Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Life Not Worth Living

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Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But the over-examined life makes you wish you were dead. Given the alternative, I'd rather be living. (Saul Bellow)

- I was talking with my friend about lives worth living and lives not worth living.
- Of lives death was preferable to?
- Yes. I told her about you, and how once you'd told me that a life worth living was a political, not personal concept. She immediately objected that a life worth living was one that satisfied physical necessities so as to allow exercise to the fullest our human capacities to create, to perceive, to know. All personal.
- And what did you say to her?
- I wanted to impress her. I threw at her ideas you'd thrown at me years and years ago. That no one knows about you and your ideas has its advantages. I began by defining ritual: a group of people reenacts a story of a god, or god-like human, going through death and rebirth, different gods representing different capacities. For the ritual participant there comes the security of known action in a known world of people, each performing known actions, with at the conclusion of the reenactment a sense of rebirth and power. Monotheism made of history a single ritual. You claimed that, with Judaism, this allowed ritual to be turned to a completely different, spiritual end: a definition of the world as material, and of the individual as a free manipulator of that material. Christianity imagines the ritual over: important is only love for each other, rules and all else left behind. Then Islam comes to explicitly specify the behavior according to the rules that is to be endlessly repeated in the shared new world. The life of individual action is over: all is specified from above. Those three steps - ritual, conclusion of ritual, repetition of ritual - exhaust the structural possibilities of ritual to create the spiritual out of the material. The Jews got a world never completely ordered, the Christians, a general love settled in inaction, and for Muslims, the freedom of willing submission of all decision making to rules. Now I was thinking about what I read in an old book of yours* I found in the library. You saw three cycles: despair, disgust, paranoia. It's as if each of the three monotheistic rituals got attached to a corollary solitary ritual: the Jewish rules for the individual producing a self repeatedly fled from in despair; the Christian world fixed at the end of history gave us a world repeatedly fearfully fled from in paranoia, and Islam's defined self in defined world making us repeatedly flee in disgust. Am I getting this right?
- So far so good. In a sane life work leads to rest, rest back to creative activity; love back to work and on back to love. Despair, paranoia, disgust, all three block this regular progress. The despairing, the disgusted, the paranoid, each keeps making for himself a world to run away from. And why are they doing that?
- The security of power over life that comes from ritual, even insane ritual. Again, tell me if I'm getting you wrong. The phrase 'a life not worth living' originates at the penalty phase of his Socrates' trial, in which he expressed a preference for the sentence of death rather than exile. Almost all his life, following what he saw was the dictate of an oracle, he has been asking and answering questions about life with the people of Athens. Separated from them, an unexamined life was not worth living.
- He could only examine life in his city.
- Yes. When you and me talk of a life not worth living, we mean essentially the same: we are blocked from continuing the cycle from rest and love to action and creativity and back again. We have lost out in love, and it seems life without love is meaningless. Or we can do our work, but can't find anyone to love, to do our work for. The three insanities do a good job of blocking this passage.
- You can't think that Socrates of all people, exiled from Athens, would not be able to examine life among strangers because he would be diverted into despair, paranoia, and disgust? Because it was impossible for him to love the new, differently educated people he was thrown among? Hasn't it been your experience that with time and with luck we can flourish in new worlds in remade lives?
- Yes. But that takes time and luck because not every world equally allows for easy remaking of lives and loves.
- Some do and some don't.
- Thank you! You confirm the position I took with my friend that finding ourselves in a life not worth living ultimately depends on politics.
- So what kind of politics allows a life worth living?
- I went on to my friend: any politics that allows you to make the attempt to fight one's way back to love, even a politics that doesn't currently but yet allows for revolt already provides, in being on the way back in being in revolt, a life worth living. So what kind of politics is it in which it would be ruled out as futile to even embark on revolt in? I got stuck at this point.
- And you came to me with your problem.
- Yes.
- The late Christopher Hitchens said of Islam that unlike the other monotheisms and other religions it was uniquely dangerous because it closed off all aspects of life: it had the rules for action of the Jews, combined with the end of the world ordained relationships between people of Christianity. What is seen at rest and what is done in action is absolutely prescribed. Protecting such an all inclusive structure led to fanaticism and violence, Hitchens argued. Is there something in political life similarly decisively different that would make life not worth living?
- By making examination of life in loved company impossible?
- Yes.
- A lifetime is limited. Socrates' choice was clear to him not because he feared falling victim to despair, disgust and paranoia, but because he was old and soon to die. Staying and making of his death a teaching example for the loved people of Athens to benefit from would be making the best use of his time left. Now take modern day Los Angeles, world headquarters of capitalist materialism. Monotheism has been eradicated. The emergence from the material world that it had allowed is not in effect. That means people do not distinguish themselves clearly from the world. They have no determined meaningful relation to the world. No fixed structures are there to be discovered of the kind we have been discussing for the last quarter hour. Their relation to the world has to be made individually. The people in Los Angeles have to work all the time because they create an identity by acting in a regular way in relation to a world itself without fixed meaning. Everyone is defining themselves in contact with others doing the same, each to the other a material and meaningless world. What could Socrates examine in the company of such people who never look at life and don't love? Is that not a closure like Islam represents, both of rules, in individually chosen behavior, and world, in its loveless meaningless?
- But he could look for people who were exceptions to the rule.
- Which could take a lifetime. Meanwhile, maybe not Socrates, guided by oracles and his own private daemon, but mere mortals like you and me would have to fight off the despair at having to see how the people in LA saw us, fight off the paranoia the product of eliciting from them defensive violence against someone who did not fit in, fight off disgust at seeing the futility of life lived in the company of such people. That's an answer then. Life not worth living is a fatality that is political, not personal.

(Continued at Unfree Will)
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* Sex For Success, 1989, Special Collections (N7433.4.M617 A74 1989), University Of California, Los Angeles