Friday, September 27, 2013

The Dread of the Real

We're all fairly familiar with this dread, aren't we?  If not from feeling the dread, then from being immersed in it through the pronouncements of various intellectuals, certain of the religious, and of course by undergoing what is called a liberal arts education, which mandates the reading of the works of various dread-full titans of the history of the West.

I'm reading a book by Robert Unger with the rather exclamatory title The Self Awakened:  Pragmatism Unbound.  I have a fondness for pragmatism the philosophy (I'm still awaiting the movie), as anyone deigning to read this blog knows.  So, it seems, does Unger; but he also evidently believes it does not go far enough.  Regrettably as far as I'm concerned, he does not reveal where it or humanity or philosophy in general should be going in the first parts of the book, but he makes very firm statements that it and we and philosophy are not going where they and we should.  And, in pointing out why that is the case, he constantly refers to what he (or perhaps those of us who aren't going where we should--I'm not sure yet) feels is our plight as miserable, decaying, dying animals trapped in a universe beyond our comprehension.

Dread has a peculiar meaning in philosophy, or at least in some kinds of philosophy, being roughly the same as angst.  It seems a kind of glorified fear, a fear which some claim is even useful in an unusual manner.  I use it here in a broader and more common sense, which certainly may involve fear but would also include loathing and disgust, even contempt and disdain, directed of course sometimes with alacrity at us, our fellows and the universe in general.

Am I alone in thinking that the tendency to indulge in describing, explicating, bemoaning and expounding on this "plight" is tiresome and futile?  It's been going on for centuries, obviously to nobody's gain--indeed, the very idea of gain may be unimaginable if not intolerable to those who feel we exist in a foul, incomprehensible world without meaning or purpose.  I especially am interested by those who are called or call themselves "anitnatalists" who are apparently persons who take advantage of the fact that they live and think and experience to contend that it is inappropriate for us to give birth, thereby causing the creation of others who will live and think and experience as they do.  Inappropriate because, of course, the world is foul, incomprehensible and without meaning or purpose.

When we think of this tendency towards dread of the world we naturally think of the "usual suspects", dismal purveyors of misery and angst such as Kierkegaard (speaking of fear), Schopenhauer, Sartre and their many equally if not more miserable and angst-filled followers.  But the belief that the world is inferior or a source of evil and our brief lives a chore if not worse has been around a long time.  Jolly old Plato, of course, thought little of the world and even less of humanity.  Even Marcus Aurelius wrote of the world and we humans as being of little worth, now and then; whether this indicates his real feelings or thoughts written in his darker moments or as a kind of exercise is unknown.  The Stoic view that God is immanent in nature would seem to preclude the kind of disdain for it we find in Plato, or the odd despair over it which seems a feature of modern times.

But of course we humans really came to disdain the world in toto and even with gusto upon the advent, as it were, of Christianity.  For this we probably have to thank St. Paul, primarily.  Now there was a man who dreaded, and indeed hated, the world and all that's in it!  It's curious, though, that this dread of the real in the West, at least, is not limited to Christians, but may be even more evident in intellectuals who have renounced Christianity.  I'm not sure if this is a result of the fact that philosophy, like politics, makes strange bedfellows or the fact that misery loves company.

Assuming the world is pointless and hideous, and we if not hideous are at least pointless, though, why take the trouble to point out that this is the case, and pronounce upon it in hideous detail?  Perhaps we have here a even more striking example of the fact that misery loves company.  Does this represent an instance where the miserable among us are engaged in a relentless quest to make certain that others are miserable as well?  Or is it simply that many of us are whiners and many of us for some reason enjoy hearing others whine?

Why not, at the least, make efforts to lessen the misery; our own and those of others?  That would seem to be the intelligent response to misery, whether it is real or imagined.

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