One fake Halloween tombstone bore the inscription:
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So party we must.
But why not:
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So work out your salvation with diligence!
These are two diametrically opposed responses to one and the same admitted fact, the brevity of life. The worldling, to give him a name, take the shortness of life as a reason to make the most of it, to "grab for all the gusto you can," in the words of a 1960's beer commercial since, in the words of the same commercial, "you only go around once in life." The idea is that since our days are few, our pleasures and experiences must be many, so that we may ‘get the most out of life.’
The seeker, however, rejects this merely quantitative solution to what strikes him as a qualitative problem. Fundamentally, the problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time in the first place. Let me try to make this clear.
For the person I am calling the seeker, the problem is not that our days are few in number, a problem that could be solved by having more of them, but that each day, each hour, each minute is defective in its mode of being, so that even an endless supply of days would not solve the problem. The problem is that the world of change is a scene of unreality. Desire seeks a satisfaction it cannot find in any transient object so that piling one finite satisfaction upon another does nothing to yield true satisfaction. Among the seekers we find:
Gotama the Buddha: "Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!" (Supposedly the Tathagata’s last words.)
Plato: "nothing which is subject to change...has any truth" (Phaedo St 83).
Aurelius Augustinus: "Things that are not immutable are not at all."
Should we take the side of the worldling and view impermanence as a reason to enter into this life more appreciatively and to live it more fully, without hope for anything beyond it, or should we take the fact of impermanence as a reason to seek salvation from this world? Should we seek the deepest and richest satisfaction of our earthly desires in the brief time allotted us, or should we curtail or perhaps even renounce these desires in the hope of satisfying a higher desire? Should we party more or meditate more?
The answer depends on the answer to this question: Does impermanence entail relative unreality, a relative unreality that points to an absolute reality? Or is this impermanent world as real as it gets?
Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837) was just a name to me until Michael Gilleland inspired me to read some of his work. Here is an aphorism from Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, Bilingual Edition, trans. W. S. Di Piero (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 105:
Men are shamed by the insults they receive, not by those they inflict. So the only way to shame people who insult us is to pay them back in kind.
The only way? This ignores a second way, namely, by turning the other cheek. In some circumstances, this is the most effective way to shame the aggressor. But there is a second problem with Leopardi’s aphorism. If you insult me, and I insult you back, you are more likely to feel justified in having insulted me in the first place rather than to feel shamed. In addition, you may feel that a further insult is called for to answer mine. Being perverse, human beings rarely take repayment in kind as settling the matter. If Hamas orchestrates a murderous attack on Israeli noncombatants, and the IDF responds with a counterstrike against Hamas combatants, the latter never consider that the score has been settled. Hamas will not say, "We attacked you, and you responded in kind, so now we are even."
Blitz chess is supposed to hurt one's slow game, but it is not altogether clear: blitz teaches one to size up a situation very quickly indeed, a skill needed when one drifts into Zeitnot in a slow game. Blogging may hurt one's slow writing, but again it is not entirely clear: blogging teaches one to get to the point, with pith and precision.