What’s With the Nothing?

“Et in Arcadia ego”
Nicolas Poussin, 1637

What’s With the Nothing?

In the mornings, when I sit for meditation, I ask for input from On High and generally aspire to learn what the day should hold for me if I orient rightly.  Normally, the answers I get don’t descend in words.  There’ll be an image, or a textured feeling or sense of direction that’s not very precise.  The “answer” does rule out certain approaches while it confirms others.  Since it often surprises me, and sometimes disconcerts or evokes strong resistance in me, it would be inexact to dismiss the answers I get as mere wish fulfillment or projection.  (I’m not tempted to talk like that, but Received Opinion would be.)

Anyway, this morning’s received image was peculiar.  It was a vision of a body, clearly my body, with only one thing missing: my head!  Oh dear.  For a licensed intellectual, that’s not good news.

A bunch of chores filled up the daylight hours.  I hoped that, by this evening at my favorite café, a positive idea for this column would have come to me.

Nah.  Still nuthin’.  As Martin Heidegger (considered by some the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century) would say,

Das Nichts nichtet.

Which, freely translated means,

The Nothing nothings.

If you never took Contemporary Continental Philosophy, I’ll bet you’re sorry now!

Well, I always write about what most concerns me, and beggars can’t be choosers, so – nothing for it – I’d better plunge headfirst into The Nothing.  Hey, what does that feel like?  Be the first kid on your block to find out.

I expected to land hard on the desert terrain of emptiness, absurdity and pointlessness.  For at least the last hundred and fifty years, that’s been the landscape described by contemporary philosophers when they go as deep as they can get.

Instead, to my astonishment, the feeling I got was big, expansive, grateful (if “grateful” can be called a feeling) and rather full!  Were there directional arrows in that full field of felt experience?  Arrows to tell me, Go here?  Go there?  Turn right at the next fork?  No, not like that.  Rather, I could sense directional vectors following naturally from who I’ve become and what belongs to my life.  Impossible to replicate the fullness of the feeling, but – free associatively — I’ll set down some of the vectors describing the terrain as I discerned it.

First, what IS the takeaway from my newly revised and expanded book, A Good Look at Evil?  It’s that people need to become – not just what they’re best at doing – but who they’re best at being.  Who am I? is a good question!  Even for the most intuitively self-assured among us, the answer isn’t ready-made.  We get to it by trial and error, by trying not to lie as we go along – since a lie won’t give the answer.  Over time, our effort becomes a narrative, which is to say a true story.

It’s important for us to recall the story’s incidents in chronological order.  That way, if our provisional conclusions get overthrown by some future experience, we can go back to where we first embraced our now-doubtful premiss, revisit the experience that prompted it, and revise our conclusion accordingly.  Our future sheds retrospective light on our past.

Who then, what then, are the evil-doers?  Voluntarily and knowingly, they mess up the story.  They could be oneself, if one is masking the hard lessons of experience.  Or … others.  Or they could be your local school shooter.  Did he or they “just snap”?  Evil generally involves discernment, strategic planning, and these young killers with their bland faces are no exception.

Where are we headed?  Is it to the romantic happy-ever-after?  Wedding bells?  I’m all for that.  Did I live happily ever after, after Jerry and I married?  Yeah, I think so.  Only, right now he’s suffering from the after-shocks of a visit to the root canal dental specialist.  Doesn’t make either of us happy.

Should we strive for global consensus?  Would I be happier if nobody disagreed about politics or Jews or Israel?  Take it one rung higher.  Would I be happier if no one on the planet were despised for his or her color, continent of origin, or social class – high or low?  If we all knew instantly and globally how best to conduct our relations with planetary resources and wild nature?

Political disalignments concern the same thing that used to trigger religious conflicts: The Big Picture.  Suppose we all looked up at the sky, then out to the horizon and we saw …

 The Same Big Picture.

If I try to imagine such a universal consensus about the world and its desiderata, straightaway I see … that’s not where the problem lies.  That’s not where the solution is to be found.  It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing over the great generalities.

The incongruent Big Pictures are the metaphors for the real discrepancies in our respective experiences – which lie in the details.  People don’t kill and die (really) for big reasons.  Rather, insofar as we endorse the erasure of those who don’t share our Big Picture, we do it for very small reasons.

The state, Plato wrote long ago, is the soul writ large.  Political differences – differences over what we stereotype – are psychical differences, writ large.  Differences of the soul.

We are more interesting than we look.  If, as the French painter famously depicted, Death too is in Arcady, it is no less true that

God too is in the world.

That means we don’t need to be in such a tearing hurry.  We have more time than we think.  It all needs to be explored.  We have time for one another.  It all needs to be turned up to the daylight and lived out.

We should not come to agreement too quickly.

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. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. 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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