Reflections on The Path – Part 8

– Turning to lines 3 and 4

A transition

– Another implied question

-Silo’s existentialism

– Attitudes about death

– What does it mean 

That was a lot of words to comment on what Silo said in a mere 26 (in the English translation). Perhaps you’ve been reading this and feeling I’m going on too much about dead philosophers, or that there’s too much history, and that you’d prefer something more poetic, more practical, more mystical, certainly something more to the point, more… whatever it is you like. Just fill in the blank. So, before going further I want to reiterate something that I’m sure is obvious to most of you, but just in case let me note: these musings about the path are my musings. I don’t claim they are privileged in any way. They are simply the things I find myself mulling over as I try to delve deeper into this most synthetic summary of Silo’s teaching.  They are things I share with the hope that others will find them of interest. Of course, you have your own experiences and ideas that inform your meditations; I look forward to you sharing them. Our emphasis on diversity of points of view is not just a talking point, but the consequence of a particular vision of reality where after all we each hold a piece of the puzzle. As the poet once said: before philosophy there is point of view.

As we’ve seen, The Path begins with a conditional statement. It begins by saying: If you believe that your life ends with death, then…  and goes on to spell out the consequence of that position. Why it is that non-meaning, incoherence, and disintegration are necessary consequences is, I hope, something we’ve looked at sufficiently — at least for the moment. In any case, for the serious reader this statement of condition and consequence is also necessarily a personal question, provoking one to ask themselves, what is it that I believe? Do I believe that everything will end with my death? I don’t know about you, but it is there, as with all these difficult questions (and statements), that I go on the defensive. My resistances surge: What do you mean, “believe”? Sometimes I believe one thing and sometimes another? What do you mean, “everything”? Obviously, not everything will end… just me! And I start to weave elaborate stories, my thoughts take strange detours; I might, like a drowning person, grasp at any means of salvation and tell myself things like, “after all, only I’m dying, everything else will continue” — ignoring the question of what that will mean if I’m not here to know it. Finally, I busy myself thinking deeply about more pressing concerns like what I should eat for dinner.

Not to say one shouldn’t question the limits and implications of these phrases; on the contrary, one should and must—and in a moment we will turn back to them—to try and understand something of their existential implications for us. But first a little about why we are talking about existential anything.

It might seem a weird topic since, for many people, existentialism means an atheistic point view, with an emphasis on the absurdity of life. And that accurately reflects what were the dominant currents of existentialism, like those of Sartre, Camus, et al., which were so popular in the post-WWII milieux when this current of thought captured the public imagination. Nonetheless, existentialism precedes that world view and appears in various times and in various flavours. There was, for example, Marcel’s Christian existentialism with its immediate predecessors in thinkers like Kierkegaard, but which saw its lineage evolving out of the ideas of Pascal, St. Thomas and even Augustine. In fact, there are those (one would surmise these are Christian apologists) who would argue that in fact existentialism began as Christian existentialism. Be that as it may, leaving aside this perhaps interesting but certainly complex aspect of the history of philosophy, from our point of view what is essential isn’t the theistic or atheistic trappings but simply that existentialism has as its focus, its meaning, and primary concern, the lived experience of concrete human beings. In this sense, Silo spoke of his approach as existentialist. 

From his most social and political writings to his most “mystical”, Silo’s concern solidly focused on the experience of the human being in the world. And this concern is by no means purely theoretical. Marx wrote a line in his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach that also ended up as the epitaph inscribed on his gravestone: “Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Though he arrived at his conclusions from a very different direction than that materialist mastermind Karl Marx, surely Silo was sympathetic — not to the materialist determinism but to the task that falls to us of transforming the world, of humanizing the Earth. In much the same way, he did not share Sartre’s assumptions or conclusions but nonetheless admired his efforts to rigorously address the implications of the fundamental fact of our existence, our mortality. But where Sartre and the tradition from where he comes concedes the battle to death, Silo, as we have seen, follows an equally or more rigorous path, but one that points to a different end. In that context you might recall these paragraphs from The Internal Landscape:

  1.   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.
  2. 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.

So, what then will be the meaning, or if you prefer, the direction of life that is exempt from what seem to be the inevitable limitations of our existence? It may be useful to recall that in Spanish meaning and direction are the same word, sentido. Let’s use that question to take us to the next two sentences in The Path.

If you believe that your life does not end with death, you must bring into agreement what you think with what you feel and what you do.  Everything must advance toward coherence, toward unity. 

Again we find that, like the first two sentences of The Path, this one (the third sentence) proposes a conditional statement and its purported consequence. The following sentence expands on what it claims are the consequences for the reader engaged in this sort of meditation.

But why does my belief about death have this particular consequence: that I must create internal unity between my thoughts, feelings, and actions? Does this must mean the “bringing into agreement” is a logical consequence? Or is it a moral imperative, an existential recommendation, or something else?