Reflections on The Path – Part 6

Some more thoughts about the path part 6
– death and non-meaning the axis of this teaching
– the future is an inescapable part of the present.
– the primacy of the future.

From his first public talk The healing of Suffering (http://silo.net/en/present_milestone/index) where he speaks of our life as “…a hope cut short by death…” to these opening lines of The Path, Silo repeatedly returns to this central theme: the connection between the belief in our own finitude, and non-meaning (and of course the possibility of meaning). Open Silo’s works almost anywhere, and you will find him again and again pointing to this idea. 

Certainly, these first lines of The Path clearly echo what he had previously stated in chapter III of the Inner Look: There is no meaning in life if everything ends with death. Given the centrality of the Inner Look for Silo’s teachings (it is after all the book of Silo’s Message) than these words will only stand out in yet greater relief knowing that more than once he said that this line was “the axis of the book”.

In Silo: Sage of the Andes a simple but effective illustration by Rafael Edwards can help us visualize the inexorable connection between death, the future, and non-meaning. It also helps clarify why it makes sense to talk about the primacy of the future even though so many cultures including our own believe in the primacy of the past or talk naively about the now. You can find that clip here: https://youtu.be/TaRbhtXyWfQ

Do we require more evidence to support the importance of this starting point? Let’s consider one of Silo’s comments in the extraordinary talk on The Meaning of Life that he gave in Mexico City in October of 1980. (Silo Speaks (Collected Works Vol I or at http://silo.net/en/collected_works/index).

In that talk which is focused as it’s title suggests on the questions of life, death and meaning he reiterates a number of points he had been explaining for years. He also emphasizes that one’s attitude in the face of death will determine one’s attitude in the face of life. On that occasion he said:
 “It is clear that for everyone death looms as the greatest future suffering. From this perspective, people can see that life has the character of something provisional, and therefore in this context that all human construction is useless, leading only to nothingness. This is why, perhaps, that turning their gaze away from the fact of death has made it possible to “change” life and to make it as if death did not exist…”. What is being described is a kind of magic where by a bit of sleight-of-mind we tame nothingness and apparently remove death’s sting. In this context it is interesting to recall that  both Jean Paul Sartre and Silo seem to frame “magical consciousness” as a particular case of “emotional consciousness” that arises as a response in front of “the advancing unknown”.  
 
If we turn back to the last sentence in our quote above we see it pointing to another important issue we’ve been trying to explore, the recognition that one can “turn their gaze” from the inevitability of death and live  “as if” death were not the most important factor in making sense of life. We’ve already seen how ibn Hazm (994 -1064 CE) understood that from this point of view all human activity, all of history, the progress of technology, the rise and fall of civilizations, all can be understood as ways of distracting ourselves from that knot of suffering. In modern times it has been more the wheel house of existentialist philosophers and their predecessors whose focus was more (though not solely) on the implications for the individual faced with the inescapable truth of their own finitude.
 
Of course, if the relation of death and meaning is so fundamental we shouldn’t be surprised to find that Silo is far from the first to point it out. After all doesn’t Silo insist that there truths to which all arrive who carefully meditate in inner search? We could go back thousands of years and discover in Hinduism for example the wonderful story told in the Katha Upanishad where young Nachikita realizes that Yama the god of death’s offers of riches, long life etc were only temporary answers and refuses them for the prize of Yama instructing him on the true nature of death. Turning to more Western sources from around the same time we can recall the from the sayings of the preacher Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in the biblical book of the same name, his lament about life and all human activity: Vanity, vanity, saith the preacher, all is vanity. While the language of early English translations of the bible can be beautiful, over familiarity and shifting associations may have dulled the original impact of his words. A more modern translation might read: Absurd, meaningless, the teacher says, nothing has meaning. A more literal translation would eschew the abstractions of those approaches for the concrete terms of the original Hebrew rendering it instead something like: Simply blowing air, merest breath says the teacher, everything is simply vapour . However, you translate it the view of human action seems pretty grim.
 
The philosophically inclined will surely recall in much more recent times things like the Heidegger’s thinking around what he calls “being towards death” i.e. the idea that to attain any kind of “authentic” life  one must free oneself from the “chatter” of daily life and squarely face the inevitability and universality of death (or as he says “the nothing”). Of course Ibn Hazm and others beat Heidegger to understanding how distraction from the reality of death dooms us to living a reduced life – an inauthentic, or “almost” or “quasi-life”. Absent living in the light of our own mortality we would instead only be allowed the register, of the register of thinking about it. 
 
Jean Paul Sartre shared with Heidegger a focus on death, and meaning. His work as a playwright, a novelist, a critic, political thinker and philosopher placed him among the most important thinkers and influential cultural leaders from the World War II until perhaps the 1970s. In 1964 he was so well regarded as to be offered the the Nobel Prize for literature, an “honour” he declined. He is long fallen from the cultural and academic pantheons, his works rarely read, performed or discussed. From what I can see, where in the first three decades after WWII decades he would have held an important position in most university survey of philosophy courses, in the last few decades he is not even mention him. 
 
Nonetheless, despite Sartre’s disappearance from academic and popular culture, and not withstanding their many differences on central issues Silo considered him among the most interesting of modern Western thinkers. In conversation Silo emphasized the rigour of Sartre’s analyses, pointing out how Sartre fearlessly followed the course of Western thought to its logical conclusion, straight to that abyss where death annihilates any possibility of life having a meaning. However Sartre’s presuppositions could only take him to the abyss. They also left him unable to find a way to go beyond it. That possibility, was closed to him and even the attempt to surpass that chasm could only appear to him as an act of  moral cowardice, of self-deception, or  “bad faith”.  
 
Albert Camus and Sartre were contemporaries, colleagues and friends. Camus on discovering the “absurdity of life” that resulted from this abyss and the impossibility of meaning to our lives declared that the only important philosophical issue was suicide. For Sartre, the way to live authentically faced with the meaninglessness of life was to be found through engagement, through passionately taking up a cause. In Sartre’s case that was communism, a position that  precipitated his falling out with his erstwhile friend Camus. 
 
It is probably overly harsh to reduce Sartre’s solution of: “take up an important cause and engage with life” to “stay busy”. But in reality it is not so far from those (non)answers given by Nietzche, Spinoza, and a long line of  thinkers East and West; our engagement keeps us occupied, and when in doubt we can perhaps calm ourselves with something like  Epicurus reflections. Epicurus (the Epicurian) who famously wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus“If I am, then death is not. If death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”  Perhaps, but what happens when push comes to shove, and we are in front of your own deaths. I suspect that our emotions, and life’s basic imperative to survive which is written in our cells will be far from convinced such pithy (and logically valid) remarks.  From that perspective, all these intellectual postures (even if true) seem to be not much more than whistling in the dark.
 
Is Sartre’s cry of “engagement” functionally different from those of our less dramatic friend whose response to this ultimate existential question might be something like: “get on with your life and let the dead worry about death”, or “don’t be morbid, get on with the business of living”, or simply “don’t worry, be happy”? Of course you might add that Sartre wants us to remember the absurdity of the game even as we play it but so what? What meaning does that have in the moment “the last battle is lost”
 
In the talk to a study group in the Canary Islands given in 1978  recorded in the book Silo Speaks under the title Valid Action  (Collected Works Vol I) he touches on those various positions and their historical contexts: In periods of great cultural exhaustion, as have occurred time and again in past civilizations, there tend to arise short-term, immediate answers to the question of what one should and should not do. I am referring to what could be called the “moral schools of decadence.” As various cultures fell into decline, there arose moralists who tried to adapt their behavior as best they could in order to give some direction to their lives. Some said things like, “Life has no meaning, and since life has no meaning, anything goes—as long as I can get away with it.” Others said, “Since life has little meaning (laughter), I should just do whatever I like, whatever feels good to me, regardless of how it affects anyone or anything else.” And still others said, “Since I’m stuck in this bad situation, since life itself is nothing but suffering, I should just do what I have to do, do my duty and keep a stiff upper lip—I should be stoic.” And that is the name of these schools of decadence, the Stoic schools. 
 
Even though these schools represent what are in effect “emergency” answers to these questions of morality, behind them there is also ideology. The basic ideology appears to be that all meaning has been lost, and there is a corresponding urgent response to that loss of meaning. Today, for example, we find some who try to justify action with a theory of the absurd, into which the idea of “commitment” has been smuggled. But this is like the coercion imposed by the banks—that is, somehow I’m “committed” to something, and therefore I must fulfill my obligation. Yet it is difficult to understand how commitment can be established if the world I live in is absurd and ends in nothingness. Nor can this last position give the person who holds it much assurance. 
 
Despite important differences in their analysis Silo and Sartre were, in terms of the broad strokes, in agreement up to that point . But Silo completely rejected that we “kneel before death” and his focus was on what next after the abyss. It’s as if Sartre could have written the early chapters of the Inner Look, the first two days of a journey where non-meaning and our lack of independence and our absence of choice are mapped out. But in that book the third day finds us suspicious that we are missing something and that in fact there may be a meaning. And if it is reason (and the presuppositions of the Western tradition) that have led Sartre and us down a road with no exit Silo then hurls down a challenge to us and to reason.  As he writes in chapter XIII “Provisional Meaning”of the Internal Landscape
 
4. You will not be able to justify existence if you place as its end the absurdity of death. Until now, you and I have been companions in the struggle. Neither you nor I wished to kneel before any god, and that is how I would like to remember you always. Why, then, do you abandon me, even as I set forth to defy inexorable death? How is it possible that we have said, “Not even the gods are above life!”—and now you kneel before the denial of life? Do as you see fit, but I will bow my head before no idol, even when it is supposedly “justified” by faith in reason.
5. If reason is to be at the service of life, it will help us leap over death. Let reason, then, produce a meaning exempt from all frustration, all exhaustion, all accident.