Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gratitude as the Answer to Tragedy

I wish it weren't so, but it is. I've just discovered that Robert C. Solomon, my favorite professor, died earlier this year. I don't often curse, because I don't want to devalue the expressive effect of curse words; I save them for those special occasions when I care to communicate something visceral. Upon reading the news of Professor Solomon's passing, I bellowed a "fuck" or two -- even though no one but I could hear.

A bit strange how I came to discover the news. Earlier tonight, a friend who's preparing for a philosophy exam asked me whether existentialists are metaphysicists. I couldn't answer. Even had she asked while I was immersed in existentialism during my undergraduate days, I likely still couldn't have answered because metaphysics, epistemology, ontology and other such placeholders for rigid, ordered theories never much mattered to me. What attracts me to existentialism, and Camus in particular, is its embrace of the emotions in a philosophical sense.

That was the first time someone had asked me a question about existentialism in a long while. When I got home, an article in the NYT caught my attention. It's about an MIT professor who has become something of an Internet phenomenon because videos of his quirky lectures are available online. The article introduced me to iTunes U, which is an online distribution center for podcasts of lectures from academia. I took a look and saw that "Phil 7: Existentialism in Literature and Film," a course taught at U.C. Berkley, is at the top of the charts.

Just then, nostalgia kicked in, and I wondered whether Professor Solomon's lectures were available online. So I started searching. And that's when news of his death at the much too young age of 64 left my mouth gaping.

During my second semester of college, I had doubts as to whether I had chosen the right major. But Professor Solomon's ethereal lectures on existentialism displaced those doubts. He had such a gift for wowing without trying, all while making light shine through the opaque.

It saddened me tremendously to learn of his passing. But as I read the various tributes to his life, I felt a sense of joy and gratitude for having encountered him in mine.

Gratitude, I want to suggest, is not only the best answer to the tragedies of life. It is the best approach to life itself. This is not to say, as I keep insisting, an excuse for quietism or resignation. It is no reason to see ourselves simply as passive recipients and not as active participants full of responsibilities. On the contrary, as Kant and Nietzsche among many others insisted, being born with talents and having opportunities imposes a heavy duty on us to exercise those talents and make good use of those opportunities. It is also odd and unfortunate that we take the blessings of life for granted -- or insist that we deserve them -- but then take special offense at the bad things in life, as if we could not possibly deserve those. The proper recognition of tragedy and the tragic sense of life is not shaking one's fist at the gods or the universe "in scorn and defiance" but rather, as Kierkegaard writes in a religious context, "going down on one's knees" and giving thanks. Whether or not there is a God or there are gods to be thanked, however, seems not the issue to me. It is the importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.

- Robert C. Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 105.

- Robert C. Solomon in Richard Linklater's Waking Life