Suppose everything matters

“What if nothing means anything?” Calvin asks Hobbes during one of their wagon rides through the woods. “What if nothing really matters?” Two panels later he adds, “Or suppose everything matters. Which would be worse?”

Both propositions — nihilism and its opposite — are equally frightening because they have the same practical result: the negation of the idea of relative importance. We can’t do everything, and so we need some things to be more important than others, so that we can sacrifice the less important things in order to pursue the more important ones. The idea that everything is equally important leads to the same paralysis as does nihilism: it gives us no grounds for choosing any particular course of action over any other. Without “an opposition in all things,” as Lehi puts it, “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.”

When I try to look at reality antisolipsistically — taking the stance that all points in time are equally “present” (eternalism) and all points of view are equally “I” (ekatmanism) — I find that it brings me dangerously close to the philosophically dysfunctional belief that everything is equally important because it undermines some very basic distinctions. We are accustomed to thinking of long durations as more important than short ones, for example — a distinction which evaporates if time is just another dimension and the real “duration” of everything is eternity. Eternalism tends to lead one to disregard duration entirely and focus only on quality. If one can be perfectly happy even for a few seconds, isn’t that enough, since those few seconds will never “pass” or cease to exist? This is the reasoning behind Goethe’s version of Faust’s pact with the devil:

If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.

If he can attain even a single moment of perfect happiness, Faust will consent to be damned — more than that, he positively wishes to perish. Once that perfect moment has been realized, the whole future is irrelevant; the ultimate goal has been reached, nothing can possibly add to or detract from it, and there is no call for further action of any kind.

Hölderlin expresses the same thought in the closing lines of “An die Parzen“: “Einmal lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarf’s nicht.” — Once I lived like the gods, and nothing more is required. And if that “ich” is understood as the universal Atman, the “nicht” becomes absolute: If Hölderlin (or anyone else) once lived like the gods, nothing more is required of anyone.


Filed under Philosophy

3 responses to “Suppose everything matters

  1. My encounter with Faust is the Gounod opera. His choice there seemed very much short-sighted (assuming the Christian mythology to be true for purposes of the text). It seemed a simple choice of getting what he dearly wanted without regard for the ultimate consequences. I very much like this view as an alternative (though it wouldn’t have served Gounod’s dramatic purposes as well).

  2. The opera is based on Goethe’s Faust — but Part I only, leading to the false impression that the story of Faust is primarily about his seduction of Margaret. Read both parts in their entirety, and you’ll come away with a very different perspective on Faust’s character.

  3. Pingback: Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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