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We atheists don’t believe in a divine being. We don’t believe in a soul that perdures beyond the mortal body. We don’t believe that anything in particular “happens” when one passes away. As far as we’re concerned, when one dies, one is dead. Bye bye. Move along.
All atheist ethical speculation, therefore, begins with the following question: “Insofar as human existence is incontrovertibly and brutally finite, how should I live?” The history of nonbelief features two classic responses. The first — “Live Right!” — is practiced by those who aspire to “leave the earth in better shape than they found it,” or some such thing.
The second response to human finitude — “Live Large!” — is the prerogative, mostly, of fictional characters. Some of the most memorable personages in literature, theater, opera and cinema are hellbent on enjoying their limited engagement to the fullest. After all, if there is no moral accounting in the world to come (and if there is no world to come) then why not overspend one’s passions in the present one?
Now it can’t be denied that some real, nonfictional people occasionally live large as well. Debauchery, excessive consumption of martinis, unforgivable speeches, inexcusable passes made at colleagues—such behaviors may result from an iron clad belief in human mortality. Admittedly, the same belief may spawn behaviors far worse than that. As monotheists are quick to point out, the consequence of living as if there is no God (or Satan) is a diabolical nihilism. (Of course, a glance at the history of organized religion teaches us that godlessness is neither the only, nor the most well-traveled, route to that end.)
Among contemporary atheists, I regret to say, living right has vanquished living large. Too many nonbelievers seem intent on teaching the faithful a lesson. Namely, that they too can lead virtuous lives and that they can do so without recourse to God or religion. Political action, more often than not, is the medium through which they try to actualize their moral and ethical yearnings. (The irony being that American atheists are presently in a state of complete political disrepair).
All of this do-gooding twittery, I humbly submit, has done great damage to the indomitable atheist spirit. The most interesting irreligious (and, come to think of it, religious) people I know lead lives in which they attempt, somehow, to balance the conflicting demands of living right and living large. To exist in such a manner is to experience the most irreconcilable inner tensions, the most profound contradictions—the atheist becomes a living, breathing and, ineluctably, dying work of art.
Although I rarely encounter such free spirits in the real world, I converse with them all the time in fiction. Saul Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein, features precisely such a character. Professor Ravelstein–who was modeled on the political philosopher Allan Bloom–lives for pleasure and the appreciation of aesthetic beauty. He does so, however, while immersing himself in the Western canon’s exploration of how to live a good and moral life.
The professor and his interlocutor were fond of discussing death. Our narrator reports:
He [Ravelstein] had, however, asked me what I imagined death would be like—and when I said the pictures would stop he reflected seriously on my answer, came to a full stop, and considered what I might mean by this. No one can give up on the pictures-the pictures might, yes, they might continue. I wonder if anyone believes that the grave is all there is. No one can give up on the pictures. The pictures must and will continue. If Ravelstein the atheist-materialist has implicitly told me that he would see me sooner or later, he meant that he did not accept the grave to be the end. Nobody can and nobody does accept this.
I have pondered this passage for years. The older I grow, predictably, the more I hope that the pictures must and will continue. Let it be noted that Ravelstein–without any recourse to traditional religious doctrines–challenged the notion that life was incontrovertibly and brutally finite. It remains to be seen whether his demurral marks a new direction in atheist ethical speculation.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
October 30, 2007; 6:43 AM ET
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