DROPPED FROM A BOOK, or
THE PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE, or
THE MEANING LIFE CAN HAVE
by Ted Honderich
A book can get written too long, and have to be shortened from 240,000 words to 180,000. Such was the fate, maybe the happy fate, of the book Philosopher: A Kind of Life. What follows here ended up on the cutting room floor. Will you say it should have stayed there?
A life, when you contemplate it, can give you pause or even take your breath away. It may do more. Why is this? Is all of the reason clear? Is all of the reason good? The feeling is not only a feeling about intriguing, dramatic or otherwise extraordinary lives. It does not have to do with worldly success or failure. It can arise with any recognizably human life. It arises in me with respect to all my fellow passengers whenever I use the 24 bus. It can even arise with lesser lives. The life of a happy dog on Hampstead Heath comes to mind. I’ll be one of those next time round if I wake up to find out that I have a choice, but have to go a few species down the great chain of being on account of excessive self-reflection this time.
Some of what can give pause or take the breath away, or make for perturbation or even dread, is spoken of in terms of the meaning of life, although not by philosophers of my acquaintance, at any rate in public. In general we take this matter to be something best left to moments of solitude, or to agreeing partners in private. Speaking of life as having a meaning, presumably, in so far as this is not just loose talk, expresses the idea that there is something it suggests or intimates, or even that there is something of which it is a sign. Presumably life is not being taken as the kind of sign that is a symbol that has been settled by habit or convention. It isn’t a word. Rather life is the kind of sign that is an effect, such as footsteps in the snow or rumpled bedsheets. Maybe life is the working out of somebody’s very large intention, evidence of some powerful thinking about the way things ought to be.
So does a particular life have a place in some large plan or dispensation, God’s, and therefore will the life go on after a death? The answer, say persons of my persuasion, is no. God, as he still needs to be understood for the purpose in question, and not just by religious fundamentalists, does not exist. That an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful person or the like does not exist is proved by the state of the world and more particularly the fact of suffering. Of course there is the attempt of theologians to deal with this disproof by replying that God rightly gave us the elevation and joy of Free Will, of which the suffering is the result. This can seem not only footling but also unfeeling. It can seem worse. Try it in Auschwitz.
More philosophically speaking, and leaving aside traditional rejoinders that can be made to the theologians, there is a plain rejoinder. God could have made us about as incapable of the torture of others as, say, self-torture or self-destruction. More generally, our freedom is already limited in many ways, and not to our benefit. If we had a Creator, with the given attributes, why didn’t he impose other more useful limitations? Make it as hard to cheat the poor as to cheat your own children? In short, since he didn’t, there is no divine plan and no immortality. He will not be awakening us from the dream of life. The absence of God, for some of us disbelievers, does more than take the breath away.
I myself am not among the latter group of disbelievers, dismayed in exactly this way. The reason I am not, however, is certainly not a particular superiority. It is not that I think that the Christian religion or something close to it would in fact not be a solace to me if it were true. I do not doubt that if God existed and made arrangements for my immortality, things would be better. Bernard had the idea, after seeing the opera The Makropulos Case, with a 342-year-old woman in it, that either an afterlife would become deadly boring for you, or, if it didn’t, the person in question would no longer be you. Well, I could stave off boredom for a while, and then put up with it for a while, and maybe develop some new interests while still being Ted. I might in the end get around to making a study of Freud. More distinctions needed, my good teacher.
No, the reason why my breath is not taken away by God’s absence is not that God’s presence would not give me a rational hope about the future. The reason, rather, is that I am too accustomed to his absence. Like others of the Conway Hall fraternity of atheists, down at wing’s heel, I am all too used to the non-existence of God. This is a quiet fact for me. If he was ever alive in my life, perhaps in that awful moment of being saved in the tabernacle in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, he is long since dead. It is no blow to to be deprived of what one never really had, and has no chance at all of acquiring. Have I have more chance of acquiring, from Ingrid, a belief not in God but in Good? Perhaps -- but not if Good turns out to be Himself in disguise.
If thinking in a personal way about religion hardly ever happens to me, this does not save me from that old companion of mine, the simple and unencumbered proposition that I will die. In contemplating it, there is no help in remembering the ancient Greek who pointed out what all can point out for themselves—that our deaths as distinct from our dyings are not things we will suffer, since we will not be on hand. What is bad about death is exactly that I will not be on hand for a lot of things, but absolutely missing. That is bad to me now, not then. There is no confusion in the thought. Nor is there any help in the proposal of batty logic from the same Greek that I should now care no more about what I will be missing after my death than I care about things that happened in that other period of my non-existence, the one before my birth. The requirement of consistency is nothing so simple.
So much for one plain and clear question about the meaning of life that can lead to perturbation or worse, the question of whether mine or yours will go on afterwards. Another one, to get it out of the way, has an answer as definite. It has not been with me so long, but is about as dark and also about the future. It is that one day it will be as if I had never existed. This book will go the way of almost all books. Almost all authors and I, despite my short-term hopes, face the fate of being forgotten, along with almost everybody else in whatever line of life. At some coming time we will no longer be in even that last and assymetrical human relationship, the one of being remembered. It helps me to think of my being in a long and worthy line that unlike me will continue, the line of authors, but not a lot. It would be a lot better to be on an perpetual reading list. Right there between Homer and Horace.
Still, we need not be overcome by the prospect of our deaths and by the fact that hardly any of us can make an immortality in memory for ourselves. We can deal with the prospect of death and of falling into oblivion by something other than philosophy – by something other than a full philosophy of life, which is hard to acquire. Being overcome or perturbed is a matter of the two factual propositions and a response of feeling to them. Other responses are possible, involving other facts.
I am still cheered up by my small and only official or even vicarious membership in the long moral and political struggle towards fairness, the struggle of the Left in politics, the struggle for generosity and justice. This will go on after I and my books are resting in peace. Sometimes I am more than cheered up, even momentarily elevated, by another response. Maybe it is taking a little hold on me. It has to do with the splendour and eternality of truth. Not higher truth or spiritual truth, but truth. Correspondence to fact, any fact. Not owned by or dependent on anybody.
You can be lifted up by the thought, although you have heard it denied by me, that there is some way in which nothing matters more than truth. Often enough in the past it has seemed to me that however great the value of truth in general, there is something greater -- an end to suffering and distress and the rest. But to speak for myself now, at this later moment, is there not some way in which truth goes together, in a foundation, with nothing other than the Principle of Equality? A closeness of truth and moral beauty? Maybe even truth and Good?
Those are not the only things that can ride over or help with the dark pair of propositions about death and oblivion. Between now and my departure there is life, with Ingrid stalwart and lovely in it, and my family, and others. There are small things for a start. The Bombay Tandoori, not half-price anymore but still a boon to a neighbourhood. Rolling down Haverstock Hill to Camden Town on my Raleigh Pioneer in 18th gear, with the tires pumped up hard. I can think fondly of you who read my book, hope faintly of lasting a while in the reading lists. Maybe you will also read what in moments of hard self-doubt or maybe self-abuse I call my only real philosophy -- not what has been churned out by me so far, but the philosophy still to come, the freer philosophy to be done in the next undistracted decade or two, some of it in the way of Consciousness as Existence. Maybe under a nom de plume to get it a hearing unaffected by my mundane past. Most of us are not barred from such better attitudes to life, or from taking steps to trying to live in them. We can change the subject away from death and oblivion, by onward marching.
We may hear another dirge or two. Another dark thought or two can arise in contemplating a life. These have to do with the fact that we care about things. We have lives with at least affection and loyalty in them, perhaps greater goods of relationship. We have lovers, children, brothers, sisters, persons from our happy pasts, and friends. We care about things that we do, many of these being seen by us as creditable, human or right. We make and appreciate things that are useful, pleasing, beautiful or true—dinners, gardens, repairs, products, sales, pictures, paragraphs. We have hope. We have memories. We reason, and sometimes come to reasonable agreements. So all of us have lives that include things of value. To contemplate a particular life is therefore to contemplate a collection of valued things. They are very likely to be things whose appreciation we enter into ourselves, at least to some extent. They are counterparts of what we value ourselves.
There is a thought not about the particular goods in my life or yours, or in all the lives now being lived, but of these kinds of goods. Will the kinds persist? Will there be an unending history of instances of them? Are these kinds of things of the very nature of reality? Or are they on its surface and transient? Will a time come when no such things of value exist? Russell seemed certain that human life would have its unappointed period and then come to an end, as a matter of scientific law, in some dismal state. Bergson too took human life to be a momentary gleam in a long night. But all that is needed to give some of us pause is just uncertainty about the persistence of good things. The shadow is cast by just the possibility of the end of value.
Another thought about good things, with the same basic tendency, does not have to do with future cosmic catastrophe, and is more arresting. Is reality such that the good things can come to have more of an ascendancy over the bad things than now they have? Can it come about that there are more of the good things and fewer of the dark and the terrible things? Is history such that this can happen? Hegel thought so, in his pompous bumble, as did Marx in his better and more human way. Camus carries more conviction than both in dismissing the optimism of their theories. It is all very well to think that the moral struggle of the Left will not end, that reason will always see through falsehood and deception to the imperative of fairness in the satisfaction of desire. But will the struggle ever succeed? Will things remain as they have been? Is reality, much of it of our own making, such as to make any decent struggle absurd in the sense of being hopeless? Necessary, and for some of us a little emotionally sustaining, but absurd?
Now and again, in some moods, this seems to me close to true. It is what led, in the course of my thoughts on hierarchic democracy and the necessity of mass civil disobedience, to cease to be agnostic about the justification of much political violence of the Left. That things will not get much better, no matter the struggle, is as black a fact as there is. It is one that makes as nothing the shortcomings of human life noticed or discovered by the moralities about personal virtues, relations and intentions, the moralities that save us from actually considering what ought to be done. The prospect of the large consequences of our ongoing selfishness, and of this being our nature, is an awful prospect.
However, as many have pointed out, neither the proposition that things will not get better, nor the prior proposition that they will end as Russell and Bergson supposed, is a ground for uninterrupted despair. Schopenhauer was not right about the rationality of suicide, but only in a state of being overcome. Maybe people weren’t reading his books. As remarked already about other dismal propositions, we do not need to be overcome, but can take another attitude. It is an avowedly muscular one that keeps in mind that there are good things – and follows another of Ingrid’s Laws, to the effect that we must turn our eyes towards them. We can keep in mind, too, despite a reasonable pessimism, that there is a little chance of more good things, and, more important, of more people having them. We can also remember that things are not actually made bad by not lasting, or by there not being enough of them.
This whole subject of the meaning of life, for most philosophers, is a tedious one, partly because it is philosophically easy. It is not hard to leave behind. Respectful as I really am of some of those who have stronger religious aspirations than me, it has never seemed to me that the factual question of the existence of God is difficult or serious. We need not think more about life’s lack of meaning, save, so to speak, for the good meaning each of us can try to give to it—projects and goals in which we have already succeeded or still have a happy chance of succeeding. Nor are there real philosophical problems with death itself and with oblivion. Further, there is no sensible dispute about the truths that goods do not have to be eternal to be good, and that a limited amount of something is not necessarily bad, and that logic does not make it necessary to gaze only on certain facts and to fall into dark attitudes.
With respect to real and ordinary goods
I again easily remind myself, and you, of a lot. If this is not
out of a life, it is a life doing going service against philosophical
I remind you of my watching brother Robert paint his shields for the
and the intrinsic interest of my travels with Elvis. Of First Love and
all who came after her, of excitements and happinesses with every one.
The fineness of my son’s being born, the size of the audience for my
lecture, the satisfaction of being the Grote, and of my mightily
the consequences-of-determinism problem, as in moments of
I know I did. Gladness in wine, and, as Helen used to call it, the buzz
of a fag. Getting straight about the subjectivity of consciousness,
for the time being, and an election that lightened my dismay about
Affections lasting out of the past that will last as long as I do.
with the prospects of a partnership and our new green garden under the
chestnut in Keats Grove. Some philosophy done, and more to come. It
even be, to go back beyond that thought about the closeness of moral
and truth, to an old idea for a mother-in-law about religion, that
is something between hope and truth, a kind of hope that
way is true. Could that be the reason that personal religion itself, in
addition to some of those who believe it, does at moments have my