The world we live in is one of transience, flux and malleability. Yet the ideals we hold are the opposite of this: our sense of virtue, for example, is meant to hold absolutely – in all cases – or we must acknowledge its merit as incomplete.
How it is that human beings can spend their life immersed in one quality (transience), and yet dearly wish for things of an opposite quality (permanence)? It is puzzling friction between the life we live and the hopes we cherish.
How this friction came to be, and what it signifies, is my question.
Our consciousness is invested in a body torn by storms of change. Our physical being, emotions, life – nothing is certain to last even till the end of the day. One would think our thoughts would also be characterized by this trait, since it constitutes the fabric of our existence. I mean, if change is the dominant reality, why consider other modes of being? Animals deal capably with constant change, and focus on no goal but the task at hand.
Yet human beings spend life seeking the opposite of their “natural” condition. We want uninterrupted peace, unalloyed blissfulness; we shrink from thoughts of death; the need for change is constantly debated. It would seem that inwardly, we strive to erect structures wholly incompatible with life as we know it.
Even our awareness of the transience of material existence is an indication of something unique in humans, since consciousness requires distinction. But what else is there, not caught up in the impermanence of the world? Concepts are only mental. We cannot say that “one plus one” is a constant, as nowhere in the world do we find an instance of “one plus one”. There are only objects, differentiated by their physical characteristics. The association of count or quality is something later superimposed by human reckoning. There is nothing inherent in the formless flow of things to suggest law or lawfulness.
Our impulse is to deny the lack of general rules. This very inclination shows how strongly our motivation for perfection drives us. It is strong enough, that when faced with the idea that our “knowledge” is but a fiction – relative to the current state of our ignorance – the natural reaction is to view this with absurdity, to reflect upon our understanding of the matter, and quickly convince ourselves that sufficient evidence exists to prove the rule. The “rule”. Our hearts long for the rule.
Imagine a world with no rules, where every “known” is but a crystallization of ignorance around a certain subset of unreasoning chaos. The further we reach into the depths of this chaos, the more profoundly our assumptions collapse and founder. Soon, we come to doubt existence itself, or our capacity to know anything at all. The mind advances toward a realm with no name – as any term used to describe it would be caught in the same prison of non-meaning.
Faced with this, we seek a way to step out of the problem. We take a moment, reflect on the chance happenings of the world (in a manner removed from their immediate occurrence) and arrive at a pronouncement to describe them and how they relate to our past and future.
What is the agency that can remove itself from the circumstances of the one experiencing the removal? It would seem impossible, like an unaided man jumping off the surface of the Earth. Can a fish think of a world without water? The world it experiences, by its nature, would make such a place impossible to conceive. One could more easily understand his own non-being, than dwell mentally in a realm which for him does not exist.
But somehow, the mind does go to this place where the mind cannot be. The finite, limited, ephemeral experiencer, “man”, casts his line beyond the shores of the infinite, and comes back with concepts to defy all common experience.
How he accomplishes this is impossible, if we deny any part separate from the contingent world. Do the animals conceive of absolutes? Human beings expect them! We grow upset if our plans for the future fail, even though no future exists for a being whose only experience is of the rapidly changing present.
It is perhaps, as Plato thought, by our likeness with the eternal that we are able to contemplate eternal terms. By some unknown association with the single, the perfect and the indivisible, we are able to recognize similar patterns in the indeterminate world of change around us.
A mind who contemplates absolutes will find them more akin to his nature than not. This is not said as a truth, but from observation. People experience emotional difficulties when faced with change, finality, indeterminacy or unpredictability. On the other hand, we take great comfort in the “known”, in general rules that predict future behavior, in things that are bounded and follow an orderly pattern. Order appeals to our aesthetic sense.
The only conclusion, it would seem, is that we are actually strangers to the world we live in; or at least, estranged by an inward inclination. Perhaps this is the footprint of our “soul”.