Thursday, December 06, 2007

Philosophical ramblings 

Some words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, quoted by Joe Riley at Panhala, set me off on some unexpectedly deep lines of thought…

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

I’ve called myself a Christian, in one sense or another, for forty years or so, yet I still have doubts that such a thing as a soul really exists; doubts that there is anything before birth or after death. I remain intellectually convinced that there is no need to invoke either a deity or a form of the individual other than the purely physical in order to understand all that there is to be understood about the physical universe – including everything which goes on within that lump of matter we call a brain - but then perhaps that’s the whole point. Deities and souls aren’t physical, and faith wouldn’t be faith if even just the possibility of proof could be shown to exist. Anyway, mind, answer me this: if it’s not my soul that feels dissatisfaction with the way things are, and looks beyond the merely physical to find fulfilment, what is it?

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

That’s a sentiment which resonates powerfully with an instinct within me; aside from having a rather unhealthy feeling that all pleasure may amount to ‘guilty pleasure’, if I examine the root of my philosophy, tangled and uncertain as it is, I find that, judging by the appearance of its application, that philosophy causes me to regard both sorrow and joy as incidentals encountered along the way. Joy I may welcome, sorrow I certainly hope will be adequately contained, but I neither seek out the one nor run away from the other. Fruits of actions are what matters – or what I think I believe ought to matter. And whether through action driven by energy or the ‘action’ to be still, the original title of this blog – ‘older and growing’ – reflects the value I place on forward motion; moving, growing, developing, learning.

But that’s judging my philosophy by its appearance. Appearances can be deceptive.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

I admit, I become more and more conscious of this with every passing birthday. My body, with its physical heart, is maybe two thirds of the way on that march to the grave. Moreover, I can expect the body at least and maybe mind as well will suffer increasing incapacity on the final miles of that march. And that thought puts all the more pressure on the years which remain.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Bivouac – so is this life but a temporary resting place on a greater journey? Central though such an idea may be to Christian philosophy, I don’t think I’ve ever really absorbed its implications.
And which strife would that be then? Good against evil?

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

No problem with the first two lines, but what should direct that action? If enjoyment isn’t our destined way – and under that heading I include everything which is selfish, in the literal sense of self-ish, pertaining to the self – and sorrow is merely a feature encountered en route, what can direct us if we acknowledge neither heart nor God? Is life really so purpose-less?

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

And lives of ‘ordinary’ men and women remind us we can make our lives unbearably tedious, if we so choose, and leave behind us nothing more than a sandcastle washed away by the tide.

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

There it is again; that heart word. I mistrust it, I shy away from it. That wasn’t always so – words here from only a few years ago bear witness to that. Perhaps I’m afraid of it, of what it stands for, of what it would mean to own it again…

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait."

Wait? Milton can have the last word on that. But remember the context, stated in the often-ignored title of the sonnet.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

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