Learning the Art of Coming to Be and Passing Away

“It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.” Seneca

Upon reading this quote, my initial thoughts relate to the competing processes of enculturation and creativity. More exactly, conforming and proforming. I use proforming, a neologism, rather than dissent only because dissent seems to breed thoughts of destructive opposition rather than constructive opposition. Creativity is a glamorized form of dissent which society embraces, usually only after it has been deemed innocuous.

But what could Seneca  have meant? I believe that, much like Plato’s representation of Socrates’ philosophy, enlightenment is a process of dying to one’s old beliefs and biases. In the Phaedo, Plato describes Socratic philosophy as preparation for death. More specifically, philosophy’s critical thinking works to reveal our ignorance and produce a greater understanding of truth, or the form of the Good, which in turn purifies the soul, preparing it for its final resting place. This may sound obtuse but the message is very clear: we must detach ourselves from the worldly meanings and beliefs we accept unquestionably as an adequate guide to understanding if we are to attain truth and understanding.

As it specifically relates to Seneca’s quote, the first half of our life is spent acquiring inherited habits of thought that supposedly teach us how to live and flourish, while the second half of our life is learning how to shed these habits of thought and escape the limitations contained within them. Fyodor Dostoevsky highlights this situation, almost satirically, saying  “It seems, in fact, as though the second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing, but the habits he has accumulated during the first half.”

In order to make any worthwhile contribution to “progress” an individual must upset the old order of things, overturn the status quo and spoil convention, but this is impossible if he possesses no original contribution of his own.  Originality can only be achieved by shedding the old and adopting the new. This means recreating your being through the assertion of your sovereign will-to-power in order to establish a wholly novel identity totally independent from the existing powers of worldly trappings.

Of course, I have also read this quote to mean the process of acquainting oneself with the world, of growing attached to all its eidetic sumblimations that ligature the soul and body, only to discover that age furtively attenuates these impressions, and it is the world that first begins dying to us before we die to the world.

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I’m additionally drawn to the writing’s of Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu; specifically to Althusser’s ideological state apparatus and Bourdieu’s concepts of doxa and habitus. Other concepts I loosely associate with these two is nomos and plausibility structures derived from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociology of Religion which deals with the individual’s metaphysical necessity for affirming cosmological order in the face of chaos. Put concisely, this necessity gives rise to a reflexive dialectical process of internalisation and externalisation among self-denied values and the absorbed collective values which establishes a “psychological constellation” of legitimization. This constellation in turn serves as an indispensable substratum for all future social institutions and their structures (nomos) which effectively “locates the individual’s life in an all-embracing fabric of meaning”. (Berger) His first book The Social Construction of Reality addresses the subject of social construction wholesale.