Driving with Plato : The Meaning of Life's Milestones

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2011-05-03
  • Publisher: Free Press
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A delightful, intellectual romp through lifers"s milestones-being born, learning to drive, getting married, etc-enlivened with apropos philosophy.



Being Born

Jean-Luc Godard, the doyen of avant-garde cinema, declared that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order. What about the story of your life?

If you’re talking to a friend, you could start the story of your life with your first love or your last job, for example, and work forward or backward, making your story like any other story, subject to all sorts of cutting and pasting that undermines the notion of a simple beginning, middle, and end. You certainly don’t have to begin with birth.

When it comes to your life as you live it, however, a different law applies: your life as lived is affixed to a chassis of biology, and the chassis’s chassis is real time, which for you begins when you slither out of the womb. The story of your life and your life as lived denote two quite different things. On the one hand, there’s your biological progress, and on the other hand, the edited version of that progress as narrated. In the spirit of Godard, Martin Amis once wrote a novel called Time’s Arrow, which “begins” the story at the end and works back, but being a novel, of course it could. When it comes to living your life, that colored-in bar stretching from a starting to a finishing line, it can go only one way.

However you picture that starting point, a starting point is what the momentous event of birth emphatically is. Birth marks the beginning of life independent of umbilicus, placenta, and amniotic fluid. No one is actually born in their forties; if the prospect is so freakish, it’s because life is only ever given to us from the beginning, its gift never secondhand or recycled, but always delivered brand new. To cite a classic storytelling device, a life that starts in medias res (“in the middle of things”) is unimaginable: birth and beginning go hand in tiny hand. What’s more, because it’s the beginning of something (i.e., you), the creation of the uncreated, this beginning-energy is also a breaking-energy, a dislocation of the flat line along which a world-without-you would have otherwise continued. Your birth is the constructive interruption that alters the tableau of things, making it resize and reshuffle around your newborn self. More than the filling of a vacancy, this is the kneading into significant form of a formerly nothingish dot. In your own microcosmic way, you are a unique cosmic event, a little Big Bang.

That life begins at birth would appear to be one of the most solid facts we can start from, and yet since the advent of ultrasound technology and the opportunity it provides to peer inside the baby-bearing womb, our thoughts about when life begins have got rather muddled. While many continue to think of life beginning with birth, others say it starts with conception, and a few insist it begins somewhere between the two, in the slow-motion bloom of the fetus’s consciousness—meaning that the front end of the colored bar has a gray area.

What makes that area gray isn’t only the biology, as it happens, or even the ethics of abortion that dogs it: it’s the philosophical question of whether, despite all this emphasis on starting points, yours is a beginning at all. Even though your expulsion from the mother’s body jump-starts your career as a singleton, as an entity with edges de-soldered from anyone else, this effect of singularity stemmed from a cause—namely, the amorous clash of parental chromosomes. Unless yours was a virgin birth, you’ll have had two biological parents, on whom your being born depended. Your “beginning” didn’t come from nowhere—it was caused by something before you, meaning the singleness you achieve upon being born is something of an illusion; you are actually the result of a process that began long before your conception. The phrase being born suggests a launching into fresh individuality, but it could also be construed as the mere unfurling of the latest leaf on a very long stem whose base extends well back into history.

Similarly, the very notion of being “caused” by your parents might be subject to doubt. I’m thinking here of David Hume, luminary of the Scottish Enlightenment and arch-proponent of empiricism, the doctrine that puts direct observation above abstract theory. Hume was particularly exercised by the false or hasty conjoining of cause with effect, and his famous example was billiards: one ball strikes another with the predictable consequence of sending it off in a given direction. But once in a while something unexpected will happen, and the first ball will backfire, skid, or bounce. The lesson is that a single exception can invalidate the rule, so you have to consider each event on its merits; in this sense, theories are for the lazy, mere ready reckoners that help you slog along with a working, but imprecise, knowledge of the world. So what might be the empiricist attitude to birth? Every time a baby is born, you’d have to prove, rather than assume, that it was the fruit of two human loins.

If that sounds tedious or absurd, just remember that the virgin birth itself was an exception so compelling that it gave birth in turn to a world movement. Yet even the virgin birth was not without a cause, which, if you believe it, was the first cause of all: the Prime Mover of the world, otherwise known as God. Assuming God is the creator, his unique selling point would be that there’s no cause that causes him, a marvel that medieval theologians called the causa sui. This makes being born—whether you’re a creationist who traces it back through your parents to Adam and Eve, or just believe that all creation is God’s own—a direct result of Him. As a deriving from God, and thus a deriving from something derived from nothing, this is the first of three senses in which birth can be seen as a miracle. The second sense would be as described by atheist parents who, dismissing divine intervention in their child’s birth, nevertheless feel the wonder at this appearance of new life and the astonishment that from the simple sexual clasp of mother and father, a child, in all its complex, miniature perfection, is born. What about the third?

The third sense of the miracle of birth belongs to the baby itself. All of us were born—you wouldn’t be reading and I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise—but most will have forgotten the experience. Hardly surprising, given the evidence that earliest memories tend to come from the age of three. True, we can consult a huge amount of literature about childbirth, but it’s mostly to do with the birth of other people. Even if your own birth was meticulously documented, such objective accounts hardly replace the subjective report that would be so valuable to have. This remains chronically elusive, and yet some people testify that they continue into much later life to dream about their own birth, a fact worth dwelling on in case these dreams give a clue as to the paradoxically forgettable experience of what is most seminal in our lives.

Birth dreams are not quite the same as memories, and leave a shadowy, sentic impression, more a feeling than an image; people speak of a sensation of pressure on the head, for example. Nor are they like such common dreams as being naked in public, which are painfully clear. These so-called birth dreams resemble occlusions of the soul, dark spots on the psyche that, like animals at night, just about stand out from the darkness that surrounds them. For these reasons, birth dreams correspond to what Plato called anamnesis, which, as the word suggests, is pretty much the opposite of amnesia. Except there’s a crucial distinction, for Plato, between remembering and not forgetting: the latter harbors experiences in the mind without putting them in its grasp. This is anamnesis, and it’s likely that birth dreams fall into this category: a not-forgetting, as opposed to a clear recollection, of what’s beyond one’s conscious reach. The memory of birth is gone, yet not completely lost.

Perhaps that’s not so extraordinary. Why wouldn’t you preserve, somewhere in your being, as in a fossil record, the trace of its founding event? To efface it would be weirder. It does imply, however, that whatever our age, we carry the whole of our biological past in the present, like a walking palimpsest of experience, or a cliff face in which each stratum, as you go down, speaks to an epoch older than the one above, and all are on show. If under the category of anamnesis Plato says you can intuit things you don’t remember experiencing, or re-cognize what was never cognized the first time around, then being born provides the perfect material for it. It was an event that came upon you without you even knowing. It’s in this that the miracle consists, the surprise from nowhere that inaugurates who you are.

To others, however, the miracle of birth is misery, the gift of life a curse, and with this we meet the empiricist’s bÊte noire: existentialism. Whereas empiricism calls for vigilance over the detail of what is, existentialism draws the grandest conclusions about what is and is not; it treks beyond the annotating of activity in the foothills of experience to the high ground of generalization and the sweeping panoramas it affords. Take Jean-Paul Sartre, who would have said that being born is a poisoned chalice, because it offers you life but withholds the meaning to go with it, like winning a sports car and immediately losing the keys. For a start, being born was entirely out of your hands—the very origin of your life, and you didn’t have a say in it! Birth happens to you, rather than your determining it, and that leaves you affronted by the arbitrariness of your own existence, which, in any case, could already be reduced to the chance encounter nine months earlier of Joe Sperm and Jane Egg. Not to mention the throw of the dice that made you appear in a random year, in a random location, and of a random gender, ethnicity, and class. Things scarcely improve as you grow up; anyone with eyes to see will observe how everything that happens happens as a result of equally arbitrary causes—an event as major as the First World War starts with a minor to-do about an Austrian duke, one thing leads to another, and hey presto, the dogs of war are let loose. There’s obviously no God. Believing in one is just a comforting delusion, and so no overarching sense is to be made of anything. From birth you’re consigned to beetling about on your patch of the forest floor, moving twigs from A to B.

For all that, Sartre manages to pull something from the fire, realizing that precisely because there’s no transcendent meaning, there’s no bar on creating one for yourself. If being born is an inauspicious fall into a mire of meaninglessness, you can rationalize it as a necessary preparation for a great life that might ensue—a greatness that can’t, however, be left to chance. In response to the classification in Twelfth Night that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” Sartre would have rejected categories 1 and 3: you’ve got to make your own luck, and you do so, above all, by redeeming the accident of your birth and taking it upon yourself to act. Part of this philosopher’s appeal to the class of ’68 who rioted in the streets of Paris (the very streets that Jean-Luc Godard had just been filming) was his antiphilosophical emphasis on action as a means of giving life a purpose—an emphasis he’d borrowed from Karl Marx, who claimed, “So far philosophers have only interpreted the world—the point is to change it!”

But you don’t have to be so brazen. Being born has a number of natural consolations. Not only do you get to live, but because, before birth, you weren’t living at all, you also might have a useful inkling of what’s to come on the other side. The time before birth could be a rehearsal for the time after life (or death, not to beat about the bush), which should relax any fear of dying that grips you. And even if Sartre is right, and being born means being cast into a landscape of hopeless contingency, there’s another way of looking at it. While he said you’re morally required to convert the position you find yourself in at birth, of being merely en-soi (“in yourself”) into being pour-soi, or “for yourself,” thus making the passive active, his opposite number in Germany, Martin Heidegger, saw pretty much the reverse.

First of all, you can’t be without being somewhere, and when you’re born, you take up space on the planet and in a particular geography. All being, therefore, is being-there, connected to the earth. Far from getting cut adrift in a Sartrean wasteland, being born means finding a place, and belonging.

Second, if your being has to exist in a place, it also has to exist in time; being born means entering time’s river, so to speak. Rather than, as in Sartre, having to grope for a sense of direction, you are from the moment you’re born, directed in time, taken forward in an element or medium that activates your being—after all, if you didn’t exist in time, you’d be as frozen as a statue. Taken together, that means birth is the gift of time and space, the two main facets of being. Before birth, you have neither, but your coming into the world means being presented with everything that is.

© 2011 Robert Rowland Smith Ltd.

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