By Pedro Blas González
Ancestry and Time
From what primordial field comes the seed that breathes life into me? I ponder about the thoughts and aspirations of my ancestors. In order to keep life in perspective, we must reflect about things that once were and are no longer, and those that one day will cease to be.
When we frame questions in this manner today, we risk making ourselves the object of ridicule, for existential concerns are anathema to a positivistic age. Such questions run counter to the dominant scientism of our milieu. The vulnerability that existential concerns bring to thoughtful persons today must not be overlooked, for how we address these concerns depends on human sensibility and temperament. This raises questions about the essence of human nature and man’s appropriation of the human condition and reality. Rilke offers an enlightening perspective on this universal concern in Letters to a Young Poet:
Surely it is possible that we shall gradually learn to recognize that what we call fate emerges from human beings; it does not enter into them from the outside. It is only because so many did not absorb their destinies while they lived in them, did not transform them into themselves, that they did not recognize what emerged from them. Their fate was so strange to them that in their confused fright they believed it must just now have entered into them. For they swore never before to have found anything similar within themselves.
In an inspired paragraph, the great poet breaks through the objectifying nature of time. This intuitive pronouncement is not meant to be science. Yet it is irrefutable vision, for to couple time and memories with clarity and foresight captures the immediacy of human existence. If we are diligent, we discover that time solidifies truth.
We arrive at Elysium with every act of self-knowledge. Time, we learn, is the only permanent solution to human squabbles. Existence gathers the fruits of experience by appropriating its eventual ripening into understanding; thought is impotent if it cannot make sense of analogy and generalization as synthesis, for man’s role as homo faber is to make a viable future for itself from personal vision. However, the latter cannot flourish in the absence of an autonomous will. Yet how many people suspect this?
Self-awareness sutures the gap between life as immediacy and the future as possibility. To seize this truth is to comprehend that eternity is apprehended by intuition, which orients life to a fruitful outcome. Some seize upon the essence of form in its totality, while others appear to capture it in fragments, like a surrealist collage, a metaphysical pastiche. Man remains a mystery to himself.
Time trickles in an ever-increasing flood. However, we do not experience the flood. Finality in human affairs is sprinkled upon us in a steady stream of subtle, yet often ponderous forms. To grasp the symmetrical nature of form is a triumph over objectification. This is the essence of transcendence, for how can we clamor for transient victories, if we are never guaranteed a final conquest? Instead, we hear the whisper of time shadowing us.
Properly speaking, the past and future leave us with the intimacy of being. Time passes, people perish, and human reality is reflected in the patina it attains through time.
The idea of nevermore makes us world-weary, dispirited. We come to all last things armed with a disquieting desire for more, our palette awed by the sweetness of things we can no longer embrace—once they are taken from us. What remains for self-aware mortals is the surreal realization that time is like a moving sidewalk that drops us off along the way.
We often contemplate the meaning of time and the infinite by invoking the imagination. Childhood ideas of traveling through time ad infinitum eventually fizzle, giving way to the complexity and contradictions presented by objective reality. As adults, our thoughts about time become stagnant, until they eventually fade away. This is because existential life abides by immediate reality—moments held together by an uncertain succession. This form of life is a creative act, for we project our immediacy forward to the future and retain relevant portions of it as memories: the past. Man experiences and savors time privately. The future is a projection of objective worldly events-to-be and existential valuation. Nothing more.
On the other hand, the past is a vital aspect of human existence, existentially and historically. The past grounds the individual in life as lived experience and future possibility. This is the case because we are slow to capture the meaning and joy of immediacy, by which time we have already amassed a past.
At an existential level, the past teases us by drawing attention to the future. This is because the past expands exponentially. Eventually, all that grows old will have collected more of a past than it is allotted a future. Again, we must not ignore the present. When I mention that the past becomes the future, this does not necessitate an immediate shift between the two poles. The pole that signifies the essence of life—if we are to remain practical—is the present. The present is not the retention of a previous reality, nor is it a projection of a future one. Instead, the present is reality proper.
The past serves as collected experience, and no longer life as possibility. Yet we cannot grasp the meaning of passing time—fleeting existence is more fitting—and not entertain the notion of a time to come.
Failure to reflect on experience is detrimental to well-being. This is the case because experience alone teaches us nothing. The very notion of “having an experience” is already suggestive of subjective agency. The events that make up experience are objective and readily verifiable: the World Trade towers collapsing at the hands of terrorists; the death of a public figure. Such events are verifiable even though they affect people in different ways. But human experiences are different for everyone insofar as they are also qualitative in make-up.
Experience is not so confounding as not to submit itself to a clear explanation. The realist perspective will do. Because we are essentially at the mercy of experience, that is, as receptors of experience, we often come to view ourselves as its target. This is an oversimplification, for experiences do not pre-exist in a vacuum that we walk into. Experiences take place in time. Given that experiences happen to individuals, we can assert that they are embraced by a subject who is equivalent to my-life.
Regardless of how we appropriate human reality, we cannot ignore that human experience is only possible for differentiated consciousness. Here we arrive at the question of sensibility and temperament. Bergson is correct to argue, as did Socrates before him, that intuition often affords us a negative interpretation of experience—that is, the course of action not to take.
Intuition is essential to all genuine philosophizing. Self-reflection procures our physical well-being in a world that, given its physical laws, offers us a barrage of resistance. Resistance defines human existence. On the other hand, man is not solely a physical being. Experiences occur to us as my-life, while they become organized and meaningful through the essence of my nature as a person. The plight of man’s essence to keep from becoming objectified by physical laws is the struggle for individuation and autonomy.
The Intimacy of Being
If the past is “lived” once again through memories, anecdotes, pictures, and old letters—what we call nostalgia—this is ample proof that the present signifies the vitality of life. The present as lived-existence is the supreme existential category that lies at the center of human life.
The present necessitates a sense of having-to-do, as the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset suggests. Here we encounter another paradox: that which is nearest to us remains the most transparent. The present is often lived in a fog that keeps us from understanding what is occurring in our lives. This is characteristic of the transparency of human existence.
In effect, the present rarely displays any form at all. Unpredictable forces often dominate man. In order to bring cohesion to the present, man must have a life plan. Ironically, the course of action that we take in the present must pay homage to the past and be mindful of the future. Irony ought not to be taken lightly in human life. Is this what Nietzsche means?
Ultimately, man finds nothing but what he himself has imported into them: the finding is called science, the importing—art, religion, love, pride. Even if this should be a piece of childishness, one should carry on with both and be well disposed toward both—some should find; others—we others!—should import!
Time rules human existence, and time’s best disguise is stealth. We take pride in the five senses, yet lack the ability to know what transparent human reality means for us.
Some people argue that we capture the essence of time in our ability to fashion tasks, celebrate a birthday, or reflect on the changing seasons. Others suggest the impossibility of the former because time is formless. In either case, atomic conceptions of time as objective—“the arrow of time,” and so on—cannot be denied. Socrates drank the hemlock that saw the culmination of his life in 399 B.C.; Caesar was murdered on March 15, 44 B.C. and Vesuvius’s most violent eruption to date occurred in 79 A.D. The validity and truth of these events is not in doubt.
The present is human reality, as we know it. At a given point in becoming self-aware of our essence, if not our relationship to space and time, we find ourselves, being. Martin Heidegger’s notion of human facticity and Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s discovery of the objective world as the not-I, quickly come to mind. These are strange-sounding concepts that often intimidate some readers, though they ought not to.
Man is an existential being. The “I” that I encounter as myself is an existential proto first-man. However, should we assume that mankind is a conglomeration of being that is not differentiated, as philosophical materialism asserts? Positivism is the dominant view today. Postmodern social/political institutions seek to destroy the integrity of human auto-rule. This is the myopic predicament of intellectually bankrupt postmodern philosophical anthropology.
The destruction of the self has taken many routes to deliver man to the crisis of postmodernity. This is evidenced by a humanity that seeks refuge in institutions, public opinion, or the cloak of statism. In postmodernity, man no longer tolerates the alleged burden that “I” am to myself. Postmodern man is clan-oriented. This human clan—the greatest self-conscious collective experiment in human history—is construed as an amorphous entity that pretends to exist as an ontological symbiosis. In other words, man must be discouraged from confronting alone the import of St. John of the Cross’s formidable phrase—the dark night of the soul. The latter necessitates free will and auto-rule.
The Past and the Destruction of Memory
Ignorance of the past blinds postmodern man into embracing avoidable banalities and destructive aberrations. This is because the past serves as a point of reference that enables man to develop a sense of place: tradition.
Children discover time on their own terms. As adults, we must learn to recognize the human condition from the perspective of a proto first-man. Yet postmodernity has created an elaborate system of re-education through collective social/political mythologies that dominate our lives from cradle to coffin. Postmodern life feeds man elaborate falsehoods, while denying the instinct to seek objective truth. Those who conceive of existence as proto first-man have never fared worse.
Ancestry, which can be understood as the existential recognition of converging lines of lineage, not so much in their biological ties as in their temporal importance, enables the child to ground itself in the reality of the self prior to its engagement with the world-at-large. This serves as a time-proven mechanism that shuns the easy and sensual vagaries of the objective world. It also makes the self durable in fending off the objectification that worldly life exerts over man. Self-reflection enables us to embrace the realm of things, people, and man’s interaction with the world.
Resistance is the order of reality for man. This should hardly surprise us. We witness resistance in the animal world through the physical laws that act as the constants of nature. Man does not encounter these laws as primarily physical or objective, rather as existential. That is, their effect is not the same in a being capable of self-awareness as it is on a falling boulder. To deny this vital distinction is tantamount to irresponsible theorizing. Hence, how best to handle the incessant process of objectification ought to be our greatest concern.
We are delivered into the world through a chain of command, let us say, that dictates to a great degree our ability to locate our essence in the scheme of things. This is truly a practical matter. It is a moot point to suggest that our essence is determined by biology and circumstance.
Our decisions determine the trajectory of our lives and destiny. Fortunately, human reality is more objective than we care to admit. What we “see” and ignore reveals our penchant for untruth in our quest to defend the indefensible. Erasmus is correct that man loves folly. My concern with ancestry is simpler than it appears at first glance. Ancestry is not sociological but ontological. I live within my skin by the sheer necessity of belonging to a series of ontological decisions on the part of my forebears that culminate in my being. I encounter being not as a great conglomerate of things, out there in reality—but embedded in the essence of the self.
Ancestry and tradition are ontological categories given their direct connection to ourselves that link us historically and conceptually to the past. This entails that my existential condition is not exercised in a vacuum, dissociated from tradition, which serves as its ground and interpreter.
We ground ourself in the present by turning inward—existentially, not by becoming sequestered by the empirical forces active in physical reality. Yet the cultivation of interiority does not preclude our need to partake in the world.
The present teaches us nothing that we do not first seek to know. This is so because the present of the world, as a series of objective atomic units of time, is often confused with the present that I necessarily must live as “I.” While the two intersect, it is a mistake to collapse one into the other. The present that we refer to as today, the verifiable date and time, is empirical. Empirical reality makes the objective-present blind to past and future. This resembles the metaphysical constitution of a Leibnizian windowless monad.
It is the existentially lived qualities of time that make man’s cosmic existence meaningful. Inanimate observers of time—if these existed—would only convey knowledge of an eternal present, much like time for a very young child. Because objective time and lived-time exist as concurrent does not suggest that time is equally acquiesced existentially.
Rather than allowing us to cultivate respect for the passage of time, the pace of postmodern life removes us from ourselves. To be swept along by currents and events that we cannot control fosters the illusion of perpetual motion, and few things are more immediately gratifying for postmodern man than the illusion of constant motion. Alleged stagnation is anathema to postmodern man’s quest for pleasure.
The dissolution of the self in the events of the world signals a form of alleged freedom that has become intoxicating for postmodern man. I am not referring to work, for work forges diligence and self-respect. The problem of postmodern life is the antithesis of work: make-work leisure.
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the increase of mechanisms, when leisure was no longer viewed as the opposite of work. Today leisure, which can be referred to as a condition when we are in communion with ourselves, has proven to be a frightening proposition for most. Postmodern man’s destruction of leisure snaps the link between past and future. Technology and scientism foment ever-innovative ways to kill time. Formerly, leisure meant not having an objective task to perform. Today, we ask ourselves—what should I be doing?
If leisure signifies stagnation in postmodernity, and we must fill every waking hour with activity, it is easy to explain why the future is “always upon us.” This is a condition when objective time arrives before its time, as it were. Absent from the former equation is the realization that I have become older, and am thus running out of lived-time.
The idea of man sharing a collective future has much appeal for ideologues. Yet this is far from an accurate description of the nature of man, and contributes nothing to man’s lived-time, for lived-time is transparent, and as such, must be embraced by differentiated persons. Lived-time is discreet, yet firm, and as sincere as it is reserved. Like a bartender, time passes us the bill in the end. Our inebriation with the activities of the world is an indication of our level of attunement with ourselves as existential time keepers.
The future is a force exerted on human existence as negation. The promise of tomorrow negates itself as more of the future becomes the past. As children, this promise is infinite. For children, the future has no decipherable form. As we get older, the future attains an identifiable form as present. The form that the future takes for different individuals corresponds to man’s capacity for self-reflection.
It is a great disservice to postmodern man that we cannot conceive of time unless it is cloaked in the self-conscious language of make-work leisure. Existential reflection once served as a guidepost to the destiny that we can fathom. Today, we are content to allow public opinion to dictate our thoughts and emotions—destroy our sense of self. This has come about through the politicization of all aspects of human existence. The future demands coherent reflection on our part, just as the present requires action. However, we ought not to confuse sober respect for the present with ideological anxiety over the state of the future. This is a fine example of existential myopia: an underdeveloped existential sense for life.
A conception of time as make-work leisure can be described as man’s fear of human mortality. Or, perhaps it is just a case of banality and superficiality. Man has been known to go to great extremes to ignore the order of time. This is the case because man vacillates as to what it means to live a well-grounded life.
Reflection about time makes us revert to the question of ancestry and the trajectory that our lives have taken in order to deliver us to our present condition. This is why time can be conceived in at least two ways: Time as objective reality and how it informs existential, differentiated consciousness. The former is the concern of physicists and philosophers of science, people who embrace this concern as scientific investigation. The latter is a confrontation with the order of human existence as existential concern.
The first two decades of the twenty-first century find man asphyxiated by objective time. Instead, man’s conception of time ought to enhance our ability to forge existential reflection on life. Either we intuit the essence of time or we do not. Intuition makes life less transparent and consequently more reflective.
Perhaps human life in the future will find itself with no other alternative but to shun ideology, especially as this has proven utterly destructive to man’s existential well-being. It is difficult, though, to predict where the impetus for this will originate.
Reflection on ancestry goes beyond questions of anthropology or biology. This is a question of metaphysics. Henri Bergson explains classical metaphysics this way:
If there exists a means of possessing a reality absolutely, instead of knowing it relatively, of placing oneself within it instead of adopting points of view toward it, of having the intuition of it instead of making the analysis of it, in short, of grasping it over and above all expression, translation, or symbolical representation, metaphysics is that very means.
Yet in postmodernity metaphysics is under assault. Undoubtedly, postmodernity will be seen by future generations as an asphyxiating positivistic age.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.