Is eternity really so great? I've always thought so. Well, not really for "always," since that would be the same as eternity, and I'm definitely not eternal.
Rather, I meant for as long as I've been pondering death and the likely end of this one-and-only life we're all enjoying.
After reading a review by James Wood in The New Yorker of a book by Martin Hägglund, "This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom," I ordered it from Amazon.
Given that the book consists of 464 pages of quite intense philosophizing, I may not be writing blog posts about it for a while. So here's some excerpts from the provocative review.
I've wondered about what kind of society would make the most sense in a world that had given up belief in an afterlife.
After all, if this life were considered the only life anyone would ever have, it sure seems like we humans would value the quality of this life considerably more highly than we do now.
Here's some glimpses of how Hägglund views this question.
Once we seriously consider the consequences of life without end, the prospect is not only horrifying but meaningless (as the philosopher Bernard Williams argued years ago). An eternity based on what Louise Glick called "absence of change" would be not a rescue from anything but an end of everything meaningful.
Hägglund puts forth his eloquent case: "Rather than making our dreams come true, it would obliterate who we are. To be invulnerable to grief is not to be consummated; it is to be deprived of the capacity to care. And to rest in peace is not to be fulfilled: It is to be dead."
...A liberal rabbi or pastor might object that Haaglund is unhelpfully hung up on eternity. Eternity is not at the heart of what people care about; they hardly ever spend time envisaging it. But Hägglund's central claim is that a good deal of what passes for religious aspiration is secular aspiration that doesn't know itself as such.
He wants to out religionists as closet secularists. When we ardently hope that the lives of people we love will go on and on, we don't really want them to be eternal. We simply want those lives to last "for a longer time."
So his reply would probably be: Just admit that your real concerns and values are secular ones, grounded in the frailty, the finitude, and the rescue of this life. He makes a similar point in relation to Buddhism.
He is happy to welcome, as essentially secular, those popular forms of meditation and mindfulness which insist on our being "present in the moment"; but he chides as religious and deluded those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment, release from anxiety, and an overcoming of worldly desire.
...But if we are to cherish this life, we have to treat what we do as an end in itself. "The real measure of value," Hägglund says, "is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time), but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time)."
...And yet Hägglund's very vulnerability increases my regard for his project. I admire his boldness, perhaps even his recklessness. And his fundamental secularity seems right: since time is all we have, we must measure its preciousness in units of freedom. Nothing else will do. Once this glorious idea has taken hold, it is very hard to dislodge.
Hägglund offers a fulfillment of what Marx meant by "irreligious criticism," a criticism aimed at both religion and capitalism, because both forms of life obscure what is really going on: that, as Hägglund puts it, "our own lives -- our only lives -- are taken away from us when our time is taken from us."
We are familiar with the secular charge that religion is "life-denying." Hägglund wants to arraign capitalism for a similar asceticism. Religion, you might say enforces asceticism in the name of the spiritual; capitalism enforces asceticism in the name of the material.