“Living in History”

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" Joos de Momper 1564-1635

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” Joos de Momper 1564-1635

“Living in History” 

That’s a theme of mine, though it’s easier to give the theme a name than to say exactly what it means.

I can hone in on it by at least by saying what it’s not. If you claim that the world we sense, with its tables and chairs, human realms — of manners, customs, beliefs and memories — is “unreal,” then you’re NOT living in history.

Who makes such a claim and where does she hang out? In the light-filled inner place where the soul and God merge. Inside Idealistic Monism, Advaita Vedanta, or any system where only the divine is real. How does she get there? By mantras, meditation, kabbalistic practices, yoga. Nothing wrong with these practices, necessarily. But if you live in history, then you won’t let them overrule your experience of life’s hard edges. As the Jewish joke goes:

If there’s no self, whose arthritis is this?

Another program for dodging life in history would be Absurdism. When he’s about to be executed, Socrates tells his mournful followers not to give in to misology, the hatred of reason, which he links to misanthropy, the hatred of man. Most arguments, he explains, are of middling value; likewise most people. Few are totally good or really bad. Impatient seekers suffer a few bad experiences and rush to the judgment that arguments are of no use, people of little or no worth — the whole experience of life, a loser. Their disappointments get prematurely elevated into the absurdist credo:

I believe … there’s nothing worth believing.

Since Absurdism is a fashionable view at the present time, many don’t wait to be disillusioned at first hand. Instead they piggyback on the disillusionment professed by well-known authors. It’s disillusionment at second hand.

In his last (and most controversial) work, Hope Now, Jean-Paul Sartre — who fathered much of the twentieth century’s despair-a-la-mode — confessed that he personally had never been prone to despair. But it was in the air at the time and, if a serious writer/philosopher didn’t profess to suffer from it, he couldn’t get a hearing.

Now he tells us! Of course, a guy that talented can turn on a dime when he tires of the intellectual chapeau he wore last year. But what about the rest of us?

The Ideologues are a different set of history-dodgers. Among the discomforts of life are its uncertainties. As the song says,

Will I be happy? Will I be rich?

Will I be sick? Will I be dead? Will I be paralyzed from the waist down from a car accident? Or from service in my country’s military? Or as the victim of a stranger’s rage, or callousness, unconnected with any wrong I personally did? Or found guilty of something I didn’t know was illegal? Or penalized for something that wasn’t wrong?

Who knows? In real history, we live in the half-dark. The best war plans fall apart when the battle starts.

The person who attaches herself to a rigidly fixed and finished belief system, like say, fascism, communism, Freudianism, or whatever is the latest edition of collective certainty, “solves” the problem of history by side-stepping it. Of course, some of her experiences may fit neatly into the belief system, but some won’t. The ones that don’t fit will be forced into the system anyway, or else denied and erased from view. That’s the difference between an ideology and an ordinary hypothesis. With an ideology, when the party line changes, the pages from the history book are scissored out.

For the ideologue, it’s a trade-off: give up the fresh air of evidence from experience about what life is like and give up corrigible hypotheses based on available data — but in return get

the closure of air-tight certainties.

Since the ideologue is human, she can’t completely swallow what she professes to believe so ardently. Dissenters, who express the doubts she herself may feel secretly or unconsciously, must be forbidden and suppressed. (It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken!)

What about religious people? And the anti-religious? Do they live in history, or do they too reject the life in real time?

Can one live in history as an atheist? Or as a theist? Isn’t either a case of going too far? Going beyond the evidence? Isn’t “I don’t know” the only honest position?

Almost all the positions I’ve surveyed here were espoused by me at one time or another. Each belief but the last (agnosticism) was refuted by some counter-example I came across that seemed to me to defeat the claim. I couldn’t keep my mind sufficiently closed. At least not for very long. I don’t know if this is a virtue or a flaw, but I have certainly held many views, and also rejected many over time.

What about agnosticism? Can anything defeat that? Isn’t “I don’t know” the one view immune to refutation?

What’s it like to be an agnostic? The agnostic does not know. That’s what the term means: gnosis is Greek for knowledge. An agnostic is one who lacks knowledge. What could be more honest, more humble, than that? Well, let’s take her off the blackboard (where she’s one item on a list of positions regarding knowledge) and place her in real situations. What’s she like? What’s she saying and doing?

She’s saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know if there is or isn’t a God. If there were one, how could I know whether it was Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Other? And by the way, as long as we’re canvassing the things I don’t know, can I trust my senses? My memories? Is right different from wrong, or are these distinctions also purely subjective? Do “right” and “wrong” have no independent standing, since they vary from culture to culture? Is anything true or false, or are those lines also drawn just to conceal power shenanigans behind the scenes? I don’t know and can’t tell.”

Really? You don’t know when you’re sick? You don’t know when you’ve been fired? You’ve no idea what that strand of grey hair could possibly be or what to tell your hair stylist? You don’t know when you’ve been stood up? You don’t know when you’re pregnant?

Believe that and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.

Okay, okay, I get it. Don’t get cute. Maybe we do know a thing or two. But, about God? Whether there’s a God? And if so, which God? How could we know that?

Is “God” too an hypothesis? If so, what’s the evidence? Or is God merely an inner certainty? If so, why should one brand of inner certainty be deemed more correct than another?

Off hand, I’d say it’s both. It’s the hypothesis that hope is not hopeless. Adopting that hypothesis, the evidence is retrospective: you can look back on a life that includes hopeless situations retrieved by holding on, praying for guidance and getting the life line thrown, against the probabilities.

It’s also an inner certainty, though in my experience that’s not constant. I’m quite prone to anxiety, doubt and sometimes near-despair. With some people, faith in God drives all that bad stuff away. Maybe their faith is stronger or purer than mine or it might be temperamental. I’m a bundle of shattered nerves and always will be.

What’s the inner certainty like, when it comes? It’s a sense of Presence, authoritative guidance, clarity and sure-footedness with regard to action. One feels empowered to do what one thinks right, sometimes against the odds.

How can you tell if the God in whom you’ve placed your trust is the true God?

If you find yourself cutting pages from history,  

then it’s the wrong god.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Living in History”

  1. gailpedrick@comcast.net says:

    “I am the great “I AM” .” Gail

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