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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

October 17, 2005

Philosophy Beneath a Tree

I sit here in Dupont Circle on a brilliant fall afternoon. The sounds of the neighborhood reverberate in the background intermixing with the splashing water of the fountain. Beauty in all its manifestations converges on this point. From the businessman in gray checking his blackberry, to the homeless man sleeping near the chess tables, each person adds to the brilliance of this clear day. The ground glimmers from my spot beneath the tree as sunlight streams through the rustling leaves above. People pass by lost in the peculiar thoughts of their existence. Life finds its steady parade marching apace.

And so my thoughts on this day turn toward life and its reflection in this place. Life has its moments of gleaming splendor—its blue skies of fortune shining down. It also yields periods of immobilizing despair when you sleep life away, yearning for brighter days. Life has its ironies like the chess games nearby. Perhaps some of our most brilliant minds languish in this park, bereft of meaning, playing a game that does not matter. A true, disingenuous cynic would say that life is a game. We play the game and manipulate individuals in our lives like pawns on a chess board. And then we wipe them from our sphere of existence when we are done with them or have managed to triumph over them. In this way, we gain control over our existence and add meaning to our lives though the experience is arbitrary.

The problem of such an existentialist mind is that it presses for far more than it can actually apprehend. It is sheer hubris to reduce life to a game and assume that man can provide any sort of meaning to his lot. Even the early pioneer of existentialist thought, Nietzsche, went insane in his attempt. Any self-constructed meaning, upon intimate reflection, is destined to be rendered meaningless because it is arbitrary on a fundamental level. The meaning we give ourselves becomes depressing because its source comes from us. Meaning must be obtained extrinsic to the self. Otherwise, it is akin to giving oneself a present. The gift is not valued because the recipient is also the giver. It is empty.

And so people live within this paradox of modernity. Our culture seeks liberation in putting to rest the ailing vestiges of a God it has long dismissed as dead. It seeks meaning in the self, which brings the arbitrary into centrality, thereby sacrificing the very essence of meaning in the process. We question definitions and truth because we scorn both. And in the end our lives are met with a malcontent we have created for ourselves.

The solution to the existentialist paradox is to reject the arbitrary within its claims. Yet, to reject the arbitrary is to reject the philosophy itself. Given the dissatisfying nature of the existentialist mind, it is, perhaps, a wise sacrifice. To be sure, this is not an inconsequential step. There is no greater fear to the modern mind than certainty.
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