‘The universe is sacred. / You cannot improve it. / If you try to change it, you will ruin it. / If you try to hold onto it, you will lose it.’–Laozi, Daodejing 29
The transition from pre-modernity to modernity brought about a profound change in consciousness. In premodernity, the world was sacred. As such, it was good and beautiful, provided it was perceived in the right kind of light. However, coinciding with the rise of modernity was a reconceptualization of ‘the world’ such that it was grasped as bad and ugly. In some quarters, it was presumed to be unjust (e.g., Marxism); in others, it was simply indifferent to man’s pursuits (e.g., existentialism).
This shift in consciousness led, in turn, to a change in the conception of man. Man’s ultimate aim had been to perceive the world under the aspect of goodness and beauty and, in so doing, to think and act in accordance with this understanding. Now, it is to will that the world be otherwise than how man finds it. This requires herculean effort and a certain epic interpretation of man’s being in the world.
In this sense, the life of man is that of a project, a strenuous effort of ‘infinite striving’ to remake the world in accordance with its being less unjust and less ugly. But this is an error in world-conception and one that has bound us to guilty conscience: whatever we do is not enough; what remains to be done is infinite in scope.
Believing that the world is unjust (i.e., not good), we then try to answer the question of nihilism by showing, before we die, that have made a difference (i.e., improved it). The project is doomed to fail since failure is built into its conception and we will not be able to say that we have made enough of a difference in the end. So long as we remain in the grip of this worldview, we are fated to die in vain.
But what if the world were perceived rightly? Then we would come, by a long route of spiritual exercise, to regard it as good and beautiful and, quite naturally, it would no longer occur to us to change it. If we wish to go forward therefore, we must begin by returning to the source of our error, the wrong turn into modernity. We must consider what it would mean for us to need the good and beautiful world to shine upon us as much as it needs our contribution in order to shine forth completely.