Sunday, February 08, 2009

Life as We Know It

"The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same." - Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters
Hellish or not, this was essentially how life was lived for for most of humanity. I took a couple of courses in Roman history in college, and the professor was a big-deal scholar on the subject. On the first day of class he emphasized to us, that at the time of the Republic or the Empire, roughly 80% of the population worked as agricultural field labor, six days a week for at least ten hours a day. Therefore what conventional Roman history is taken to be "about" (Emporers, poets, generals, Senators, philosophers etc.) is our best guess of what we know or believe of the remaining 20%.

Anecdotes like this tend to evoke an aura like hearing about how Abe Lincoln walked x miles from his log cabin to school every morning, but I want to emphasize something else. Not so much how hard life was back in the day, but how it was defined in terms of things that have to be rationed, ie time and space.

What's different for us now is that is that life is much more capricious, and together with that that the "gooey" stuff matters so much more. Bill Gates is worth some number of billions, but his best friend when he was seven makes do with 90K/year. Michael Jordan won six NBA Championships but Karl Malone won none. And on and on. The reasons for this are never completely explicable, but we try. More importantly, we constantly evaluate the difference between success and failure, happiness and regret, in our own lives. But the essential factors, whatever we conclude they are, are not rationed.

If we spend an hour playing Tetris, the hour is gone. We can't use that hour again to write a letter. But a musician can express his passion or curiosity by writing a song. He doesn't have to give those things up once he's finished. In fact it's at least possible that he'll have more of it then. Therefore life itself is a miracle. We are spiritual beings who operate under important mechanical constraints, but those do not define us. For most people these are religious subjects and what we belive about them is defined largely by what religion we belong to. I don't mean to disparage that, or make any particular religious point at least in this post. But to truly express our selves goes way beyond moving rationable things in time and space, and we don't have to rely on any particular religious tradition to know it. Life as we know it is enough.

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