The concept of the secular saint is continually given meaning as part of an ongoing and wide-ranging philosophical and academic debate. The secular saint is defined by the degree to which he, or she, participates in the debate that shapes meaning and identity. To truly embody the qualities of the secular saint and live a life of meaning, it is important to maintain balance within oneself, to keep in harmony those aspects of the spiritual and secular that give one direction and purpose. By striving to maintain balance, the secular saint creates meaning in life. Some of the greatest philosophers and theologians in history, ranging from Plato to Ernest Becker, have contemplated and given form to this debate.
Keywords: Secular saint, philosophical, balance, spiritual.
Balance and Harmony: Leading a Life of Meaning
Socrates’ maxim concerning the unexamined life does not resonate with me as an admonition to question my motivations as much as it inspires me to appreciate life beyond its superficialities, to seek a deeper purpose, whatever that may be. For me, this describes the modus operandi of the secular saint, whose search for meaning in life is guided, as Victor Frankl contends, by freedom, responsibility and suffering (Ambrosio, 2009). These are the building blocks of a balanced life, from which meaning and wisdom proceed. Passion and stoicism are essential for maintaining balance and to my understanding of the secular saint. Passion animates one in the robust exercise of personal freedom. On the other hand, stoicism guides conscience in the honoring of responsibilities while mitigating suffering, which is a part of every life. This is the essence of the secular saint; a state of being and a philosophy of living. Participation in the dialogue that shapes one’s life, the only life, for which one is responsible, requires balance because just as freedom without personal responsibility is a hollow existence, passion without the mental and emotional discipline to maintain a stoic perspective produces chaos.
At present, this describes my life, which has benefited substantially from the philosophical discipline that brings balance. The promise of balance means that, no matter what mistakes one makes in life, they are solely the creation and property of the individual, just as freedom is an intrinsic state of existence that cannot truly be taken away. The secular saint is a balanced individual unafraid to stumble in the course of living a full life, nor is he afraid to accept responsibility for missteps. Achieving this balance is a matter of accepting that one’s life itself does not have meaning as much as it is constantly in search of meaning.
Plato may well be regarded as the archetypal secular saint, the learned “superior man” whose great wisdom placed him above the ignorant and violent “mob” (Soccio, 114). For Plato, meaningfulness was a matter of discerning the relative nature of true knowledge and mere opinion as a means of identifying the nature of the ideal state (114). Thus, Plato sought a kind of balance that could benefit everyone. In fact, it may be said that Plato tried to define balance itself in working out the nature of reality. He understood that knowledge alone is not enough to work out the relationship between man and the state to which he is responsible. As a student of Socrates, Plato knew that there is an element of sacrifice in achieving balance in life and society. Socrates, his teacher, had taken hemlock as a symbolic gesture, “just as Jesus needed the Crucifixion to fulfill a mission;” a mission aimed at calling into question the very notion of Athenian Democracy. Socrates made the ultimate sacrifice in order to show that the state had become illicit; a heroic attempt to bring society back into balance.
This was Plato’s concern as well. If one can make the assumption that Plato’s interest in the nature of the ideal state was more than just intellectual, that he was concerned for the liberty and well-being of his fellow man, then it may be concluded that he sought a rationale for achieving balance in public life. By positing the nature of the ideal state, Plato created a justification for society and government so that “human existence may be validated and authenticated” (Bloom, 101). In so doing, he showed compassion for, and commitment to, the common good which may be said to define the secular saint, as we have come to understand the term.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo – St. Augustine – was also quite influential in defining secularism and, by extension, what it means to be a secular saint. His influential work, De Civitate Dei, “clarified what we should and should not expect from God,” and established the line between the spiritual (i.e. the Church) and the secular (i.e. the state) (Zenit, 2008). Like Plato, Augustine sought balance in order that people might live ordered yet fulfilling lives according to the precepts of the early Christian church. In a real sense, Augustine’s concern was profoundly philanthropic; in fact, it may be said that he laid the groundwork for philanthropy, which today we understand to have meaning in both the secular and non-secular worlds. For by helping to create a balance between church and state, Augustine created a concept of man as both individual and spiritual supplicantanother important example of seeking balance.
However, Augustine’s Confessions may be even more important to the notion of balance, balance within the individual and in society. In this painfully personal account, Augustine admits to that part of him that is ungodly, an important first step in the self-realization that man has a dual nature which one must seek to balance. He urges that it is essential to first understand one’s true nature, to know oneself, before coming to an acceptance of God. Augustine wrote that “men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought” (Augustine, 190). Augustine urges the reader to live a life that transcends one’s limited perspective, forego ignorance and embrace a larger sense of existence.
In the “Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” St. Francis calls his order to “conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls ‘conversion’” (St. Francis, c. 1210). He goes on to say that human frailty makes this “sacrament of reconciliation” a daily necessity. Francis speaks here of a daily rebalancing of one’s priorities in the most personal way imaginable. By scouring one’s conscience each day and admitting to weakness and frailty, the secular saint may attain a life of meaning in service to others. In today’s world, the nature of such service is often misunderstood, which is why it often proves unfulfilling. St. Francis is saying that one must constantly reassess one’s motivations before service to others can become a truly selfless and fulfilling act. In so doing, the individual transcends the material world and participates meaningfully in the dialogue that shapes identity.
St. Francis took the ascetic’s path to a life of meaning. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he turned aside from a military career after he had a vision that inspired him to live in poverty, after which he turned to preaching on the streets of Rome. Francis famously became identified with a particular care for nature and preached that it was man’s responsibility to both praise and care for the natural world. As such, he established a precedent for applying spiritual principles to secular practice. In this, he is virtually unique for having transcended the spiritual and secular, which is the crowning achievement of the secular saint. St. Francis must be considered the exemplar for this course, a path to which people in both the ecclesiastical and secular worlds aspire.
Few poets have explored the relationship between the spiritual and the secular, between reason and faith, as deeply as Dante. Reason is his guide through Hell, yet reason alone cannot get him to Heaven. For that, he must make the difficult leap to faith, reflecting the idea that reason and faith are the two sides of the secular saint’s uniquely dual nature, the integration of which represents the fulfillment of a meaningful life. It is interesting that Dante’s opus should resemble the life of St. Augustine, or that part of his life which he found to be the most instructive. Augustine had at one time been ruled by the mastery of reason, though his personal crisis and conversion came about as the result of a life lived according to the dictates of reason without faith. This is Dante’s argument: that each one needs the other, reason and faith existing in balance side by side. Yet, though balanced, they must remain separate in their physical manifestations of Church and state.
The German author and philosopher Erich Auerbach called Dante “a poet of the secular world” (Auerbach, 2001). Auerbach asserted that Dante was the first to portray man not in abstract or allegorical terms, but as he is, as an individual “in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness” (2001). Thus, Dante’s contemplation of the relationship between faith and reason is viewed not through a prism but with a mirror, showing man as he truly is, embodying at once great good and terrible evil, the balancing of the two opposites forming the apex of the secular-spiritual continuum. If balance is the measure of the secular saint, then Dante was the first to speculate as to the nature of that balance and the necessity of maintaining both within the human heart.
The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky speculated on the nature of the secular and the Divine, the relationship between the two and the meaning of good and evil in the world. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky contemplates these philosophical questions against the backdrop of a world that appears to have no moral center, no God-directed purpose. Ivan denounces the world as it exists but, in a monologue that could be the secular saint’s creed, places his faith in the inevitability of balance in the world, which must eventually prevail. Ivan explains that “it is not God that I refuse to accept but the World that he has created – what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world(but) I trust that the wounds will heal, the scars will vanish, that the sorry and ridiculous spectacle contemplates these questions within me” (Dostoevsky, 275). Ivan goes on to predict that at long last something “magnificent” will happen, and in that moment universal harmony will be realized (275). It is for this moment that Ivan lives, not in the present moment. This, we may argue, is the raison d’etre of the secular saint.
Harmony is the key, and Ivan’s personal quest leads him within, where he must fight the battle for balance in his own life. In denouncing a world of suffering and horror, Ivan works out how to balance his ethical/religious views on suffering with his “deepest moral impulses” in his response to life (O’Connor, 5). This is the great challenge of living, of leading a meaningful life that transcends the temporal world; and Ivan seeks a way in which he may come to terms with it. This is the secular saint’s noble quest, the fulfillment of which is a kind of personal “holy grail.” It is the attainment of this kind of harmony that I seek in my own life - a transcendent personal moral balance that doesn’t automatically accept Christianity or philosophy as sufficient explanations for the suffering and sadness one must endure in leading a meaningful life.
Meaning in life is central to Victor Frankl’s translation of Socrates’ “care of the soul” (Ambrosio, 2009). Frankl contended that in the contemporary world, there is a separation to be made between “liberty of choice” and “freedom” (2009). Liberty of choice is something that can be taken away, whereas freedom is innate, a thing that the individual chooses how to use according to circumstances and which helps determines one’s identity in the face of adversity. And yet freedom cannot exist without balance, without the restraint of responsibility (2009). This balance guides the secular saint in his pursuit of meaning. Frankl would have us understand that suffering, as Dostoevsky also defined it, is key to a meaningful life because the individual gives it meaning according to the way he accepts suffering. Thus, Frankl and Dostoevsky find agreement in that suffering is important to creating balance in leading a meaningful life.
Frankl uses the example of the concentration camp prisoners as examples of the individual who finds meaning through suffering, a true saint whose identity could not be suborned despite the horrors of the camps. Frankl wrote that the way the prisoners “bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedomthat makes life meaningful and purposeful” (Frankl, 2006). Frankl explains this scenario in terms of balance: “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (2006). Thus, the secular saint accepts and makes use of the good as well as the bad in life.
For Ernest Becker, the pristinely meaningful life is rooted in the Christian philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, whose “knight of faith” is a paragon of serene acceptance. According to Becker, this individual “has given over the meaning of his life to his Creator, and who lives centered on the energies of his Maker” (Becker, 257-58). For him, balance is a matter of tacitly, stoically accepting the vagaries of life. In one of Becker’s most eloquent passages, he notes that this secular saint is “beyond the world in his trust in the invisible dimension,” which allows him to move effortlessly and meaningfully in and out of the lives of others (258). There is no coercion, manipulation or jealousy. Becker’s secular saint is, like St. Francis, in harmony with nature, sensitive and empathetic to the needs and sufferings of others because, having achieved inner harmony, care of others does not burden him.
In the tradition of the secular saint, Becker sought to meld the scientific and the religious, a marriage he believed could mitigate mankind’s predilection to self-destruction (Streeter, 173). Becker understood that in the modern world, the spiritual and scientific must find common ground, ground upon which there can be an accommodation of both perspectives. In this, Becker was also interested in balance. Though he came at the question of how to live a meaningful life from a position of scientific objectivity, Becker’s approach has much to commend it to theologians. “Christian (philosophers) would do well to learn from Becker both in his understanding of human motivation and in his critique of traditional Christianity. For, interestingly, in the end they both seek essentially the same thing – a refocusing of human lives from self onto God with a resultant increase in human fulfillment and reduction in the amount of humanly caused evil in the world” (Streeter, 173). Becker’s accommodation with Christian theology mirrors the concept of balance that informs the notion of the secular saint and a life of fulfillment and meaning.
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BALANCE AND HARMONY
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