The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.
By Henry Curtis
“The world and life are one”
“Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, if I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.” – Walt Whitman
Metaphysics, as commonly practiced, is ultimately a consequence of the tendency of the human mind to add to reality as such that which is not present in reality. This in turn stems from our inability to see the limitless nature of that-which-is for all that it is. Because the world appears mundane we are compelled to supplement it with that which is extramundane. Possibilia, essence, God—these are thought by various metaphysicians to have being in the reality we find ourselves inhabiting, a reality that appears out of proportion to us, a reality whose very existence and existence-as-it-is seems like a lopsided accident in need of explanation. In the final sense we should become content to understand that outside and alongside reality there exists nothing, and reality, being therefore bounded by nothing, is strictly speaking completely unbounded. “Why did reality ultimately end up this way?” is revealed to be a misguided question—being this way is what it is to have being at all.
One of the principal causes of metaphysical thinking might very well be our awareness that we will die. In death we become nothing. But this is unacceptable for many and first-personally unthinkable for all. As a result, where we should grasp the finitude of our lives as meaning that there is nothing for us beyond death (for we are nothing beyond death), we insist on imposing upon the nothingness after death some mirrored elements of reality. But this misses the fact that we can apply the same lesson to our lives that we applied earlier to reality as a whole. Whatever in the last instance I am will be non-existent after my death, and so therefore I will be nothing after my death. This means that to say that my life is limited by death is to say that there is nothing for me beyond life, and that for me my life is not bounded by anything. To not be bounded is to be limitless, and so if my life is not bounded for me by anything then for me my life is limitless.
One might ask in what sense we can claim that for us our lives are limitless when any life is marked constantly by severe privations of every sort. The answer is to say that the limitlessness in question is not the same as an infinite abundance. Rather, to say that for us life is limitless registers the fact that it is incoherent for us to think of a limit to our life as such. Death cannot be for us a limit to our lives, since death for us is nothing (Epicurus here was correct). What we hold objectively of reality—that it is unbounded because beyond it there lies nothing—we hold subjectively for our lives—they are unbounded for us because beyond them there lies nothing for us.
The point we derived earlier about reality must have an analogue also in the case of life. We discovered that to understand that reality is bounded by nothing is to understand that it is misguided to ask why reality ultimately ended up being the way it did, since to have being at all is nothing more than to be part of how things actually did end up being. The concept of a reality in general is collapsed into that of the concrete reality that obtains, and therefore the transcendence that metaphysics sought is redirected—no longer is something beyond or alongside this reality the source and object of speculation, but rather only the fact that this concrete reality itself has the status previously attributed to the transcendent.
The lesson here is converted with respect to life into the point that since beyond my life I am nothing, any quest to find what for me can be transcendent with respect to my life is misguided. I cannot seek something from beyond my life that will be anything for me, whether this be a continuation of me in some fundamentally altered form or some purpose for me generated from outside or alongside reality. What is imperative to see here is that it is a mistake to see this state of affairs as marking a limitation on life. Just as concrete reality itself takes on the character of that which ‘transcends’ reality (a character which the ‘transcendent’ was alone thought to be capable of granting concrete reality), so my life itself takes on the character for me of that which was thought alone capable of granting life this character. If for me life never ends—since for me death is nothing—what use have I for immortality? If what I am is all there is for me to be, what use have I for a purpose to be what I am not? Through metaphysics some think we can correct for what seems to be the accidental nature of life, just as we can correct for its counterpart in reality as a whole. But once we grasp the subjective and objective unboundedness of both of these phenomena, not only do we lose the possibility of the transcendent, but we discover that it was never necessary.
What does this mean for escape? The ultimate escape would be to escape either life or reality— to settle oneself, through act or contemplation, among that which transcends life or reality. But there is nothing transcendent. We can end our life objectively but not for us. Reality cannot be ended. Escape (if it requires an escape-to, or a final state different from that which is escaped) finds its limits along the limits of life and reality.