For me, a four day weekend around Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to catch up on work. On reflection, however, it makes me think that a third section could rewardingly be added to Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité about our further fall from the mythical natural state and the gentle yokes we place upon ourselves for the sake of both society and financial independence. Trying to find time to further steal time from my family is clearly a perversion of some sort and I don’t know why it isn’t a pretext for revoking spiritual communion in religious faiths which still take the spiritual realm with a degree of seriousness.
Perhaps it was Hegel (but perhaps it was someone else — Kierkegaard?) who wrote that the churchmen of today walk around as if God is dead. No longer in an academic milieu, I’ve lost the habit of striving for accuracy in the archeology of knowledge. All I know is that someone said it (or perhaps not). The as if is important. While I was a grad student in philosophy (and before I became a grad school drop out) we often spoke about as if metaphysics, which I took to mean the things we were required to believe in order to have confidence in order and purpose in the physical world. In truth, however, order and purpose are illusions. The prevailing philosophy of mind of that time – and currently, as far as I can tell, outside of the brilliant work being done by David Chalmers – holds that consciousness itself is merely an illusion. That movement in philosophy went back in a revisionist archaeology of knowledge to show that even Descartes never took his arguments for the existence and necessity of God seriously, and so – if one follows this alternative argument read between the lines of the Meditations – neither is the problem of other minds ever resolved nor the ego sum affirmed.
We robots who think we are something more, nevertheless, abide. I’ll throw in a tentative speculation into the archaeology of knowledge here and remind the reader that robot is a Russian derivative meaning “worker”.
Somewhere in the sediments of unconsciousness that make up our neural pathways we all recognize this Archimedean fixed truth of meaninglessness – we feel it in our bones and experience it in our daily lives. The secret to success is determined by how we pivot on this truth.
When I was occasionally allowed to teach ethics (so far had academia fallen that we no longer even attempted to teach virtue) I felt a small degree of triumph if I could at least get students to the point of defining ethical behavior as the effort to think about the moral implications of what they were doing before they did something wrong. It meant they had found the pivot.
So how does one pivot around God – Whom we secretly and sometimes openly suspect to be deceased? Lucretius the first century B.C. Epicurean posited that the world was made up of chance and freely bouncing atoms – is our modern zeitgeist so different? In a world without order – and consequently without rewards for the good or punishment for the wicked (take the CEOs of our financial institutions as examples if you must have one) – hard work, the cornerstone of Lutheran and Calvinist theology – seems rather pointless. The common lament of the underachiever is that the bullshitter succeeds while the grunt goes another year without a raise or a promotion.
And so that theology must change. The theology of election – the notion that there are a set number of souls who will go to heaven – morphed in the 19th century into a doctrine that the elect would be known by their worldly success, for they were blessed by God. But in a world of pure chance, how does an as if theology make sense of this?
The Atlantic Monthly’s most recent issue posits that mega-churches created the recent economic collapse we are currently all living through. The argument is that “theology of prosperity” encouraged parishioners to over-extend their credit, to buy homes and cars they couldn’t afford while banks were more than glad to help them do so, because such acts of blind faith in future prosperity constituted faith in God’s goodness. To act foolishly, and bet one’s future on chance, is as close as we can come to true faith.
I find no immediate reason to excoriate the pastors. In a world in which we act as if God and rational order are dead and chance rules all, this is sound advice. Furthermore, for those whom chance blesses, it actually brings souls closer to the absolute. The recipients of this theologically and fiscally dubious advice were typically the poor, the roboti, looking for ways to improve their stations. Their pastors used this natural desire to bring them closer to the divine. As a viewer of reality shows and Lifetime bio-pics as well as a proponent of lottery money as a great source of revenue for education, I have no reason to doubt that this is the future toward which we are all headed. Why work toward success when all we have to do is wait for it.
Being a software programmer, I have very little sense of history. I have to look at my resume to discover how long I have worked with a particular language, and I have very little idea where these languages came from. As an industry, programming always looks to future successes and rarely back at past mistakes.
My spouse, on the other hand, has a rich history she maintains a retells, developing a beautiful tapestry of traditions she freely shares with anyone who enters our lives. She recently gave several talks at my daughter’s elementary school about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath using her own family narrative as a way to make sense of it. One great-grandmother was a peasant while the other was an aristocrat. By chance – and some peculiar contrivance – they knew each other in a private girls school where the poor relative envied the wealthy one for her oranges, which were eaten every day in the gardens of the academy. Then comes a series of confusing events tied together through rare documents and pictures. The children of the two schoolmates marry — there are photos. The revolution comes. The poor great-grandmother’s husband is taken away to the gulag – evidenced by a single NKVD document signifying his eventual release after three years servitude. Letters and a death certificate mark the passage of the relatives who join the White Army as they fight — and flee — the Red Army across the broken Russian Empire, eventually surrounded and killed. The Germans invade the area of Ukraine where the family estates are. The family leaves Ukraine on the promise of work in Germany, only to end up at a labor camp in Auschwitz for Osterlanders. They escape when the Red Army liberates the camps and executes the Russians they happen to find there. They end up at a displaced persons camp (their papers now declare them as apatrie) and eventually make their way to New York, then Washington D.C., where a grandmother works for years at the Voice of America’s Russian Bureau but does not live long enough – none of these émigrés do – to see the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Within the fabric of this narrative there are many more stories, of course, few of which can be verified but all of which are colorful. There are even more stories lost forever because they were so traumatic no one would speak of them.
The story I want to bring to the fore is of how Baba Neela, the peasant great-grandmother, taught the émigrés the traditions of old Russia which they had either forgotten or never had a chance to learn – how to pray in an Orthodox church, how to pray at home, how to throw a party, how to make traditional meals, how to drink one’s tea, how to enjoy life with one’s family and friends. Also the lessons embedded in these traditions –that personal rewards only come in the afterlife, while material rewards, in a world dominated by chance, are found in the success and happiness of one’s children.
The problem with long weekends is that it gives one too much time to think. The aftermath of 9/11 was like a condensed long weekend. Productivity across the country went down as people realized that there were things more important than work or money. The roads on Sunday were clogged with people returning to church, realizing that it is the fixed point of consolation in an uncertain world.
We quickly overcame that moment of excited introspection, however. We returned to more standard patterns of as if theology and as if expectations.
Despite that, my own nagging as if expectations from another time are returning over this holiday. For the past few months I had been trying to figure out how to get my children into soccer leagues and karate classes, since that is what is expected. But now I’m stuck on another notion which I imagine to be the traditional education of a well-raised child of the last century. I want each of my three children to learn a language. I want them each to learn to play a musical instrument. And I want them each to be well-versed in poetry and classical literature.
With languages, they will be able to travel from country to country if required by troubled times. With music, they will always be welcome at a party. With literature, they will know how to enjoy their lives. The public schools, I expect, will get them up to speed on science and mathematics. And so the XBOX has just been turned off while the TV has been silenced. I have work to do – promised and as yet undelivered – but I am picking up a book instead – one by Tim Powers in an attempt to reinvent the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley according to his own peculiar vision of the hidden world.