That One Serious Philosophical Question

by Andrew Simmons                                                                                                                        Friday, August 23

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest- whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories-comes after-wards.” –Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays”, p. 3

At the center of philosophical and theological inquiries is the question over the nature of simply existing. For the Epicureans, the meaning of living out one’s existence was found in the eradication of all desires in a negative hedonism. Some strive to find meaning in a struggle between dialectical opposites. For others, however, it is a matter in being optimistic in human progress and social evolution. But, for the post-modern world that has witnessed the fall of many ideologies, there is a return to this central question of existence when the other possible answers have plunged into nihilism. Despite some attempts to inspire a social awakening in terms of religious or social movements and controversies, time continues to be the ever present enemy as it slowly decays the zeal with the corroding presence of entropy. In taking up Camus’s claim over the pinnacle question of philosophy, one would be advised to look at the works of one man whose very life depended on this very question, Jacques Maritain.

There are existentialists. There are Thomists. Then there are existential Thomists.

There are existentialists. There are Thomists. Then there are existential Thomists.

For some, philosophical enquiries remain in the realm of impersonal, theoretical discussions. Then, there are people like Jacques Maritain who make strict de facto ultimatums to either solve one’s philosophical turmoil or commit suicide. Maritain’s struggles centered on his disillusionment that Scientism and liberal Protestantism could bring about a concrete answer to the meaning of existence. In a way, he is noticing the problems that were arising in Modernism that would soon pave the way to the rise of Postmodernism. To provide further context, both Modernism and liberal Protestantism were put to rest following the violence throughout the 20th century. Maritain became attached to the existentialist movement in France. While his works owe a lot to the existentialists, it was the work of St. Thomas Aquinas that inspired Maritain to truly cherish philosophy.

Thomism breaks down into a very simple premise; faith and reason are not juxtaposed. Jacques Maritain is a Thomist in that he ascends to this. He is an existentialist insomuch as he emphasizes the pre-philosophical experiences that not only make up philosophy itself but also what one thinks of God. Much like Kierkegaard, Maritain is very interested in that presupposed “I” in the popular phrase by Descartes, “I think therefore I am”. Maritain rejected the notion that our knowledge is derived from imprinted a priori concepts in the mind. The presupposed “I” is, for Maritain, the result of one experiencing and being conscious of their personal existence. What this essentially means is that the truth of the matter is not statically known. Rather, the very essence of our being is caught up in a great act of becoming through experience.

The experience that allows one to even begin discussing what it means to exist begins with Maritain’s emphasis on “pre-philosophical knowledge”. While Maritain views life as a discovery of being, he stands in contrast to atheistic existentialists like Sartre who assert that life is about making one’s being. But in different ways, both Maritain and the atheists approach the issue of nothingness. If anything, nothingness for Maritain is simply the potentiality for becoming. For Camus and Sartre, nothingness works as limitation that leaves one to craft themselves in light of it. Especially in Camus, this can be seen in the story La Peste in which a community is struck with a ravenous plague (which might as well just be an allegory for nihilism). Despite dying horribly, the characters of Tarrou and Paneloux are defined in how they respond to this limitation. Tarrou dies brave and defiant while Paneloux dies miserable and agonized from a loss of faith.  This is not so for Maritain. Nothingness is something meant to be filled with our discoveries and connections.

Does this mean that the answer to the essence of being will be answered with one definition? No. Perhaps this is the point. At the heart of Catholicism is the notion of the Real Presence. It is taking in the presence of God and being sanctified to take part in Being itself. Since that Being is grounded in eternity, it cannot be said to have some sort of specific end. As such, the discourse finds its meaning in the actual absence of limitation. Eternity and Nothingness are similar in that both lose their definition when something is added. While there can be an infinite amount of ways to take part in eternity, no one can make nothingness an object of importance without imposing on it a property that makes it something. Despite the lack of a static answer, for Maritain, there is a possibility of hope in the absence of limitation. With hope, faith and charity also emerge. The question of suicide is smothered in the optimistic possibility of meaning. Upon converting to Catholicism in 1906, Maritain brought an end to the suicide pact that he made long ago, for he had finally found a meaning to living on.

Andrew Simmons is currently a senior at Aquinas College. He is working on a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. The Catholic Church has been recovering from the event ever since.

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