A Secular Age:

Immanent spirituality

posted by Patrick Lee Miller

<p></p>A worthy touchstone to arbitrate between worldviews immanent and transcendent is the désir d’éternité, the “desire to gather together the scattered moments of meaning into some kind of whole.” According to Charles Taylor, who adduces this touchstone, only transcendence has a satisfactory response to its longing: personal immortality. What response, if any, remains for immanence? Must it invent comic masks to hide the frown of an indifferent world? Must it surrender everything to the river of a senseless time? Must it be mute before the anguish of the bereaved?

Taylor is right that Epicureanism and its modern materialist progeny cannot help. Epicurus taught that death was nothing, since its victims cannot perceive the loss. But whatever consolation this may offer for la mort de moi, my own death, it is useless against la mort de toi, the death of a beloved. The dead may be insensible, but Epicurean sophisms do nothing to assuage the grief of those who live on in their absence.

Nietzsche rejected scientific materialism not because it failed to console the bereaved but because he saw it as the last stage of the ascetic ideal, a desperate effort to will something, even an inaccessible world of truth, rather than not will at all. He also rejected transcendent spiritualities, the worldviews of “the hinterworldly,” whose weariness with this life and its suffering prompts them to turn from it toward a fantasy world without suffering. Scientific materialism and transcendent spirituality were thus, in Nietzsche’s estimation, two sides of the same ascetic coin; both the scientist and the priest, despite their apparent rivalry, were weary of life. Without assessing Nietzsche’s diagnoses of either, which so many partisans have contested over the last century, we should instead consider what positive response he has to the désir d’éternité. For if his philosophy is to be anything more than a critique, if it is to appear as a spirituality while in contact with Taylor’s worthy touchstone, it must respond to this longing. As it turns out, Nietzsche does have a response, but it is nothing new. The Eternal Return is an ancient doctrine whose first and best proponent is Heraclitus.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book that treats this obscure doctrine and its spiritual alternative to transcendence in most detail, Nietzsche’s hero summarizes it with a song whose final line is Alle Lust will Ewigkeit: all joy wants eternity. Taylor interprets this line as “not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity.” Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of Nietzsche’s text, it is an accurate phenomenology of passionate love. When you love passionately, even when your love turns out to be ephemeral, it does not feel ephemeral so long as it lasts. On the contrary, it feels like a summons to eternity. But is this summons coherent? The love we know in this life, like everything else known here, is woven with finite threads. When they come to an end, when the beloved dies, for example, and the weaving must stop, we hurt, want to weave on, and so dream of infinite—which is to say eternal—threads. La mort de toi more than any other experience makes this longing clear. The bereaved more than anyone else dreams of a hinterworld where reunion with the beloved is guaranteed. But is this dream coherent?

Remove finitude, and the fabric of everything we know comes apart. Try to imagine a baseball game, for example, with an infinite number of innings. Even if the glorious bodies of the eschaton could play without fatigue forever, the deepest problem with this alluring fantasy—at least for baseball enthusiasts—is that there could never be a winner. No matter how wide a gap in score opened up during such a game, the losing team would always have the consolation of other innings in which to close it. With so specious a consolation, however, would disappear all the drama and meaning of the game. This meaning would disappear still more if eternity were not infinite time, as some imagine it, but instead all time gathered into one moment, as others prefer. What drama, what sense, would there be in a baseball game whose ninth and first innings were co-present? None more than a game of infinite successive innings.

Now, if the excitement of sport has never gripped you, try to imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing to a song of infinite length. Their technique would remain as dazzling as the talent of the resurrected Lou Gehrig, and it is just as tempting to fantasize about them dancing forever as it is to imagine him playing his last game one more inning, and then another…but what was most valuable in their art, as in his play, would then be lost. Without a sense of the end, and thus of the shape of their movements, the beauty and drama they achieved in finite time would become the infinite and thus meaningless repetition of technique; or, if eternity be imagined as all moments gathered together, this finite beauty and drama would become the absurdity of every move executed at once, and so on for every activity we know. Life itself, as the activity of activities, requires the finitude imposed on it ultimately by death to preserve its meaning.

Borges captured this painful but inescapable truth in “The Immortal,” his fable of a soldier whose quest for the city where none dies costs him dearly, but never so dearly as his success. For after reaching this city and drinking from its magical stream, he learns that among its immortal citizens “every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.” In the midst of this eternal repetition, where “there is nothing that is not lost between the indefatigable mirrors,” all exertion appears vain. Why exert yourself now, after all, when there is always tomorrow? To digest this enervating insight, and others like it, meditate for a moment upon some of the peculiar consequences of infinite time.

Were you to live infinitely, for instance, you would have enough time to live not only your own life any number of times, but also the lives of others, all others, likewise infinitely. Perhaps the boredom provoked by eternity would even require you to seek the relief of novelty. If so, Borges’ concludes, in the city of the immortals individuality disappears: “no one is someone; a single immortal man is all men.” But the preservation of individuality—especially after death has robbed us of a unique beloved—is the chief appeal of eternity. Thought through a little further than its initial appeal, in short, eternity appears more frustrating than satisfying. Reversing course, Borges’ hero seeks instead the waters of a stream that will restore his mortality. Only upon finding it after another arduous quest does he find peace: “Incredulous, speechless, and in joy, I contemplated the precious formation of a slow drop of blood.”

Arguably the insight was first Homer’s. His gods need nothing so desperately as the human drama they have created—especially the tragedy of Troy, where their mortal offspring risk their lives—to lend their otherwise repetitious and senseless lives both drama and meaning. Zeus fights with Hera from time to time, but there is no quarrel so serious that it cannot be remedied with another round of ambrosia. Without Sarpedon to mourn, what drama would remain to him? Without Paris to punish, what drama would remain to her? For the gods there is always and necessarily tomorrow; by contrast, writes Borges, “everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrevocable and the contingent.” He captures this tragic wisdom with his eerie fable, but Nietzsche recovered it for modern Europe when he began his career by celebrating the birth of tragedy and philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks; in other words, the wisdom of the Homeric age. According to the argument shared by the two books with these titles, this age ended with the Socratic promise—that is, the promise made by Plato’s Socrates in dialogues such as Phaedo—of rational salvation from the body, from time, and finally from death.

Howsoever we understand Nietzsche’s tragic alternative to the salvific promise of this transcendent spirituality, which had so deep an influence on Christianity, his alternative cannot be the doctrine that the world will forever repeat. After all, such eternal repetition would be as enervating as immortal life in Borges’ miserable city. Although the Stoics misunderstood Heraclitus this way, and some passages of Zarathustra make Nietzsche seem a victim of their misunderstanding, neither he nor Heraclitus could have subverted so carelessly their hard-won recognition of time. There is not space enough here to exonerate Heraclitus, alas, but for Nietzsche’s part, the passages of his writing that suggest an eternal return are either from his unpublished notes, or, in Zarathustra, from speeches spoken to the spiritual hero rather than by him. The former are wisely ignored by scholars; the latter are better read as spiritual exercises whereby Zarathustra learns to love everything, imagining it as one, taking together all past and all future, all pain as well as all joy:

Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain as well. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored — if ever you wanted one time two times, if ever you said: ‘I like you happiness! Whoosh! Moment!’ then you wanted everything back.

This is not the metaphysical doctrine of an eternally repetitious universe; it is the paean of someone in love with the world. What distinguishes this lover from most is that he acknowledges everything demanded by his love. If you have ever loved one moment, he claims, your love commits you to love also every moment that preceded it and every moment that will follow it. This is not the denial of time, in eternity, but instead the recognition of time, even its affirmation. This, Nietzsche believes, is the demand of true love.

Is true love thus masochistic? Why, if I love this one moment of joy, must I love all the other moments of pain that come before and after it? A moment is joyful because it is meaningful, extraordinarily meaningful: being the first member of your family to graduate from college, seeing your newborn child for the first time, finishing the work of art that says everything you wished it would say, and more. But these moments of joy are so meaningful because they are moments in a narrative: a story of financial and familial struggle survived, or of illness and dark nights of the soul overcome. As we saw above, in the examples of the baseball game and the dance, meaningful moments must be embedded in finite narratives, narratives of risk and therefore tragedy, circumscribed by death. To love such a moment fully is to love the narrative that constitutes it; and to love such a narrative fully is to love the world in which that narrative unfolds. If Zarathustra be believed, if he be followed as a prophet of immanent spirituality, we must love the whole world, with its pain, illness, betrayal, death. Perhaps this is a world without end, in which case it would seem that infinity has returned in an immanent form, but this cosmic infinity nonetheless maintains the human finitude necessary for our meaning, joy, and creativity.

Zarathustra thus declares that “the best parables should speak about time and becoming: they should be praise and justification of all that is not everlasting,” and presumably Nietzsche sought in Zarathustra to craft just such a parable. If he praises suffering and death, it is not to fetishize them, nor to see death in particular as “a privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped,” as Taylor worries. Rather, Nietzsche respects death because it makes possible the prospect of “creating—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s becoming light.” Herein, therefore, lies the positive contribution of Nietzsche’s immanent spirituality: creativity. Against the ascetic dreams of the scientist and the priest—which either deny facets of life or promise a joyous reunion with the beloved that could only be mirthless because of senseless repetition—Nietzsche offers the joyous spirituality of becoming and creation. Tinged as it is with the bittersweet recognition that creation requires time, death, and thus suffering, it is a tragic spirituality. But it recognizes that, without these painful prerequisites, innovation and creation would be impossible.

This recognition is difficult to maintain alongside the désir d’éternité, to be sure, but it is no less true for that: death, it turns out, is the prerequisite of meaning. The contrast with the “ethical insight” Taylor mistakenly infers from Nietzsche’s refrain could not be starker; according to him, “death undermines meaning.” Nor could this contrast be more important to our everyday existence. Transcendence, on the one hand, promises to redeem both lover and beloved alike from the finitude imposed on time by death. The practitioner of transcendent spirituality thus tries to cultivate a perspective—by prayer, liturgy, and works of mercy—from which love appears bathed in the light of eternity. Immanence, on the other hand, sees promises of redemption as seductive tricks, not so much because there is no redeemer but because there cannot be one. Or, to put the point too bluntly: if there were a redeemer, it could only be Satan. To redeem us from death, were it even possible, would rob us of the meaning and drama that make us the envy of the gods. Borges saw this wisdom even in the transcendent religions themselves. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality,” he wrote, “but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.”

The practitioner of immanent spirituality, by contrast, venerates that first century purely, without surrendering to the illusion of redemption. She tries to cultivate a contrary perspective from that of transcendence, one from which its seductive tricks appear as such, and from which love appears always in the shadow of death. The goal is not pessimism, any more than the goal of transcendent spirituality is optimism. Rather, the goal is meaning. The problem typically laid before those who forego transcendence—the problem of meaninglessness—belongs properly at the feet of those who advocate it. The special problem for immanent spirituality is instead how to respond to the désir d’éternité to which transcendent spirituality has such a ready answer. How, in short, to cultivate the perspective from which life has most meaning? What are the immanent correlatives of prayer, liturgy, and works of mercy?

Since the longing for eternity seems truly inexorable it cannot be simply denied, the way so many anti-clerical and utopian fantasies of modernity have tried to do. These denials have produced, as we all know, no paradise but instead hell on earth, “a victory for darkness,” where the longing for eternity found perverse expression in guillotines, concentration camps, and gulags. What is needed from an immanent spirituality, then, is a way not of denying this desire but of working through it. Others have proposed immanent spiritualities for modernity—on this very blog, Lars Tønder calls attention to Spinoza and seconds Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s invocation of Deleuze, while William Connolly mentions these philosophers and others besides as proponents of “radical immanence”—but none of these alternatives appears to make this working-through so concrete and practical as does psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is not even clear what these alternatives require as practices, rather than as mere theories. “It is needful,” Connolly writes, “to work on ourselves by multiple means to overcome resentment of the world for not possessing providence or ready susceptibility to human mastery.” Yes, but how?

As I argued in my first post on this blog, psychoanalysis offers the richest modern practice—developed over a century in the laboratory of the clinical office and the voluminous literature of the trade—for performing this work on ourselves, but it cannot flourish as a moral and spiritual source for modernity until its obscure method of working-through (Freud’s durcharbeiten) has been better explained. There is not space here to provide such an explanation, but I have begun to attempt one here. Whether or not I succeed, when it comes to working through the longing for eternity, psychoanalysts must begin by reconceiving all those longings they investigate, elicit, and ultimately purify: the emotions. Only then can psychoanalysis make sense of itself as a therapy for existential resentment, not just a “cure by love,” as Freud wrote, but a cure to love. A cure to love, in the end, the world.

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29 Responses to “Immanent spirituality”

  1. avatar Robert Michael Guerin says:

    Patrick Miller has given us a very interesting conception of immanent spirituality and the finitude of meaning. I agree with his last post that emotions are the foundation upon which phenomena appear. And yet, there may be an inherent paradox that he is overlooking within this post. It is Heraclitus who tells us that if desire were to achieve its final end, it would exhaust itself. For to be a desire it must want, and its achievement of its object is its very destruction. And so we see many emotions manifest themselves without a desire to achieve their goal. Two lovers may forgo consummation, because the tension and passion leading to it are so great. This manifestation of love seems to forgo an end. Thus the desire that complements the emotion experienced between two such lovers has meaning without completion or within eternity (although perhaps a spurious eternity). Must we, then, divorce emotion and desire? Is it the case that emotional meaning is driven by finitude and desire by infinitude? And if so, is there a way for reconciliation?

  2. avatar Joe Clement says:

    Great article, Patrick. I second you on your conclusion regarding psychoanalysis as “…the richest modern practice—developed over a century in the laboratory of the clinical office and the voluminous literature of the trade—for performing this work on ourselves…” As for re-thinking “the emotions,” I think you’ll have to be more specific in your complaint. If I can assume you mean that psychoanalysts need to re-think the perhaps excessive weight they place on the emotions, then Lacan has already laid the ground-work for working through the obsession with the transference/counter-transference that seemed to mark the post-Freudian psychoanalytic establishment, and American psychotherapy in general. The Symbolic is where Lacan showed that the proper work of analysis is done, while the transference remains at the Imaginary level. Even with Freud though, the emotions or affects were not as prominent as popular psychology and psychoanalysis have it.

  3. This really is a lovely piece. I address a part of it (critically) here, if you’re interested.

  4. I, too, enjoyed this piece . . . and if I read him correctly, Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life proposes psychoanalysis as a basis for an interpersonal ethics.

  5. I am very grateful for these immediate comments and invite others to force me likewise to think farther through the argument of my post. I will address each of them in the order they appeared:

    Robert Michael Guerin:

    We do indeed see emotions that appear to postpone the achievement of their goal indefinitely, but at least two strategies could lie behind that single peculiar appearance. The example of a lover who postpones consummation forever illustrates these two possibilities nicely. If his goal truly is consummation, then his love is inherently frustrating, or neurotic. One of the appeals of neurosis, I suspect, is that it provides the illusion of immortality. It is as if the neurotic unconsciously deduces: “I want this so badly; I cannot have it until infinite time has passed; therefore I will survive indefinitely.” Whatever the logic of neurosis, however, we should hope heaven is not made of such stuff. But if his true goal is the passion of postponement, then he has achieved it. But at what cost? Self-deception. While pretending to aim at one goal, he in fact aims at another. How long may he deceive himself in this fashion? As long as Queen Victoria’s rule, perhaps, but surely not for eternity.

    Joe Clement:

    My comments about the emotions in this post, as in my first, were indeed too general to be informative. Allow me to explain the omission. These two posts are respectively the introduction and conclusion of a paper I have just written on psychoanalysis as a spiritual practice. (The full text of this paper, “Psychoanalysis as Spirituality,” can be found here.) In this paper I work with a cognitive theory of the emotions now popular among philosophers: Robert Solomon championed emotions as strategic judgments in the 1970’s; more recently, Martha Nussbaum has offered a detailed defense of roughly this theory. The cognitive theory corrects the longstanding misunderstandings of emotions as raw feelings or hydraulic movements, misunderstandings that impeded both philosophy and psychoanalysis in their complementary approaches to the human subject and self-knowledge. In the case of psychoanalysis, I think something like the cognitive account of emotions is just what it needs in order to make sense of its therapeutic action.

    In my view, psychoanalysis heals by substituting failed emotional strategies for more prudent ones, especially substituting love for resentment. This is not to say that the analyst engineers this result, but rather that she facilitates the analysand’s self-knowledge, and thereby this delicate substitution, for which our organism may be suited after all. As for the transference and counter-transference, I believe they are among the most powerful tools in this method, which is therefore both affective and cognitive (thanks to the revised understanding of emotion that makes this synthesis intelligible). Much more needs to be said here, needless to say, but this understanding of psychoanalysis does not diminish the importance of the emotions, as Clement would prefer, but instead augments it. Nor do I regret post-Freudian developments in American psychoanalysis, as he seems to do. On the contrary, I think analysts working in English in recent decades have been doing supremely interesting and sophisticated work, often to correct errors in Freud, even when they begin and end with his basic tenets. Of the living analysts alone, I have in mind Peter Fonagy, Otto Kernberg, Jonathan Lear, Mark Solms, and many others. That said, I am open to the French tradition and have learned from Lacan, although I must confess I find him too intellectualist, for reasons that may be a little clearer now.

    Michael Drake:

    Drake’s criticisms—posted on his own blog, with a link above—go to the heart of my argument, at least as I intended it: the analogies between life and activity. My argument may not stand with these analogies, but it certainly falls without them. It is true, as Drake contends, that we may finish one baseball game and then begin another, and so on to infinity, without necessarily sacrificing the drama and meaning of any one particular game. However, this misses the point of the analogy. If life is the “activity of activities,” as I claimed, then we must focus our attention on one activity when we craft our analogies: one game or one dance. Life is a complex activity, a meta-activity if you like, but it is still one activity. As a result, the locus of the analogy in Drake’s infinite sequence would have to be the sequence of games, the meta-game, not any one particular game. Now, what would be the point of this meta-game? Its infinitude seems to preclude any point, for the same reason that the infinitude of a regular baseball game precludes its drama and meaning.

    Drake does maintain the appropriate focus on one activity in his second set of scenarios, when he imagines us simply choosing to stop a game midway through, or when he imagines rain interrupting the game despite our wish to play on. (Do I detect a sympathy for the Rays in this scenario?) Yet in each case, notice, the game is meaningful to the players because they envision it having a finite structure, specific conditions under which it must end. This is not to say that one or more of them will not lose interest in playing it until those conditions are satisfied, or that rain will not introduce unforeseen terminal conditions. But so long as it lasts and remains meaningful to them, they must have a sense of its finitude. When we recall the analogy to life, which these scenarios are intended to illuminate, a scenario of the first sort is analogous to suicide; one of the second sort, to accident or precipitous illness. To round out the comparison, the activity of life does not always go the full nine innings, the three-score and ten—or nowadays, four score.

    But must untimely ends undermine the meaning of activities, as Drake concludes? I see no argument in his post for that claim. Moreover, the implicit assumption of my post—that meaning is drama, or at least embedded in drama, so that the lack of drama produces meaninglessness—already argues against it. A baseball game that ends in the sixth inning because of boredom or rain may nonetheless have been dramatic in the third inning. Similarly, a marriage that ends after twenty-five years may have been dramatic in its tenth. Finally, a life that ends at forty because of suicide or cancer may have been dramatic right up until the end. What I concluded in my post, and what I still believe, is that an activity that must never end—be it a game, a marriage, or a life—will be utterly without drama, and therefore meaningless.

  6. “Do I detect a sympathy for the Rays in this scenario?”

    If only I were that subtle!

    Two points. First, it’s true that I assume rather than argue that, as you put it, “untimely ends undermine the meaning of activities.” I just want to make it clear that I mean not that meaning is undermined completely, but rather that global meaning is attenuated. So for all the local drama in the third inning of your exemplary game, I presume that the game itself as a whole is still less meaningful for having ended prematurely. (Would you disagree?)

    Second, the stipulation that an incomplete game can indeed have meaningful, local pockets of drama seems to undermine the claim that an unending activity is necessarily without drama. The drama of the third is a fait accompli, independent of whether the game ends prematurely in the sixth, on schedule in the ninth, or goes into extra innings. In principle, infinitely many innings will contain infinitely many episodes of drama (subject only to the Borgesian argument that constraints on combinatorial possibility circumscribe the time horizon of novel experience, of which I will blog presently…).

  7. avatar Ronald Baumiller says:

    Another great and thought provoking article Patrick! Your work is always enjoyable to read. There are, however, still some things looming overhead for me. If we have faculties such as boredom and creativity, I still do not see why eternity is necessarily unbearable. Take memory for example. Accompanying it, we have forgetting. In our lives we reflect on our past experiences, and in turn pass positive, negative, and neutral judgments. Among these judgments, some remembered and some forgotten, we take the most memorable of these experiences and say: “I would like to do that again,” or “I never want to do that again.” One cannot, however, perform every action simultaneously. Adding to this, every experience has its own duration; for instance, a nine inning baseball game takes approximately two hours, or a sneeze can take just seconds. Thus, if we are going to attribute the same faculties to eternal life as normal life, we must not exclude the other important faculties. Hence, if we presuppose boredom, then we presuppose memory, forgetfulness, embarrassment, joy, etc. What I mean is that if we do not do things simultaneously, the more things we do in eternity the less clearly we will remember the most distant prior experiences and the more we will forget—just like in normal life. In your eternal baseball game example, thus, first inning would inevitably be forgotten; after 3,209,238,409 innings no human could remember the first inning. Just as Descartes pointed out, someone cannot think of a thousand-sided figure. I think this is an understatement. Frankly, it is difficult for me to imagine a fifty-sided figure. Thus, if we look at the human experience as though it was a fifty-sided figure or as the sum-total of possible remembrances of experiences, it seems as though eternal life is not that unbearable. We must, that is, forget experiences. With the average human life lasting only 80 years, the terminally ill normally do not say: “Wow, life took forever.” I assert this is because they forget experiences. Their longing for eternity, if they even have one, is for a continuation of the process of experiencing new experiences and forgetting old ones.

  8. Winni Sullivan:

    I have not read Santner’s work, but now wish to thanks to this recommendation. With all the books out there to be read, it is no wonder we academics fantasize about immortality.

    Michael Drake (2):

    Drake has helpfully introduced a distinction I neglected between two ways death might “undermine” meaning: first, by eliminating it altogether; or second, by merely diminishing it somewhat. I understood Taylor in the first sense, perhaps mistakenly; in any case, it was against this sense that my critique was aimed. I sought to show that death does not preclude meaning, but is instead a prerequisite of meaning. On the question of whether untimely death diminishes meaning, even when it does not eliminate it completely, I do not have any settled views yet. To begin to think through this question, it seems to me, we must at least distinguish meaning for the person who dies and meaning for those who survive. Respecting this distinction, we could ask the following sorts of questions. Did the death of Virgil before he finished the Aeneid diminish the meaning of his life or the meaning of the poem he left to us? Did the assassination of JFK diminish the meaning of his life—for him, for us? Was the meaning of Madelyn Dunham’s life diminished because she died on the eve of her grandson’s presidential election? I do not know what to say, but invite the thoughts of others as I give my own time to settle.

    Even if untimely death does diminish meaning, however, I still wish to maintain that death (whether untimely or otherwise) is nonetheless a prerequisite of any meaning in life. To illustrate the logic of this more complex relationship between death and meaning, here is another analogy: the government may diminish your wealth when it taxes you, but without any government you would have no wealth at all. In other words, a meaningful immortal life is as incoherent as a fat bank statement in the anarchic state of nature. The argument underwriting this new analogy is in my earlier analogies between life and various activities, so it falls with them if they cannot withstand objections. Drake marshals subtle objections against these earlier analogies, both above in his second comment on this blog and on his own blog, where he treats the subject in more detail. So I shall try to answer both succinctly.

    First of all: the objection in his second comment above, which addresses a point in my first reply. I argued there that a baseball game may be meaningful in the third inning even if it is abbreviated by rain in the sixth, so that a life may similarly be meaningful even if it is abbreviated by untimely death. Drake now objects that if there can be pockets of meaning (like the third inning in this baseball scenario) that are indifferent to a range of outcomes later—whether the game is abbreviated, goes the full nine innings, or goes into extra-innings—then there can be pockets of meaning that are indifferent to any outcome later, including the outcome in which the game goes on forever. If this is right, then my conclusion that meaning is impossible in eternity would be invalid. But there is a fallacy in Drake’s new objection; it slips from a range of outcomes (a range limited by certain conditions) to any outcome whatsoever. These certain conditions are the conditions under which a baseball game comes to an end, as stipulated by the rules of baseball. Without any conditions whatsoever under which a game would come to an end, every game would lose its drama and meaning, for the reasons discussed in my original post. Now, to recall the matter at hand—human life, the activity of activities—it becomes meaningless unless there are certain conditions under which it likewise comes to an end. These rules are nowhere stipulated, but collectively we know them as death.

    Secondly, let us consider the objection on Drake’s own blog *here*. He shifts his critical attention to my attempt to explain Borges’ mysterious comment that in eternity “no one is someone; a single immortal man is all men.” I suggested that “perhaps the boredom provoked by eternity would even require you to seek the relief of novelty,” since infinite time would permit you “enough time to live not only your own life any number of times, but also the lives of others, all others, likewise infinitely.” I now wish to revise my claim, not to attenuate it in the face of this objection, however, but instead to bolster it with my reply to the first objection above. Boredom, I wish to say now, would beset the ‘blessed’ in eternity not only after they had been there awhile, but immediately. For if my above reply is correct, and the ‘blessed’ would be living a life that is equivalent to a game that has no conditions under which it comes to an end, they would tire of it in the heavenly equivalent of the top of the first. Drake has thus led me to see now for the first time that my interpretation of Borges’ mysterious claim is strengthened by my earlier argument about meaning and drama.

    In any case, he should hope that the rest of his second objection—a point about forgetfulness—is not needed to save eternity from my critique. Because Ronald Baumiller adopts this same point in his comment here, I shall now turn to him, hoping my reply answers both objections.

    Ronald Baumiller:

    If forgetfulness is needed to redeem eternity from being a damnation to boredom, then heaven appears but a pitiable dotage. We would be saved from boredom there, it seems, by repeating what we had already done but forgotten—not once or twice, but infinitely many times—the way a victim of Alzheimer’s syndrome repeats the same task with renewed interest. Eternity thus becomes a nightmare of senseless repetition.

    I am so pleased that Baumiller and others above have enjoyed my piece. My own enjoyment in reading and answering their objections is no less. But this is a peculiar joy we are experiencing, and it is worth our attention for a moment. We are taking joy in the contemplation of our demise. Is this is a humble version of the tragic joy celebrated by Nietzsche and the Greeks: a joy stemming from our enhanced appreciation of our fragile and thus dramatic lives?

  9. “If forgetfulness is needed to redeem eternity from being a damnation to boredom, then heaven appears but a pitiable dotage.”

    Adopting the prevailing metaphorology (as it were), and in the interest of promoting meaningful finitude, I’ll simply say: That is well-played.

  10. avatar Richard McKim says:

    At the heart of this discussion is a paradox: while we sorely desire eternal life, it seems like a boring nightmare whenever we try to picture it. Why?

    As Patrick makes clear, we think of eternal life in temporal terms, either as infinitely extended time or as one everlasting “moment” wherein all temporal moments are superimposed. But eternity, if it’s anything, is unimaginably unlike time, so imagining interminable baseball games, or all the moves of an Astaire/Rogers dance happening “at once,” gets us nowhere near it. Eternity seems to rob everything of meaning because (a) we can’t conceive of a kind of meaning beyond what life in time affords, and (b) if it went on forever, or if it happened all at once, life in time would be meaningless.

    Aristotle’s idea may get us a little closer: eternal life is like a contemplative one, not a life of action. What would we contemplate? Think of it this way: after death, we get to inhabit our whole selves instead of just one thin temporal slice at a time as we do while the clock is ticking. We finally get to be who we ultimately are, encompassing our temporal life as a whole. (This would be our “soul.”) But we’d be outside the temporal stream, so we’d also “see” our life from a god’s-eye point of view. We’d see it as part of the whole of time, how it fits, what it means in the big picture, which would likewise be present to our gaze — all-at-once (there’s no escaping time-words!). There’d be communion too, since everyone else who ever lived and died would be eternally alive to all this.

    The meaning of our lives, the richness of the big picture with our own small but essential roles in it, would be inexhaustibly rewarding to contemplate. All suffering, tragedy and death would be redeemed without being denied, in endlessly fascinating, emotionally fulfilling ways. We wouldn’t need a “break” from contemplation, as we do in time. No repetition, no tedium, no enervating idleness – all these are temporal concepts. And no hunger for a final inning, since all final innings would be there for us to enjoy in their full significance.

    A feeble effort to make eternity sound attractive, needless to say. But there’s an air of special pleading in our talk of “meaningful finitude.” Let’s face it, we’d rather have immortal life. What’s desirable about it will always remain unimaginable to us, but what would it be worth if it were nothing more than something mortal creatures could imagine?

  11. avatar David U. B. Liu says:

    I applaud Patrick Miller’s subtle working-through Nietzsche. My only immediate suggestion is that he also consider meditation of various traditions, including Zen. Most of these are much older than psychoanalysis and no less serious, efficacious or profound. In fact, my own experience with zazen tells me that it might be a very strong alternative to psychoanalysis – and a much cheaper one at that!

  12. avatar Evan Hagemeyer says:


    Thanks for this… a very sensitive and moving discussion of time. My questions are: how is what you call immanent spirituality, which starts with an awareness of human finitude, different from what I might more plainly call a sense of urgency? Is it elevated by the fact that you accept the desire for eternity? And wouldn’t that sense of urgency in the face of time’s inexorable power, coupled with the desire for eternity (which is, you seem to say, universal) lead anyone moved by both to become consumed by a Napoleonic self-obsessed ambition? Like a Julien Sorel, who sanctifies his own will to overcome his class & ultimately himself, all in a quest to be remembered. What I mean is, isn’t the desire to be remembered, i.e., to have historical effect, the same as the desire for eternity for the immanent spiritualist?

  13. avatar Mark D. Fulwiler says:

    I understand this argument with regards to an infinite life (which seems impossible anyway), but what about simply a much longer life than we have now? At what point, assuming good health and happiness, would a life be “too long”? 200 years? 2,000 years? One million years?

  14. The next two comments take the discussion in a new direction. The early objections to my post largely contested its basic argument that a meaningful immortal life is incoherent, whether eternity be understood as infinite duration or as an eternal moment. If my replies to these objections were successful, and it is granted that such a life cannot conceivably be meaningful, one can believe in it nonetheless, as Richard McKim proposes; or, rejecting immortality, one can consider alternate spiritual practices for dealing with its summons, as David U. B. Liu suggests. I do not mean to foreclose the earlier debate about the conceivability of a meaningful immortal life, which anyone is welcome to revive with a fresh objection, but provisionally granting the success of my basic argument, allow me to turn to each of these new comments in turn.

    Richard McKim:

    McKim summarizes the status of the argument quite nicely with these two points: “(a) we can’t conceive of a kind of meaning beyond what life in time affords, and (b) if it went on forever, or if it happened all at once, life in time would be meaningless.” We both accept both of these claims, but whereas I then reject any meaning beyond what life in time affords, because such a meaning is inconceivable, McKim accepts that there is an inconceivable meaning in life “outside of time.” I must confess straightaway that I cannot distinguish between such a life and life in an eternal moment, which he also considers meaningless. Whether or not this distinction can be made, however, he is sympathetic with my conceptual frustration, admitting straightforwardly that life outside of time—his preferred description of immortality—is “unimaginable.”

    This approach recalls St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15, who prefaces his hymn to immortal life with these enchanting words: “Behold, I tell you mystery.” I shall return to this approach in a moment, after discussing the very different approach of Aristotle, whom McKim explicitly invokes. Eschewing all mystery, Aristotle deduces an eternally meaningful life, one without interruption or tedium, by arguing that divine contemplation lacks nothing. Alone of all activities, he argues, it has its end within itself, so that it may continue indefinitely without losing any of its sense. The full argument for this conclusion is among the most intricate in all philosophy, but we can entertain its main point by making Aristotle’s distinction between an activity, properly speaking, and a mere process (an energeia versus a kinēsis). Building a temple is a process, he believes, because it moves toward a goal which it lacks at every moment short of its end. The moment of laying the foundation thus differs from the moment of installing the pediment; the latter is closer than the former to the finished temple, but each differs from this goal. For at this moment of perfection, the process of building itself must come to an end. A process seeks something outside of itself.

    Contemplation, for Aristotle, is an activity (properly speaking) because at every moment it has its goal: the very activity of contemplation itself. As peculiar as this may seem, it makes good sense within the ambit of Aristotle’s philosophy. According to him, and the Platonic tradition of which he is a member, there are finitely many objects of knowledge, or forms, they are all immutable, and we come to know them by conforming our minds to them. With these ontological and epistemological assumptions granted, a divine life whose goal is to know all these forms outside time becomes intelligible. God can conform his contemplation to all of the forms, because they are finite; he can do so completely for each one, because they are each immutable; and his contemplation remains its own goal, because its conformity with its objects is so perfect that it amounts to identity with them. God’s thinking is a self-contemplation; his “thinking,” Aristotle writes, is a “thinking of thinking.” This pure contemplation is even outside of time, thanks to Aristotle’s doctrine of time, which ties its passage to the distinguishable moments of process. For our humble part, here in impure bodies of process, we can participate imperfectly in this contemplation by thinking of God whenever possible. Our fondest hope, moreover, is for a perfect identification with divine contemplation once we shuffle off this mortal coil. Thus we shall know everlasting joy outside of time.

    This is a complex conceptual scaffolding upon which to hang the simplest of all longings, the longing for eternity, but something like it is required to make sense of the enchanting picture of heaven provided by McKim and others who subscribe to a similarly meaningful immortal life. Christian theology was forged in the smithy of Platonism, we must remember, and so not surprisingly many Platonic assumptions are still needed to undergird Christian theological claims, especially those about the afterlife. Christians still use notions such as contemplation to illustrate heaven, but they rarely do so acknowledging the commitment of these notions to an obsolete ontology and epistemology. For even if an ontology of forms is defensible nowadays, it cannot pretend to immutability after the modern revolutions in biology and cosmology. Species are constantly changing, as is the world itself. Indeed, to my mind, these revolutions effected the biggest difference between our worldview and that of most ancients: they often assumed a static world, or occasionally one in decline from a golden age, whereas ours is growing, innovating, creating.

    Nietzsche explores this worldview better than any modern philosopher, I believe. For example, he recognizes the obsolescence of much of the Platonic tradition, returning to a pre-Platonic philosopher, Heraclitus, in order to recover the idea that the world is always exceeding itself, growing, creating. This is no less true for the selves that inhabit the world, according to Nietzsche, and this activity of creation is their joy. There is still room for contemplation in this worldview, and it remains for some—including Nietzsche, as well as many readers of this contemplative blog—the greatest joy. But to remain joyous the activity of contemplation must preserve an element of exploration, of discovery, of openness to the cosmic creativity it contemplates. (I have developed these thoughts in my recent paper, “Psychoanalysis as Spirituality,” which can be found here.) Static conformity of mind and form will no longer do, no matter how comprehensive it be, for even the most capacious contemplation will be exceeded by the innovation that arises just as it secures its wisdom. Our hearts are restless—Augustine was right about that—but they rest in no one, thank God.

    The meaning of the creative life makes perfect sense within time, where successive moments differ from their predecessors by the growth of something new; outside of time, however, it becomes incoherent. Aristotle would agree, since outside of time there can be no distinction of moments. At this point, then, McKim departs from Athens and travels the road to Damascus. Here is his own evocation of the mysterious life of eternity: “Suffering, tragedy, and death would be redeemed without being denied”; lest we fear boredom, he assures us that this redemption would happen “in endlessly fascinating, emotionally fulfilling ways.” But notice: we are not told what any of these ways would be, nor do we learn how redemption would be achieved without denial of suffering, tragedy, and death. To be fair, none of this could be made clear to us, as McKim admits, for its method—if not also, somehow, its result—is unimaginable.

    Three features of McKim’s particular version of this common admission stand out to my eyes, not because they are peculiar to his version, but because they so often arise in others as well. The first two evoke Nietzsche; the third, Freud. First of all, McKim’s description of heaven bears a remarkable resemblance to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. Excepting the provision that redemption happen outside of time, Zarathustra likewise preaches that “the meaning of our lives, the richness of the big picture with our own small but essential roles in it, would be inexhaustibly rewarding to contemplate.” Zarathustra preaches the loving contemplation of the world, of all its stories, and thus of all the times in which those stories unfold. Rather than focusing on McKim’s resemblance to Nietzsche, however, I suggest that we reverse the order and focus on Nietzsche’s appropriation of Christianity. In my view, the most profound chapter of Zarathustra is “On Redemption,” where Nietzsche self-consciously longs for a temporal alternative to the atemporal salvation of Christian heaven.

    McKim’s version thus removes time from the Eternal Return; by doing so, secondly, it surrounds this present life with a miasma of asceticism, in Nietzsche’s sense. Thinking of heaven, McKim writes: “What’s desirable about it will always remain unimaginable to us, but what would it be worth if it were nothing more than something mortal creatures could imagine?” The implication of this rhetorical question is that whatever we mortal creatures imagine must be worthless. Could there be a starker statement of the covert self-loathing that Nietzsche saw in the nihilism of his century, a nihilism that apparently persists into our own?

    Thirdly, and most importantly, McKim’s enchanting description of heaven, combined with his frank admission that it is unimaginable, makes very clear the difference between an advocate of transcendence, and an advocate of immanence, especially a Freudian. Told that there is a place that is not really a place, outside of time and unimaginable, where everything will be good and nothing bad, the practitioner of immanent spirituality becomes instantly suspicious. Feeling the summons of such a fantasy even within herself, she does not ignore it, knowing it cannot be ignored; instead, she disciplines herself to work through it, howsoever that working-through be understood. If her instant suspicion seems foreign to you, imagine this simple analogy: all of your experiences with romantic relationships hitherto have been a mix of good and bad, but now someone promises a blind date that will lead to a relationship that is all good, with no bad whatsoever. Faced with such a promise, you would be wise to stay home and watch TV. The hallmark of emotional maturity, after all, is an ability to see everything in life as a mixture of wheat and tares; the promise of heaven, not to mention the threat of hell, invites you to regress from this achievement.

    David U. B. Liu:

    This comment raises two separate issues. The first is the prospect of alternate spiritual practices, such as Zen, for working-through the longing for eternity. The second is the high cost of psychoanalysis, the spiritual practice I advocate for this working-through. I would like to treat these briefly in reverse order.

    Different psychoanalysts charge different fees, and different psychoanalyses require different frequencies and durations. With that proviso in mind, and only anecdotal evidence at hand, we can conjure an average figure for an analysis: $100,000. That is a lot of money; there is no getting around it. But nothing is more expensive than illness, as Freud said, and psychoanalyses do prevent or alleviate some very common and costly psychosomatic conditions, not to mention the risky and costly behaviors of borderline personalities . Also, the neurotic can profit tangibly and quickly from an analysis that permits him to work productively and creatively, emboldening him to seek appropriate work without inhibition, to innovate in his workplace with all the energy liberated from former conflicts, to ask for a raise without guilt, and so on. Only a few years out from my own analysis, it has paid for itself as much as twice over.

    More interesting to me than these standard replies is the assumption that often lurks behind the objection they aim to meet. Without much protest, we spend $100,000 for the education of our intellects—consider the cost of a college degree at most private institutions—whereas the thought of spending the same amount, or even half of that, for the education of our emotions horrifies. How indulgent! Don’t get me wrong: the education of the intellect is very important, maybe more so now than ever amid the rising tide of anti-intellectualism. For a satisfying life, however, nothing is more important than the education of the emotions. Someone who lacks a college education but is emotionally mature, on one hand, can find happiness; on the other hand, the emotional child who holds the terminal degree in his field from an elite university is more unlikely than anyone else to do so. So what determines our expenditures, if not the prudent search for happiness? That is a question that begs for an analysis.

    Liu suggests Zen not just because it is cheaper than psychoanalysis, but because he finds in it an older spiritual practice that is “no less serious, efficacious, or profound.” Here I must confess that I know Zen only by second-hand, but I can also boast that I am eager to learn more about it. In my customary spirit, though, I will come to this learning with a few skeptical questions that Liu or others could perhaps answer for me in the meantime. Does Zen give due weight to the emotions, making their education its primary goal, as psychoanalysis does, in order to avoid the intellectualist error of confusing impersonal doctrines with wisdom? Does Zen recognize the individuality of each person, seeing every human life as a unique trajectory that requires its own improvised treatment, as psychoanalysis does, in order to avoid the creation of false selves in the pursuit of spuriously universal truths? Finally, does Zen elicit and digest transferences in an intimate but disciplined relationship with another person, as psychoanalysis does, in order to avoid the confusion of narcissistic gratification with genuine emotional maturity? If so, the monetary savings may very well be worth it.

  15. The next two comments are brief but raise good questions. I only wish my answers to them could be as brief.

    Evan Hagemeyer:

    Hagemeyer wonders whether immanent spirituality is nothing but a sense of urgency (the fierce urgency of now?) elevated by an acceptance of the desire for eternity. Immanent spirituality does, in my view, entail a sense of urgency, but of course most transcendent spiritualities claim to do the same. As Borges observes in the quotation I included in my post, religions “destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” What could make life seem more urgent, it seems, than the awareness that this finite time will determine your fate for eternity? And yet the critical phase of my argument concludes that transcendent spiritualities do not entail so much urgency as they pretend, since the immortality they preach turns every activity into meaningless repetition. Perhaps immanent spirituality does, then, entail a greater sense of urgency, the enhanced awareness of impending death, and the need to gather rosebuds while we may.

    Immanent spirituality also differs from transcendent spirituality in its approach to the desire for eternity. Transcendent spirituality accepts this desire, in the sense that it promises to satisfy it with personal immortality. Immanent spirituality does not accept this desire, since it believes that immortality would not be satisfying at all, for the reasons adduced in the critical phase of my argument. But neither does immanent spirituality deny the desire for eternity, the way an addict who has gone cold-turkey denies his craving by sheer will-power. Such denial often produces relapses, as we all know, and the psychology is no different with the craving for eternity. Hagemeyer describes the results well. Quests for fame often seek a surrogate immortality in the hearts and minds of posterity. The practitioner of immanent spirituality should tremble or chuckle at these quests, depending on how brutally or comically they appear. I alluded in the original post to modernity’s violent efforts at denial, “where the longing for eternity found perverse expression in guillotines, concentration camps, and gulags.” But we can also chuckle at the fantasies of surrogate immortality entertained, for instance, by writers who believe that their works will outlast them. In an age of vellum, recall, Horatio chuckled to Hamlet that “there are sheeps and calves which seek out assurance in that.”

    After chuckling or trembling at the denials of the desire for eternity, however, immanent spirituality should have something positive to offer. “What is needed from an immanent spirituality,” I thus wrote in my post, “is a way not of denying this desire but of working through it.” I suggested psychoanalysis as a way to do so, and refer anyone who wishes to consider my suggestion further to consult my fuller paper on the subject here. Whatever method of working-through works best, though, immanent spirituality is not, in sum, just a sense of urgency elevated by an acceptance of the desire of eternity. It is a sense of urgency, yes, a heightened awareness of the drama and meaning made possible by finitude, but this awareness should be maintained by working-through the desire for eternity, rather than either accepting or denying it.

    Mark D. Fulwiler:

    As Fulwiler acknowledges, my critical argument addressed only the threat of eternity to a meaningful life. But, he asks, what about longer finitudes, enhanced longevity: “200 years, 2,000 years, one million years”? So long as the people living these lives saw themselves as necessarily dying sometime, my argument allows that their lives could be meaningful. Needless to say, however, the meanings of such lives would be very different from our own. Someone who considered herself as a being who would live 2,000 years, for example, could take on projects—like answering all of her email!—that would be foolish for us to assume in our four-score years. Yet there would also be many meaningful projects accessible to us that might be denied to her, such as having children. A society in which people lived so long, after all, would have to curtail reproduction in order to survive. (Science fiction may very well have better insights here than philosophy, but Lawrence Vogel, a philosopher at Connecticut College, has written an excellent paper on this subject: “Is Aging a Gift?: Bioconservatism and the Ethics of Gratitude.”)

  16. Patrick Lee Miller:

    for Nietzsche’s part, the passages of his writing that suggest an eternal return are either from his unpublished notes, or, in Zarathustra, from speeches spoken to the spiritual hero rather than by him. The former are wisely ignored by scholars; the latter are better read as spiritual exercises whereby Zarathustra learns to love everything, imagining it as one, taking together all past and all future, all pain as well as all joy

    There are a couple of other places where Nietzsche refers to eternal return, that you may be overlooking and that I think cast Nietzsche’s thinking in a different light than you’ve argued.

    One is in The Will to Power:

    That suggests that Nietzsche did in fact believe that infinite recurrence was necessarily taking place.

    The other is in The Gay Science:

    … which suggests to me a different, and interesting take on eternity and joy. It does not seem to state one way or the other that eternal recurrence does exist, but it seems to me to suggest that the hypothetical prospect of eternal repetition can be the motivator for more meaningful or carefully considered actions in the present, or at least for a disposition that invests meaning and joy in every aspect of one’s past present and future.

    That last is one of my personal favorites by Nietzsche.

  17. avatar Richard McKim says:

    Many thanks, Patrick, for the thoughtful response to my comments. Apparently I’ve helped persuade you of the success of your basic argument when I thought I was disputing it! Let me try to dispute the appearances.

    First, I’m sorry you took the rhetorical question in my previous post to imply the “self-loathing” and “nihilistic” idea that all mortal imaginings are “worthless.” I merely meant that imagining eternal life is beyond our powers and that, if we could imagine it, it wouldn’t have the infinite worth we want it to have. It doesn’t follow that any, let alone all, of what we can imagine has no value.

    If we limit eternity to how we can imagine it, we create an easy target. Dismissing the idea of eternal life because an endless life in time would be boring is like dismissing the idea of God because there’s no bearded old man in the sky. Call it the Dawkins/Hitchens Attack, critique by cartooning. On the other hand, as you deftly suggest, advocates of eternal life are at a disadvantage if they insist (as I do) that the concept they’re advocating is — inconceivable!

    Still, there’s a whiff of desperation about arguments that we can find all the meaning we need in lives conceived of as mortal-and-that’s-it, where death is oblivion. They sound like attempts to make ourselves feel better, to be brave in face of the abyss, to console ourselves for an inconsolable loss. We do have that désir d’éternité, we’d all jump at the chance for eternal life if we thought we had one, and the rosiest of mortal alternatives is second-best at best. As for psychoanalysis, I don’t disparage it in the least, but proposing it as a substitute for immortality seems to invite Woody Allen to chime in with a punchline.

    By the same token, I can’t claim to believe in my own rosy scenario. I want to believe in it, just as you want to believe in meaningful finitude. We’re all in the same boat, trying to talk ourselves into what we find comforting — although the fact that we want to believe something doesn’t mean it can’t be true!

    As I mentioned, there’s no escaping time-language in any effort to talk of eternal life. We’re stuck with the weak analogy of living in an “eternal moment” that never passes. But we can refine this a bit. It helps to have a block-universe concept of time, namely that time in this life doesn’t pass either. We move through it from point A (birth) to point Z (death), just as we move through space. When I go for a walk, I don’t suppose that space is passing by me while I’m on a treadmill. Likewise, time is a medium we move through as we age. Any point is still there after we leave it, and already there before we arrive. All time is eternally present, as T.S. Eliot says. It follows that we all remain alive, in time, after we die. (This does give our lives the moral weight that Nietzsche sought in the Eternal Return, but if unlike him I’ve sunk us into a “miasma of asceticism” I certainly apologize to everyone, especially since I’d make a miserable monk myself.)

    Eternal life would involve getting outside of time in order to see it whole, while paradoxically also inhabiting our time-lives fully, rather than bit by bit from moment to moment as we do now. But it wouldn’t be like seeing every moment superimposed. Rather, we’d see time “laid out” before us, like an astronaut’s view of earth, including our own lives in their big-picture context, and we could zoom in to (or enter into) whatever level of detail we pleased, at whatever point. There’s plenty of scope on this model for the “exploration, discovery and openness” you rightly require, temporal though these analogy-words are.

    It’s all just a just-so story, of course, words about the ineffable. But I don’t picture myself contemplating Platonic Forms – that’s God’s business, perhaps, but not ours. And I wouldn’t push the Aristotelian model of contemplation as far as you do. As you imply, the road to Damascus separates us from the Greeks as much as science does. I want an eternity much more personal (and interpersonal) than theirs.

  18. The next two comments are on different subjects. In the first, Ravi Rajakumar takes up a new line, inviting me to consider Nietzschean passages about the Eternal Return that I may have ignored. In the second, Richard McKim resumes a discussion already underway between us, making a spirited rejoinder to my reply to his first comment.

    Ravi Rajakumar:

    Rajakumar provides some helpful links, and is right that Nietzsche writes of the Eternal Return not only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but also in The Joyful Science and in his unpublished notes, posthumously redacted and published by his anti-semitic sister under the title Will to Power.

    I did not discuss the passages from the unpublished notes because, with Robert Solomon, I do not give them much weight. Here is why. Imagine if someone with whom you disagreed vehemently found your own notes after your death and published them, not before first arranging them according to a design not your own. Even if your notes were published by a sympathetic editor, there would be an injustice were they granted the same weight as works which you had crafted with consummate artistry before publishing. As Solomon observes, philosophers write down notes for all sorts of reasons: sometimes as preparation for published material, but often for the elaboration of an opposing position, or simply for amusement and to pass the time. When the doctrines of the unpublished notes diverge from those of the published works, additionally, there is good reason to ignore them, as I have.

    The passage from The Joyful Science (341) is indeed very stirring, and I would be more careful to mention it were I to write this again. Thanks to Rajakumar for calling the omission to my attention. Despite my equal admiration for its eloquence, though, I do not find anything in it that does not also appear in the fuller treatment of Zarathustra. In fact, the following thought from 341 summarizes my interpretation of the Eternal Return rather nicely: “how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” Here as much as anywhere else, it seems to me, Nietzsche is enjoining us to love—ourselves and life itself. As I argued in my post, he elaborates that injunction in Zarathustra, which he wrote shortly after finishing the first four books of The Joyful Science. In fact, as Rajakumar likely knows, the next section in The Joyful Science itself, 342, anticipates and greatly condenses the prologue of Zarathustra, which Nietzsche was conceiving at the time.

    Richard McKim (2):

    I am delighted by McKim’s second comment and hope to receive many more in the same lively and generous spirit. This comment colours in the arguments of his first one and thereby contrasts our alternatives more vividly. I will thus try to return the favour, adding a new argument or two, and sometimes repeating my previous arguments, but even then adding some shading and highlights to make our competing options still clearer. (With those quirky spellings, by the way, I am trying to hint to McKim that I share not only his love of Greek philosophy, but also his ability to make love in a canoe. Now if that’s possible, surely we can make headway on the question of eternal life?)

    The most urgent matter between us, because it is the most disquieting, is our complementary but not complimentary diagnoses of the each other’s unconscious motives. I saw hints of asceticism in McKim’s rhetorical question (“What’s desirable about [heaven] will always remain unimaginable to us, but what would it be worth if it were nothing more than something mortal creatures could imagine?”). McKim, for his part, detected a “whiff of desperation” in my efforts to develop a mortal spirituality. Since I feel no more desperate in the articulation of my view than McKim feels ascetic in the articulation of his, these diagnoses cannot persuade; indeed, they can sting, making persuasion even less likely. But it is good that we have made them, just once, and still better that we have been able to make them without jeopardizing the civility of the debate. After all, someone who adopts Nietzschean spirituality must see asceticism in his transcendent rivals, just as someone who adopts Christian spirituality must see quiet desperation in his immanent rivals. Those diagnoses are integral to the respective positions, and we would not be forthright if we neglected to mention them. That said, there is little further point in developing them, since they can never convince someone who does not already accept their premises, the very premises that are the subject of our present debate. So I propose that we focus instead on these premises.

    Before doing so, however, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding that I caused by referring to “my basic argument” without stating explicitly what that was. My original post had two components: first, a critical one, which aimed to show that immortal life could not imaginably be meaningful; and second, a positive one, which discussed what we should do in the face of this critique. McKim confirms in his second comment that he accepts my critique—which is what I meant by “my basic argument”—not only when he repeats that his position is paradoxical, but also when he admits that “advocates of eternal life are at a disadvantage if they insist (as I do) that the concept they’re advocating is — inconceivable!” That was all I tried to show in my critique. In no way did I mean in my reply to McKim that by accepting this, “my basic argument,” he therefore accepted the reasoning of my post’s positive component. Rather than following me in the articulation of an immanent spirituality that attempts to work-through a frustrated longing for eternity, I recognize, McKim prefers to believe that this longing can be satisfied, even though its satisfaction is inconceivable. That is where our present disagreement occurs. I shall thus illustrate that disagreement further by aiming my objections at particular sentences from McKim’s second comment.

    McKim begins by comparing my critical argument to recent screeds by atheist intellectuals. “Dismissing the idea of eternal life because an endless life in time would be boring,” he writes, “is like dismissing the idea of God because there’s no bearded old man in the sky.” He adds: “Call it the Dawkins/Hitchens Attack, critique by cartooning.” But there is an important difference between my critique and theirs, I think, although I must confess I have not read their books. I gather that they criticize the bearded old man in the sky, so to speak, and then call it a day, ignoring more sophisticated theologies. In my case, however, after my critique of the versions of heaven that McKim considers cartoonish—the one of infinite duration, and the one of the eternal moment—I remain open to alternate versions as well. Indeed, I hoped to demonstrate this openness in my treatment of the Thomistic-Aristotelian version in my first reply to McKim. I am not content simply to say that heaven seems boring, or even simply to offer some analogies to baseball and dancing to show this. I am ready to consider any serious version of heaven available. Or, switching analogies now to the one McKim crafts to criticize Dawkins/Hitchens, when it comes to the notion of heaven, I reject the bearded old man, but also the bearded lady, the beardless youth, and the bearded-not-bearded One.

    In this spirit of skeptical openness to alternate versions of heaven, then, I am happily obliged to address McKim’s additional comments about his own version. Let us call it, with McKim, the “block universe” version. If time is like a block, he invites us to imagine, each of its moments exists, but separately, the way each of the parts of a block exists separately. Now, just as we move through parts of space without annihilating them, so too do moments of time persist after we pass through them. In fact, moments of future time exist before we get to them, just as places in space exist before we get to them. They are all there, in a block as it were, and when we are in heaven we can revisit them all: at once, by surveying the whole block; or individually, by “zooming in” and exploring an individual moment. In this way—“paradoxically,” according to McKim himself—we shall inhabit each of our time-slices fully while we also inhabit a perspective outside of time. I hope I have this right, and will eagerly accept corrections to my rendition of it. But presuming that I do, three objections arise immediately.

    First of all, this is once again a paradoxical and unimaginable version. It seems to make a certain sense, the way the word ‘square-circle’ seems to make a certain sense, but the moment we examine it carefully the illusion of sense dissipates. How, after all, can we inhabit not only multiple time-slices but also a perspective outside of time? How, by analogy, can the ladle be everywhere in the soup, but also outside the pot? Even if that were possible, McKim wishes to preserve for heaven an element of discovery and creativity. This admission is a relief, it must be said, from the otherwise static versions of heaven we inherit from the Aristotelian tradition. McKim allows that we can zoom in or out of our time-lives, exploring them in as much detail as our curiosity affords. But this creates two more problems.

    Secondly, this meta-activity of exploration, of zooming in and out of our lives for eternity, becomes vulnerable to all of the objections I raised to activities of infinite duration, both in my original post, but more particularly in my debate with Michael Drake above (who cleverly raised the possibility of meta-activities, activities of activities). McKim could reply that this meta-activity is taking place outside of time, so it is not susceptible to these objections. But then I refer him to my comments on Aristotle, in my first reply to him, where I discussed the only intelligible version I know of an atemporal activity. McKim’s subsequent comment makes it clear that he does not want to go the route of Aristotle, even if the Philosopher’s notion of activity could be saved from the obsolescence of his ontology and epistemology. “The road to Damascus separates us from the Greeks as much as science does,” writes McKim, and “I want an eternity much more personal (and interpersonal) than theirs.” The problem, however, is that we cannot make sense of a meaningful eternity with any personality at all. Only the impersonal version makes sense, if any does, and its philosophical assumptions are obsolete. Thomas Aquinas grafted the personal version of Christian heaven onto the impersonal version Aristotelian heaven, and made it appear meaningful. Now that the graft has failed, though, the appearance of meaning can no longer be sustained.

    Thirdly, and finally, as I argued in my reply to his first comment, the notions of discovery and creativity, not to mention zooming in and out, all require time: a moment of discovery, of more or less zoom, must have something that a previous moment did not have. McKim anticipates something like this objection by admitting that these “analogy words” are “temporal.” These are all just “words about the ineffable,” so we are back upon the basic impasse: McKim credits something inconceivable, and I do not. I shall return to this impasse at the end of this reply, repeating my particular—and particularly Freudian—critique of any position that credits something inconceivable that promises to be all good, without any bad.

    Before coming again to that impasse, but nonetheless on the subject of psychology, McKim writes: “We do have that désir d’éternité, we’d all jump at the chance for eternal life if we thought we had one, and the rosiest of mortal alternatives is second-best at best.” I agree that we do all begin with that désir d’éternité, but I believe that there are many techniques for working through this desire. David U. B. Liu reminds us, in his comment above, that Zen is such a technique. My own preference is for psychoanalysis, and I explain why here. “As for psychoanalysis,” writes McKim, “I don’t disparage it in the least, but proposing it as a substitute for immortality seems to invite Woody Allen to chime in with a punchline.” No one laughs harder at Woody Allen’s cracks about psychoanalysis than I do; indeed, my favorite joke of all time is the following: “I was in analysis. I was suicidal as a matter of fact and would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian, and, if you kill yourself, they make you pay for the sessions you miss.” If you don’t find that funny, you’ve never been in analysis with a strict Freudian! All joking aside, I await an argument from McKim that objects to my specific claims about the power of psychoanalysis to work-through our frustrated longings, especially the longing for eternity.

    In the meantime, I reject McKim’s claim that “we’d all jump at the chance for eternal life if we thought we had one” because it begs the question (in the technical philosophical sense, petitio principii, of presuming the very point at issue). I provided an argument that a meaningful eternal life is inconceivable, and McKim has several times conceded the soundness of its conclusion. Thus, were we faced with the chance for an eternal life, McKim grants that we would be jumping into an abyss, summoned by inconceivable promise. He would jump, and for the reasons I adduced (especially in my reply to this first comment) I would not. He thinks the landing would be soft; I do not. He may doubt that I have the courage of my convictions, and he may be right—so enchanting is the siren song of immortality—but he cannot presume that the convictions themselves are false.

    (Notice how a diagnosis of the rival surfaces again in this debate: McKim likely means that anyone who claims to believe in immanence does not really believe it when push comes to shove—into the abyss. As I mentioned above, that is as it should be. This is a debate ultimately about human nature, and what truly satisfies it, so we should not be surprised that the opposing positions in the debate insinuate occasionally that the opponent is not looking transparently through to his own nature. That said, I propose again that we put aside diagnoses in the interests of persuasion, although I do not myself mind if we find that this is impossible. It likely is.)

    McKim next writes: “We’re all in the same boat, trying to talk ourselves into what we find comforting”. This is incorrect, and even contradicts what McKim says elsewhere about the proponent of immanence trying “to be brave in the face of the abyss.” If proponents of immanence, on one hand, were trying to talk themselves into what they find comforting, why would they need to be brave? On the other hand, the enchanting promise of a place-no-place outside of time where all tragedy will be redeemed, where all will be good and nothing bad…this is something comforting—so long as you accept that it is possible, even though it is admitted to be inconceivable. By contrast, the proponent of immanent spirituality finds it difficult to keep himself lashed to the mast when he hears whispers of this promise. He resists what he finds comforting rather than talking himself into it. He lives with the discomfort at first, but eventually applies himself to a practice—Zen, psychoanalysis, what have you—that promises to work-through this discomfort.

    There is an important difference between these two promises: the one is a practical promise of relieving discomfort; the other is a promise of comforting immortality. Also, as we cannot emphasize enough, the former is conceivable, the latter inconceivable. Many have elaborated versions of this practical promise in order to make it not just conceivable, but even plausible, not to mention persuasive. Here, again, is my own version. It could very well be false, and there are likely to be some infelicities in my presentation of it, but the difference between these imperfect efforts and those of the proponents of transcendent spirituality is that the one invites rational inquiry while the other makes it impossible. The shimmering vision of heaven turns out to be a mirage of inconceivability every time our rational inquiries approach too near it.

    After writing that we are all “trying to talk ourselves into what we find comforting,” McKim correctly asserts that “the fact that we want to believe something doesn’t mean it can’t be true!” The subjectivist fallacy is to infer that something is true from the fact that we want it to be true. The converse fallacy—which lacks a name, so far as I know, but which McKim rightly warns against—is to infer that something is false from the fact that we want it to be true. To my knowledge, I did not commit either fallacy. What I did do is to argue that meaningful immortality is inconceivable, and then, to McKim’s objection that it could nonetheless be true, to adduce the prudent approach to similar scenarios in every known circumstance of life. That is: if someone promises you something by advertising that it will be all good, without any bad, then you should wisely decline.

    If Woody Allen jokes are acceptable refutations, finally, I recommend the scene in Stardust Memories where his character performs a personality transplant operation on two women, à la Frankenstein . One woman has a winning personality but he does not find her attractive; the other is sexy but difficult. The idea is to create the perfect woman. The joke is that this is obviously the fantasy of an immature man. (The punchline is even better: when the operation succeeds, he chooses the difficult homely woman.) For all the absurdity, this operation is at least conceivable after a fashion. The scenario would be still more absurd, however, were the transplant inconceivable. So when the proponent of transcendent spirituality promises an outcome that is not only all good but altogether inconceivable, should we find it still funnier? Perhaps we would, were we not drawn to it so deeply. And yet heaven is as repugnant to reason as it is to the mature emotions. Here, then, we return to the impasse discussed above, but with a clearer sense of the dispute. With conceivability and prudence on my side, I reject heaven. With an admission of inconceivability and an imprudent strategy on his, McKim accepts it.

  19. I hesitate to comment again because I don’t want to appear to be (nor am I in actuality) refuting Miller’s thesis, but in my humble opinion (I’m not a Nietzsche scholar and have very little formal training in philosophy) I think he has sort of missed a nuance here. In his original post, he asserts that Nietzsche argued for the value of permanent death as a concept that makes creativity (and I suppose signification) possible, which is fine, but in the process I think he’s too dismissive of the references to eternal return in Nietzsche’s writing. I think the passage I referred to in The Gay Science is important in that it posits an eternal life even more terrifying than the idyllic but boring ones that Miller is rejecting, as a kind of double-edged sword, promising either hell or heaven depending on the disposition of the individual. That seems to me to be a pretty original and interesting take on the concept of eternal life, and one that I personally haven’t seen anywhere else. One way it’s interesting is in the way that it reconciles a mathematical and positivist view of the universe with the desire to invest meaning in one’s actions, and cultivate what might be considered a sort of transcendent disposition — act and perceive in a way that accords with the truly eternal nature of everything you do and think. Granted: Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly argue here that this concept of eternal return is anything other than hypothetical, so this isn’t a refutation of Miller’s appraisal of Nietzsche, and I didn’t mean it to be. That being said, I’m not sure it really matters whether it’s meant to be purely hypothetical or not. Either way, it remains a construct that one is meant to hold in their mind as an impeller to better thought and better action.

  20. avatar Richard McKim says:

    I’m glad, Patrick, that you find the conversation engaging. Just two points this time in response to your last:

    (1) Existential courage. I understand the appeal of being brave in face of the abyss, resolving to soldier on in a merely material universe, finding meaning where we can. I was part of that army for a long time. Good company – like physicist Steven Weinberg, who in his recent NYRB piece joins Patrick in attributing courage to those who (like them) try to make the best of things in the belief that there’s no hereafter and no God. A noble calling, but I became uneasy about its unavoidable air of self-congratulation. I’m not sure they’re as different from the pro-eternal-life brigade as they think.

    Patrick takes natural pride in braving the “discomfort” of his worldview, but admits that the non-believer’s goal is to “work through” it – in other words, to dispel it. So there’s the same search for comfort on both sides. Neither, if we’re honest with ourselves, can escape the nagging & scary thought that life may really be absurd and meaningless as well as nasty brutish and short — the nice parts vanish without a trace, you go through a lot of hassle & suffering for nothing, and then you’re dead.

    Pro-eternal-lifers can paint as rosy & self-persuasive a picture of immortality as they like, but the suspicion persists that it may well be a bunch of feel-good hokum. Honest non-believers have the same problem. They can’t entirely shake the fear that the consolations afforded by “Zen or psychoanalysis or what-have-you” may be hokum too, attempts to fool ourselves into believing that life has meaning when it doesn’t. Both sides seek to still that fear, or at least keep it reasonably at bay. I’m not convinced that one is more courageous than the other, but if it’s cowardly to feel that there must be more to life than mortality, so be it.

    (2) That “must” brings us to a disagreement on the role of reason in all this. Patrick seems to think that if eternal life, or at least an attractive one, is “inconceivable” via reasoning (which I’ve agreed it is), then it’s ruled out of court. Reason is the final authority, the limit-setter on what can be true. Again, he’s in good company.

    I take the Platonic/Wittgensteinian view of reason, that it’s a tool for getting beyond itself – an essential tool for approaching ultimate truth, but not enough to get us there. For Plato, you reason your way up to the point where you’re ready for enlightenment, but enlightenment itself is a leap beyond, the transcendence of reasoning about reality by the direct mystical vision of it. Wittgenstein used reason to clear a space for silence, so we could stop talking about the unsayable, stop trying to use reason to arrive at truths beyond its scope, and dwell in peace in that sacred space where reasoning can’t intrude.

    Eternal life, if it’s anything, is one of those things whereof we cannot speak (except in inadequate time-language and time-analogies). But so, ultimately, is the belief that our lives have meaning even though they’re merely mortal. You can’t reason someone else all the way into feeling that; it has to be experienced in a deeply private space. We all share a sense, I think, that “reason demands” that our lives have some sort of meaning, since otherwise reason can’t make sense of them. But there’s a leap from the conclusion that life must have meaning to a vision or experience of what that meaning is. And that’s a leap of faith, whichever side of this debate you’re on.

  21. Previous commentators continue to press their objections in the next two comments. Ravi Rajakumar renews his invitation to appreciate a nuance in Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return. Richard McKim focuses on two points in our ongoing disagreement over heaven: the significance of courage in the face of our mortality, and the importance of rational repugnance to the idea of heaven.

    Ravi Rajakumar (2):

    Rajakumar should feel no hesitation about commenting again, whether he aims to refute or merely to elaborate an alternative. Each of his comments has forced me to clarify my interpretation of the Eternal Return, and for that I am grateful. In this most recent comment, he claims that I have been too dismissive of some of the references to the Eternal Return in Nietzsche’s writings, specifically the ones outside of Zarathustra.

    Without any specific objection to my alliance with Solomon in ignoring the testimony of the so-called Will to Power, I assume that the arguments supporting our common neglect stand. If we must consider that testimony, however, I should say that I find its mechanistic argument an amusing diversion—as I believe Nietzsche himself found it—but little more. According to this diversion, “a certain definite quantity of force and as certain a definite number of centers of force” require, over infinite time, an infinite repetition. “In infinite time,” Nietzsche argued, “every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times.” The weakness in this valid argument is its scientifically vulnerable premises. Thanks to the Big Bang theory, for instance, we no longer assume so glibly that time is infinite. Time came into being with the cosmos, we are told by the physicists, and will be extinguished with the cosmos when it dies.

    There are deep problems with this view of time, it must be admitted, and ironically these problems may snare the materialist in the same thickets as the Christian. Here is one question that arises quickly: “What was happening before the cosmos came into being, prompting its causes to effect its being?” This problem recapitulates one ancient pagan objection to the creation of the world: “What was God doing before he created the world?” Augustine was aware of the following witty retort to this objection: “Fashioning Hell for people who ask such impious questions!” Fortunately he did not rely on wit alone to exculpate his cosmology, and his answer is now available to the materialist in slightly altered form: God exists outside of time; or, the physical causes that are supposed to bring the world and its time into being exist outside of time. Pick your poison: once causes are outside of time, be they divine or physical, it is not at all clear how they can influence anything in time. Perhaps this odd confluence of theological and physical cosmologies will now bring my discussion with Rajakumar into the orbit of my discussion with McKim about activities outside of time.

    Returning to the broader point at issue in this particular discussion, though, when it comes time to interpret Nietzsche we must remember that he remained as skeptical of science as he was fascinated by it. He saw the objectivity cultivated by scientists as but the most recent manifestation of the ascetic ideal he fought, so we should beware of making his writings too beholden to scientists. That said, we should also recognize how he exploited their findings in the battle. For him, however, this battle remained ever psychological, a struggle for the souls of the European culture he saw in decline. Rajakumar is thus right to remind us that the Eternal Return was, for Nietzsche, a sort of hypothetical thought-experiment, a spiritual exercise aimed to help his followers cultivate the most meaningful and joyful life, a life that had been repressed by the oppressive guilt of the linear and eschatological narrative of Christianity. But what is the precise nature of the exercise? This is our current disagreement.

    Rajakumar is also correct to remind us that in The Joyful Science, as in Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents the doctrine of the Eternal Return as a double-edged sword, a heaven or a hell, depending on how you receive it. If your life were to repeat infinitely many times, were you not living now a fulfilling life, you would fail to do so infinitely many times over as well. This is the greatest weight indeed; a condemnation to a sort of hell. Yet the reason I wish to resist this version of the doctrine—and perhaps I must ultimately depart from Nietzsche in order to do so—is that no matter how it be received it could not be a heaven. Under the weight of the doctrine thus understood, you may choose to live a fuller life, but the recognition that even this apparently fuller life will be nothing but an infinite repetition will soon enervate you. I cannot see how Nietzsche, with his persistent celebration of creativity, could have overlooked this problem.

    Here is the interpretive problem as I see it: how to square Nietzsche’s philosophy of creativity with the doctrine of infinite repetition at which he occasionally hints? I suggest that we see through the doctrine’s appearance of repetition to Nietzsche’s neglected injunction to love. Nietzscheans have neglected this injunction, it seems to me, maybe because its Christian echoes are so loud. Maybe they prefer to criticize decadence than to create new values. If so, they resemble no one so closely as Zarathustra’s ape. Turning our attention to these new values, this immanent spirituality, and feeling no shame about its appropriations of Christianity, we can also see its anticipations of Freudian psychoanalysis. Instead of a life of indefinitely repetitive neurosis, psychoanalysis promises liberation to a life of creative joy. Nietzsche’s terrifying thought-experiment and vivid injunctions to overcome resentment thus become, in Freud’s hands, a rigorous technique for living the meaningful mortal life sought by philosophers since antiquity.

    Richard McKim (3):

    Two issues remain from my very profitable exchange with McKim. The first concerns “existential courage,” the virtue celebrated by many proponents of immanence—although not by me, as I shall try to make clear. In this celebration McKim perceives a symptom of pride. The second concerns reason’s repugnance to the idea of heaven. Must reason be the court of final appeal, he asks, or may emotional experience surpass rational scrutiny in the pursuit of truth? By boiling the discussion down to these points, McKim has isolated the two most important elements of the dispute: reason and emotion.

    In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus famously made existential courage the chief dignity of human life. We have been condemned to a futile existence—the cosmic equivalent of rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down the moment we reach the summit—but we can raise our fists in the air and curse this condemnation, Camus argued, resolving to roll the rock back up the hill for no other purpose than defiance of this very futility. This is not my position, although I was responsible in my last reply for allowing it to seem as if it were. When I wrote of beginning with existential discomfort, but then engaging in a spiritual practice in order to “dissipate” this discomfort, I must have made it seem as though anything that dissipates this discomfort will do. If so, Zen meditation or psychoanalysis would be no better than an anti-depressant or a bottle of whiskey. Nothing could be farther from my position, as my earlier post on this subject argued. I wrote that post in an effort, simply put, to correct Charles Taylor’s misunderstanding of psychoanalysis as no more a spiritual source than medicine.

    Rather than dissipate this discomfort, in the manner of a pharmacologist such as Peter Kramer, or merely brave it in a proud act of defiance, in the manner of an existentialist such as Camus, I have been recommending all along the strategy of working-through it. McKim slides too easily between working-through and dissipating, and he is not to blame. The concept of working-through (Freud’s durcharbeiten) is very difficult to grasp, and I admit that it often slips through my own fingers, even at the very moment I am celebrating it. For the best account of working-through, in my view, is to be found in the deliberately slippery aphorisms of Heraclitus. I have tried here to use these aphorisms, and the subtle philosophy of time they express, to underwrite the activity of psychoanalysis, supplying this activity with the goal it rarely acknowledges it needs. Now ironically, thanks to McKim’s challenging objections, I find myself wondering whether this activity may turn out to be an immanent approximation of Aristotle’s energeia (which I rejected in my first reply to McKim). In any case, the Heraclitean version of psychoanalysis makes its process of self-inquiry, properly understood, its very own goal. Free-association, in short, is both means and end.

    My correlative understanding of the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis (which I also endeavor to explain here, and again more fully here) makes it out to be understanding ourselves—not dissipating our discomfort—even if relief from discomfort is understanding’s happy consequence. With this distinction in hand, we can pinpoint the illicit move in McKim’s following objection: “Patrick takes natural pride in braving the “discomfort” of his worldview, but admits that the non-believer’s goal is to ‘work through’ it – in other words, to dispel it. So there’s the same search for comfort on both sides.” Distinguishing a search for comfort, on one hand, from a search for understanding whose byproduct is comfort, on the other, we can now see how immanent spirituality, at least in the psychoanalytic version I favor, seeks not comfort, but rather understanding—of oneself, but therefore also of the cosmos one inhabits. To summarize: immanent spirituality is no more a search for comfort than it is a proud existential courage in the face of discomfort; it is instead a search for understanding that expects to convert discomfort into peace of mind, though it never makes this conversion its goal.

    McKim is right that neither camp—neither those who favor immanent spirituality, nor those “pro-eternal-lifers,” as McKim calls them—can escape the nagging suspicion that there is no meaning to life at all. That is the price, I believe, of living authentically with either position in a fragile human body, with a limited human intellect, and a broken human heart, where the hints of truth are but whispers coded in bewildering signals amid the static of everyday life. Thus, as a final comment on this subject of existential courage, and as a final reassurance of my respect for the rival camp, I do not wish to accuse “pro-eternal-lifers” of being cowardly. The faithful Christians among them, after all, must be prepared to suffer gruesome martyrdom before betraying their Truth. Each side has its own claim to courage, and there are brave practitioners on both sides. The important question is not who is more brave, but rather who is closer to decoding the signals.

    The second disagreement McKim stresses in his third comment is “the role of reason in all this.” As above, I need to clarify my position before repeating my argument for it. I do not claim, as he writes, that “if eternal life, or at least an attractive one, is ‘inconceivable’ via reasoning (which I’ve agreed it is), then it’s ruled out of court.” Nor do I maintain, at least in the matter at hand, that “Reason is the final authority, the limit-setter on what can be true.” My position is more complex than that: when an idea, such as heaven, is both inconceivable via reasoning and the paradigm of emotional immaturity, then we should reject it. In other words, my critical argument has both a rational and an emotional component. My first reply to McKim elaborated the first, and my second reply elaborated the second, but permit me now to explain how they work together.

    Whether because of Plato or Kant or Wittgenstein, or simply because of my own history of error, I am critical enough of human reason to recognize that there may be truths which it cannot conceive. As such, it should recognize that not all inconceivable ideas should be ruled out; some of them may be true. But there is a difference between recognizing this in the abstract, and determining which inconceivable ideas should be trusted as nonetheless possibly true. In order to eliminate the innumerable candidates, I suggest, we should examine the emotions motivating us to support these candidates, ever vigilant against inconceivable scenarios that also happen to satisfy our most immature emotional longings. For I am also critical enough of human emotions to recognize that there are fantasies so powerful—the immature ones more powerful than most, and the fantasy of pure goodness being the most immature and powerful of them all—that they should be approached with extraordinary suspicion.

    Reason enables us to analyze our fantasies, to subject them to reliable tests, to measure them against experience and reality. Anyone who has ever been misled by a powerful but irrational emotion—an unjustified anger based upon a foolish misunderstanding, an infatuation with someone obviously ill-suited to companionship—knows the importance of this scrutiny. The Attic tragedians no less than their philosophic rivals saw the danger of primitive passions and each in their own way warned against their dangers. Euripides’ Hippolytus in one way, Plato’s Republic in another, admonish us to check our passions with prudence. In this estimable tradition, then, if an idea presents itself as both inconceivable to reason and perfectly tailored to satisfy all our immature longings, we should reject it—unless it can somehow dispel either presentation. That is how heaven presents itself to me at the moment, and this is why I must reject it for now. However, were anyone to convince me that it is either conceivable or the longing of a mature heart, then I would hope to overcome my pride and suspend judgment, if not also believe.

    In the meantime, I do not agree with McKim that a meaningful eternal life and a meaningful mortal life are evenly balanced in doubt, each requiring a “leap of faith.” He is right to begin this final argument with the premise that “Eternal life, if it’s anything, is one of those things whereof we cannot speak (except in inadequate time-language and time-analogies).” But in the sentences that follow, he moves between the ineffable and the irrational, occluding an important distinction between them. Speaking still of the ineffable, he adds: “But so, ultimately, is the belief that our lives have meaning even though they’re merely mortal. You can’t reason someone else all the way into feeling that; it has to be experienced in a deeply private space.” I could not agree more that meaning must be experienced to be believed, and that not even the soundest rational deduction will convince the suicidal patient, for example, that her life is meaningful. But it does not follow from this psychological truth about conviction that the meaning of mortal lives, preached by philosophers from Heraclitus to Freud, is therefore ineffable. Unlike the meaning of eternal lives, we can express this mortal meaning in words; we can even examine it with reason. Like immortal meaning, though, we cannot fully feel it until we have made it our own.

  22. avatar Jason Byassee says:

    It might bear saying that Christian eschatology has always (well, except maybe in the version Nietzsche is satirizing!) included care of the body and creation. It’s the resurrection of the body we look forward to, the city of God descending from heaven (not simply going ‘to’ heaven), God’s completion of creation in the 8th day of resurrection. The church has at times floated off into simply concerning ourselves with spirits and a purely ethereal heaven, but at our best we’ve remembered the eschaton in as earthy a terms as our own bodies, Christ’s risen flesh, and the promised political kingdom we’re still waiting for.

    It also may be the Protestant in me, vs. Taylor, that I don’t put much stock in what seems to be a ‘natural’ desire, in this case the one for eternity. The fact that a desire seems ‘natural’ may simply mean its a deeply ingrained sin.

  23. avatar Richard McKim says:

    I think we’ve all laid out the issues pretty thoroughly at this point. Jason Byassee takes the discussion in a far more explicitly Christian direction than I feel the need (or have the courage?!) to do — though I don’t object to that, or to the idea that Zen may be another way to tap into the eternal.

    I’ll just say that Patrick’s distinction between dispelling discomfort and working through it may in the end be one without a difference. Even if we grant it and express the result of working-through as “understanding,” with some comfort as a by-the-way bonus, it’s still the case in my view that fans of immanent meaning and of eternal life alike are in the same leaky boat on a sea of existential anxiety. We plug the leaks differently, but the thing will never be waterproof.

    The risk of wishful thinking to satisfy immature emotions also seems the same for both, as does the hope that we’re not merely hiding that objective from ourselves beneath a lot of rationalization. But I don’t subscribe to any doctrine of the “irrational,” a rightly pejorative term. The ineffable, yes, with reason as the royal road to it. I consider myself a disciple of Heraclitus in this, if not Freud. And I note that, while Patrick says we can express “mortal meaning” in words, he (wisely) doesn’t try.

  24. avatar Jeffrey McCurry says:

    Let me make two comments, and then ask a question.

    First, I am very happy with Patrick Miller’s reading of Nietzsche, whose anti-Platonist and anti-Christian diatribes are, it seems to me, less destructive than constructive; they are exercises in clearing the intellectual and emotional ground so that we humans can love the world and our lives in it, even with all the contingencies and tragedies involved.

    Second, I also really like Patrick’s philosophizing on the necessity of time to value: no time, no value, strikes me as right.

    One problem I continue to struggle with is the related problem of what we might call “judgment.” Transcendence, after all, is not just the promise of immortality. It is also the promise of a source of absolute goodness and right that can serve to criticize our present and immanent ethical, religious, emotional, intellectual, and political modes of life. Dostoevsky, at least in one of his voices, seemed to think along these lines. Along this thought, I would say that part of loving the world is undertaking the work of repairing the world. But where do we get our principles to guide this work of repair? Are there purely immanent sources that can be untainted by the very brokenness of the immanent world they try to heal? So the question I would enjoy seeing Patrick Miller wrestle with might be: do we still need God (or perhaps the Platonic Forms), not to give us eternal life, but to give us the guidance necessary to live as well and as humanely as we can in this life?

  25. The next three comments are diverse: Richard McKim wraps up an old discussion; Jason Byassee and Jeffrey McCurry initiate new ones. Byassee introduces the first explicitly Christian voice. McCurry pushes me to think about moral judgment in the absence of transcendent standards. Because my reply to McCurry is as long as “Immanent Spirituality,” it will follow as a separate comment, lest it be lost in this blizzard of words.

    Richard McKim (4):

    McKim rightly asserts that the main differences between our two positions have by now been thoroughly laid out for inspection. The choice between transcendence and immanence is now clearer thanks largely to his pokes and points. My only remaining qualification is to his assertion that “while Patrick says we can express ‘mortal meaning’ in words, he (wisely) doesn’t try.” My second post did try to express this meaning in Nietzschean terms, and my first began to do so in Freudian terms. These expressions were admittedly incomplete, because of the limitations of space as well as the difficulty of the topic, but I have also been directing the curious to my fuller attempt here. That is a rather long paper, so for anyone interested in a briefer expression of this meaning I beg your patience. I am preparing a third post on this subject, hoping to have it ready by the new year. Behind both Nietzsche and Freud, I believe, are the Stoics, and behind them—the true maestro di color che sanno—is Heraclitus. On this much, it seems, McKim and I can agree. I hope nonetheless that he will criticize that future post with the same vim he has brought to the present.

    Jason Byassee:

    Now the conversation takes a more explicitly Christian turn. Byassee issues a timely reminder to Christians who would turn their eschatology into an ethereal cycle of thinking about thinking. Heaven is supposed to be a place of bodies; not a departure from earth, but a renewed earth. This should immediately rule out the Aristotelian, or even the Augustinian, solution to the problem of meaningful immortality. How, after all, can there be bodies outside of time? A body outside of time makes about as much sense as a frozen fire. The virtue of orthodox Christianity on this score is honesty; its vice, incoherence. Nor does incoherence appear a vice to those who follow Tertullian and believe quia absurdum. Yet my critique of heaven did not rest on reason alone. (For a fuller version of my critique, I refer Byassee and other Christians to my exchange with Richard McKim above.) Its second, emotional component argued that any incoherent vision that also tantalizes immature longings for all-good-without-any-bad should be subject to the deepest suspicion. And perhaps the orthodox Christian likes it that way. This religion is supposed to be a scandal to the Jews and nonsense to the Greeks. As a Greek, I remain nonplussed. Nonplussed, but not hostile: I consider myself a member of His Highness’s loyal opposition.

    Byassee’s next point—a suspicion of natural desires, such as the desir d’éternité, as products of deeply ingrained sin—introduces a skepticism about our constitution that is unavailable to more Pelagian versions of Christianity. Beginning with this brand of suspicion, the Christian can refuse to promise any satisfaction to our deepest longings; she can even refuse to work-through those longings, as I recommend. But in my post above I warned that the price of such a refusal may prove dear. This longing “cannot be simply denied,” I wrote, “the way so many anti-clerical and utopian fantasies of modernity have tried to do.” Byassee’s suspicion reminds us that those who would deny this longing are not always opponents of Christianity, but sometimes ardent Christians themselves. The anti-clerical forces “have produced,” as I wrote, “no paradise but instead hell on earth, ‘a victory for darkness,’ where the longing for eternity found perverse expression in guillotines, concentration camps, and gulags.” What has been the cost of the Christian, and especially the Calvinist, suspicion of our deepest longings? High, it seems to me, although in the more psychological currency not recorded by military history. One need only think of Christendom’s condemnations of everything from heresy to homosexuality to the theater.

    Whatever this price of Christian suspicion, however, I now recognize an irony of my critique: have I not presupposed my own suspicion of our deepest longing? I have. I have called immature our longing for a place where everything is good and nothing bad. I have also recommended the Freudian education of this longing into maturity, the recognition that in this world the wheat will always be mixed with tares. Perhaps, one might therefore object, there is not much of a difference between Calvin and Freud on this score after all. But there is. The Calvinist suspicion, on one hand, is global: our nature is totally depraved, and so all our deepest longings become suspicious. None but mythical reasons are given for this global suspicion. The Freudian suspicion, on the other hand, is both specific and grounded in empirical evidence: our nature is neither good nor bad, but begins in an infancy whose ways of feeling not even the adult leaves entirely behind.

    The goal of Freudian psychoanalysis is not to envision an altogether different nature, in the manner of Calvinism, but to facilitate the maturation of the nature we already have. For our mature selves can tolerate the world as it is, with its ambiguity and complexity, without shrinking into the simplistic and unambiguous fantasies of the world our immature selves would prefer. We must not simply ignore those fantasies, in the manner of repression as common among Calvinists as Communists, since that would be to alienate us from ourselves. Instead, we must work-through these fantasies and the longings that provoke them. The technique and efficiency of this working-through (Freud’s durcharbeiten) requires explanation, to be sure, and I have essayed my own explanation here. Howsoever it be explained, though, the goal of psychoanalysis is always to free us from the repetitive and simplistic fantasies of our childhood, allowing us thereby to engage a complex reality with the creativity it demands.

  26. avatar Patrick Lee Miller says:

    Jeffrey McCurry:

    “Part of loving the world,” writes McCurry, “is undertaking the work of repairing the world.” This claim, although controversial, introduces a new subject that cannot be ignored: moral judgment. The claim is controversial because it presupposes that the world, now broken, once worked, a presupposition redolent of the Fall. While rejecting that evaluation of the world, we advocates of immanent spirituality must nevertheless acknowledge that without an account of moral judgment our alternate worldview could never hope to be complete. For as McCurry correctly observes, transcendence has promised to do more than underwrite our desire for eternity; it has also seemed to underwrite our moral prescriptions and proscriptions. Think only of the Ten Commandments, and the movement in this country to inscribe them in the public square as a bulwark against the encroachment of “relativism.” If immanent spirituality surrenders the pretense to immortality, must it also surrender moral standards? In a word: yes. But so much the better for immanence.

    In my original post, I argued that the question of a meaningful life—a question which proponents of transcendence have complacently put to proponents of immanence, as if there were no such problem with their own worldview—belongs instead at the feet of the interrogators. Although proponents of transcendence have assumed that only a guarantor of meaning elsewhere can secure meaning here, I argued that this infinite deferral subverts meaning altogether, rendering life absurd. Proponents of immanence must struggle to create meaning for their lives, no doubt, but at least they have a fighting chance of succeeding. Indeed, creativity may just be this meaning after all. Meaningful immortality, by contrast, is impossible. Such a reversal of the question is the approach I wish to take now with McCurry’s parallel question about morality. For it assumes a similar logic: proponents of immanence must supply a guarantor of morality, assume the proponents of transcendence, lest human life become rudderless and inhumane.

    Not for a moment do I suppose that McCurry himself is putting this question to immanence complacently; on the contrary, he raises it with evident sincerity and a concern to investigate the contours of its moral alternative to transcendence. Needless to say, I am grateful for his invitation to make a provisional sketch of these contours. Before accepting this invitation, however, I wish to expose the vulnerability of transcendence when it comes to moral judgment. With such a critique in hand, it is hoped, we may be more generous toward immanent accounts of judgment; for even if they fail, they have at least a fighting chance of succeeding. Indeed, immanent judgment may just be the essence of morality after all. Transcendent moral judgments, by contrast, may prove impossible.

    McCurry wonders whether moral judgment requires God or, perhaps, the Platonic Forms, so let us consider each of these transcendent candidates in turn, beginning with the Forms. In order to succeed as guides to judgment in this world, despite the fact that they exist in another, they must bear a relation to our world, and this relation must be discernible by us. Each Form there must bear a relation to its particular instances here, so that we may judge these mutable instances by reference to an immutable paradigm. Thus, for example, if I am unsure whether it is good to stand my ground on the battlefield (here and now), I need only look to the Form of Goodness. Granted that I can do this—and it is by no means clear that I can, since it is by no means clear what it means to ‘look to the Form of Goodness’—if standing my ground on the battlefield (here and now) appears to be related to this Form, then I should judge it good; if not, not. Judgment in our changing world thus remains anchored to unchanging standards in a world beyond ours.

    There are many serious problems with this strategy. To begin with, everything in this changing world is good in some way, bad in others. This truth is as inherent in the Platonic view of the material world as it is in Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares. Recognizing this truth, however, the person who looks to the Form of Goodness must concede that everything is related in some way to that Form. If Goodness be any guide to judgment, then, the judge must ensure that the instance he judges good be related to the Form of Goodness in the right way. Nowhere to my knowledge, either in Plato or elsewhere in philosophy, is that special relationship explained; but howsoever it be explained, it will set the judge off on an infinite regress. For in order to judge that some instance to be judged is related to the Form of Goodness in the right way, the judge must now make a meta-judgment about the relationship of this relationship to the Form of Rightness. And so on ad infinitum.

    In his Parmenides, Plato himself recognized many serious problems with transcendent paradigms. Indeed, Platonists seem to take Forms far more seriously than he did. For his own character argues that these paradigms bear no relevant relation to this world. In the example from this dialogue, the Form of Master is not the master of any worldly slave, but instead the master of the Form of Slave. Correlatively, the Form of Slave is not slave to any worldly master, but instead to the Form of Master. For their part, worldly masters are related to worldly slaves, and vice versa. Yet without any relation between these two realms—the Formal and the material, the transcendent and the immanent—these paradigms are useless, both ontologically and epistemologically. They cannot make anything be what it is, and they cannot help us to know what anything is. In terms of the example, the Form of Master does not make a master be a master, and if you want to know about being a master, the Form cannot help you. You would be better served, in fact, by a study of the ante-bellum South, with all its change and corruption. Similarly, if you want to know whether it is good for you to stand your ground in battle (here and now), you would be better served by a glance toward your field officer—that is to say, your worldly circumstances—than to the Form of Goodness.

    On a historical note, Aristotle adopted this same criticism in the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, inheriting the credit for a thought that was first Plato’s. Wherever the credit properly lies, however, the Christian version of transcendence must succeed where these Greeks thought it failed. But perhaps there is more hope in Christian transcendence than in the Greek attempt. Few people faced with a moral judgment turn to the Form of Goodness, after all, whereas billions turn to God and his commandments. Yet similar philosophical problems resurface in religion, depending on how these commandments are understood. If they be understood as natural law—something that could have emerged without divine authorship, as prudent rules that any community must respect if it is to flourish—then there is no problem, if only because there is no appeal to the transcendent. You obey the Decalogue, say, because you wish to flourish, and you believe only someone who respects these commandments can do so. This is an immanent understanding of moral judgment, however, and not the transcendent alternative its theological trappings might make it appear to be.

    What more must be added to the Decalogue, then, to make it that special sort of guarantee sought by the proponents of transcendence? I invite McCurry, or any proponent of transcendence, to answer this question. In the meantime, I would like to consider a few possible answers to it. According to one such answer, the Decalogue (or any other divine law) requires a transcendent guarantee because it is not something we could deduce from our immanent circumstances, as conditions for our flourishing. Two reasons might be given for this shortcoming: either (a) our ability to legislate properly to ourselves here is imperfect, or (b) the law speaks more properly to our lives in a perfect condition elsewhere. The Christian story underwrites both of these reasons: we cannot legislate properly to ourselves here because the Fall has crippled our judgment; or, the law speaks more properly to our lives elsewhere, our lives in the perfect condition of Grace once lost but someday regained. Both of these responses bring us back into the orbit of Jason Byassee’s comment, although I do not know that they are responses he himself would offer.

    With (b)—that the law speaks more properly to our lives elsewhere—the problem of Platonic Forms discussed above arises again. Tailoring that problem to fit these Christian terms, we should object: what relevance does our perfect condition there have for us in our imperfect condition here? When I must make a judgment about life here, where tares grow among the wheat, what value is there in looking to life there, where the wheat is pure and the tares have all been burned? Taking the metaphor literally, the farmer who used the perfect as his standard for the imperfect, treating tares and wheat as nothing but wheat, would throw his imperfect harvest indiscriminately into his silo, ruining his store. Dropping the metaphor, can we make any sense of this perfect condition? At this point, all of my criticisms of heaven, both in the original post and in the subsequent commentary, become apposite.

    If (b) fails so quickly, what about (a)—that we cannot legislate for ourselves here because the Fall has crippled our judgment? According to many Christians, our judgment is so badly crippled that we must rely on divine authority. You do not obey the Decalogue because you judge it to be a condition of human flourishing. No, you obey the Decalogue because God has commanded it. This is the transcendent element missing from the immanent understanding of moral judgment. But it incurs more problems than did the other response. For instance, faced with all ten commandments, how can you be sure that God has commanded each one? Whatever evidence you supply to warrant your certainty here, moreover, how can you be sure that it has not been tainted with the sinfulness that corrupts your judgments elsewhere?

    If these questions can be answered, and you are confident that these commandments should regulate moral judgments in particular circumstances, others follow closely on their heels: how will you apply their simple statements to complex and ambiguous reality? Take the commandment against adultery, and presume that you accept it as a transcendent standard by which to guide your conduct. Now you wish to marry someone who is divorced. Can you square this wish with your beliefs? Imagine that this person had married very young, and may not have been fully aware of the obligations undertaken in matrimony. If not, there is a case to be made—at least in the canon law of the Catholic Church—that this person has not yet been married; an annulment is available. But what is it, really, to be fully aware of the obligations of matrimony? Are there any but those who have been married their whole lives, those who have understood very concretely what these obligations mean in a complex world, who are fully aware of them? Short of that concrete awareness, what level of awareness should count as sufficient, and how should it be determined whether this level was reached in the case of this real person?

    Canon lawyers often dispute such questions—there are an infinite number, I believe, for every commandment—because neither the Decalogue nor any other deceptively simple transcendent standard speaks directly to our moral lives. An interpreter is needed, and the Church is supposed to perform this role. But which denomination, which congregation, which priest? For those whose role in the Church is to do the interpreting, where exactly to turn? To which ecumenical council, to which theologian, to which text? The iterations are endless, which is not an argument for relativism; rather, it exposes a deep truth about moral judgment: it requires choice. At every point of their submission, in fact, even those who wish to surrender their freedom to an authority must make a choice, consciously or unconsciously. If they choose to surrender their choice, their inescapable freedom frustrates them; if they persist in the pretense of submission, they choose hypocrisy more precisely than submission. We are now brought face-to-face with the failure of transcendence to secure moral judgment. It cannot do so because its strategy of submission cannot recognize the most basic requirement of moral judgment: freedom. In Sartre’s memorable dictum, we are “condemned to be free.”

    And yet, in the words of Dostoevsky, the very author McCurry invoked in his comment, “nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.” This premise undergirds the argument of the notorious Grand Inquisitor, who concludes from it that a true love of humanity and a true compassion for our suffering require relieving us of the burden of our freedom. The Church alone provides this relief, according to the Inquisitor, enchanting us with promises of miracles and mysteries, if not compelling us by its authority. While Dostoevsky himself seems to reject that conclusion—after all, the Inquisitor is arraigning Christ, whom Dostoevsky worshipped—he nonetheless seems to accept the premise. Rather than relieving us of our freedom, Dostoevsky seems to believe, Christ turns customary habits of submissive worship on their head, inviting us to revere him freely, without enticement of worldly reward, the enchantment of mystery, or the coercion of authority. That is why He refused the three temptations of Satan.

    As McCurry reminds us, however, the same character who crafts the story of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan, admits at the end of it that “everything is lawful.” It is no easy admission—either for Ivan or for me—but it must be made, and will just as surely be misunderstood. How, then, should it be understood? It does not mean that we should connive at the Holocaust or, more likely, the bully next door sitting comfortably in an endowed chair. It does mean that we should come to love the world as it is, not as our immature fantasies would have it be. One common fantasy, to which degenerate faiths and philosophies alike appeal, as I have argued above, is the fantasy of a perfect paradigm, a comprehensive code, an authority who will relieve us ultimately of the burden of our freedom. This is the fantasy of a transcendent guarantor for moral judgment, and I believe Dostoevsky was as harsh critic of it as Sartre was.

    Without such a guarantor, a proponent of immanent spirituality must explain how it does not retreat into quietism, a passive contemplation of the world, rather than the passionate engagement with it that we find celebrated in Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Sartre, not to mention the Stoics so often and unfairly caricatured as quietists. In my post, I asked whether this posture was not just quietist, but further, masochistic. Please permit me to quote that question and its abbreviated response: “Why, if I love this one moment of joy, must I love all the other moments of pain that come before and after it? A moment is joyful because it is meaningful, extraordinarily meaningful…But these moments of joy are so meaningful because they are moments in a narrative…meaningful moments must be embedded in finite narratives, narratives of risk and therefore tragedy, circumscribed by death. To love such a moment fully is to love the narrative that constitutes it; and to love such a narrative fully is to love the world in which that narrative unfolds.”

    Invoking Nietzsche’s character, I next wrote: “If Zarathustra be believed, if he be followed as a prophet of immanent spirituality, we must love the whole world, with its pain, illness, betrayal, death.” I shall try in my third post, on Heraclitean spirituality, to elaborate this cosmic thought. For now, I wish only briefly to review my argument that psychoanalysis is an ethics as well as a spirituality. Married to the latest research in neuroscience, and a host of related disciplines, psychoanalysis investigates human flourishing while also diagnosing and attempting to overcome its impediments. As such, it is squarely in the tradition of ancient philosophy epitomized by Aristotle, who married his curiosity about everything with a rigorous effort to live the best life. He placed a transcendent deity at the summit of this effort, but was logically required to do so by his ontology and epistemology. Since these theories have been surpassed by immanent alternatives, we remain most faithful to his curiosity and his effort by elaborating an immanent ethics. This cannot be an ethics of transcendent paradigms, rules, or authorities, for the existentialist reasons already canvassed; but it can be an ethics—a methodical quest for the best life—nonetheless.

    My own quest has brought me thus far to believe that at the summit of ethics are love and creativity, whose greatest impediments are resentment and repetition. Each of these vices is born of the insecurity of the infant, altogether appropriate insecurity for that stage of life, but an insecurity that soon outlives its utility. In the worst emotional maladies, infantile fears become fossilized as fantasies that turn our otherwise supple organism into an obsolete machine. Scratch the surface of any bully, I suspect, and you will find a baby trying desperately and repetitively—the only way it knows how, futile though it be—to achieve security. No ethics of transcendent regulation can speak to such a baby, except in the language of intimidation it knows so well. Only the master-craft of converting the infant into an adult can bring good out of this evil. There may be transcendent practitioners of this craft—Dostoevsky hints as much in his story, since only the kiss of a silent Christ softens the heart of the Inquisitor—but immanent technique demonstrably delivers what transcendent regulations vainly promise. To speak bluntly now: everything is permitted, yes, but it is a whole lot better for you and those around you if you grow up.

    The argument for this blunt conclusion is somewhat more subtle, I hope, and I have begun to make it here, in a paper called “Psychoanalysis as Spirituality” (see especially its second through fourth sections, on “Emotions and Meaning,” “Love versus Resentment,” and “The Therapeutic Action”). But I do not pretend to any originality in this argument. On the contrary, with the help of several recent scholars, I am trying only to bring psychoanalysis and existentialism into contact with the ancient philosophical tradition of which, I believe, these modern movements are today the most faithful—which is to say the most creative—exponents.

  27. avatar Nathan Shewmaker says:

    Patrick Lee Miller makes the claim that it is infinitude rather than finitude which threatens our existence with meaninglessness. This claim draws strength from our inability as finite beings to fully imagine what an infinite existence would be like. The concept of infinity quickly leads us into paradox and exhausts our imaginations. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that our inability to rationally understand infinite existence can dampen our subconscious longing for it. Imagine a genie were to come out of a bottle and offer us the choice of immortality or mortality—I would guess that most of us would gladly choose immortality, even despite our intellectual concerns about what that would entail. So while infinity may threaten our rational grasp of meaning, I believe that finitude threatens our emotional grasp of meaning, and it is this second type of meaning that we would ultimately choose if forced to choose.

  28. avatar Ian Pitt says:

    Can immanent spirituality be theistic? Patrick Lee Miller has argued that immanent spirituality is preferable to any spirituality based on the promise of eternal life or a source of absolute goodness, but theism need not involve such transcendence. For instance, some spiritualities with a negative theology could be entirely compatible with immanent spirituality.

    Further, is immanent spirituality a faith? It relies on a particular vision of the effects on immanence of death and other existential realities as the source of meaning, which need not be shared by e.g. nontheists.

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