Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Science of Contempt


There are basically two types of people in the world. 

First, there are the vast majority of human beings who both Plato and Nietzsche refer to as “the herd,” because they live out their lives like glorified cattle.   These sorts seek pleasure at every turn and avoid discomfort at all cost.  They dress well, look cute, live in tastefully furnished homes in the right sorts of neighborhoods, and sincerely enjoy the company of their equally shallow family and friends.  They love their gods—but not so much that their devotion gets in the way of their pleasure-seeking—and they are convinced that they are good men and women who will be deservedly  rewarded after death.

The herd listens only to the most popular music, reads only the most popular books, and assents to only the most popular ideas.  Because members of the herd are completely unreflective, they have no original ideas of their own and instead parrot whatever truths and ideals are fashionable at any given moment.  They are detestable because they are so smugly satisfied with their lives that they couldn’t imagine living any other way than they do.  And when they die, even their corpses look and smell great.

The herd is all around us.  Its members are omnipresent, like roaches, scurrying to and fro, buying, consuming, gorging themselves, fucking, shitting, and spawning future generations of fat, self-satisfied morons like themselves. 

Although most members of the species Homo sapiens belong to the herd, there is another type of human being that is far more rare.  This type goes by the name “underground man”—to use Dostoyevsky’s terminology.  Unlike the common rung of humanity, underground men (or women) are characterized by a heightened sense of self-conscious awareness.  They understand their own human motivations, and, because of this, they know that they are shits—weak selfish, vain, petty, and immoral.  But they also know that all human beings are shits.  The only difference is that underground men are AWARE of just how loathsome and despicable they are, even if they lack the will or the courage to do anything constructive about this fact.

It might not seem like much to recognize one’s own limitations, but in fact, such self-conscious awareness is precisely what separates real men from beasts.  An underground man may be just as morally corrupt as a member of the herd, but at least he KNOWS that he is corrupt.  And this knowledge offers some slim chance at redemption, even if an underground man never chooses to take advantage of it.

Whereas members of the herd are typically filled with smug self-satisfaction, underground men are always characterized by their fundamental contempt—contempt for themselves, to be sure, but even more so for members of the odious herd.  Jesus admonishes his followers to love others as they love themselves.  But underground men are filled with such self-loathing that it is impossible for them to feel anything other than pure, unadulterated disgust for all of humanity. 

I know what you’re thinking: It sounds a bit pathetic to spend ones time snidely bitching about the foibles of ones fellow human beings.  It is petty, to be sure, but underground men don’t really have much of a choice.  If they could just zone out from reality the way members of the herd do, they might be capable of some degree of compassion, or at least tolerance.  But the heightened self-consciousness that underground men possess makes it impossible to ignore the gross stupidity and immorality of their fellow human beings.

Perhaps you think that such a wholesale condemnation of humanity is too harsh—that human beings really aren’t as vulgar and shallow as an underground man believes them to be.  In fact, they are much worse.  The very attitude of smug self-satisfaction that characterizes a herd mentality is responsible for all of the evils that we experience as inhabitants of this fragile world.  The herd needs to live in complete comfort, so we have endless wars to secure the natural resources—fossil fuels in particular—needed to ensure their comfort.  The herd plunders the planet’s natural resources, spews tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and renders the planet inhospitable for future generations.  But does anyone really care about this?  Of course not!  That kind of realization would get in the way of all the fun we are supposed to be having; it would inject a note of reality into the sublime fantasy in which all members of the herd desire to live.  An attitude of unmitigated contempt is the very least that one should have for a species so unenlightened, so selfish, so cruel that it would subject its own future generations to a harsh struggle for survival in a world debased by human greed. 

Underground men are no better than their counterparts in the herd, but, as I have said, at least they recognize their own hypocrisy and weakness.  They hate themselves for it, and as a result are endlessly conflicted and tortured.  The suffering that comes from authentic self-awareness, however, at least offers the slim chance of redemption.   When despair becomes horrific enough, underground men will either be forced to take decisive action to change their condition in life or be forced to terminate their own lives.  The despair that comes from self-awareness, I’m afraid, offers no other options for those who have the fortune—or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it—to reside in the underground.

Even in death, however, the underground man is superior in every way to a member of the herd.  The total lack of self-consciousness possessed by members of the herd may seem like a blessing, but in fact it is the ultimate curse.  There is no escaping death.  And when death comes to one who has lived his life completely immersed in the pleasures of the world, you can be well assured it will be a horrific death indeed.  

If one has a choice, then, one ought to choose the underground every time over the lush grazing fields of the herd, despite the suffering that comes from dwelling in the underground.  But, if you are able to read this, you’ve probably already chosen.  And more likely than not, you’ve chosen to belong to the herd. 

I would tell you how sorry I am that you’ve made such an unenlightened choice, but you probably wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about anyway.  That, after all, is precisely what it means to belong to the herd.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Logic of Faith

by A.J. Grunthaler
In the 21st century, it seems as though the belief in a supreme being is destined to become a quaint and slightly silly artifact of a bygone age. In an age where technology and science have become so advanced, we think that we can simply do away with antiquated ideas like God and religion, because it seems as though we now have all the answers to life’s most perplexing questions—who we are, where we come from, and where we are ultimately going. But the more advanced we become as a species, the more we realize that the ultimate answers to our deepest questions are as elusive as ever.

What we’ve discovered is that it is easy to kill off God. It’s much more difficult, I’m afraid, to replace the idea of God with some other concept that can provide us with the kind of ultimate meaning and value that all human beings desire. In a world devoid of a Supreme Being, we are simply one species among the many that inhabit this planet of ours (our brains, after all, may be larger than that of a chimpanzee or baboon, but not by all that much). And without God, our lives become little more than the same kind of struggle for brute survival that we witness among all other life forms in the animal world. In such a world, to dominate others for ones own gain and to maximize ones own pleasure and wealth, even at the cost of the happiness and well-being of others, becomes the sole point of human existence. Peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of justice are merely values promoted by the weak and foolish—those who lack the fortitude, the courage, or the intelligence to triumph over their fellow human beings.

In a God-emptied world, our role models really should be those who are able to put aside antiquated notions about morality that stem from religious ideas and do what is necessary to insure their own long-term prosperity—successful gangsters, wily dictators, corrupt politicians, and dishonest businessmen. These are individuals who understand (to use the language of Dostoyevsky) that, if God is dead, then anything is permitted. In fact, if there is no God, then it makes no sense at all to be concerned with others, since our fellow human beings are nothing more than competitors for the increasingly dwindling resources that make life on planet Earth worth living. A gangster or dictator gets this fact completely; a na├»ve and foolish proponent of justice and morality, not at all. In the end, the gangster or dictator triumphs and the man or woman of faith ends up in the garbage bin of human history.

Gangster-logic, as I said, makes perfect sense in the God-emptied world. But I think that it’s somewhat premature of us to announce the death of God. Even in the 21st century, there are some fairly good reasons to believe that God exists. In the 14th century, the great Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas came up with five ways to prove the existence of God, and I think that these ways hold up as well today as they did in the Middle Ages. Aquinas’ “proofs” for God’s existence basically hinge on the idea that nothing comes from nothing. If there’s no first cause of existence, then there’s no reason for contingent beings like ourselves to be here at all. In a universe of infinite possibilities, the fact that self-conscious, rational beings like ourselves would come into existence purely by chance is an extremely unlikely possibility at best. We have absolutely no evidence, after all, that other intelligent forms of life exist anywhere else in the universe. So the very fact that we exist at all, as Thomas Aquinas understood, seems to indicate the existence of some Higher Being that is the first cause of our existence.

While I think that Aquinas’ arguments make a good case for the existence of a First Cause that is itself uncaused or a Prime Mover that is unmovable, I think that it takes a second leap of faith to infer that this being is the God we read about in the Old and New Testaments—one that has entered human history and cares deeply about our collective and personal destinies. After all, a Supreme Being could be the god of the Deists—one who creates the universe and everything in it and then steps out of the picture completely.
That the First Cause is also the God who loves humanity as a father loves his children—with a constant, abiding, and unassailable love—must remain a matter of faith for most human beings. But our faith in this regard can be bolstered by the long line of saints and mystics in all the great religious traditions who have been blessed with the beatific vision and who have encountered God as Pure Love and Supreme Goodness. And the bliss, joy, and happiness that these great spiritual exemplars have experienced as a result of their God-encounters should be a consolation for the rest of us who strive to achieve what those men and women have achieved, despite having to live out our lives in a world that keeps telling us that God is dead and faith is for fools.

Logic tells us that God exists; faith assures us that He loves us and has a plan for our lives. This is the reason why it makes more sense to strive be more like Mother Teresa than like Donald Trump. If the First Cause of our being is also the God who views us as his beloved children and who has a plan for our salvation, we defy Him and His plan at our own peril. Such defiance means that we have missed the whole point of our human lives. What could be more tragic than that?

And this is precisely why gangster logic is really not very logical at all. In the end, the logic of faith remains the best way to ensure happiness and peace in this life as well as in the next.
A.J. Grunthaler is a formers classics instructor and the  author of The Art of Persuasion (SophiaOmnis Press, 2012).