A sermonette for All Souls Day 2013
Descartes tried to prove the self from doubting the world. He failed; for where is the self in the pure stream of sensations? In truth, the self and the world are a distinction. If there is no world, there is no self to experience it. Similarly, the moral self is not self-created from the vacuum in some heroic autopoiesis. It is allowed to emerge in childhood by the continual struggle of parents and other caregivers to maintain a space of safety and freedom within which the young person can grow. The soul needs love as a plant needs water.
As adults, our sphere of autonomy is ipso facto an abnegation of others from interference. Our rights, fundamental and contingent, are duties of others to refrain from certain actions towards us and obligations to carry out others; duties we in turn bear towards them, and to the yet unborn. The autonomous moral agent is a member of a society of such. We may choose, in extremis, to act as moral agents in the midst of asocial anarchy and oppression. Such people are heroes by exception, not rule.
Contract, the basis of economic life, cannot be self-justifying either. The obligation to perform our promises, as it derived historically from gift exchange, is founded in reason either in morality or force of law. The individualist attempt to make contract the basis of law and ethics inverts this order, making a nonsensical heresy. Friday, Saturday or Sunday make the business week possible.
The self may be rational by nature but effectively so only by nurture. Language was for Darwin “an instinct to acquire an art”. So too the arts, science, technology, law, and government are learnt from our predecessors and contemporaries. We all stand like Newton on the shoulders of giants – and of millions more ordinary pygmies. Even blogging without readers is vanity.
Some say the entire material creation is a kenosis, a self-emptying of God; the cosmos is a stream of bubbles in the divine champagne, and even the extinction of the self would be the collapse of one bubble into an ocean of light.
Thank you, everybody past and present, for letting me be me.