I minored in philosophy at college. Terribly useful, clearly, and a highly attractive asset to potential employers. (Kidding aside, I do think about Kant on a daily basis. Strange, perhaps.) As anyone who’s ever taken an Intro to Modern Philosophy class can tell you, Descartes is a pretty big deal. And this will illustrate just how practical philosophy is: Mr. Descartes got it in his head that he wasn’t entirely convinced of his own existence. We have been treated to all kinds of current-day interpretations of his famous dictum, Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think, therefore I am”) — I drink, therefore I am; I tweet, therefore I am; etc. (They can’t all be winners.) Descartes came to the conclusion that the proof was in the wondering. If he is wondering about his existence, he has thoughts; if he has thoughts, there must logically follow an “I” who is the originator of these thoughts. Cogito Ergo Sum. This precept has been integral to Western philosophy, as has much Cartesian philosophy since it was first written in the 17th century.
So, why the philosophy lesson? Glad you asked.
Soren Kierkegaard has a great critique of the Cogito rationale for existence, but I want to talk about another person’s response. These last few days, I have been reading from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. I wouldn’t expect most monks to tackle issues of existence in relation to Descartes, but Merton wasn’t most monks. In this section, Merton is talking about what contemplation isn’t: “Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of the external self.” He talks about the “irreducible” and “mysterious” internal self that is hidden from us most of the time, the self that engages with God throughout eternity, the self that remains. Descarte’s Cogito, Merton says, “is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths…He is making it impossible for himself to experience, directly and immediately, the mystery of his own being.” Cogito (“I think”) and Ergo (“therefore”) do not matter, because we in Christ are greater than the concepts we can fathom. All that matters is Sum (“I Am”). And our “I am” is only ever an echo of the One who first was.
“Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction,” Merton continues, “but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.”
Last week, I went with two friends to see the film version of one of my favorite books from high school, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The book as the movie are nostalgic, almost painfully earnest, and entirely reminiscent of what it feels like to be fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. There is one scene — the scene that inspired the author to write the book, actually — in which the three main characters are driving through a tunnel, music up and windows down, and the boy from whose point of view the story is told says something that I resonate deeply with:
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
And that, I suppose, is underneath all this conversation about thinking and being. In the grand scheme of things, it will not matter so much that I existed. I do and then I don’t, and it’s all the matter of a handful of years. But why I exist–that’s another matter entirely. And by why, I don’t mean what my purpose is, or what I exist to do. I mean the reason why I came into being in the first place. I did not think myself here, but I will be thinking long after I am no longer here. My personal reality has existential depths beyond what I can comprehend, and whether I am live does not make much of a difference. Because, you see, I am infinite. And so are you. Rooted in the eternal mystery of God.