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Alain on Monasticism
Sense of life and the Unseen Order
The other morning I recalled the passage in Alain where he recorded his boyhood visit to the abbey at La Trappe and his visceral revulsion at the life of the monks. So I pulled his On Happiness from the shelf and to my surprise opened right to the passage in question. Coincidence, or synchronicity? I'll leave that question for later. Here is the passage:
If perchance I had to write a treatise on ethics, I would rank good humor as the first of our duties. I do not know what ferocious religion has taught us that sadness is great and beautiful, and that the wise man must meditate on death by digging his own grave. When I was ten years old, I visited the Abbey of La Trappe; I saw the graves the monks were digging a little each day, and the mortuary chapel where the dead were laid out for an entire week, for the edification of the living.
These lugubrious images and the cadaveric odor haunted me for a long time; but the monks had tried to prove too much. I cannot say exactly when and for what reasons I left the Catholic Church because I have forgotten. But from that moment on, I said to myself: "It is not possible that they have the true secret of life." My whole being rebelled against those mournful monks. And I freed myself from their religion as from an illness.
("Good Humor" in Alain on Happiness, tr. Cottrell, New York: Frederick Unger, 1973, p. 198. Paragraph break and italics added. Propos sur le bonheur was originally published in 1928 by Gallimard.)
The Attitude of the Worldling
Alain above frankly expresses his sense of life or sense of reality. I don't share it, but can I argue against it? Does it even make sense to try to argue against it? Probably not. In a matter such as this argument comes too late. Alain feels it in his guts and with his "whole being" that the religion of the mournful monks, the religion Alain himself was raised in, is world-flight and a life-denying sickness.
For a worldling such as Alain, the transient things of this world are as real as it gets, and all else is unreal. The impermanence of things and the brevity of life do not impress or shock him as they do someone with a religious sensibility. The worldling doesn't take them as indices of unreality as a Platonist would. If you point out the brevity of life to a worldling he might give a speech like the following:
Precisely because life is short, one must not waste it. Brevity does not show lack of reality or value, pace Plato and his latter-day acolytes such as Simone Weil, but how real and valuable life is. This life is as real as it gets. It is precious precisely because it is short. Make the most of it because there is not much of it, but what there is of it is enough for those who are fortunate, who live well, and who do not die too soon. Don't waste your life on religious illusions! Don't spend your life digging your grave and preparing for death. Live!
The attitude here is that life is short but long enough and valuable enough, at least for some of us. One should make friends with finitude, enjoying what one has and not looking beyond to what is merely imagined. Near the beginning of the The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus quotes Pindar, "O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible." (Pythian, iii)
A frat boy might put it like this:
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So party we must.
Or in the words of a 1970 beer commercial:
You only go around once in life
So you have to grab for all the gusto you can.
This attitude of the worldling is possible because it is actual and indeed widespread more so now than ever before in history, in good measure because of our technology that extends life and makes it vastly more endurable than in previous centuries. Our 24-7, 365(6) connectivity also practically insures that we will remain trapped within the sphere of immanence and human chatter and be unable to 'pick up any signals' from beyond the human horizon. Our communications technology is like a Faraday cage that blocks all irruptions from the Unseen Order.
The worldling's attitude is a matter of sensibility and it is difficult and probably impossible to argue with anyone's sensibility. I cannot argue you out of your sense of reality. Arguments come too late for that. In fact, arguments are often little more than articulations on the logical plane of a sensibility deep in the soul that was already in place before one attained explicit logical skills.
Is the worldling ignorant?
I would say he is. But how prove it either to him or to myself? Can one PROVE that God and the soul are real? That this life is a vanishing quantity unworthy of wholehearted devotion? That what really matters is beyond matter and beyond mind in its presently paltry and darkened state? Can one prove that we have an eternal destiny? No. At best one can give a number of plausible arguments for these 'objects' and a number of plausible arguments against metaphysical naturalism. But in the end one is going to have to invoke certain mystical vouchsafings, intimations from Elsewhere, glimpses, revelations, teachings of some magisterium deemed finally authoritative, all of which are easily hauled before the bench of reason to have their veridicality questioned, and, I should add, in good faith. In the end, a leap of faith is needed. You will have to decide what to believe and how to live. You will have to decide whether to live in accordance with your sense of life, whether it be of the worldly sort or the otherworldly.
Suppose one takes the 'bite of conscience' as pointing to the existence of a Supreme Moral Authority of a personal nature. I do so take it, and I am in good company. I could make a very strong case. But would it be rationally compelling? No. Could I ever be objectively certain that no naturalistic explanation could account adequately for the deliverances of conscience? No. So the will comes into it.
Is the worldling morally culpable for his ignorance?
Some might be, but in general, he is not. Pace St. Paul at Romans 1: 18-20, I don't find unbelief to be morally culpable. It is neither evident that God exists nor evident that he does not exist. One can of course dogmatize and one can of course be a 'presuppositionalist' of one sort or another. But those are not intellectually respectable positions.
Emile-Auguste Chartier (1868-1951) was a French professor of philosophy among whose students were Raymond Aron and Simone Weil. Chartier's sunny disposition, however, did not rub off on the brooding Weil. Under the pseudonym 'Alain,' Chartier published thousands of two-page essays in newspapers. Were he alive and active today he would most likely be online giving the best of the bloggers and ‘stackers’ a run for their money.