The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 10, 2000

Modern anguish and anxieties
By Darshan Singh Maini

MAN’s situation on this planet in the primal, natal sense has never changed, and can never change, for the very miracle of man’s birth or the trauma, as the Freudians would say, is an event that carries an immeasurable load of ambiguities and imponderables. Not all the scriptures and songs, not all the scientific and secular explanations have, in a deeper way, either lifted the veil or vouchsafed a degree of certitude enough to allay fears, existential insecurities and problematics of man’s growth within the orbit of multiplying regressions on the one hand, of burgeoning new horizons of expansion on the other. The race between entropy or the gradual withering away or snuffing out of life and spiritual ascent, as some modern thinkers like Pierre De Chardin and Paul Tillich affirm in their writings, is not likely to end.

And yet it’s within all such organic, insurmountable restraints and retractions that man has found, and would continue to find the point of "stillness" which’s the goal of nirvana, or "the angle of repose". Even this "stillness" is, in reality, the stillness of inner dynamics.


This sense of existential insecurity and ontological anxiety has been on the rise particularly since the writings of Christian and secular existentialists from Kirkegaard to Sartre and Camus, and one may see these states of mind not only in philosophical works, but also, more dramatically and powerfully, in works of fiction and drama. Such beliefs in different forms erupted earlier in Nietzsche, Freud, and in scores of other thinkers and writers. Thus the elimination of God from the universe, and the new humanism which regarded man as the measure of man against the backdrop of Darwinian thought and scientific nihilism took hold of the imagination of the 20th century man in a special way. And the political fallout in the form of totalitarian horrors, fascist evil and fundamentalist fanaticisms, religious as well as crypto-humanist made the human situation to complex as to increase man fold the unbearable weight of disenchantment, nausea and alienation.

Actually, what caused the modern consciousness to split — "the divided self" of Laing — was the inability of man to understand the changed and ever-changing condition in a dynamic world, a world in which qualitative jumps in knowledge created as much confusion as new horizons of promise and reach. It was when Quantum Physics turned to nuclear energy for investigation that the elements of uncertainty, hidden design etc. began to creep into scientific studies of a certain kind. And Einstein was the great bridge that helped link possibilities and promises.

Even, then, two opposed schools of thought, in general, created their own preserves and colonies of ideas. If after the atomic holocaust it brought the doomsday literature to the boil — H.G. Well’s melancholic last testament, Mind at the End of its Tether published in 1945 —, around the same time that remarkable French geologist, Pierre De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and other Christian thinkers were exploring that point of intersection — and convergence — where matter no longer remained a dead mineral or just as inert object in nature, but a moving, evolving thing having an inner energy in relation to man and his expanding sensibility. And in that sense matter and materialism, flesh and life of the senses were no longer theological anathema; they, in fact, acquired a ‘visionary’ status within certain contexts and parameters of human life.

No wonder, several insightful studies involving the self the divided self, the persistent self, the authentic self, the evolving self etc. — have engaged the modern mind, for the entrenched orthodoxies of the state and the Church, of race and society, among other repressive inroads into the life of the individual, have reduced his pristine personality to a thing, a tool, a commodity. Thus, the suffocating feelings of ‘engulfment’ and ‘entrapment’, of alienation, in a world of "gigantism" and confused complexities.

Hence the need for "evolutionary epistemology" — which helps the baffled, perplexed man without the traditional props of faith to create his own self, the regenerated self, the resilient self. This kind of apotheosis of the self can degenerate into self-aggrandisement if the self separates itself from the common run of humanity. The true, authentic, inalienable self has thus to create its own moral space within the structures evolved by nature and man and society in consonance with the felt pressures of some kind of transcendence. There’s then a hierarchy of points and goals, and one has to reach "the transcendent self". The self nestles like precious little pearl within the oyster of each person. It’s only at the higher levels of awareness that the self acquires inviolate authenticity, a transcendent aspect, not in the mystic sense, but in its capacity to remain on course and create fresh values, to remain true to that inner core — that ‘jewel’ within oneself.

Now all quests, religious or secular — scientific aim at enlarging the range of human consciousness with a view to achieving a state of mind close to what the theologians call ‘godliness’, and the secular thinkers human essence in all its fecundities, pluralities and profundities. In reality, the goals are the same, and whatever idiom we may adopt, the idea is to create a human economy of values that is sustainable, self-rejuvenating and evolutionary, reaching out to the riches of nature in fruit and flower, in seed and sod, in mineral and marine worlds, and reaching in to connect the self with those hidden realities that manifest themselves in energies close to the sublime.

And it’s in this larger, developing context that we consider a couple of Western thinkers who are close to the pulse of our argument. Paul Tillich in such books as Morality and Beyond and The Eternal Now has frequently gone back even to the pagan world of the Greeks to illustrate his ideas, and connect the civilisations and cultures of the earlier periods with those that Christianity and modern humanism have created in the West, particularly since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He refers, in this connection, to what man in eternity seeks — " his instinctive aim of the telos for which he is created". Plato, for instance, held that the telos of man is to become as much as possible similar to the God". However, 20th century existentialism has largely been non-religious, and emphasises the fundamental anxieties and insecurities of man, whatever ideological, religious consolations and structures of thought may be offered to quieten the unquiet; perpetually perplexed human mind where all appeals to the so-called "heavens" return it to dusty answers. Being does precede essence, as Sartre observes, though as in the words of Tillich, "Being precedes value but value fulfils being". And no morality, in his view, is entirely free of religious imperatives. Elaborating the point, he refers to what he calls "transmoral ethics", where "conscience being witness of itself" subsumes religious thought as a matter of inner necessity. Rejecting Hobbesian thought and the Darwinian nature "red in tooth and claw" (as Tennyson called it), Tillich proposes a telelogical theory which avers that "events and developments are due to purpose or design that is served by them". So the created and evolved world is not a mere chance or accident — "a big bang", but a matter of intrinsic design, of the telos which both, consciously and unconsciously, drives man towards higher states of consciousness.

The French thinker, a Jesuit priest and a globe-trotting geologist Pierre De Chardin, have had, earlier in the 20th century to coin a lexicon of striking originality to interpret the evolution of nature, beast and man in consonance with true Catholic thought, and with the inescapable scientific data and discoveries. And he strides the two worlds with remarkable ease. De Chardin sought to demonstrate the light of religion in all science. And if religion is truth in its fullest and highest sense as Guru Nanak Dev affirms epiphanically finds in the Japji, then the argument of De Chardin becomes an echo of the insights which harmonise science and religion.The geologist De Chardin the world "an organic whole", and each phenomenon, natural or biological, he observes, has two sides, outward and inward. Its externality is manifest, and its interiority latent. For him matter becomes sensous and ‘holy’, begins to breathe, as it were, w

hen it reaches that point in its evolution where in one big leap man, the animal, possessed of mind and soul bursts upon the terrestrial planet. The read of nature becomes Pascal’s "thinking reed", and as the process of "complexification" proceeds, man’s "hominisation" (De Chardin’s coinage) begins. That’s to say, consciousness becomes conscious of itself, a quality absent in animals. And the earth in the end acquires "soul". He touches upon these problems and also, in passing, on the nature of evil (far away from the orthodox Jesuit theology) in the volume, The Divine Milieu, but it’s his magnumopus, The Phenomenon of Man that De Chardin brings the arguments a full circle. He talks, then, of "noosphere", and of "the Omega Point" man is destined to reach. The earth is not going to go clean out of existence either with "a bang" or "a whimper", on the contrary, its poetry and power, its soul and sacredness will abide.

After nearly half a century since De Chardin’s death, the latest scientific breakthrough in the matter of "the genome mapping" (which’s being described as perhaps the greatest discovery of our times) man’s existential and moral anxieties have already darkened some of its promised miracles in the field of medicine, health etc. But De Chardin’s song of the earth, of man’s ultimate sublimity still remains to lift our hearts.