A.G. Sertillanges on Presence of Mind

 

“So acquire the habit of being present at the activity of the material and moral universe. Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man…”

Qoheleth on the Meaning of Life

 

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep; then I saw all the works of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

 

Equality

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

-George Orwell Animal Farm

There is no grander claim that has been made, and no more unsubstantiated, than all men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson wrote those words and qualified them as self-evident in the Declaration of Independence. From the doors of our 21st century perception this is strange because Jefferson was a known slave-owner. At times he fought against the institution of slavery writ large but never let his personal estate suffer from such standards of ‘equality’. Apparently it was only so self-evident. As the old adage goes, older than any adage of equality; actions speak louder than words.

But his words – self-evident or no – remain a part of the public, secular religion of today. It is perhaps even the most universally accepted claim of modernity, especially of PC modernity. And if we honestly look around us there seems to be nothing quite equal about anyone. How can we be both diverse and equal? None of us have the same face or live the same lives or have the same morals or care about the same things. What is it that we refer to then when we say all people are ‘equal’ and is it so self-evident?

The recession of the transcendent from modern belief, pulling in like a low tide, has not left us much to point to to answer the question. Paradoxically more and more claim we haven’t been created but insist we’ve been created equal. If we’ve tumbled out of the abyss by the abyss’ own abysmal impersonal infinity, where is equality to be had in that? We are thus forced to take things as they are without foolish dreams of religion and if we take things as they are, humans seem to be one of the most disparate species known to nature.

The only alternative to a divine principle of equality is humankind coming up with equality on its own. And the only unfortunate thing about humankind’s morality is its own immorality. This is the conundrum for the irreligious. If one decides upon a moral principle to pursue, for example the subjugation of other human beings as slaves in order to produce a class of cheap laborers to further the capacity of agricultural and economic efficiency, and another decides upon the elimination of such a system, to be an abolitionist of said slavery; unless there is some higher order to arbitrate and resolve the disagreement, a war for power has to break out between the two sides. A war will take place through argument, in which the winner establishes power, or through bloodshed. Without god these are the two paths to establishing moral order and both are through means of power: talking it out and thereby establishing moral order over your opponent with words, or moralizing your opponent by eliminating him. Foucault and Nietzsche before him saw this coming miles away. If the winner of the war writes the history books they also must write the ethics books.

Fine then, if we insist then upon equality regardless of our spiritual foundations, where does such a concept come from? If we invented it as humans evolving on our way to some natural ascendancy why does it seem to run so counter to Darwin’s first principle of survival of the fittest? I personally have never met two people who are quite equal but the message of most Disney movies and bleeding hearts is that in some unspeakable way we are. It’s almost as if the concept fell from the sky.

At this crossroads most people will say people are not equal in particulars but all people are equal in dignity, whatever they mean by that. But even here I protest to the lack of insight because I have met all amounts of dignity in widest array of people. The old black janitor who cleans the office building I work in every night has more dignity and power in his eyes than anybody else I see every day. His endless cycle of emptying trash cans desk to desk, to me, has the same cyclical beauty of God swirling the earths around orbiting one another, and the seasons, and the tides. You can always count on them. The severe look in his eye imposes a life of inopportunity upon the imagination, and most likely not of his own doing. These thoughts come back to me whenever I see him but when I see some of the big shots in the office, all that mostly comes to mind is… jackass.

The way we use the word equality in the 21st century, and probably how Thomas Jefferson used it, is a non sequitur. It is really a limited term at the end of the day. Jefferson thought we should have equal protection under the law because we were created equal, but it is precisely the opposite: we should have equal protection under the law because we are not created equal. Call it Christian prejudice but what else could equality refer to besides each human’s potential for goodness? Out of this potential we can either flourish or diminish. We are each given the opportunity to be a story. This is the only place equality of humankind can exist – in preexistence. The main problem we have in understanding this is that our judgment in what is good and bad is misshapen. We assume wealth, material success, and acceptance among the majority are things that guarantee someone’s ultimate standing as good. This moral system encourages us to praise the rich and famous and mostly ignore the poor and the poor in spirit. But I believe Jesus when he said the last will be first and the first will be last was touching something very deep and true. After life has been lived and all accounts are zeroed out we will perhaps see janitors as kings and kings as janitors. The kingdom of God is the world upside down. This is not equality but divine jurisprudence. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: both the oppressors and the oppressed receive their due in the end. The question is which side are you on.

Every person, no matter their circumstances has this in equal measure with everyone else: to live out their story. Life will bring choices your way no matter where you live or what clothes you wear. You cannot barricade yourself against this reality with all the money in the world piled up in stacks. The call to live knocks on every person’s door and is felt in every human cell. Wrapped up in this potential is the elusive equality we each share. We have the opportunity to make do with what we have. We do not choose where we’re born or what we start out with in this life but once we start we must either chase the light or leave it.

Where else could equality be? We are not all equally smart, motivated, beautiful or accepting. No matter how hard we pretend to regard everyone in the same light and in the same way, we simply don’t. Love doesn’t operate that way. Regarding everyone as equal would effectively castrate love. The key is not in dreaming that everyone around you is better than they are but loving them as they are regardless of their respective standing to you. Slapping equality on a billboard and pretending the world’s problems away will only help until the makeup wears off. Not accepting people as they are is not loving them, pretending they are somebody else so you can pretend to love them just doesn’t get the job done. The truth will bear itself out in the end.