On birthdays as last days

Here’s my short essay on public philosophy, education, and our spiritual predicament at Butterflies and Wheels.

I’m spending my birthday tomorrow fasting and meditating. The following is an excerpt from Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone is Our Happiness; Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, translated by Marc Djaballah, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009, 162-6.

Jeannie Carlier: Among the inner attitudes and the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy, which ones do you prefer, and perhaps practice?

I would say that the theme that struck me the most is the meditation on death, because of my reading at the time of my youth, and thereafter because of my various surgeries (I have been anesthetized ten times or so). Not that I am obsessed by the thought of death. I have always been amazed, however, that the thought of death helps one to live better, to live as though one were living one’s last day, one’s last hour. An attitude such as this one requires a total conversion of attention. To no longer project oneself into the future, but to consider one’s action in itself and for itself, to no longer consider the world to be the simple frame of our action, but to look at it in itself and for itself–this attitude has both an existential and an ethical value. It allows one to become aware of the infinite value of the present moment, of the infinite value of today’s moments, as well as the infinite value of tomorrow’s moments, welcomed with gratitude as an unexpected chance. But it also allows one to become conscious of the seriousness of every moment of life, to do what one does habitually, not by habit but as though one were doing it for the first time, by discovering everything this action implies for it to be well done. Somewhere in Peguy there is a passage where he describes something Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (who was often cited to us for that matter, and he surprised me a great deal) said as a child. When asked what he would do if he were told that he was going to die in an hour, he answered, I would continue to play ball. Thus he recognized that one can give, as it were, absolute value to every instant of life, as banal and humble as it may be. What matters is not what one does but how one does it. The thought of death was thus leading me to the exercise of concentration on the present recommended by both the Epicureans and the Stoics.

J.C.: But how can this concentration on the present be reconciled with the imperatives of action, which always require a finality and thus an orientation toward the future?

Indeed, it should be specified that this concentration on the present implies a double liberation: from the weight of the past and the fear of the future. This does not mean that life becomes in a sense instantaneous, without the present being related to what has been and what will be. But more precisely, this concentration on the present is a concentration on what we can really do; we can no longer change the past, nor can we act on what is not yet. The present is the only moment in which we can act. Consequently, concentration on the present is a requirement of action. The present here is not a mathematical and infinitesimal moment; it is, for example, the duration in which the action is exercised [re-read this!–AT], the duration of the sentence one utters, of the movement that one exercises, or of the melody one hears.

J.C.: You like to cite the verses from Goethe’s Faust II, to which you have devoted an article: “So the spirit looks neither forward nor backward. The present alone is our happiness.” How can one say that the present alone is our happiness?

…Happiness is in the present moment, for the simple reason that we live only in the present, on the one hand, and on the other, that the past and the future are always the source of suffering. The past chagrins us, either simply because it is past and escapes us, or because it gives the impression of imperfection; the future worries us because it is uncertain and unknown. But every present moment offers us the possibility of happiness….

J.C.: What do you mean by this wealth of the present instant or moment?

This wealth is the one we give it, thanks to a transformation of our relationship to time. Ordinarily our life is always incomplete, in the strongest sense of the term, because we project all our hopes, all our aspirations, all our attention into the future, telling ourselves that we will be happy when we will have attained this or that goal. We are scared as long as the goal is not attained, but if we attain it, already it no longer interests us and we continue to run after something else. We do not live, we hope to live, we are waiting to live. Stoics and Epicureans invite us, then, to effect a total conversion of our relation to time, to live in the only moment we live in, that is, the present; to live not in the future but, on the contrary, as though there were no future, as though we only had this day, only this moment, to live; to live it then as well as possible, as though–as we were saying earlier [mark this! In spiritual exercise, one must always repeat good words and correct thoughts to oneself.–AT]–it were the last day, the last moment of our life, in our relationship to ourselves and to those around us. It is not a question here of a false tragedy, which would be ridiculous, but of a way to discover everything that can be possessed in the instant. First of all, we can realize an action well done, done for itself, with attention and consciousness. We can tell ourselves, I apply myself at concentrating on my action of this moment; I do it as well as possible. We can also tell ourselves, I am here, alive, and this is enough.

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