Let’s suppose that a person P experienced sufficient physical harm during P’s formative years, such that P’s standing in the world is brought into question. What strategy or strategies would P likely employ (where these strategies are more ways of being in the world than conscious choices, more ongoing practices than ‘cognitive’ takes) in order to maintain a sense of basic integrity?
The key is to see each strategy as an attempt to make my standing in the world intelligible to me. To a degree, for the world to be intelligible to me is for it to be meaningful (enough) for me. The first strategy is to take an early exit.
1. Suicide. To P, the world is not and cannot be a home. P does not belong, and the future will closely resemble the past and present. This being so, P will remove himself from it. (But see my “On the Suicide’s Claims and the Philosopher’s Replies.”)
2. Contemptu mundi. The temporal world is not a home. In which case, P renounces the temporal world, thereby turning the eyes of the mind (or soul) toward the transcendent alone. Here we have asceticism.
3. Love of the Flesh. The world in general is not a home but the flesh is alive. The world rejects, but the flesh affirms. P can be a master in control of P’s desires, the other a slave. The love of the flesh is, it turns out, a safe space in which P can say yes to life, if only for a time.
4. Inner Citadel. The Stoics contrast the inner sanctuary of willing and thinking to the tragic cast of the world of others. (This is not entirely true, since the Stoics affirmed a cosmopolitan vision of human fellowship. But set this thought aside.) The Inner Citadel (Pierre Hadot’s leitmotiv for Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy) is the site of self-sufficiency, the rejection of all dependency on others. P’s Inner Citadel is a safe place where the chances of being wounded are lessened.
5. The World of the Imagination. If the world is not a home for P, then P can conjure an alternative. P’s imagination gains ‘depth’ rather like the birth of the soul for Nietzsche: as if a flat surface were being stretched and deepened. P’s imaginary world is thereby set over and against the real world to which P does not belong. (In my “On Putting Life in Order,” I write more about so-called “OCD,” a term I find objectionable.)
6. Bourgeois Respectability. The world’s so far not being a home does not entail that it cannot be a home for P. Perhaps P can ‘accommodate’ himself to it as it is. Bourgeois respectability aims at a life of stability and moderate comfort, a world (largely private) shorn of the greater passions and greater vulnerabilities.
P’s approach is one of prudence: not to live with the greatest intensity (e.g., German Romanticism) but to ensure that he has an insurance policy against whatever may likely befall him. P is not trying to live but is trying to defer the prospect of dying, as if dying could be held off, set aside, or deferred indefinitely.
7. Life Mission. When Eli Wiesel said, apropos the Holocaust, “Never again,” he was drawing on an intellectual tradition that began around the 17th C. and that has become the background picture for modernity. P, having been harmed, can make his life into a mission to stamp out X (where X is harassment, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.). The late poet Adrienne Rich also supposes this when she writes that the goal of her life was to “create a world without exploitation.” We will see that this is a reasonable strategy, but it nevertheless contains an irremovable metaphysical flaw.
In modernity, Edward Craig argues, we have seen a broad shift away from The Mind of God thesis (man as contemplative being seeking to approach or achieve access to the mind of God) to the Agency Theory. On the latter, he states that man was
no longer a spectator, but a being that actively creates, or shapes, its own world. It did not, one cannot over emphasise, manifest itself only or even primarily in moral or practical philosophy; the striking thing about it was precisely the way in which what might be called the practical concepts invaded areas previously thought of as purely theoretical, those areas where ‘spectator’ [contemplator] theories had been paramount, and whose connections with the practical had been thought of as a welcome but wholly inessential extra (The Mind of God and the Works of Man, p. 229).
This idea is evident as early as Kant and doubtless comes to fruition in Marx’s famous final thesis on Feuerbach. For Kant, the normative (the ‘ought’) is distinct from the factual/scientific (the ‘is’). Kant’s novel claim–novel, that is to say, in the history of Western thought–about injustice would go as follows: The world is not as it ought to be.
Marx’s final thesis is a radicalization of Kant’s thesis, philosophers heretofore having only interpreted the world, the point now being, Marx says, to change it.
P would therefore take on board a life of restlessness:
a. The world is not as it should be.
b. My life must be directed at closing the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’
c. My life shall be infinite striving after the impossible.
For P, who is beholden to this metaphysical picture, the world can never be a home.
True philosophical self-reflection only begins once P has lived out any or all of strategies 1-7 and found it impossible to make the world into a home on these terms. Most people will never be ‘alive’ to this impossibility. (The Left has a bone caught in its throat with respect to 7. If this characterization is right, then it follows that I am not a Leftist.) A few brave souls will see that a different way of being–a way of self-cultivation–can put one in touch with the world. Yet the path of yes-saying is a long one–in Spinoza’s words, rare and precious and excellent.