Selections – ‘The Decline of Language and the Rise of Nothing’

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Hamza Yusuf

Channel: Hamza Yusuf

Episode Notes

With Thomas Hibbs 

Episode Transcript

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Just went out. First of all, thank you very much for those thoughtful and important remarks. I think in in reading your, your book shows about nothing you attempt to address I think that rather you address very well the crises of nihilism In popular culture. And what I want to start off one is by looking at the problem of idealism,

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which is a human problem and I'd like to quote and then ask some of your reflections on this from it. Are you familiar with ni[???]ani? Meiji? Have you read anything? No, okay. Yet, he, he wrote a book called overcoming nihilism, it's actually really worth reading. But anyway, he says, On the one hand, kneel ism is a problem that transcends time and space and is rooted in the essence of human being an existential problem in which the being of the self is revealed to the self itself as something groundless. On the other hand, it is a historical and social phenomenon, an object of the study of history, the phenomenon of Neel ism shows that our historical life has lost its ground as

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objective spirit, that the value system which supports this life has broken down, and that the entirety of social and historical life has loosened itself from its foundations. Neel ism is a sign of the collapse of the social order, externally and of spiritual decay internally. And as such signifies a time of great upheaval. viewed in this way, one might say that it is a general phenomenon that occurs from time to time in the course of history. And he was writing in post war Japan, where they had an immense crisis. So I'd like just maybe to hear from you about how this translates what I just read and what you wrote about in your book in our current crises.

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Yes, very good. And that's a very succinct analysis, just so everyone knows. Neil ism is a term comes from a Latin word, Neil, which means nothing. And it's typically taken to be a philosophy or way of life that says that there's no ultimate purpose or meaning, no, no fundamental standard, to which we can appeal that enables us to distinguish between true and false, good and evil, even better or worse. And so it is, it can be the result of deep social, political confusion, spiritual emptiness, obviously, it when it's taught, particularly to young people, either as a philosophy or through the stories we tell, it can have a coarsening and indeed corrosive effect on the moral

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imagination of young people. And that's, in part what I was worried about in the book, looking at examples from television and film. And I do think that we are in a time where we're nihilism threatens us in lots of ways, I think, are even in our, in our positive quest for justice. We've had a lot of talk since early summer after George Floyd, about issues of racial injustice, and mistreatment by the legal system, by police, and by courts and so forth. A and beneath that. It in its its deep authenticity is a great hunger for justice. But I think sometimes in our culture, when we talk about rights when we talk about demands for justice, because we lack a consensus about what

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it means to be human, about what the foundations of justice are, whether they're in nature, or in God, our discussions about these matters, have an almost hysterical character to them, that borders on the irrational and is always in danger bordering on violence, because we we lack a sense of the foundation of purpose and so we're always we're always sort of threatened by nihilism, whether we're aware of it or not, that one last thing I'd say about this is the the first part of that comment from the scholar you were reading

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is that the the sense of one's own nothingness. In religious traditions I speak here, especially in the Christian religious tradition, that insight into one's nothingness is a possibility of open

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up into seeing one's very existence as a gift of the Creator God. And so, the The, the, in the, in the deep religion, religious traditions of which we are apart, that sense of nothingness is always part of our sense of ourselves, because we are not self creators, because we are not fully autonomous, because we are not sufficient unto ourselves. And so that sense of my own nothingness, within the ambit of a rich theology and liturgy, and practice of a meaningful religious life, that's, that is actually something that we are urged to have. Right, we are urged to have a sense of our own nothingness, and that our dignity comes from our being created by God and from our

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subordinate relationship to God as creator, and judge. And so the when you when you have the experience of nothingness, apart from that theological framework, the risk is always that everything falls apart, right? That then it's just bear meaninglessness.

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I know, you're a scholar of Pascal. And my father said that everybody should read the 72nd. Ponce, at least once in his life. And, and as you're well aware, I mean, that's the one that deals with proportionality. And this idea that the human being straddles these two abysus, the abyss of nothingness, and from which he came, and the abyss of infinity by whom he came. And he argues in there that only God can know both nothing. And infinity were incapable of that. And it seems to me that Neil ism is people that are looking at the nothing and forget about the infinity. And they've, in a sense, turned their back on that. And frost has a wonderful poem about the people that look out

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at the sea, they cannot look out far they cannot look in deep. But whenever was that any any thing that prevented them from doing it? And it seems to me that you know, that the Neil list is looking instead of looking at the ocean of infinity, he's looking at the the wasteland. on the shore, he's, he's looking the other way. And and I think,

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you know, what you've pointed out in this is that our children, and Plato reminded us that give me the stories you tell your children and I'll give you your culture that our children are growing up on a type of,

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of popular culture that that is so corrosive.

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And over time, I can't see how they could not fall into a type of despair. That the the the the meaninglessness of life that's presented to them constantly. that that would be the result. And so I'm just I'm curious how you see in terms of our institutions, these liberal arts institutions, how, how can we be better at doing what I think compt has an essay on a pirate Kalia. And Leo Strauss uses that term, when he talks about liberal education the idea that vulgarity which our culture has become very vulgar, and and and vulgarity for the Greeks was a pirate callea it was inexperience in things beautiful. How do we restore beauty to our to a culture that seems to have really lost it?

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That's a great question. The first thing I want to say is that one of my favorite things about being with President Hamza is so the way he weaves long quotations from poetry into already does I mean, there's a there's there is an eloquence and beauty and that is one of the ways right. It's by adults speaking to young people, especially in our educational institutions, but more broadly, in ways that give them an appreciation of the beauty of language. Right, we're using language all the time and our language has become so coarsened that we don't experience beauty in it. They, the German philosopher Vic and Stein has a great line. The limits of my language mark the limits of my world.

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And what liberal education offers to young people is an expression

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of their vocabulary. So they can actually not just impress people at cocktail parties and talk intelligently in meetings, but so that they can actually see the world in a richer way. You can look at something a painting, a beautiful, a beautiful building

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a great work of art. And if you don't have the vocabulary to describe what you're experiencing, you are to some extent insensitive to what you're experiencing, or at least you can't experience it on the deepest level. So giving students a vocabulary, so that they can more richly perceive and understand and express their own experiences is one of the keys. It's also that vocabulary.

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And the stories and texts that we read in our curricula, give students standards, give students a sense of what it would mean to pursue the truth, to pursue goodness to pursue beauty. And at least after they've had that, they will have the grounds in everything else they're experienced for saying something's missing. nihilism is being unable to say something's missing. There's a great line in Shakespeare's King Lear. This is not the worst, so long as we can say, this is the worst. The worst would be to experience something that's horrible, and not even know that it's horrible.

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Right? So to give our young people at a minimum, the ability to know that something's missing, and to be able to start to articulate what that is, from the resources that we've given them through our education. The real danger in our culture is that we sense that things are a mess, but we can't really name what's missing. And without an education, especially a deeply spiritual education, you lack the resources to identify what's missing. And you can even begin to lack the sense that something is missing at all.

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And the pourrons first commandment was read, if at all, to read. And I think Islam, light, Christianity developed an incredible civilization of literacy. And that's why one of the things that shocked barzan in his in his book from dawn to decadence, he has a chapter about what he called primitivism. You know, the kind of rue solian fallacy where people look at very primitive life as some kind of an ideal. And, and I think that that, to me, is a great tragedy because the the life of the mind, the fact that we are unique amongst creation, in that we do have minds. And we have this ability to grapple with nothing and infinity as concepts, which is something that the God who

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created our imaginations, gave us those imaginations, to be able to do that. And that's something so extraordinary. And to squander this incredible opportunity. I just, I feel for our young people, because they're given relativism in schools, they're taught doctrines that this really is meaningless. And then they're told, on the other hand, about rights that they never ground in anything. And this is leads me to my last question to you, I think you make a very powerful argument in in your book on dialectic, that, you know, seeking the good, whether it's, you know, the moral virtues, the intellectual virtues, seeking the good requires metaphysics. And as a Turner, we do

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really try to give our students some, you know, an introduction to metaphysics. So I'd really like you to talk about why metaphysics is so fundamental and important to the life of the mind.

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Yeah, so in that in the tradition that we work out off, right, and you're right, that

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Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas is great teacher was immersed in, in the writers from your tradition, and and that Aquinas could not have done his work without that training. And that was a training that saw the

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texts and commentaries on them as building up, not a standing between us in reality, but as building up insight and vocabulary to be able to discern and apprehend the truth about reality more fully. And in this tradition, the more fully we apprehended, the more deeply mysterious it becomes. That's a great paradox of metaphysics, as it's understood in the Arabic Islamic tradition and in, in the Christian tradition, at least amongst the best practitioners in those traditions.

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without some sense, I mean, let me talk about this just in terms of our experience of people and our lives, and then broaden out to something more substantive about metaphysics without some sense, and this is often where secular people begin to have quasi religious thoughts and sometimes begin a quest for religion and conversion. Some sense that there are layers,

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mysteries, coincidences on one level, which might be Providence on another, that that there are things that I'm not apprehending levels of depth about my relationship with other people, about my own life, about good things that I've done about evil that I have done. without some sense of that depth perspective in our lives. Our lives just become flat and meaningless, and and listless. Right, and without joy, without energy, without mystery. So when we have the sense that we're on a quest, as as Walker personally puts it on one of his books, to be on the quest is to be onto something, the sense that there's something more, right that that I can't quite apprehend, but it's it's nagging at

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me, it's gnawing at me, it's pulling me it's drawing me that sense that there's something more

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leads ultimately to certain kinds of affirmations about reality, as being deeper and richer than my immediate experience allows. But it's being revealed to some extent, in my immediate experience. And that's the beginning of metaphysics, the sense that there is a hole of which I am apart, and that my one of my tasks as a human person, in this great vast, mysterious cosmos, where I find myself in a on a tiny speck of matter, called Planet Earth, for an infinitesimally small period of time. One of my tasks is to try and understand my place within the whole

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reification of metaphysics. It's interesting, you're saying that because in nature who was dealing with with the collapse of metaphysics, in amongst the Europeans, he wrote in the collapse of cosmological values, that one of the he gives these three different degrees of nihilism or nihilism. And he says that the second one is a loss of, of, of a holistic view of the universe, that which is exactly to the point that you're making that this, this is where Neel ism arises out of it arises out of this loss. And in the discarded image. I mean, that's one of the things that CS Lewis talks about is that the thing he envied most about the pre moderns is they really had worked it all out

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and had such a holistic view of the world and understood it within that whole ism. And so getting back to that being Whole Again, I mean, it's interesting that healthy, comes from whole, you know, the, the word the root of that word is is from the same root that we get whole, from to be healthy is to be whole, and it seems that we're so fragmented