It is not surprising that several guests at Friday’s Royal Wedding were anonymously quoted as “feeling jaded” yesterday. Anticipation of great events is commonly followed by a drained numbness, even if the event meets elevated expectations. Life thus passes by as a series of interspersed highs and, if not lows, mediocre neutrals. Is this the sum total of the human experience?
Man has historically found three ways to neutralise this nihilistic perspective: fame, religion and propagation.
Fame, with its associated glamour, can be fleeting or it can last a lifetime. Occasionally it outlasts its originating source and is considered worthy – or notorious – enough to be important to historical and cultural record. Whether transient or semi-permanent, its nourishment to the famous person is thin when weighed against the permanence of death. It can sustain the mind in the short-term, but is ultimately lacking.
To combat this failure of Temporal Power to assuage anomie, religion developed to offer believers escape from death, whether through reincarnation or heaven. Such Spiritual Might remains a comfort to many, channelling and guiding human emotion into soothingly predictable paths. Like Temporal Power, it offers individuals a larger sense of self that is part of a grander existence than Hobbes’ description of Man’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
But for many, meaningful fame is impossible (the Warhol-esque 15 minutes of reality TV or social networking hardly counts) and religious faith escapes them, or is actively shunned. Frequently, their final refuge is propagation and it is a rare parent indeed that does not think of their children as the best thing they ever did.
Creating the next generation is certainly a valuable role; I would not want to see the human species wiped out! But does it truly offer a solution to the impermanence of man? I suggest not; the real essence of even the best of parents is lost from collective memory within at most four generations. As long as the parent does not think too deeply about this inevitable historical dissipation, Familial Legacy can substitute for either Temporal Power or Spiritual Might and stave off despair at the prospect of death.
What if none of the above are to the liking of the individual, if all are thought to fail the essential test of overcoming fear of death and giving life meaning, what then?
Enter the Modern-Day Monk.
The archetype of the man who seeks spiritual enlightenment through disengagement from the world is an ancient one. We see echoes of his presence in all the major world religions, mythologies and philosophies. Traditionally, the Monk has sought physical separation from the world; either to wander alone or in the company of select fellow travellers on a similar journey. He has used asceticism as a tool to aid enlightenment. Asceticism encourages the abandonment of sensual pleasure and material wealth, deeming these to be distractions from personal growth.
The Modern-Day Monk follows a different path to individuation. It is not physical abandonment of the world that is important, but intellectual detachment. This detachment from the value systems of others (the Temporal, Spiritual and Familial spheres) nonetheless permits material and emotional engagement with the world. He is able to weigh up and measure situations and people rapidly, allowing only positive effects through to his inner self. He comes across to others as tolerant and moderate, as he has no need to be otherwise. He enjoys the world, but does not let the world rule his inner heart. And in the face of new challenges, he has an inner core of willpower – a clear sense of self – to neutralise against torment.
The more philosophically (or religiously) minded will have already identified the characteristics outlined in the preceding four sentence as the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude respectively. The virtues are named Cardinal for being the hinge (L. cardo) upon which rests the door of life. It is not the door to a physical retreat from the world as the first step to an afterlife. It is a system to support and enhance our human desire to be part of the world, while not being ruled by it.
The Modern-Day Monk lives well, as well as wisely.