Gospel & Universe

The Readiness is All

This page uses Shakespeare, Aurelius, Sartre, Hinduism, and Christianity to cast doubt on all versions of the afterlife, the insoluble problem that vexes too many

Flight 666 - Solving the Problem That Can't Be Solved - That Undiscovered Country

Flight 666

The plane is going down. You wondered how you would face the final moment, whenever it came. You figured there's no point in panicking, no point in turning your last moments on Earth into a blubbering, cringing spiral of fear. So, you prepared yourself for whenever it came, knowing that sooner or later it would come.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet tells Horatio that he feels (quite prophetically it turns out) a deep foreboding about his upcoming duel with Laertes:

Horatio: If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you aren’t fit.

Hamlet: Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.    (V. ii. 217-224)

Hamlet is saying that since we don’t really understand ourselves or the world around us (since no man of aught he leaves knows), it doesn't matter if we leave early (what is’t to leave betimes?). One might add that since we don’t understand what, if anything, happens after death, then we can’t say what it means to go from life to death. We don’t know the ultimate meaning of what we do here, and we don’t know what we might do, if anything, there.

From an agnostic point of view, death shouldn't be feared — or desired. At the moment of death, agnostics wait with bated breath to see what comes next. Or, they continue to breathe. I don't mean to say that the agnostic is somehow above fear, for we're all subject to that. As Sartre puts it, He who's without fear isn't normal; fear has nothing to do with courage. The body plummeting eight thousand feet and then being crushed to bloody pieces can't be considered without fear.

Yet we can forego the fear of a crushing metaphysical punishment. And we can try to forego the fear of death itself — at least if we can follow the advice of Shakespeare's Cesar:

A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come" (Julius Cesar 2.2).


Solving the Problem that Can't Be Solved

Death presents us with a problem that religion solves. Yet there's no solution to this problem. No one knows what happens after we die. The agnostic admits this, while the theist says, You'll go to Heaven or Hell, and the atheist says, You'll go nowhere at all. Isn't it more honest to say that we really don't know what will happen? 

Devout theists, who believe they'll go to a better world, may even rejoice. From their perspective, the downward flight of the plane is, in spite of all topographical fact, an upward flight. If they're Christian or Muslim, this flight will take them to Heaven; if they're Hindu or Buddhist, it will take them to another life or to a heaven such as Krishnaloka.

The belief in an afterlife is so attractive that many may even convert — quickly! — on the way down. One can hardly blame them, and perhaps they're right to do so. Yet from an agnostic perspective it's a seeming belief. It doesn't stare reality in the face. It lacks authenticity. To adapt Hamlet’s words to a different context, agnostics know not seems.

Atheists who believe they'll go nowhere at all once they hit the surface don’t fare so well. They're left face to face with their materialist certainty — and with the concomitant meaninglessness of it all. Some atheists might enjoy the final plunge, living their last moments as resolutely as they lived their lives. Yet the logic of atheism leads, eventually, to a certain type of hopelessness — that is, to the abandonment of any hope that there'll be anything to experience after death. While a fearful Dante sees the words Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here once he reaches the gates of Hell, atheists have already abandoned all fear and all hope, and can't even imagine a gate. 

In his play God and the the Good Lord, one of Sartre's characters says, I prefer despair to uncertainty (Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, 1951). The agnostic, on the other hand, prefers uncertainty. The existentialist thinks of disbelief as authentic, whereas the agnostic sees doubt as authentic. The atheist fares worse here, however, at least according to Sartre, who writes in his autobiography, Words, that meaninglessness and pain are directly proportional: The more absurd is life, the less bearable is death (Les Mots, 1963). 

Curiously, once Sartre's characters are in Hell they no longer experience fear. Garcin asks Inès, You really don't have any fear? Inès responds, Why would I? Fear was fine earlier, when we had hope (Huis Clos, 1944). The agnostic understands this fear and hope, yet the uncertainty of the situation creates a delicate irony: at the very moment when we're closest to death, we still don’t know if there's anything on the other side. Our brief lives will come to an end — and perhaps at once a new beginning. Then, as always, che sarà, sarà.

The ancient Greeks may have got it right: above Zeus, Time, and Chaos hovers inexorable Fate — with its endless scroll that no one can see (as in the painting by Walter Crane, below), or in triumvirate form, tugging at the stars (as in the painting by Elihu Vedder):

In the Classical Stoic tradition, starting with Zeno of Citium (early 3rd century BC) and ending with the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (late 2nd century AD), fate is an integral part of the meaning of life and death. Fate operates in nature, which has its own designs that we don't understand — yet that we ought to accommodate. Stoicism is in many ways close to agnosticism, although it adds an element of faith in a benevolent force that created life and underlies its apparent chaos. The famous Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) writes, 

The universe itself is God and the outpouring of God's soul; it's this world's guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence (De Natura Deorum 1. 39).

Marcus Aurelius recommends seeing the universe "as one living being," and noticing "how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web" (Meditations 4.40). He suggests a 'going-with-the-flow' attitude that's strikingly similar to the Classical Taoists Laozi and Zhuangzi:

How small a part of boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man, for it's soon swallowed up in the eternal. And how small a part of the whole substance. How small a part of the universal soul. On what a small clod of the whole earth we creep. Reflecting on all this consider nothing to be great, except to act as your nature leads you, and to endure that which the common nature brings. (Meditations 16.32)

Aurelius imagines, like Shakespeare did on several occasions, that life's like a play. If someone dies too soon, we may feel that they were dismissed from the stage mid-play. Yet the play is determined by nature, with its nebulous benevolent fate, and not by us. In this there's nothing to be worried about: 

"But I have not finished the five acts, but only three of them," you say. Yet in life the three acts are the whole drama. A complete drama is determined by Him who was once the cause of its composition, and now of its dissolution. You are the cause of neither. Therefore, depart satisfied, for He who releases you is satisfied. (Meditations 16.36)

From an agnostic point of view, this seems like a very fine, very desirable philosophy, yet it also seems like wishful thinking. Agnostics aren't consoled by the idea of an all-embracing God or a Cosmic Playwright. It would be wonderful if such a Playwright existed, but agnostics can't be sure about that. They are, however, inspired by the equanimity this type of detached yet integrated thinking encourages. 


That Undiscovered Country

In Hamlet, Shakespeare likens the afterlife to a fearful dream:

                                                  To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. […]

For Hamlet, death's dream (the afterlife) may end up being a nightmare. We're better off living a painful life than killing ourselves, since the act of self-murder would ensure that if there were in fact a sleep of death, this sleep would be a nightmare: 

Who would these fardels [bundles or burdens] bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.   (III.i)

Unlike Hamlet, agnostics travel without dread. They aren’t disturbed by the stories they've heard about the other side. Yet they're like Hamlet in one way: they believe that despite what priests claim, no one's travelled back from the other side. Death is an undiscovered country. As far as it's reasonable to assume, the accounts of the afterlife are merely stories. Agnostics will wait and see what happens. If anything. They have what John Keats called negative capability, which he defined in a 1817 letter as the ability to remain "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." 

Agnostics aren’t tourists expecting shady palapas on the warm sands of Playa de los Muertos — Puerto Vallarta's Beach of the Dead. If they're destined to become travellers to an undiscovered country, they've no maps of the place. They've no way to make a hotel reservation. They don’t even know where the airport is. Yet they concede that they may end up on the warm sands after all. Or they may move like a blurry green wave through portals of ether. Or they may move like water into a powerful current that flows down the falls into a jungle, the iridescent eye of a jaguar blinking as they pass. Or their bodies may end up six feet in the ground, and their minds may end up nowhere at all.

Those who believe in a Heaven or Hell afterlife, yet aren’t sure how they'll be judged after they die, are perhaps in the most precarious situation of all. They've every reason to be apprehensive — to pray and cringe before the hooded figure of Death. Or to fear what might be written about them in the scroll of Fate. 

Likewise, those who believe in reincarnation will wait apprehensively. Will they be reborn as slum children or in a palace with servants and air-conditioning? As cockroaches scurrying into the sewer, or eagles soaring above the peaks?

Traditional believers may of course find equanimity in the notion of Heavenly Judgment or in the sow-as-you-reap justice of karma-samsara. Yet the more confidence believers have in their own goodness, the more spiritual pride they may have — and most religions teach that pride is Enemy Number One. In Christianity, it's the worst of the deadly sins. Pride comes before a fall. In Sufism (Islamic mysticism) pride and selfishness are the main obstacles to mystical union. The higher opinion believers have of themselves, the more likely they are to be disappointed.

Agnostics neither buoy themselves up by believing that there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow, nor drag themselves down by dreading the undiscovered country beyond whose borne no traveller returns. They don’t see why a loving God would punish humans for having lived imperfectly, that is, for having lived within the limitations of the human condition. They do, however, whole-heartedly agree with Hamlet when he says, in one of the world's most succinct expressions of free will, We defy augury.

Agnostics don’t predict the outcome of an event about which they have no reliable information. They merely wait, taking a last look about them, seizing the final moment. The readiness is all.

The jet's falling from the sky, the people in the cabin are praying calmly, whining, crying, or blubbering in fear. For some, the ghosts of sins long past project themselves eerily into the future. Their sins will cling to them, like bad faith, like heavy karma, all the way through Purgatory, ripe with Dantean twists toward the gnawing deep or rosy skies. Or they will travel across the Egyptian Duat, full of terrors. Or through the Buddhist Bardo, the confusing state of existence between two lives.

To the agnostic, these scenarios of Purgatory, Duat and Bardo are so dreamlike that they bring us back to Shakespeare and to what we might conclude from Hamlet's metaphors: we know nothing about death and the afterlife, and the best we can do is imagine them in terms of sleeping and dreaming. Yet just because we fear nightmares, does this mean that we must fear death?

The wind's blasting through an open corner of the jet. It may be the last time the wind will flow through your hair. The last time you'll see the colours of this sun or the blackness of this sky. The last time you'll think your thoughts. Feel your feelings. The last time you'll remember those who made you think and laugh, or made you smile when you were in pain. The last time to breath in the air and say, I'm alive. The last time to look out the porthole into the open sky and ask yourself, with your eyes wide open, What, if anything, comes next?


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