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Winter Books

Monuments we have built to our search for meaning


It is at the same time our blessing and curse not to know what’s around the next corner, never mind beyond the grave.

In a novel by Siberia’s Valentin Rasputin one of the characters says, “It would be amusing, suppose you’re alive and well, and there in your passport next to your birthdate is your date of death.” It would get less amusing, however, as the years passed and then the days and hours. Ignorance isn’t always bad; sometimes it’s bliss.

Ignorance has another advantage. It forces us to search for answers, and our search makes the world go round: figuring will the next pitch be a curve ball; or will our president be impeached; or will intelligent life be found in a nearby galaxy; or where will we go when we die.

Our histories have traditionally leaned toward wars and warriors. A review of the search for answers, while lacking that pungent appeal to the bloodthirsty, ought to provide a deeper probe of who we are.

Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World (Random House, 298 pages, $25.95) is the last of an ambitious trilogy exploring the human predicament. While this one volume can provide no more than a run -- nay, a gallop -- through history, it serves as reminder of the tenacity and astonishing diversity of our search since the world began.

It begins with Moses, who was at best a ghost writer for that first great publishing venture, the two-volume, stone-bound 10 Commandments. Boorstin goes on to explain how seers, who specialized in the future, gave way to prophets such as Moses who settled for elaborating the will of God in the more day-to-day present.

With quick historical sketches, the author elaborates the shifting ethos of successive eras. Job gets three pages. A glance at Isaiah allows Boorstin an interesting comment on the place of priesthood. The prophets, he writes, “could be described as amateurs. For most were not priests. While their utterances had no authentic seal of a sacred profession, each had been called in his own way, and so had his own ‘vocation,’ a personal invitation to speak for God.”

Boorstin has been criticized for confining his ruminations, in these days of multiculturalism, to the experience of the West. He does, though, devote a token chapter to the place of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

And on to Greece. When it comes to searching for meaning, it’s hard to top Socrates: “Socrates left no writing and no dogma. His radically human approach to philosophy was expressed in his life. His historic influence would be not in his answers but in his questions.” While his earlier neighbors such as Thales and Pythagoras flirted with fire, water and other generalizations, Socrates was more likely to drag you in for a beer and ask, “What do you know?” (Though, in fairness, Socrates’ pal Alcibiades recalled that “Socrates was never seen drunk.”)

We know all this from Plato’s dialogues. In “The Apology,” Socrates tells of his interview with a politician: “When I began to talk to him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several. ... ”

So Socrates turned to the poets. And found “there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves.” A sharp tongue like that could get a Greek in trouble.

The towering figures of Plato and Aristotle loom above most other seekers in The Seekers. This creates its own difficulties. Of Aristotle he writes: “To attempt to summarize his work would be no more useful than to summarize an encyclopedia” -- words that could be applied to Boorstin’s own book.

“Western history would be dominated by the birth and life of a Galilean Jew,” the narrative moves on. Jesus, however, is not counted among the seekers -- he didn’t come to search for meaning but to impart it. His followers, of course, have been searching ever since, including searching for the real Jesus. But Boorstin has room only for occasional highlights, notably Augustine of Hippo; and some eccentric lowlights that somehow tickled his fancy, notably the so-called “Donation of Constantine.”

The Donation was a supposed grant by Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-335) of spiritual sovereignty over all the other great patriarchs and over all matters of faith and worship, as well as temporal sovereignty over Rome and the entire Western empire. This was allegedly Constantine’s gift to Sylvester for miraculously healing his leprosy and converting him to Christianity.

Then along came Lorenzo Valla in 1440 to demonstrate “that the ‘donation’ was only a forgery designed to empower the papacy.”

This is not news, though neither is it the kind of thing you’ll find in the catechism. It does bolster Boorstin’s contention that “battles between church and state would punctuate all Western history and leave fertile ambiguities even in the new world.”

The author has a lofty regard for the self-abnegating seekers who went off alone to the desert or together into monasteries to find a slant on the meaning of life that was drowned out by the world and even by the church. But the desert is the world, too, and can still play havoc. Not for the only time Boorstin picks the oddity to make the point: Simeon Stylites, a hermit who worked miracles and thus became famous for holiness, a quality that has never failed to attract even the worldly. To escape his admirers and suppliants Simeon retreated up a pole and lived there, day and night, for about 40 years until he died.

Such drawbacks of the hermetic life gradually attracted seekers back to community in monasteries and such -- Boorstin calls them “islands of faith.” Even these had their ups and downs, decadence alternating with reform, spiritual triumph with ordinary sin. Precisely because they seem so in line with Christ’s crucial admonition, “Go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me,” these erratic religious communities point up the will-o’-the-wisp quality of the search which, since the first human scratched her or his head in wonder, has been all over the lot.

There’s a chapter on the medieval universities, one on the varieties of Protestantism. Then just when the reader thinks we are headed in a straight line home, the book leaps back to Homer and the heroic past. Perhaps this should be no surprise -- meaning does not travel down the straight road, or even the crooked one; it cavorts and doubles back and fools around.

So we are right back in Greece, with Herodotus and Thucydides, fathers of history. Then on to Thomas More’s Utopia, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Niccoló Machiavelli’s Prince. All seekers. We have been a very diverse race. Dancing around the subject, whatever it is, coming at life from every angle, colliding with one another in constant battles of egos, philosophies, theologies and other bones of contention.

“The travail of the seeker is nowhere better revealed than in the life of the father of modern philosophy,” writes Boorstin. He means René Descartes. Many of us grew up being warned by the church against the wiles and fallacies of the long-dead Descartes. We need not have feared: The world is surviving him. Besides, according to The Seekers, “He acquired a Catholic faith that he never lost.” For those who don’t want to know all about Descartes -- and certainly don’t want, heaven help us, to read his original works -- these few pages are not a bad place to start. The same could be said of most seekers in this book.

It’s Boorstin’s book, so he’s entitled to write about whoever he chooses. Critics, in such cases, tend to complain more about worthies left out than about imposters allowed in. And, in any case, it would be small-minded of us to rule anybody out, including you and me: What is intriguing, finally, about the topic is that we’re all seekers with a stake in the subject and gesturing yea or nay from the bleachers.

Whether the search is getting us anywhere is a matter of opinion, because we all have our angle. Good cases in point are Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire is famous for his tragic view of things: “that history in general is a collection of crimes, follies and misfortunes, among which we now and then meet with a few virtues and some happy times.” But that’s not the half of it: This same Voltaire is the prophet and purveyor of that new concept, civilization, which the French Englightenment begat. Writes Boorstin, “In the idea of civilization Voltaire encourages us with hope for the common possibilities of the human spirit everywhere.”

And Voltaire himself elaborated in his Philosophical Dictionary: “The great faults of the past are also very useful in many ways; the crimes and misfortunes of history cannot be too frequently pondered on, for whatever people say, it is possible to prevent both.”

But then there is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who died the same year as Voltaire, 1778), who despised civilization, its manifestations in the arts, sciences and such, and hankered for a return to nature in the savage but innocent way the creator allegedly gave it to us. Needless to say, there was more to Rousseau than this, just as there was more to them all. But now they are at the mercy of scribblers. It’s their own fault for not seeking in silence, like the millions and billions who did their own quiet seeking and striving and, had Providence tilted a bit, might have left us monuments to their musings as great as the giants of our intellectual and spiritual history. It’s sad to stop and think what may have been lost or unrecorded.

Those whose seeking represents their age most eloquently usually survive best. As the optimism with which our century started turned sour, a disillusion set in, and searchers of a pessimistic bent resonated. There is a chapter titled “The Literature of Bewilderment,” for example. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude is typical of the concerns, which include the alleged death of God. Pessoa begins: “I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had it -- without knowing why.”

Among the better-known “bewildered” are such literary types as Harold Ionesco, Eugéne Pinter and Albert Camus, who writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and light, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”

This disorientation was even more eloquently expressed in the absurdist drama of Samuel Beckett, especially his play, Waiting for Godot, in which, as one character puts it, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

England’s Lord Acton, who died in 1902, and whose family was famous for being Catholic and getting away with it for centuries, was, according to Boorstin, “the perfect embodiment of the seeker -- too Catholic to renounce the wisdom of the past and too searching not to follow the inquiring spirit of his age.” He spent his life preparing to write a history of liberty but never got it together, indeed never really got it started. He referred to the non-work in progress as “The Madonna of the Future,” the title of a Henry James short story about an artist who devoted his life to a single painting, but when the artist died the canvas on the easel was found to be blank.

Boorstin devotes the last chapter to Albert Einstein and his yen for unity, a chimera that has always beckoned to seekers. But the penultimate chapter, on Henri Bergson (1859-1941), seems a more cheerful note to end on.

Western science had been in the ascendancy for some time, using reason and experience as solutions to the problems posed by nature and life. The conversation, presided over by the likes of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, had become increasingly mechanistic and materialistic. Along came Bergson who said wait a minute, the science card and the rational card do not explain human consciousness and most people’s lived experience. Round every corner is that je-ne-sais-quoi, a secret not yet unlocked. His Creative Evolution, published in 1907, had at its heart the famous élan vital, a vital impulse that is hard to fit into a formula but is recognizable as a something beyond nuts and bolts that makes us tick and makes us human. Writes Boorstin: “Bergson’s role in an age of rising faith in science was thus to liberate seekers from the search for system and dogma, and to justify their joy in the search”

Bergson added a poetic dimension to the scientific search, appealing to intuition to leap from fact to fact and imagine a more coherent meaning for the whole. Evolution, he wrote, is God’s “undertaking to create creators” -- an insight that might spur seekers into action.

We seem to be going through difficult times, in America and everywhere: more adrift than usual; more stressed and impatient and driven by negative impulses from road rage to loathing for government. Reading an old book by Carlyle or Emerson won’t solve what are clearly deep personal and communal problems, but it might give perspective and ease the anxiety.

Our problem is that we’re between stories, Diarmuid O’Murchu explained in Quantum Theology (Crossroad, 1997). The old answers are not working. On the brink of a brand new century and millennium we ought to be upbeat and excited, but as a species we’re depressed instead, stalked by ennui and discouragement.

This could be the ideal climate for new seekers.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998