Every now and then I think I've grasped what is meant by such ideas of the e-ternal, only to lose track of them once again. The following attempts to consolidate an understanding.
Hubert Dreyfus on the forever experience in Dostoyevsky
In a recent talk Dreyfus tells us that we do well to understand Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov as presenting us with an 'existentialised' version of the Christian sacraments. Thus: Dr Herzenstude decides to buy the scruffy little Dmitri a pound of nuts; Dreyfus reads this as an act of baptism, which in turn he reads as Dmitri being introduced into the connectedness network - i.e. being offered recognition, being shown agape love, being made a place for in the ethical world of humans, a place in a network of caring. It is one thing to be born in the mere sense that animals are born, another thing to be born into community: to be given a name, that is, an identity, to become a person, a being of value, of worth. This is given by Dreyfus as just one example of a much broader interpretative drive: to see Dostoyevsky as giving us clues (e.g. phrases like 'and the devil only knows' when we are dealing with an evil person, or mention of twelve people when we are encountering apostolic beings, or the rays of the sun when we are encountering transcendental moments, etc.) throughout his text that he is now articulating a core Christian insight - articulating it in non-superstititious, non-paranormal, science-friendly, terms.
The sacred Christian experience of interest here, to me, is one that Dreyfus calls 'the forever experience'. We are taken first to that moment half way through the book when Alyosha falls to the ground, kisses it and cries over it, vowing passionately to love the earth for ever and ever, all this in accord with Zossima's instructions. 'What goes on in this moment', Dreyfus says:
is a kind of temporality which is different from the everyday kind of temporality where events occur now and now and now and now and you begin to forget the earlier ones. There are sacred experiences which, when they occur, are so important in your life that you'll never forget them again. And they will be moments of joy which you will remember. .... [now quoting Karamazov p. 333:] 'It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind, and it was for all his life and for ever and ever.' That's a really important phrase. That means that there's something that is saved from the everyday temporality of meaningless and forgetting, and that you'll be in touch with it all your life and it will give everything meaning. And that's a sacred experience - for ever and ever. It's the experience of lasting meaning in your life that you can come back to to organise your life, and which gives it meaning from the experience on.Here the relevant contrast is between moments that arise and pass within the flux of life, and a moment which then informs the rest of life by 'seizing the sovereignty of the mind'. Perhaps this amounts to the content of an inspiring experience being taken up as a guiding norm, becoming part of the framework from that moment on with which further experiences are to be sought and evaluated.
A comparison that comes to mind concerns marriage or, more generally, deep romantic commitment. In any relationship there will be interactions which might threaten to damage the relationship itself. However a deeply felt love may inspire one to remove the relationship itself as a possible object of questioning. What I have in mind is not any kind of psychological self-blinding but rather a willed existential commitment which says: this, for me, stands firm, and what comes up in the journey of life must now be accommodated to the shape of my life-in-relationship-with-this-person. (This, it seems to me, could be one reason for thinking of marriage as (potentially) a transcendental concern.)
D Z Phillips on the life eternal
In his essay 'Eternal life and the immortality of the soul' D Z Phillips (1970) cites Sutherland (1967-8) making the point that 'eternal life is not to be equated with endless life.' (Interesting then to note that the standard English translation of the Apostles' creed (...Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. Amen.) invokes belief in the resurrection of the body and 'life everlasting'. How are we to read 'everlasting' other than as 'endless'?) Accepting that a metaphysical view of the soul as an entity somehow endlessly surviving the death of the body is nonsense, we instead are invited to consider the ways in which we actually do talk about 'soul':
'He'd sell his soul for money' is a perfectly natural remark. It in no way entails any philosophical theory about a duality in human nature. The remark is a moral observation about a person, one which expresses the degraded state that person is in. A man's soul, in this context, refers to his integrity, to the complex set of practices and beliefs which acting with integrity would cover for that person. ... Questions about the state of a man's soul are questions about the kind of life he is living. ... The relation between the soul and how a man lives is not a contingent one. It is when a man sinks to the depths of bestiality that someone might say that he had lost his soul. ... 'What profiteth it a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Talk about the soul, then, is not talk about some strange sort of 'thing'.
Like Plato, Kierkegaard too sees the demands of goodness as eternal demands. They are not temporal considerations. By this he means that one cannot speak of a time to be good, without distortion. Kierkegaard says that 'a love of goodness will not belong to a certain section of life as fun and play belong to youth. It will not come and disappear as a whim or as a surprise.' Thus, Kierkegaard wants to say, remorse and repentance are part of the eternal: they cannot be assigned a time. ... to speak of a man's acquaintance with the eternal is, so far, to speak of his acquaintance with a love of goodness. This being so, we can see why it would be foolish to speak of eternal life as some kind of appendage to human existence, something which happens after human life on earth is over. Eternal life is the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed. The difference between the man who aspired to eternal life in this sense and a man who did not would not be the difference between a man who did think he would live on after death and a man who did not think that he would live on after death. The difference would show in the attitudes they had to their respective lives. In one man, his desires and appetites would be, or would be aimed at being, subordinate to moral considerations ,while in the other they would reign unchecked.
... speculations about continued existence after death are beside the point. ... Eternity is not an extension of this present life, but a mode of judging it. Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under certain moral and religious modes of thought. This is precisely what seeing this life sub specie aeternitatis would amount to. ... the postulation of a life after death would be neither here no there, since the same questions about the character of that life would arise.
This however, Phillips tells us, is not enough to mark off the specifically religious notion of eternal life; it rather just 'marks them off in logical grammar from prudential considerations or considerations of convenience.' The religious notion is also importantly connected with the idea of 'overcoming death'. But what does this idea mean?
Phillips now draws our attention to the idea of overcoming the fear of death, and from there to a radical relinquishing of narcissistic entitlement. Thinking about Dostoyevsky's Ivan Ilych, Phillips says:
He was the centre of his world, and thought that only his fortunes and misfortunes were the real fortunes and misfortunes. His reputation in the eyes of others was all-important to him, and he felt that worthy and enviable reputation could be attained solely by his own efforts. Death revealed to him the foolishness and falsity of such an attitude.
Next we are treated to Simone Weil's moral profundity:
When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours, and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort, be it work, suffering or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. ... The effort of suffering form some offence causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul. Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalent should come into us, and because we need this we hunk we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim which we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. This is the claim which we have to renounce.
Weil is superb on the balefulness of narcissism:
We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: 'Sor I must live' and to whom Talleyrand replied, 'I do not see the necessity for that.' Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die that admit this. ... All the circumstances of the past which have wounded our personally appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.
How, then, can we cope with death? According to Weil and Phillips, what is needed is grace. Whereas the worldly approach to death is to still wish some compensation for it (e.g. to somehow live on afterwards!), the religious conception invites us to conquer death by ourselves 'dying to the self'. 'This', Phillips says, 'is the contrast between the temporal (that is, the concern with the self), and the eternal (that is, the concern with self-renunciation). ... The immortality of the soul ... refers to a person's relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer's life.'
Death, then, has no dominion over us to the extent that we die to the self - to the extent that we forego the narcissistic expectation that life be fair and acknowledge that nothing is ours by right. To live in grace is instead to live with one's will aligned to the divine will - that is to say, at the very least, to what happens. This, of course, does not involve taking a passive relationship to life, does not involve a cessation of all striving, since our striving is often enough a part of life itself.
Jonathan Lear on timelessness in Freud
In a 2014 Aristotelian Society paper Lear discusses the nature of what following Aristotle he calls the non-rational soul, and takes a lead from Freud as to how to flesh out Aristotle's moral psychology. The unconscious, according to Freud, operates according to its own 'logic' or 'principles'. Two of these are exemption from contradiction and timelessness. He tells us of an analysand, Ms A,
who seemed to inhabit a disappointing world. No matter what happened, she would experience it in a disappointing way. Real-life disappointments were of course disappointing, but even when she something she wanted came to pass, there quickly followed a disappointing interpretative frame. 'My boss told me he is going to seek a promotion for me... But he probably felt he had to... He was too embarrassed just to promote X, who he really wanted to promote, and not promote me as well.' ... When a colleague to whom she was attracted invited her out, Ms A assumed he had already been turned down by someone else, and now had nothing better to do. ... Experiencing life in disappointing ways had become a style of living, experienced as rational; and the analysand was resolutely unaware of how active she was in living that way.
...From the point of view of consciousness, Ms A's disappointments look like repetition... : disappointment is happening over and over again. But if we try to capture the structure of Ms A's subjectivity, each of these individual disappointments is derivative. Each is there to sustain a large-scale structure: that life shall be disappointing. This injunction has a different temporality from the historical narratives of life (when I was young I was disappointed by my parents, then as a teenager I was let down by my boyfriend, and now in adult life...). It hangs over the historical narrative and informs it with the timeless quality of disappointment. Via the particular moments in life, a primordial structure, disappointment, is timelessly held in place.Lear's explanation for Ms A's mode of (not) thinking is, naturally, a psychodynamic one:
As finite, non-omnipotent creatures we are constitutively vulnerable in a world over which we have, at best, limited control. How disappointing that we cannot render ourselves invulnerable to disappointment! An imaginary strategy which the young Ms A chanced upon was to render herself invulnerable to the world's disappointments by getting there first and, in fantasy, inflicting the disappointment upon herself. This is an omnipotent 'victory' - being in control of the disappointment - that consists in a lifetime of suffering disappointment. It has this illusory benefit: it protects a childish sense of omnipotence from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.Entry to and exit from the eternal
Eternality, then, may constitute the pinnacle or the depths of human existence. For Dreyfus and for Lear the idea involves the subliming of a moment of becoming into a frame of reference through which becoming obtains. Lear's patient lives her life according to an unconscious ethic which inexorably construes everything as disappointing. Dreyfus too offers Dostoyevsky talking of 'an idea seizing the sovereignty of the mind', although in this case the experience is one of joy rather than of disappointment. Here, as I see it, the idea of the eternal is really simply the idea of the temporal transcendent: something which does not obtain within the flux of time as one of its moments, but rather is elevated to part of the transcendental frame - think of Heidegger's idea of our inevitable pre-understandings of Being - of any experience whatsoever. Ms A's ethic however is unconscious, and it is because of this that it is inexorable; Alyosha's is more conscious. I suspect that we all have some such windows or portals from the temporal to the eternal, windows that take a valuable emotional experience from within the river of our experience and install it in the riverbed.
Phillips' analysis is similar, but provides a specifically religious focus. He steers us away from nonsense like 'life after death' - if by espousing that we are somehow attempting an evasion of precisely what is final in death (and, well, you can't get more final than death!). And takes us towards the specifically religious meaning of such phrases as eternal life, which religiousness is precisely a function of an ethic of relinquishing our narcissism and living in grace (i.e. seeing life as a gift rather than as something to which we are entitled). (I wonder whether there could be a parallel reading of exiting the cycles of rebirth in Hinduism or Buddhism.) In the Christian context the exit into the eternal is one of exiting cycles of revenge or sacrifice (mimetic violence a la Girard) or the endlessly self-righteous machinations of a consciousness wedded to self-aggrandisement, entitlement, image, a bogus fantasised internal locus of value and control, and the relentless attempt to trounce those people or situations which threaten such unstable worldly commodities. The eternal life, for Phillips' Christians, is ultimately one in which one does good simply because it is good - rather than because of any boons it may bring to the self.