Mortality and the contradictions of modernity

Kim Atkins

Genevieve Lloyd Providence Lost, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008 (369 pp). ISBN 9-78067403-153-1 (hard cover) RRP $54.00.

Providence is the idea that the world and human interests are being cared for, provided for, by some ultimate power (typically, a god) that ensures the unity and order of the cosmos. On this view, everything that happens to us, no matter how bizarre, can be explained by appeal to the place of humanity in this broader unified existence. No matter how bad things get, providence ensures that things are just as they should be. In this way, the belief in providence is a response to certain harsh and inescapable features of life, namely, suffering, evil and death. In Providence Lost, Genevieve Lloyd counts these three features in the category of ‘necessity’. The necessities of life are not simply those things we must have to survive, but those things that are fundamentally inescapable in human life. The belief in providence makes it possible to live with the anxieties that these necessities arouse without debilitating fear. Lloyd comprehensively traces the history of the idea providence from the Ancient Greeks, with special attention on the Stoics, through medieval and early modern philosophy to its demise in philosophy in the 19th century. Throughout, she clearly conveys the monumental intellectual effort required to reconcile the existence of evil with providence, most notably in the accounts of Augustine, Descartes and Leibniz, each of whom is prepared to accept the suffering of children as the price of divine order.

Providence Lost concludes with an insightful analysis of contemporary life. Lloyd has two points to make. First, in the disenchanted world of modernity, the possibility of a good life requires that we find a way of living with necessity without the guarantees provided by a benevolent cosmic order. This task is made all the more difficult because (and this is her second point), much contemporary discussion around ideas of a good life, either in philosophical debates or in the popular media, is deeply incoherent because it retains providential assumptions of unity and order while explicitly embracing godlessness. While such assumptions might seem benign, this is far from the case. For one thing, whatever the ultimate order of the universe might be on this view, there is nothing in it to suggest that it is ultimately benevolent. The upshot of this is that in the secular, godless world of modernity, unexamined assumptions of order and unity create a ‘misfit between the individual and collective possibilities of life’ (p. 307).

In explaining this peculiar feature of modern life, Lloyd argues that at the individual level, we continue to face the same old necessities: illness, accident and death. The timing of these is a matter of contingency, and therefore, a source of the usual anxieties which we ameliorate through various psychological rituals: icy ocean dips, drugs or scented oils. What is distinctive about modernity, according to Lloyd, is that these individual struggles go on against a backdrop of social practices which imply an irrational belief that the limits of necessity can be pushed ever farther back. In other words, as individuals we acknowledge the limitations that go with human mortality, and we conduct ourselves accordingly. For example, we take precautions against illnesses, we take out insurance, and we plan for our old age. At the same time, however, at the collective level, we engage in activities that assume that those limitations can be over-ridden, and that they are not necessary after all. For example, society provides cosmetic and pharmaceutical services which claim to make us look and feel younger—as if it is possible to actually become younger. To illustrate the tensions here, Lloyd claims that we continue to talk about striving for a balanced life and weighing up good and evil. However, the very idea of a ‘balanced’ life assumes that there is some final, ultimate order of life and the universe that we could appeal to in order justify the truth about an assertion that any particular life is balanced or unbalanced. That ultimate order would function as a standard of measure against which the degree of balance or imbalance could be determined. This is precisely the role that providence has played. In the absence of providence, however, these ideas become incoherent. Once the belief in god or some other ultimate cosmic order is abandoned, there can be no final state of affairs against which any particular state of affairs can be measured or compared. Lloyd illustrates the absurdity of talk about balance when she notes a commentator’s ironic quip that perhaps the Howard Government’s refugee policy found the right balance between compassion and cruelty (p. 315). Similarly, good and evil can compete or be compared only where their efforts can be referred to a single system of estimation. In a world without ultimate limits good and evil become radically incommensurable.

The belief in providence is a response to certain harsh and inescap-
able features of life.

Lloyd is not proposing to reinstate providence. Rather, she is arguing that with the loss of providence we have lost an important means of making sense of our lives. We face the challenge of reconciling individual need to manage necessity with social practices that court denial of necessity. Life in a world without providence is life in a world without absolute limits, and this gives rise to equally limitless anxieties. We are no longer sure where the border lies between what is within our power and what is without, and, consequently, the limits of personal responsibility become infinitely shifting. There seems no way of determining the balance among competing interests, ends and values, and the very idea that good could triumph over evil cease

s to make sense when there can be no guarantee that what lies beyond our own powers is benevolent. In contrast to earlier conceptions of a good life—especially the Stoics’—the necessities of life are for us, just more fuel for anxiety. With the loss of providence we are detached from the goods that collective life formerly provided for dealing with the anxieties of mortality. These were social activities associated with belief in god or divine providence, which provided psychological and emotional assurance in the face of harsh and inescapable realities: faith in salvation and redemption, communal worship, and a strong sense of belonging.

Just think for a moment about the ways we moderns attempt to alleviate our anxieties and you will quickly find that they are premised upon contradictory forces of limitlessness and order. We try to control the uncontrollable through things like technology, pharmaceuticals, surgery, and the acquisition of personal wealth. But this search for control is itself a product of a providential worldview. It assumes that the solution to the anxieties of living with necessity lies in some ultimately determinate state of affairs. Once we have brought about that state of affairs, our anxieties are expected to evaporate and we will be, finally, young enough, beautiful enough, sexy enough, lovable enough, relaxed enough, clever enough, and so on and so on. But attempts at achieving such a state of affairs go on in a collective milieu that runs counter to the very idea of a terminal state of affairs. Despite pleas for sustainability, private and public sectors repeatedly declare the importance of increasing consumption; genetic technology and experimentation continues to break down the boundaries that have differentiated species; and governmental attempts at regulating carbon emissions lack the urgency that the temporal limitations of the human lifespan would dictate.

The idea of providence was a response to the anxiety engendered by the fact that we live under conditions of uncertainty. Those conditions derive from our mortality. Providence, therefore, links life and death. On the providential view, no-one dies for nothing. As Lloyd explains, this is foreign to modern thinking. In a world without an afterlife, death and its associated conditions have come to be regarded as meaningless at best, tragic at worst. Consequently, we are threatened with the prospect of having very little to say about our mortality; we are becoming dumbstruck about the most fundamentally defining feature of ourselves. Consider the ever-growing practices premised upon our incapacity to speak meaningfully of ageing and death: a medical system that does not know how to stop treatment; cradle-to-grave cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries; a technology sector that regards experimentation as an end in itself; and a mass media saturated with images and ideas disconnected from the lives of actual human beings.

Lloyd is not proposing to reinstate providence.

Lloyd proposes that a remedy for what ails us can be found in the thought of 17th century Dutch philosopher, Benedict de Spinoza, whose work is heavily indebted to the Stoics. Lloyd is a heavyweight in the world of Spinoza scholarship, and brings a marvellous lucidity and economy to her discussions both of Spinoza’s philosophy and its Stoic influences. The Stoics, like Ancient philosophy in general, were concerned with the question of what constitutes a good life. Fundamental to this question was a concern with managing emotions and attitudes in the face of unavoidable sufferings for which little, if anything could be done: disease, debilitation, and pain in a world without antibiotics or anaesthetics, and the ravages of natural disasters in a world without earthquake warnings or satellite weather forecasting. And this in a culture where war was omnipresent and heroism was imperative.

The Stoics advised that we could not only manage suffering but achieve a good life by understanding our natures and what is necessary in them, and then by living in accordance with those necessities. If life is to be tolerable, we must make the effort to do as nature demands. This appeal to obeying nature may seem like a constraint upon us, but it is the key to understanding our freedom and happiness. To illustrate, Lloyd cites the example of a baby struggling to walk. The child does not choose to walk, any more than it chooses to breathe. However, the child’s struggle is not a struggle against something that is preventing it from acting freely; it is a struggle to engage with its own nature, to co-ordinate its body with its environment. The effort to walk arises from a natural impulse, a necessity of the child’s nature. Lloyd, following the Stoics, describes this as an ‘appropriation’ of the natural impulse. Although the child acts from the necessity of its nature, we do not regard the child as being so constrained. To the contrary, we regard it as essential to the child’s liberty, and a cause to be happy. Similarly, elite athletes, concert musicians, and even philosophers exercise their freedom to become who they want to be by putting their powers to use in the way that nature deems necessary, for example, in accordance with the necessities of sensory-motor function, joint range of movement, and cerebral neuro-transmission.

This all seems fine until we come to the less palatable necessities of mortality: disease and death. Here the Stoic reputation for forbearance comes into its own. The Stoics believed that that it is in our nature to fall ill and die, and if we see in the necessities of nature the cause for our happiness we cannot, on pain of incoherence, have it so on some occasions but not others. Pain and illness do not stand in the way of a good life because a good life is one directly at grips with what cannot be evaded in human nature. When the Stoics insist upon the recognition and understanding of human nature they mean for that to be full understanding, the kind of understanding that nature provides for, namely, the full acceptance of necessity—not only of sickness, suffering and death, but also of friendship, imagination, caring and joy. In this way, necessity, freedom, and a life worth living are intimately interwoven.

If life is to be tolerable, we must make the effort to do as nature demands.

Lloyd argues that this idea of acceptance and appropriation of necessity goes against the grain of modernity, where we have been taught that what is essential to attaining a good life is our capacity to tear ourselves away from nature through the exercise of the free will. But the difficulty in thinking of necessity as freedom is also because modernity has lost sight of an essential component of the Stoic philosophy, namely, the idea of affection for the self. This idea of affection is not the acquisitive love of desire, but more like a close familiarity and willing submission to what is best in us and which nature has bestowed upon us. It is a holistic conception of caring for one’s own flourishing that goes far beyond the mere satisfaction of self-interest. It is a willing embrace of the whole gamut of the human condition, from those features that render us vulnerable to physical and psychological suffering to those that enable our most intense exuberance and exultation. However, in more recent times, self-interest has come to replace self-affection. The moral justifications of so much of modern life—liberal democracy, the rule of law, freedom of choice—all turn on the sanctity of self-interest. Thinkers in the liberal tradition have told us that every person is to be regarded as an end-in-itself and, consequently, that we are each to determine our own conception of the good life. Everything is settled by demarcation of free wills. Nowhere in sight is the suggestion that what really matters for freedom might be the preservation of our capacity to be familiar with and willingly submit to what is most properly our own, and, therefore, what is best in us. This is why Stoics’ views on death differ so much from our own. For them, death had to be understood as part of everyday life, because mortality was understood as absolutely central to human nature, and, therefore, to a good life. Here, Lloyd cites with approval Seneca’s insistence that a fear of death is a failure to properly engage with life.

While there is much to admire in Stoic philosophy, it suffers from two significant limitations: first, the relative simplicity of their views of the necessities that constitute human nature in comparison with the complexities of contemporary sciences. For example, ancient theories concerning the scope and functions of human physiology and psychology—and what those features required of a good life—were rudimentary to say the least. Second, the Stoics have an over-confidence in the capacity of human beings to absorb violence. We moderns have mass media and globalisation with continuously televised, re-playable actual killings, perversions and disasters, where the corpses of children, the burnt, degraded and mutilated fill our homes, offices and even gymnasiums, in non-stop news carnage from which it is almost impossible to shelter. And then there is what passes for fiction and entertainment in television, film and multimedia. While ancient Greek men were much more likely to be personally involved in killings in war, honour and belief in the afterlife played a significant role in the psychology of war, both for individuals and for armies. Nothing in the Greek world could match the scale of killing and the extent of awareness of it made possible by the industrialisation of weapons and war coupled with mass communication and globalisation. The Stoics can be forgiven if they failed to imagine the kind of exigencies that could unhinge a human being.

Modern life is increasingly characterised by alienation.

It is entirely possible that one could have a good life by chance alone, but the idea that a good life could simply be left to chance is intolerable to even the most basic exercise of reason and desire. This is why our freedom is so important to us. It is through our freedom—through what we do—that we triumph over the mere contingency of luck. Lloyd recounts how Spinoza, inspired by the Stoics, argued that for complex mortals like ourselves, gifted with emotions, imagination, memory and reason, our freedom can only consist in the exercise of those same powers. Freedom ‘derives from the active engagement of the mind with necessity, an engagement that flows from understanding’ (p. 201). The activity of the mind proposed by Spinoza is the pursuit of truth. However, this is not the work of a merely abstract intellect analysing propositional logic. Rather, it is a practical intelligence which understands what and who we are by using the full range of our powers. According to Spinoza, the practical intellectual activity of understanding in the pursuit of truth will lead to a joy more intense than any other emotion. That emotion derives from that aspect of ourselves so valued by Stoicism, namely, our capacity to feel affection for our nature. That affection is constituted by our ready openness to and familiarity with human nature, and a genuine concern to understand and pursue what contributes to the flourishing of that nature. The affective character of truth is expressive of a deep understanding of our belonging to nature, an experience that stands in dramatic contrast to the contemporary condition of alienation that can neither comprehend nor care for human mortality.

Modern life is increasingly characterised by alienation: we become strangers to ourselves to the extent that we fail to grasp our natures and its necessities—not only bodily necessities of physicality, sensuality, ageing and imperfection, but psychological necessities of fear, hope, and predictability, as well as interpersonal necessities of recognition, exchange, solidarity and sacrifice. We are anchored to the earth and to each other by these series of overlapping necessities, yet we are constantly encouraged to treat them as if they are merely contingent features of our existence. This misfit means we will never be at ease with ourselves in the world unless we become affectionately open to what is necessary in human life by actively engaging our minds with those necessities through the full powers of our understanding in the pursuit of truth.

But how do we know when we have grasped a truth about necessity and not merely a contingent feature of a culture? This question adds a further difficulty to the task facing modernity. We know that what passed for truth at one time in human history was superseded by other. Miasmas gave way to bacteria, and animal spirits gave way to neural networks. In a world without an absolute limit there can be no absolute truths. Here Lloyd cites Hegel’s analysis that one’s view of necessity lies ‘at the root of the content and discontent of men, and … in that way determines their destiny itself’ (p. 301). Our destiny lies in how we respond to our mortality. How we exercise our practical understanding to this end will determine our fates, not technology or television or dieting, not even the caprices of gods or demons. Instead of looking to the stars for the meaning of life we need to look much closer to home: to our spotty, ageing bodies and our flawed and funny minds. That is our lot. It’s quite a lot, actually.

Dr Kim Atkins is a consultant with the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services, and an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Tasmania. Her publications include Narrative Identity and Moral Identity: A Practical Perspective (2008, Routledge, NY & Oxford), and Practical Identity and Narrative Agency, co-edited with Catriona Mackenzie (2008, Routledge, NY & Oxford).

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