Understanding

A colder evening than the one before, with a brilliant igniting of lofty clouds in the sunset hour. I continue to ride out parts of my days in an easy chair, since when I move about I detect traces of the uric acid crystals, the cause of my recent gout attack, still lodged in a joint in my ankle. The thought of a body, this one, falling into a state of injury and slow repair, must be the reason why my mind has been consumed with the study of mindfulness these past couple of weeks. The gout has given me this feeling of being helpless in freeing myself from the pain. What resources do I have to make myself more at ease?

Today I am reading from Henri Amiel. I adopted him as one of my favorites to read and still turn to him regularly for ideas and inspiration. His journal entry dated September 11, 1873, was written in Amsterdam. He is ranting about his frustration with a doctor who is treating him for fever, and telling him that he must lay in bed for three days. In times when he is healthy and feeling well, he says, he refuses to embrace the impersonal practices of medicine and believes that he can tough out any illness on his own, but when he becomes ill he tosses out all self-confidence and runs quickly to his doctors for help.

We like to be fooled, he goes on. Even when we have no confidence in doctors, but we have no other alternative for healing, we will talk ourselves into believing what we had already thought to be false. It is wise for us to be skeptical, but that can also paralyze life. So much of living in this world requires that we overlook our best judgment and go along with society’s empty games, as existence is a sort of imprisonment.

He continues by saying that the sorrow that comes to us in life can be greeted with the humble submission of a Stoic or with an optimistic religious attitude. In one instant we quietly endure suffering, while in the other we tell ourselves that our suffering is serving some other higher, unperceived purpose. Believing in a future life of immortality brings us into a fold of people who have thought the same for thousands of years and gives us a sense of comfort that we have joined a greater unseen community of courageous voyagers. Believing that God is watching over us gives us a dignity and beauty, and makes the struggle for existence easier.

But is there any evidence in nature for the God of monotheism? Don’t the three religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam appear childish and simplistic in the light of modern science? Does immortality appear likely in what we now know about nature? But without the basis of this religious faith that has been handed down to us for generations from the great traditions, how does immortality look? Modern science says no to these belief systems. So we are stuck in a powerful struggle between two systems of certitude that contradict teach other, Amiel concludes.

The way to reconciliation between these two opposing forces, for Amiel, who loved to read all the moral philosophies of Europe that were ripe in his time, is through a philosophy of spiritualism, which says that the universe is made up of two distinct realities, one of matter and one of spirit. Science can only detect and draw conclusions from the material universe, whereas individuals can experience the spiritual universe, the greater reality from which the material universe has sprung. Nature might be just a laboratory where thinking human beings are designed, built, and then set free. Modern biology says that the existence of the human soul outside of the natural boundaries of time and matter is a fiction of faith. Earth seems to have some purpose or end to it, however, which keeps the question open and unresolved. The universe is moving toward or evolving into something new that we cannot understand.

Amiel strays from the course of his own thinking because he has no creed that he adheres to. All of his studies as a moral philosopher end with question marks. He can make no conclusions, or define any hard rules for his thinking, because they would seem inconclusive and arbitrary. If he were to sit and write a book about what he believed, he might come up with some more clear ideas, but he doesn’t have the ability to concentrate, nor to make the tough decisions to defend one point of view over another, so he continues to enjoy contemplation and open-mindedness instead.

And because of his lack of commitment to a system of belief, life seems to be dissipating for him. He has no group of like-minded people to turn to, no church, no dominating interest or overriding devotion, nobody who wants to kick around his question marks with him.

This uncertainty causes him a restless and unstable life. There is no center to it that is filled with a passionate love or joy for which he can proceed with his work. All he can muster up is this sense of disgust, inertia, and voluntary withdrawal from the excitement of living. He leaves a quote from Ovid:

“Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis.
In this place I am a barbarian, because men do not understand me.”

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