Saturday, February 05, 2011

Animae Magnae Prodigus

In his book Examined Lives, James Miller closed his chapter on Socrates with a quotation from Nietzsche I don't recall ever seeing before:

I know of no better aim of life than that of perishing animae magnae prodigus, in pursuit of the great and the impossible.

It reminded me of a passage from Five Faces of Modernity, by Matei Calinescu:

Even enthusiastic defenders of utopia like Ernst Bloch speak of the "melancholy of fulfillment" and stress the importance of the "not-yet" in the vision of the future. But to what extent is a consistent philosophy of the "not-yet" possible nowadays? Unfortunately, the modern utopist cannot afford to follow Lessing, who in his famous apologue imagined himself choosing, at God's invitation, between all Truth and just the active search for Truth (with the condition of never finding it). It was not too difficult for Lessing to make up his mind, and without hesitating, take the active, though endless, search—for "absolute truth belongs to Thee alone," he told God. Lessing's way of putting the problem would hardly make sense in a world where God—even as an abstraction or working hypothesis—is dead and everybody knows it. The heroic optimism of infinite search justified by the sheer greatness of a transcendent goal has been lost by modernity. The goals of the modern utopist are supposedly immanent and within reach, and to postpone attaining them would be irresponsible, despite the "melancholy of fulfillment."

But what if the search leads you to the realization that there is no singular, absolute Truth good for all people at all times, only a multiplicity of truths, recurring in different guises in a cycle of forgetting and rediscovery? What if our misguided notions of final resolutions in time are what cause the melancholy of fulfillment? What if our valuing of "consistency" is just another manifestation of our strange yearning for essence, for permanent, fixed identity?

1 comment:

noel said...

I mess with Buddhists by informing them that there really is no nirvana; you won't become enlightened. It makes some unhappy, but it's true: the "you" you are right now is what is not enlightened. Achieving oneness with God, Buddha, or the universe all imply dissolution of the self, and it's a fantasy anyway. So the effort to get there is all there is for us. Sorry guys; if that disappoints you, you're doing it wrong.