Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The starting point for critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as the product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, with out leaving an inventory.
Antonio Gramsci, The Study of Philosophy

It is common, in some Christian traditions, to begin any treatise with a confession. Usually a confession of faith, this serves as both an invocation of divine favor and a statement of purpose – an anchoring of the author in both tradition and belief. It is also a purgation – an ‘outing,’ as much as is possible, of the author’s conscious and unconscious prejudices.

I am a product of my age and station. I am a construct of history, reflecting in my thought and action more historical processes than I can imagine. Consciously anchored in western thought, the child of classical, modern and postmodern worldviews, I carry in me the thoughts, values and prejudices of 21st century, middle class America. It’s a funny heritage; an odd, if common, complaint.

Almost a year ago, I was riding the 71 Bus to work when I realized I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. Sure, I was only two blocks from the Job I Now Hate, on time, even, for once. But my life, at twenty-six, was already shaping into something I had never intended.

I sat on the bus, trying to comfort myself. Many people are unhappy with their jobs, I reasoned. Surely, the sheer number of boring, dead-end jobs in the world is proof of that. And why should I feel that I deserved different? I had made the choices that led me here, dropping out of school again and again, disengaging from my studies when I was enrolled, flippantly and jadedly acting more like a rebellious teenager than the serious scholar I purported to be.

And that’s the idea that stuck in my craw: I had chosen to be there. Every choice I’d made, consciously or un, had put me on that bus. I don’t mean to sound as if I was truly lost. My life was not, whatever Thoreau might think, being lived in ‘quiet desperation.’ Overall, I had a happy, almost idyllic life. I had just moved to San Francisco, a city I love, with a man I love. We spent our weekends lolling in parks and reading, or exploring the city. My quality of life, though economically poor, was good. I was happy, in spite of being miserable.

But my feelings of discontent lingered. I felt in some essential sense unfulfilled. And I started wondering: how could my life be different? I accepted that choices I’d made had set me off a path I’d thought I was on. But what should that path have been? If my life was not where it should be, it followed that there was such a thing as where it should be. And I so decided to find it.

In a sort of natural progression I started to wonder about the purpose of life. Or perhaps more accurately life’s process – the way in which life should unfold. I knew in some essential way that the life I was living was not the life I intended to live. But how could I know the purpose of life, or of my life, if from where I was sitting, all I could see was that this was not it?

There are really only two weapons in the perpetual undergrad’s toolkit, and I called on both of them: I called in sick, and I turned to the Classics.

‘The Classics’ is obviously a pretty bread category – and while I would venture that the entire category is worthwhile (by its very definition, a classic is a book that is universally accessible and infinitely re-readable), I have chosen only two authors as my main focus for this particular endeavor. The choice of authors will seem odd no matter how I preface it, so I will declare my companions for this journey straight out, and explain my choices, rather than trying to justify them at the onset. So, without further ado, here are my travelling companions in this search: Dante Allegheri and Sigmund Freud.

I know: odd. But these two – whether you choose to call them philosophers or psychologists or poets - are both at least in part on the same journey I am. Both sought to define the parameters of a good life while exploring both the light and dark sides of the human psyche. Both endeavored to understand the mystery of human actions and desires, and the way these desires play out in the world of human endeavor. Both authors were educated in the same tradition as I (although I cannot claim to be as educated as either), and both represent in a very real way the progression of that tradition through the modern age. Finally, Dante and Freud both deal in a very real way with one of the essential prerequisites to living a life with purpose: knowing oneself.

If the Classics have taught me anything it’s that the purpose of life – even the process by which life should be lived – is too huge a question to confront without a systematic approach. So, in the Socratic spirit, let’s try and imagine how one might make the question smaller. What do we mean when we talk about life having a purpose?

While the question may seem large, the fact that we can speak of ‘the purpose of life’ would imply that there is a common definition. Now, just as when I say ‘dog,’ you may think of a Great Dane even though I am thinking of a Chihuahua, my definition of life’s purpose may differ significantly from yours. But the common tongue we use ensures that while our definitions may vary in specifics, the general meaning is the same; if I say dog, you will not think I am talking about a banana.
So, life’s purpose must in general be something that we can speak of with some assurance. But how can we go about defining it?

What might it mean to know oneself? This is not nearly as pleasant or noble a venture as one might believe at the onset. Seeking ourselves, we are thrust, like Dante, into a frightening underworld, teeming with the worst that is in the world and us.

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