| Life's purpose
In his foreword to Philosophical Remarks, Wittgenstein famously said: 'This book is written to the glory of God, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood.' Wittgenstein hesitated, not because of any philosophical commitment to the claim that the most important things were unsayable, or because an admission of this kind would expose him to embarrassment in a secular world. It was because amongst secular and religious people alike, it had become very difficult to imagine living a life that was devoid of what he thought was at the base of a properly religious attitude: a life free of vanity, and a life not judged by any instrumental purpose. Any profession of religion could itself be judged as an act of vanity, or in the service of some other value: to shore up one's own authority, to stake a claim to truth, or to ground some other expectation. Why was it that Wittgenstein thought that the religious sensibility was the most difficult to possess' So much so that he declares: 'Religion as madness is a madness springing from irreligiousness.'
What is it to possess a religious sensibility' What is it to be contrasted with' And why, despite professions of religiosity, is it so rare' Around the time Wittgenstein was undergoing his transformation, the young Michael Oakeshott wrote a short essay, 'Religion and the World'. Its central point is still strikingly original and pointed. Memento Vivere is the sole precept of religion, wrote Oakeshott. (Memento Vivere means 'a reminder of life', or more literally, 'remember that you have to live'.) It is the sort of sentence that makes you stop dead in your tracks. What had religion got to do with life' Were not most religions premised on the thought that life is a tale of woe, and the point is to escape it' Was not the asceticism enjoined in most religions premised on a denial of life' What could Oakeshott possibly mean'
In fact, the essay is a sly transvaluation of the contrast between the worldly and the religious. The contrast between the worldly and the religious turns on five axes. The first is familiar: the worldly human acts as if the present material order is of permanent value. The histories we inhabit, the communities we serve, the arts we produce, the prosperity we strive for are thought of as having some worth apart from their value in the life of individuals; they acquire an irresistible hold on us to the extent that they begin to define us, rather than our purposes setting limits on them. The religious, by contrast, will recognize the value of these things from the standpoint of their contribution to an individual's coming to a proper self-understanding of himself.
The second related contrast is that, for the worldly, external achievement becomes important, a life is to be measured by the accomplishments or contributions it leaves behind. For the religious, life has to be its own achievement. It is not to be judged by its accomplishment or contribution to a cause. The third related contrast, is that the worldly life is future oriented in every sense of the term: the value of everything is measured by its contribution to a better future. The present is sacrificed to the future. For the religious, each moment makes us who we are.
The fourth contrast is that the worldly life, curiously enough, is an alienated life. It is a life in service of something outside one's own self ' career, the future, group identifications. It runs the risk of making life instrumental to something: a future, a goal, a cause. Even if the ends are well chosen, the fact remains that the value of life itself is made subordinate to those ends. The religious, by contrast, live in the present, for the possibility that they could come to know themselves, here and now. To live religiously is to live with insight, and with a commitment to candid detachment even in the face of actual achievement. Heaven and hell, release or bondage are not future states; they are simply what we make of ourselves. They refer to the ability to have a consistent character and clarity of vision amidst the contingencies of the world. And the final contrast is that, in the end, a worldly life is a life where the self is subordinate to the world; a religious life, by contrast, tends to take care of the self, in the profoundest sense of the term.
At one level, Oakeshott is making a familiar move: genuine religious sentiments are fundamentally a quest for self-knowledge. As he put it, 'Religion, then, is not, as some would persuade us, an interest attached to life, a subsidiary activity; nor is it a power which governs life from the outside, with a no doubt divine, but certainly incomprehensible sanction for its authority. It is simply life itself, dominated by the belief that its value is in the present, not merely, in the past and the future, that if we lose our selves we lose all.'
And the consequence of a life attuned towards self-understanding would be what Oakeshott calls a more sensitive and daring way of living. 'For the religious man life is too short and uncertain to be hoarded, too valuable to be spent at the pleasure of others, of the past or the future, too precious to be thrown away on something he is not convinced is his highest good. In this sense we are all religious; and that these moments are not more frequent is due to nothing but our uncertain grasp on life itself, our comparative ignorance of the kind of life that satisfies, not one part of our nature, but the whole, the kind of life for which no retrospective regrets can ever be entertained.'
For Oakeshott, then, religion is not external sanction or a fetter, but a kind of unburdening we can acquire through self-knowledge. In fact, it is worldliness, so Oakeshott argues, that burdens us by imposing its standards upon us. It is vanity that burdens us by making us live outside of ourselves. It is narrowness that burdens us by abridging the needs of the whole of our nature for a part of it. And it is dependence on external authority that burdens us, by constantly impeding our own knowledge of ourselves. Our self-knowledge will prompt us to engage multifariously with the world. But to think that the point of life is to serve a cause, that life can be redeemed only by sacrificing it, is to do injustice to the most valuable thing: life itself.
To use the traditional term, the religious sensibility is constituted by aparigraha, a detachment from the world, so that the self can be more clearly possessed. Again Oakeshott, 'firm in the possession of himself, he (the religious man) lacks nothing. Fear has no meaning, safety no charm, anxiety no occasion, and his success is bound up with no dim and unproblematical future.' This is not a life of narcissism, but a life liberated from all bondage, and therefore free to engage with the world on its own terms.
But Wittgenstein's anxiety was well founded. Do we even possess the language now to imagine what a life lived on its own terms, unspotted by worldly measures of achievement would look like' The kind of piety Wittgenstein was trying to express was a form of self-knowledge, an acknowledgment that we are not the full ground of our own being. But can this be expressed without the taint of chicanery' As religion has come to possess human beings with irresistible power, we ought to be reminded that religion was fundamentally about self-knowledge. It was meant to serve life's purposes, not the other way round.