Mon 20 Oct 2008
The New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was given to exclaiming, “I accept the universe!” The British writer Thomas Carlyle, upon hearing this, commented: “Gad! She’d better.”
What does it mean to accept the universe? It might merely mean recognizing facts as facts. But it could also mean affirming the goodness of the universe (or at least its non-badness), and I suspect this is what Ms. Fuller meant. The goal of a good many philosophers and theologians down through the ages has been to accept the universe in the sense of affirming its goodness (or at least its indifference). The chief impediment to such acceptance has always been the inconvenient fact that we human beings are all destined to suffer and die. For example, Epicurus, the ancient Greek atomist, maintained that death is not, in fact, an evil, since all good or evil is in sensation, and death is merely the privation of sensation; pain, in turn, is easily avoided during life, by keeping our appetites few and simple, and by debunking the superstitions that make us fear the gods. Cynics, Stoics, Socratics, Pyrrhonists, Epicureans, Pythagoreans, etc. arrive at a striking consensus on the human condition: The key to happiness is that we should calmly and without passion accept whatever happens to us as either good or at least indifferent. We should accept the universe, not curse it or struggle against it. Indeed, some (e.g. Plato and Pythagoras) go so far as to tell us that death is positively good for us, as it liberates us from our imprisoning bodies.
The problem with all of this is, of course, that it is a big steaming load of horse droppings. Death is an evil, for it means the end of the person I am, the termination of all my hopes and projects and relationships. It deprives me of people I love and without whom I cannot be happy. (For what does it mean to love another, if not that that person’s happiness and presence are both essential to my own happiness?) We all dread death, not (pace Epicurus) because we are ignorant and superstitious, but because we have far more common sense than most ancient Greek philosophers (here I except Aristotle, who had lots of common sense on this very point and on many others, too).
The Second Vatican Council has the following to say about the human condition: “Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his own body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death…” (Gaudium et Spes #18). To be a Christian is to be a rebel against the universe. To affirm the resurrection of the body, the possibility of redemption, and the duty to struggle against sin, poverty and injustice is to reject the universe, not to accept it. Like so many ancient Greek philosophers before them, Margaret Fuller and Thomas Carlyle could have benefited from a dose of Christian common sense.