that all of these questions are defense mechanisms and rationalizations to prevent us from ever embarking on the journey to begin with.  A life lived in such a fashion, where one must be assured of the “benefits” of a course of action before one has even embarked on it, is scarcely a human one.  Sadly, this type of mentality and thinking has become omnipresent and omnipotent in modern American society.

A genuine and lasting willed beginning from zero involves a courageous decision to invent new values/projects to take the place of those that lack any further purpose or meaning: "Potency having this variety of meanings, so too the potent or capable in one sense will mean that which can begin a movement." (Aristotle, Metaphysics).  Its success cannot be guaranteed in any way shape or form.   The final destination will be only dimly apparent at first. Our friends and family likely will not be clamoring around us to celebrate our re-orientation.  The specific route taken will remain elusive until the destination is reached.  On the bright side, however, feelings of satisfaction, contentment and freedom seem to be within our reach as long as we have some moderate level of success in our self-invention.   Regret later in our life that we did not embark on the journey will naturally disappear.   And, if the heavens align, we just may be able to create a better self and achieve lasting self-perpetuating virtue and self-satisfaction from having done so. 

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