1 Feb 2014

The enigma of our existence

The enigma of our existence - by P.K.Odendaal - February 2014.

There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Every morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town.
There must be more than this provincial life! .. from Beauty and the Beast.

Oh, we are so provincial! If something does not fall in the province of our experience or influence then it does not exist.

But .. there is another side to this story. Our life and community and existence is a thick fabric of layer upon layer. The external layers to make us look good, the middle layers to keep us warm and the inside layers to sit softly against our skin - I mean in a spiritual, emotional and intellectual type of way.

If we look closely we will realise that there is no such thing as reality in our lives. We are actors on a worldwide stage playing an archaic part of the ancient play named Life. Of course, there are some people playing their parts backstage and some playing it in the limelight - but we all play the same old game of make believe and reality mixed so thoroughly that we do not know the difference between the two. And the script ... well ... we are handed that a few seconds before we have to play the part. We have no idea of the context or meaning of the play or of the prologue or epilogue. Most of the time we do not even know which part we have to play.
If we look at the spirit of the baroque era we will see that in that era the world was literally a stage which the people played on. Although the acting and script was superficial, fictional, opulent and full of grandeur and make believe, the idea is apt and inspirational.

If we think our provincial existence is the only one there is, then we need to think again, because we are so easily misled and misguided. The thick fabric of our lives is nothing more than a layer in the fabric of the Universe - maybe as thin as rice paper.
I wish to address this issue by citing two generally well known stories.

The first one is the Allegory of the Cave posited by Aristotle, as related by Plato in his book: The Republic.
Now then, says Socrates, as he introduces the allegory, imagine mankind as living in an underground cave which has a wide entrance open to the light. Deep inside are human beings facing the inside wall, with their necks and legs chained so that they cannot move. They have never seen the light of day or the sun outside the cave. Behind the prisoners a fire burns, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way on which a low wall has been built, such as is used in a puppet show as a screen to conceal the people working the puppets. Along the raised way people walk, carrying all sorts of things which they hold so that they project above the wall - statues of men, animals and trees. The prisoners, facing the inside wall, cannot see one another, or the wall behind them on which the objects are carried - all they can see are the shadows these objects cast on the wall of the cave.

The prisoners live all their lives seeing only shadows of reality, and the voices they hear are only echoes from the wall. But the prisoners cling to the familiar shadows and to their passions and prejudices, and if they were freed and able to turn around and see the realities which produce the shadows, they would be blinded by the light of the fire. And they would become angry and would prefer to regain their shadow world.
But if one of the prisoners were freed and turned around to see, in the light of the fire, the cave and his fellow prisoners and the roadway, and if he were then dragged up and out of the cave into the light of the sun, he would see the things of the world as they truly are and finally he would see the sun itself. What would this person think now of life in the cave and what people there know of reality and of morality? And if he were to descend back into the cave, would he not have great difficulty in accustoming himself to the darkness, so that he could not compete with those who had never left the cave? Would he not be subject to their ridicule and scorn, even their personal attack.

The people in the cave are living out their lives in semi darkness, chained by their necks and legs, unable to turn around, never knowing that what they see before them on the wall of the cave are only shadows. They are in bondage, but unaware of it. They remain ignorant of themselves and reality.
The allegory of the cave may be viewed as a devastating criticism of our everyday lives as being in bondage to superficialities, to shadow rather than to substance. Truth is taken whatever is known by the senses. A good life is taken to be one in which we satisfy our desires. We are unaware that we are living with illusion, superficial knowledge, and false and conflicting ideals. Our lives are dominated by the shadow-play on the walls of our cave made by newspaper headlines, by radio broadcasts, by the endlessly moving shadows on the television screen, by the echoing voices of opinion makers.

The allegory may also be taken as an equally devastating criticism of much of the science of our time, with its emphasis upon what is shown by the senses. Science, too, is chained so that it can see only shadows. Its basis is in sensory observation, its conclusions are only in the form of correlations of observations. It does not venture into true causes or into long-range consequences. The empirical scientists is not so different from the winner on TV quiz shows who knows the dates of all the Humphrey Bogart films, or from the prisoners in the cave who excel in identifying the sequence of shadows on the wall
Abstract from T.S. Lavine: From Aristotle to Sartre.

Is that not an accurate and devastating criticism of ourselves, our thoughts, our experiences and our sciences and scientists?

The other story comes from the Bible.
We read of a person named Job, who was thrown into illness, grief and shame for no apparent reason. The age old discussion with his friends about his righteousness and their useless counsel is something we all know from our own experience.

But the problem with Job was the same problem which the people in the cave had. He could not see his position in the light of the reality of it (the sun). The only thing he knew was his suffering and the futility of it all.
Of course for us who have read the first two chapters of that book - which he has not done - that story is quite different. And we, who have read the last few chapters explaining the outcome of it all - which he does not know anything about - know much better. We know that it is a grand wager between the forces of Good and Evil - God and Satan - that the faith of man will not falter even if God hides himself from their view and does not protect them from his enemy's evil. And in that respect it is a story for all ages that shows how God made man to overcome evil and inherit the pure universe.

Deep down we now realise that what we see and experience are all shadows on the wall of our cave and what we hear are all echoes from the cave walls - and that our real purpose is hidden from us all who reside in this cave - but we also know there are much more to it than this provincial life!
How can we ever be satisfied with the explanations of scientists and atheists, who are with us in this cave, who say that there is nothing out there - or in here. I will never believe it, having experienced and participated in so many things in the spiritual world already.

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