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The Idolatry of Reason: The Snake and the Rose

The dream of reason produces monsters


I have a friend who recently has asked me about my thoughts on what she called "the meaning of life." Not only was I surprised with the timing of the question--it being asked in the car on the way to the airport in a mad dash not to miss the plane--but I was also taken aback with the reason behind her question. As she explained, she has a friend that she met in Europe who has been regularly talking or writing to her about many things, "the meaning of life" among them. I instantly asked how old her friend was, and I was not surprised to find out that he was much younger than the both of us. Anyway, she asked me what I thought because her friend has been "beating" her in their sort of debate; on her side, she believed that there was a meaning in life, and on his side, naturally as it is with Europeans his age, that there was none. In short, she was asking for some conceptual ammunition she could use so that she could make a stand against his verbal assaults, perhaps impress him in the process, or ideally get some sense into his head.

And so I asked what he had been saying. To articulate what for him was a confused panoply of ideas, his basic position was that there was no grand narrative to life, no underlying meaning in the sense of life having no "sense" (where it falls) or "direction" (where it goes). Put simply, life did not have a story. A story or narrative, as classically defined by Aristotle, is a tale which has a beginning, a middle and an end. But not only this--for we have seen absurd plays or movies which do have a beginning, a middle and an end but really have no point, e.g., the "absurd" plays such as Waiting for Godot , or that "art film" which I saw last year in some prestigious film festival held in Shangri-la where for the first eight minutes you find a woman unable to sleep. A story has to have a tension, a problem or a crisis which will then lead to a climactic end. The end then would determine whether it was a tragedy or comedy, which were for the Philosopher the two genres of all narratives. That being said, our nihilistic European's conviction is that not only was there an absence of a meaningful story in life, but more so was there an absence of a point to living--a point being an apex or summit that is to be arrived at not without difficulty (tension) and to be descended from with jubilation (comedy) or melancholy (tragedy). Speaking for him, when he says that there is no meaning to life, what he is really saying is that there is no reason for living.

As you would surmise, I earnestly asked the next logical question: Why hasn't he committed suicide? She did not know. And I wasn't surprised. So I explained to her that suicide is the very avowal of meaninglessness--that it is the meaningless act which follows the mind's judgment that there is no meaning to life. We all know this. No man had taken his life if he had a reason (whether actual or believed matters little here) to go on living. No one has slit his throat and at the same time hoped for better days. No one has jumped from the bridge thinking that the present hell he is in shall soon pass away. No one kills himself if he loved living. And to love living is to love the reason why you are living.

In one of the strongest opening lines in all of literature, Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is only one truly philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering all the problems of philosophy." All the other important questions we ask--Who am I? What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope?--all these are fine questions but turn out be mere"games" in front of the question of suicide. Thus, to this urgent and impending question, "One must first answer." "First answer" because how one answers the question determines the way that life is to be lived or to be destroyed. "To be or not to be?"--this is the question because it demands that a reason be given if I am to (dis-)continue this life. Why shall I choose to live? Why should I decide to die? In the first place, why the need to ask "why" either way? Because for humans there is no other way than by living or dying for a reason. To be in limbo, that is, to be neither here nor there, is thought to be worse than hell. You must decide. And you can only decide if you have a reason.

This is why the absurd collapsing of the bridge taking four lives with it must have a reason. This is why the senseless killing of students on one fine day in the campus must have a reason. This is why poverty now has a reason, and so do wars, plagues, droughts, and earthquakes. There must be a reason behind all this. "Must be" because I wish that there were and because if there were none how am I to make sense of this all? And "behind this" because the reason is to great for me to behold as I cannot see the "grand design" of things which they say only God knows. The ignorance of the statement "there must be a reason"--Leibniz's principle of reason that states nihil est sine ratione or "nothing is without reason"--is further absurdly compounded when the unseen reason is transposed to the unseen God. "God knows why," "He has a plan for me," "It was His will," etc.

What is here in question is not the meaning-question ("Is there a meaning to life?") or the "God-question" ("Is there a God or a God of Reason?") but more fundamentally the reason-question: Why do we need to ask and pursue reasons? What is the reason for my searching of reasons? But did we not answer this earlier when we said that "to make sense of this all?" Yes. We search for reasons because we want to make sense of it all. This is naturally admitted and commonly held. And precisely because of this, the more urgent question is this: Why the need to make sense of it all? In other words, if we search for reasons because we want to make sense of it all, why do we in the first place have to make sense of it all?

We cannot go further. Why? Because by asking "why do we need to make sense of it all?" we are again looking for reasons as evident in the why of the question. And this further pursuit of a reason will lead us to another reason--a ground--of which then it can be asked why. Example: We need to make sense of it all because. . . "Men by nature desire to know" (Aristotle) or "God cannot be without reason"(Leibniz) or "it is a fact of reason"(Kant), etc. These answers are not immune to the question why because it can be further asked why so until infinity? But logic will say that this is an argumentum ad infinitum or ad nauseam meaning it is an argument which goes on to infinity to the point of nausea where nobody cares anymore and might as well leave it at that: as absurd. The infinite search of reasons and grounds--even for the reason why we search for reasons--and the infinite will to know why as absurd? Now I'm wheeling in nausea.

This is why Heidegger describes the principle of reason--Nothing is without reason--as an “empty” or “groundless”principle. What was to be the “mighty” and “noble” principle for Leibniz—and ultimately the reason of reasons—now reaches what Heidegger calls “a remarkably ambiguously lit, not to mention, perilous province.” Perilous—because it is a groundless ground, swallowing itself in every attempt to ground itself because every reason rendered itself must in turn be grounded on a reason.

Heidegger uses the image of a coiling snake indicating the peril of the principle:

Let us pause for a bit, if we may: the principle of reason—the ground/reason of the principle. Here something turns in on itself. Here something coils in on itself but does not close itself, for it uncoils itself at the same time. Here is a coil, a living coil, like a snake. Here something catches itself at its own end. Here is a commencement that is already completion.

Like a snake in its ability to turn on itself; like a mirror in its self-reflection; like an abyss which grounds itself in its groundlessness, the principle of reason grounds itself as the ground of all beings. No thing, that is, no being is without reason and nothing is without why—even if it does not know why.

How then can a groundless ground ground beings if it cannot explain itself (to itself), or which comes to the same thing, if it has no reason? This precisely is the “might” of the principle of reason that in its dearth of reasons it is able to still emerge as a principle for all reasons. It bears nothing—how could it?—but its power consists in bearing itself to ground so as to ground everything else, all beings. If it were an abyss as Heidegger says, then it is a suspended one: its vacuity is doubled, tripled, etc.—infinitely—enabling it to withstand its abysmal emptiness in order to project a hologram of a ground on which things, everything may appear to stand--on which meanings may fall (kahulugan). To push it further, not only is it a holographic ground, it is a frozen hologram—like Dante who became “frozen and faint” upon seeing Satan who “had half his chest sticking out of the ice.”

From whence came the will to reason and the will to meaning? On what does the principle of reason really stand? If having a reason for living and a meaning of life are, as Camus holds, what is at the bottom of the decision whether to live or to die, then the more urgent question is this: Why the need for reasons in the first place?

The mystical poet Angelus Silesius finds in the rose an answer, or better, another question. He says:
The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms,
It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.


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