In April of 2011, 60 Minutes had a segment on the monks of Mt. Athos. It was surprisingly sympathetic for such a left-leaning program. What one expects and usually gets from liberals and leftists and the lamestream media is religion-bashing -- unless of course the religion is Islam, the religion of peace -- but the segment in question was refreshingly objective. It was actually too sympathetic for my taste and not critical enough. It didn't raise the underlying questions. Which is why you need my blog.
We know that this world is no dream and is to that extent real. For all we know it may be as real as it gets, though philosophers and sages over the centuries, East and West, have assembled plenty of considerations that speak against its plenary reality. We don't know that there is any world other than this one. We also don't know that there isn't. Now here is an existential question for you: Will you sacrifice life in this world, with its manifold pleasures and satisfactions, for the chance of transcendent happiness in a merely believed-in hinter world? The Here is clear; the Hereafter is not. It is not clear that is is, or that it isn't, or what it is if it is. When I say that the world beyond is merely believed-in, I mean that it is merely believed-in from the point of view of the here and now where knowledge is impossible; I am not saying that there is no world beyond.
Let us be clear what the existential option is. It is not between being a dissolute hedonist or an ascetic, a Bukowski or a Simon of Sylites. It is between being one who lives in an upright and productive way but in such a way as to assign plenary reality and importance to this world, this life, VERSUS one who sees this world as a vanishing quantity that cannot be taken with full seriousness but who takes it as preparatory for what comes after death. (Of course, most adherents of a religion live like ordinary worldlings for the most part but hedge their bets by tacking on some religious observances on the weekend. I am not concerned with these wishy-washy types here.)
The monks of Mount Athos spend their lives preparing for death, writing their ticket to the Beyond, engaging in unseen warfare against Satan and his legions. They pray the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; they do not surf the Web or engage in competitive eating contests or consort with females -- there are no distaff elements on the Holy Mountain.
Is theirs the highest life possible for a human being? Or is the quest to determine what is the highest life the highest life? The monks think they have the truth, the final truth, the essential and saving truth. Thinking they possess it, their task is not to seek it but to implement it in their lives, to 'existentially appropriate it' as Kierkegaard might say, to knit it into the fabric of their Existenz. There is a definite logic to their position. If you have the truth, then there is no point in wasting time seeking it, or talking about it, or debating scoffers and doubters. The point is to do what is necessary to achieve the transcendent Good the existence of which one does not question.
This logic is of course common to other 'true believers.' Karl Marx in the 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach wrote that "The philosophers have variously interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Marx and the commies he spawned thought they had the truth, and so the only thing left was to implement it at whatever cost, the glorious end justifying the bloody means. Millions of eggs were broken, though, and no omelet materialized.
Buddha, too, was famously opposed to speculation. If you have been shot with a poisoned arrow, there is no point in speculating as to the trajectory of the arrow, the social class of the archer, or the chemical composition of the poison; the one thing necessary is to extract the arrow. The logic is the same, though the point is different. The point for Buddha was not theosis (deification) as in Eastern Orthodoxy, or the classless society as in Marxism, but Nirvana, the extinguishing of the ego-illusion and final release from the wheel of Samsara.
If you have the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, then by all means live in accordance with it. Put it into practice. But do you in fact have the truth? For the philosopher this is the question that comes first and cannot be evaded. If the monks of Mt. Athos are right about God and the soul and that the ultimate human goal is theosis, then they are absolutely right to renounce this world of shadows and seemings and ignorance and evil for the sake of true reality and true happiness.
But do they have the truth or does one throw one's life away when one flees to a monastery? Does one toss aside the only reality there is for a bunch of illusions? There is of course a secular analog. I would say that all the earnest and idealistic and highly talented individuals who served the cause of Communism in the 20th century sacrificed their lives on the altar of illusions. They threw their lives away pursuing the impossible. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, for example, who went to the electric chair as atomic spies. Such true believers wasted their lives and ended up enablers of great evil. In the end they were played for fools by an evil ideology.
So isn't the philosopher's life the highest possible life for a human being? For only the philosopher pursues the ultimate questions without dogmatism, without blind belief, in freedom, critically, autonomously. I am not saying that the ultimate good for a human being is endless inquiry. The highest goal cannot be endless inquiry into truth, but a resting in it. But that can't come this side of the Great Divide. Here and now is not the place or time to dogmatize. We can rest in dogma on the far side, although there we won't need it, seeing having replaced believing.
My Athenian thesis -- that the life of the philosopher is the highest life possible for a human being -- won't play very well in Jerusalem. And I myself have serious doubts about it. But all such doubts are themselves part and parcel of the philosophical enterprise. For if nothing is immune from being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be rudely interrogated, then fair Philosophia herself must also answer to that tribunal.
Philosophy is reason's search for the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. But reason is not reason unless it strives mightily beyond itself to sources of truth that transcend it. So the true philosopher must be open to divine revelation. If it is the truth the philosopher seeks, then he cannot confine himself to the truth accessible to discursive reason.