Monday, August 26, 2013

Sentience and Guilt

N.B.  This is a somewhat updated (and less politically dogmatic) version of an earlier post entitled "Riddled by Guilt."  I hope that the conclusion to the present post is fairer and more cogent than the final ramblings of the earlier essay.

It's pretty much a commonplace to observe that the source of human psychological anguish is the guilt we feel for having somehow acquired sentience--the knowledge that we are "something" but not "everything"--that we possess some godlike powers of knowledge and yet (through our "most grievous fault"--presumably) must nonetheless endure very un-godlike death.

This reality finds its religious explanation in the myth of The Fall of Man, of which I here summarize the Catholic version.  Satan (whoever he is/was) goaded human beings into eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, by which act we arrogated unto ourselves a self-awareness that only God "deserves" to possess, because only God is truly superior to, and not bound by, the physical laws of the universe.  The fact that we must die is definitive proof that--despite our presumption--we are not gods, we are not free, we are not perfect, we are, in short, evil, and selfish and sinful.  Original Sin, then, is really nothing more than the guilt we feel about being separate from the universe, about "knowing" and nonetheless "deserving" to die.

The irony, of course, is that we cannot bring ourselves to want to not know, to want to reunite ourselves with unthinking, brute matter.  Far from yearning to return to a state of robotic beatitude, incapable of choice, incapable of knowing good from evil, we instead cling stubbornly, as to the most precious of gifts, our ability to know, and hence to do, evil.  We call this "la condition humaine" or "the quality which makes us human." We don't like knowing that we're "bad," but we sure prefer the guilt feelings to knowing nothing at all.

Several responses to human guilt are possible--and here's where I'm going to play around with American political attitudes:  A) the Religious (Save Me) response; B) the Humanist (Save You) response; C) the Libertarian (Fuck You) response;  D) the Helpless Victim (Fuck Me) response. And, of course, there may be others.

The most popular response is A, the Save Me Religious response (espoused most especially by Republicans, but by a good many Democrats as well).  The person holding this belief is, essentially, childlike and undemanding in his thinking.  He acknowledges that he does evil, even that he knowingly and sometimes enthusiastically does so, taking pleasure in exploiting and dominating and controlling (as if he were God) while simultaneously regretting (like a small child) the empirical evidence that his actions are not automatically "good" and that he, too, in the end, deserves punishment and must "pay."

This fearful Type-A person therefore behaves as children often do, inventing for himself an imaginary, parental, yet all-powerful friend (a god) who will rescue him from his guilt--a savior who will swoop down and make a deal with the erring child, a deal that costs the child very little and that will make it possible for the poor baby to escape the punishment (death) he richly deserves.  Jesus (but also Allah and Yahweh and Quetzalcoatl) will "forgive" and/or "redeem" our friend for his sin (i.e., that behavior which he most cherishes) of behaving like the god he isn't. Convoluted, but logical--to a child.

The second most popular response is probably the Humanist Save-You response (advocated by many Democrats and a few Republicans). These Type-B individuals (of whom I am one) are relatively adult and responsible in their thinking.  Like the Type-A folks, they, too, recognize their yearning for personal knowledge and dominion, their love for experiencing the exhilaration and exaltation of godlike power.  And like the Type-As, the Type-Bs feel guilty about their selfishness--they are quite aware that much of their behavior is not "good" and, indeed, deserving of punishment.  Type-Bs, though, do not usually take refuge from their responsibility by believing that faith in divine saviors and/or superhuman redeemers justifies their sinfulness (though many remain un-dogmatical or tepid churchgoers). Rather, they rely upon their own human faculties to make compensation for their failures and excesses; they choose to "pay for" their sins, to balance their selfishness, by doing good--by being liberal.  Thus, by changing and/or moderating their own behaviors, by committing themselves to solidarity with others, they themselves expiate for their sin.

(I note, in passing, that St. Paul was a Type-A--inventing a redeeming Christ to save sinful man--the original "justification by faith" guy); the historical Jesus, however, insofar as our very spotty evidence reveals him--was probably a Type-B, advocating responsibility and proper conduct--a "justification by works" guy.)

The third and fourth types of responses can probably be considered together, since they both involve a categorical "refusal" to acknowledge personal guilt and/or responsibility--and as such, they are essentially delusional.  These guys--at both ends of the political spectrum--are deniers of human reality and, as such, essentially dishonest, foolish, and often dangerous people.  The parallels in the defective reasoning are apparent.

For instance, the Libertarian says, with Ayn Rand, "Fuck you:  I am God and I have no obligation to anyone but myself.  Whatever evil exists is your fault.  I will do what I please and, if you cannot care for yourself, then you deserve to die.  But I WILL NOT DIE (or if I do, I'll have the last laugh). Hahaha."

The Helpless Victim, on the other hand, asserts--along with countless pseudo-Marxist apologists--that his very haplessness renders him somehow intrinsically superior to his exploiters.  "Fuck me; you fuck me over, all the time. But you are evil.  All evil is your fault.  I am entitled to be loved and cared for because, as you will one day see, I am God. Then you will die.  But I WILL NOT DIE.  Hahaha.

It depresses me a bit that so many modern Americans remain strongly theistic--and thus tempted by Option A attitudes. Such puerile thinking merely encourages violence, strife, tribalism and wantonly irresponsible conduct--on the part of both individual citizens and the national government elected by them.  But I take some comfort in a truth that I have observed within my own family, to wit:

Aside from me and my two nephews, most members of my immediate family (siblings, aunts, cousins) are fairly regular churchgoers, i.e., they acknowledge a "savior" and pay lip service, at least, to the notion that "right belief" i.e., faith justifies them and frees them from their guilt. Nonetheless, these same people, in their political actions, in their daily lives, behave pretty much in accord with the progressive "savior-free" path of tolerance and good works as the remedy for primal guilt.

Does this indicate, then, that fellow feeling is mankind's "built in" remedy to original sin/guilt? Is Option B the human default option?  Such that, even those who, for whatever reason, "prefer" the savior/right belief solution, sense deep down, that justification by faith is a kind of bad faith, dishonesty, a cop out, an excuse to justify clinging stubbornly to the very selfishness that causes their guilt, but that they are too weak or too lazy to control by doing good?

I certainly hope so.  Because, quite frankly, I'm pretty fed up with Options A, C and D.

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