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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A Prayer for Kant

Not during the tenure of this generation on our mortal coil has there been a time of less moral certitude than that in which we now live. The crumbling of the Berlin wall led to the construction of an edifice of certainty in the American Zeitgeist, which in its own turn fell with the ashes of two buildings that symbolized the fuel on which the anti-Soviet effort had burned. Yet even as the towers fell, from among the smoldering pylons and masonry, on a day of despair and hopelessness, heroes began to emerge.

Prometheus stole fire from the heights of Olympus, was chained and tortured, shackled for his insolence and even still refused to free himself from his bondage by abdicating a duty more sublime than his pain could warrant betraying. From the heroes of our mythical past to those who walked among us just a moment in time ago, there are things more important than the temporal and the immediate. We see in our present a world worth changing, even if the end to those troubles comes not in our lifetime or for generations hence.

Whether purloining fire for mankind, or putting out a fire in the financial district, the enduring willingness to suffer for a cause that transcends the mortal is one which yet stands in stark contrast to the survival instincts that are a mainstay for species outside of our own. A protective mother is not unknown in the wild, but losing ones life for a total stranger or an entire race that would pay no homage for the sacrifice is certainly not. The difference is not self-interest, it is not reward, and in those scared, lonely moments of uncertainty and doubt, it is incontrovertibly not the eloquent prose of Kant which drives the ethical impulse of man and not beast.

One can gaze into the ethereal heavens or the heart of the atom and never find a greater or more important truth than the simple fact that without hope, without faith, mankind is nothing. Ten thousand years of human history with every civilization forging, in the heat of their desire for certainty, another formula, another description of the moral whys, the ethical hows, and the conscientious because. A historical roll call will show that this method, this incessant attempt to sterilize principle with philosophical constructions that dwarf the seven wonders for sheer magnitude, has failed to produce anything that is not predicated explicitly upon a desire to be moral in the first place.

We pray ardently and earnestly that the world we hand our children and theirs is one where decadence does not spread to the core of our society, the gangrenous effect of an apathy towards what is and is not good in creation stemmed just short of corrupting that central desire to be ethical. Regardless of the system which an individual espouses or the relative merits of those systems, each and every one is an expression of the same irrational, faith-bound belief that the works we do in this life will create a legacy to be carried on by those to come. Surveying the world around seems to indicate that the day by day encroachment of evil is an unstoppable force and we ought to throw up our hands and live only for today. Yet on we fight, our faith to lead us and fuel us, singularly important to the inchoate utopia we live in.

From the golden rule’s admonition, to the categorical imperative, the same principle emerges – that tacit in all morality is the idea that others will follow the same canon, as a lack of universalization renders obedience and loyalty obsolete and trivial. When the fortune-cookie platitudes begin to resonate with this principle just as often as do the majestic, airy proclamations uttered in hushed words in sacrosanct halls, it seems to indicate that the ubiquity of it is real and not imagined; that it’s not just a truth, but predicate to all other truths.

Any circumstance, any situation, which relies upon the collective action of a population over a period of time is inherently one of conviction, one of faith. When truth is only beneficial if most people adhere to the recognition of its value, a lie is unethical only if one can trust her brother not to fib. When ones service to a cause is only a single link in a long chain of required steps to bring about lasting change, that service is done with a hope that others will understand the value of the cause. Otherwise, there aren’t things worth fighting for, striving for, or suffering for, and certainly, there can be no future more bleak than that.

Within all of us are the better angels who speak within our hearts and minds and tell us what is right and what is good. They are the translators, turning into the language of the mind and the intellect the impulses and moral intuitions which mark humanity as having a nature beyond that of the lower animals

Faith is the chain binding us to ethics, because an ethos which distrusts humanity and fails to accept an optimism about the nature of people becomes an arbitrary set of rules governing a pragmatic social landscape. It has to be that those who don’t live up to the lofty moral standard set forth by humankind are failing themselves and failing their fellow man, because the alternative is an expectation of hatred and spite, and an acceptance of the banal and low as the canonical for a soul’s behavior.

Sunlight filtering through the dust of our generation’s fallen colossus, heroes are formed. Hope yet drives them. Literal hope that beyond the next slab of concrete a life will be saved, but a less conscious, though more real hope exists, that there are things worth fighting for, even against the odds and even in the presence of the consequent of an act of evil and desperation. That we can maintain the devout belief that side by side with others, we can create an Eden all our own on earth.

Note: This was the beginnings of an essay I was going to do for a contest, but it turned out pretty poor and so I gave up on it and am now working on a totally different direction. It's unedited, probably full of grammatical errors, but rather than pointlessly leave it on my hard drive, I decided to vomit it into cyberspace. Enjoy!

cranked out at 1:50 PM | |

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