My students sometimes tell me how much they learned from me, but the crazy thing is how much I’ve learned from them. I’ve often started my philosophy classes by having my students calculate how many days of life they have left as a “statistically normal American.” Unless they are a returning student, the number is usually around 20,000. I learned this trick from Rich Lally (who no doubt also learned it from someone), a former graduate student in kinesiology, who also taught me endurance sport. I learned a second trick from another student, Mike Ventimiglia, who took it a step further by asking his students what they remember or know about their great grandparents. The answer is, most often, “not very much, if anything.” The point: we all die and most of us are destined to be forgotten.
Every generation suffers from an arrogance of the present. We think our things, our ways, our beliefs, and our lives are best. We make fun of the medicinal use of leeches, of people who walk everywhere, of typewriters, and the rest. We tend to call every world view other than ours superstitious. In an 1853 journal entry, Thoreau wrote: “we have only to be reminded of the kind of respect paid to the sabbath as holy day here in New England, and the fears which haunt those who break it, to see that our neighbors are the creatures of an equally gross superstition with the ancients. I am convinced that there is no very important difference between a New Englander’s religion and a Roman’s.” This insight seems obvious to me–as it did to him. But most of the world in the twenty-first century still touts their own world views as “truth” and the rest as “superstition.” And most everyone in the present seems to think the folks of the past were just less civilized than they are. Why do we not realize that in 200 years, our ways will look antiquated, primitive, and silly? Just look at the first mobile phones — huge boxes with two-foot long antenna — not really “mobile” in any practical sense. And why will our descendants, who become dismissive of our ways, realize that they too will be dismissed. Arrogance of the present.
Nothing is more anathema to learning than arrogance. Learning, in all its guises, requires our humility; we must acknowledge our fallibility and our finitude. The problem is that such acknowledgement is seen as a social weakness–we are supposed to be all-knowing to be important in a society; we must never make mistakes. Worthwhile confidence is somehow transformed to mindless arrogance–and this is nowhere more apparent than in Trump’s America. It seems we would rather dominate another person or another country than to actually learn important truths about the world we find ourselves in. This is nonsense, of course, because over the long run, only the learners survive–if we do not learn and adapt, the world will pass us by. The rest of us always freeload on the learners–of those learners we do remember just consider the following: Galileo, Leonardo, Lao tzu, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Fan Kuan, Shakespeare, and so on. Yet in the short run, life is always a power game — who has the hottest new idea, whose program is the shiniest, who has the arrogance to tell the world their domineering “truth.” The aim is to advertise our way to power rather than to submit to and work with the facts and beauties of actual life. Despite some contemporary claims to the contrary, nature speaks to us; it kicks back at us, it humbles us, it surprises us. Our world is full of self-promoting shams — everywhere. They’re selling us truckloads of bullshit. Every weight-loss program in the world boils down to fewer calories, better sleep, and better exercise (or taking up chain smoking). And yet, each arrogant brand of weight-loss is “the best,” “the one,” “the only.” Arrogant bullshit.
To admit our fallibility does not deny the working truths that abound in our world — like the truth of fewer calories and more exercise. We are still, for now, bound by many of the principles learned from Newton and Einstein. The mistake, as it was for Hegel (at least as he was read in the 19th century), is to believe that we have somehow reached the end of the knowledge road. In the face of what we do know about the size and age of what we call the “universe,” it is simply absurd to think we have reached the end of the knowledge road. Five billion years ago there was no Earth–or life as we might know it. Our galaxy has approximately 100 billion stars. It is perhaps 14 billion years to the beginning of the big bang. How is that we have become so arrogant in such a context–only our self-imposed blindness could make us seem so important to ourselves in the overall scheme of things. As Thoreau often reminded, it is important to remain awake. Our knowledge is powerful and rich. But our ignorance trumps it to the n-th degree. We will always “not know” considerably more than we “do know.” We must become and remain learners if we have any hope of surviving as a species. Though, given what we do know about the evolution on Earth, perhaps it is not our species nature to survive. We are, perhaps, even as a species, finite.
We also do not like to admit or address our finitude. We prefer to say “passing” to “dying.” Yet, we are animals; we are born; and we die. Where the initial matter and energies from our being come from, I do not know; and where they go when we die, I do not know. It appears that matter and energy, if not infinite, are at least conserved and transformed along a very distant and indefinite future. There is reason to consider some transmigration of energies, if not of what we have come to call souls. And, in this sense, it is perhaps reasonable to contemplate after-this-life possibilities. But we should not be fooled into thinking that this particular animal life we enjoy is infinite – experientially we live in finitude.
We also know that many species have come to an end. As I noted, human species-life may also be finite. This is something we humans will come to learn as both our knowledge and our cosmic presence unfold. Acknowledging fallibility and finitude is not, however, to admit weakness. It is here that strength is required and that strength is found. If we are fallible, we must learn to keep learning — in all aspects of our lives. New musics, new foods, new dances, new arts, and new sciences — we must learn to explore, experiment, and to make our judgements all along the way. This is the present essence of our human animal life. If we are finite, we must accept our actual limitations and learn to find beauty and joy within them. Eternal love is perhaps an illusion, but loving those around us, finding beauty in the world we encounter, even in the darkest corners, these are the experiences we are capable of. We should enable and allow ourselves to flourish in these features of our finitude.
I have little doubt that most of us will be forgotten. That, for me, is not an invitation to desperation or depression–it’s not a bad thing. It is an invitation to bring finite joys and beauties to our daily lives. My memory is shot through with beautiful moments. Sitting at sundown in John Riley’s kitchen and singing old country harmonies; spring skiing on a small mountain in Speculator, NY in shorts and a t-shirt; spring on my little lake in New Hampshire before the “summer people” returned, when the otter would swim the lake and the rainbow trout would find cold water within casting distance from my dock; playing “Uncle John’s Band” at 1 am in a dollar-a-beer dive in Carbondale, Illinois. And so many more. That is a life in finitude. But it is a life that casts energies into an unknown future — “ripples in still water, when there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow.” We are the makers of the ripples — the future may not know us in our finitude, but it will ongoingly feel the ripples we have set in motion–our action, our feelings, our ideas, all have consequences. Let us embrace our fallibility and our finitude, embrace our working truths, but remain explorers and experimenters — let’s reject the promoters of fear and hate and send forth ripples of energies brimming with beauty and joy. If that makes me a romantic, then I embrace it. At least I know the cynics and the purveyors of hate and evil will die too — ours is a one-way street. “Destined to be forgotten” is who we are–and it’s not a bad thing; it’s a reminder to live the lives we have and to pursue, so far as we can, the good, the true, and the beautiful.