What is our life, my life? It would be innocent and incongruous to answer this question with definitions of biology and to speak of cells, somatic functions, digestion, the nervous system, etc. All these things are hypothetical realities constructed with good foundation, but constructed by biological science, which is an activity of my life when I study it or I dedicate myself to its investigations. My life is not what happens in my cells as it is not what happens in my stars, in those little gold dots that I see in my night world. My body itself is only a detail of the world that I find in me – a detail that, for many reasons, is of exceptional importance to me, but that does not take away the character of being just one ingredient among countless others that I find in the world before me. What is said to me, then, about my body organism and what is added to me about my psychic organism through psychology already refers to secondary particularities that suppose the fact that I live and when I live I find, see, analyze, investigate things- bodies and things-souls. Therefore, responses of that order do not even approximate the primordial reality that we are now trying to define.
What, then, is life? Do not look far, do not try to remember learned wisdoms. The fundamental truths. The ones that need to be searched are that they are only in one place, that they are particular, localized, provincial, corner, not basic truths. Life is what we are and what we do: it is, therefore, of all things the closest to everyone. Let’s put our hand on it, it will let itself be captured like a meek bird.
If a moment ago, when you were going here, someone asked you where you were going, you will have said: we are going to listen to a philosophy lesson. And indeed, here you are listening to me. The thing has no importance. However, it is what now constitutes his life. I feel sorry for you, but the truth forces me to say that your life, your now, consists of a thing of minuscule importance. But if we are sincere, we will recognize that the largest portion of our existence is made up of insignificant couples: we come, we come, we do this or that, we think, we want or we don’t want, etc. From time to time our lives seem to gain sudden tension, such as rearing, concentrating and becoming denser: it is a great pain, a great eagerness that calls us: important things happen to us, we say. But notice that for our life this variety of accents, this having or not having importance is indifferent, since the culminating and frenetic hour is no more life than the plebs of our usual minutes.
It turns out, then, that the first view that we take on life in this investigation of its pure essence that we undertake is the set of acts and events that, as it were, furnish it.
Our method is going to consist of noticing one after another the attributes of our life in such order that from the most external we advance towards the most internal, that we contract from the periphery of living to its throbbing center. We will find, then, successively an introgredient series of definitions of life, each one of which preserves and deepens the antecedents.
And so the first thing we find is this:
Living is what we do and it happens to us – from thinking or dreaming or moving to playing the Stock Market or winning battles. But, understood, nothing of what we do would be our life if we did not realize it. This is the first decisive attribute that we come across: living is that strange, unique reality that has the privilege of existing for itself. All living is living, feeling living, knowing oneself existing -where knowing does not imply intellectual knowledge or any special wisdom, but it is that surprising presence that your life has for everyone: without that knowing, without realizing the toothache it would hurt.
The stone does not feel or know how to be stone: it is for itself, as for everything, absolutely blind. Instead, living is, for the time being, a revelation, not being content with being, but understanding or seeing that one is, knowing. It is the incessant discovery we make of ourselves and of the world around us. Now we go with the explanation and the legal title of that possessive stranger that we use when saying “our life”; it is ours because, in addition to being it, we realize that it is and that it is as it is. By perceiving and feeling we take possession of ourselves, and this being always in possession of ourselves, this perpetual and radical assistance to what we do and are different from living from everything else. The proud sciences, the wise knowledge do nothing more than take advantage, particularize and regiment this primordial revelation in which life consists.
To find an image that fixes the memory of this idea a bit, let’s bring the one from Egyptian mythology where Osiris dies and Isis, the mistress, wants him to resurrect and, then, makes him swallow the eye of the sparrowhawk Horus. Since then the eye appears in all the hieratic drawings of the Egyptian civilization representing the first attribute of life: seeing oneself. And that eye, walking throughout the Mediterranean, filling the East with its influence, has become what all other religions have drawn as the first attribute of providence: seeing oneself, essential attribute and first of life itself .
This seeing or feeling, this presence of my life before me that gives me possession of it, that makes it “mine” is what the insane lacks. The life of the madman is not his, strictly speaking it is no longer life. Hence it is the most unpleasant fact that there is seeing a madman. Because in him the physiognomy of a life appears perfect, but only as a mask behind which a true life is missing. In fact, in front of the insane, we feel like a mask; it is the essential, definitive mask. The madman, not knowing himself, does not belong, he has expropriated himself, and expropriation, passing into the possession of others, is what the old names of madness mean: alienation, alienated, we say – he is out of himself, he is ” gone “, he understands himself; is possessed, is understood to be possessed by another. Life is knowing – it is evidential.
It is good to say: first it is to live and then to philosophize -in a very rigorous sense it is, as you are seeing, the beginning of all my philosophy-; It is well, then, that this be said – but noting that living at its roots and within itself consists in knowing and understanding oneself, in noticing and noticing what surrounds us, in a being transparent to himself. So when we start the question what is our life? We were able to respond gallantly without effort: life is what we do – of course – because living is knowing what we do, it is – in short – finding oneself in the world and occupied with the things and beings of the world.
(These vulgar words, meet, world, occupy, are now technical words in this new philosophy. One could speak at length of each one of them, but I will limit myself to notice that this definition: “to live is to be in a world”, as all The main ideas of these conferences are already in my published work. It is important for me to warn you, above all, about the idea of existence, for which I claim chronological priority. For this reason I am pleased to recognize that, in the analysis of life, who has gotten deeper is the new German philosopher Martin Heidegger).
Here it is necessary to sharpen the vision a little because we arrive at rougher coasts.
To live is to be in the world … Heidegger, in a very recent and great book, has made us notice all the enormous meaning of those words … It is not mainly that we find our body among other bodily things and all this within a great body or space that we would call world. If only bodies had not existed living, bodies roll over each other, always out of each other, like billiard balls or atoms, without knowing or importing each other. The world we live in is made up of pleasant and unpleasant, atrocious and benevolent things, favors and dangers: the important thing is not that things are bodies or not, but that they affect us, interest us, caress us, threaten us and torment us. Originally, what we call the body is nothing but something that resists and hinders us or sustains and carries us – therefore, it is nothing but adverse and favorable. The world is sensu stricto what affects us. And to live is to find each one himself in a field of themes, of matters that affect him. Thus, without knowing how, life finds itself while discovering the world. There is no living but is in an orb full of things, be they objects or creatures; it is seeing things and scenes, loving or hating them, wanting or fearing them. All living is dealing with the other that is not oneself, all living is living with a circumstance.
Our life, according to this, is not only our person, but our world is part of it: it – our life – consists of the person taking care of things or with them, and obviously what our life is depends so much on what our person is like what our world is. [That is why we can represent “our life” as an arc that unites the world and me; but it is not me first and then the world, but both at the same time]. Neither is one closer to the other than the other term: we do not realize ourselves first and then the outline, but living is, of course, at its own root, facing the world, with the world, within the world, immersed in his traffic, in his problems, in his random plot. But also vice versa: that world, being composed only of what affects each of us, is inseparable from us. We are born together with him and are vitally person and world like those couples of divinities of ancient Greece and Rome who were born and lived together: the Dioscuri, for example, pairs of gods that used to be called di consentes, the unanimous gods.
We live here, now – that is, we are in a place in the world and it seems to us that we have come to this place very freely. Life, in effect, leaves a margin of possibilities within the world, but we are not free to be or not in this world that is now. You can give up on life, but if you live you cannot choose the world in which you live. This gives our existence a terribly dramatic gesture. Living is not entering for pleasure in a previously chosen place to taste, as the theater is chosen after dinner – but it is to find yourself suddenly, and without knowing how, fallen, submerged, projected in an unchangeable world, in this now. Our life begins by being the perpetual surprise of existing, without our prior consent, shipwrecked, in an unpredicted orb. We have not given ourselves life, but we find it precisely when we meet ourselves. An illuminating simile is that of someone who, asleep, is taken to the racks of a theater and there, with a push that awakens him, he is thrown into the drums, in front of the public. When you are there, what does that character find? For he is plunged into a difficult situation without knowing how or why, in a vicissitude: the difficult situation consists in resolving in a decorous way that exposition before the public, which he has neither sought nor prepared nor foreseen. In its radical lines, life is always unforeseen. He has not announced us before entering it – on his stage, which is always a concrete and determined one; they have not prepared us.
This sudden and unforeseen character is essential in life. It would be something else if we could prepare ourselves before entering it. Dante already said that “the predicted arrow comes slower”. But life in its entirety and in each of its moments has something of a pistol shot that is fired at us point blank.
I believe that this image draws quite neatly the essence of living. Life is given to us – rather, it is not thrown or we are thrown into it, but what is given to us, life, is a problem that we need to solve. And it is not only in those cases of special difficulty that we characterize peculiarly as conflicts and difficulties, but it always is. When you have come here you have had to make up your mind, to resolve to live this time in this way. In other words: we live supporting ourselves in suspense, carrying our lives in weight around the corners of the world. And with this we do not prejudge if our existence is sad or jovial; be it one or the other, it is constituted by an incessant forcing to solve the problem of itself.
If the bullet that fires the rifle had a spirit, it would feel that its trajectory was predetermined exactly by gunpowder and marksmanship, and if we called this trajectory its life, the bullet would be a simple spectator of it, without intervention in it: the bullet had not fired at herself and has not chosen her target. But for this very reason this way of existing cannot be called life. It never feels preset. No matter how sure we are of what will happen to us tomorrow, we always see it as a possibility. This is another essential and dramatic attribute of our life, which is linked to the previous one. Because it is a problem, large or small, at all times that we have to solve without transferring the solution to another being, it means that it is never a solved problem, but that, at all times, we feel forced to choose between several possibilities. [If we are not given the choice of the world in which our life will slide – and this is its dimension of fatality – we find ourselves with a certain margin, with a vital horizon of possibilities – and this is its dimension of freedom-; Life, then, is freedom in fatality and fatality in freedom]. Isn’t this surprising? We have been thrown into our lives and, at the same time, that in which we have been thrown we have to do it on our own, so to speak, manufacture it. Or put another way: our life is our being. We are what she is and nothing else -but that being is not predetermined, resolved beforehand, but we need to decide it ourselves, we have to decide what we are going to be; for example, what we are going to do when we leave here. I call this “taking yourself on edge, holding your own self.” There is no rest or pause because sleep, which is a biological way of living, does not exist for life in the radical sense in which we use this word. In the dream we do not live, but when we wake up and resume life we find it augmented with the volatile memory of what is dreamed.
Elementary and inveterate metaphors are as true as Newton’s laws. In those venerable metaphors that have already become words of the language, on which we march at all times as on an island formed by what was coral, in these metaphors – I say – perfect institutions of the most fundamental phenomena are encapsulated. This is how we often talk about suffering a “grief”, that we are in a “serious” situation. Grief, gravity are metaphorically transposed from physical weight, from weighing a body over ours and weighing ourselves, in the most intimate order. And it is that, in fact, life always weighs, because it consists of taking and supporting and conducting oneself. Only nothing blunts like habit and ordinarily we forget that constant weight that we carry and are – but when a less solid occasion arises, we feel the burden again. While the star gravitates towards another body and does not weigh itself, the one that lives is at the same time a weight that weighs and a hand that supports. Similarly, the word “joy” comes perhaps from “lighten”, which is to lose weight. The sorry man goes to the tavern looking for joy – he drops the ballast and the poor aerostat of his life rises jovially.
With all this we have advanced remarkably in this vertical excursion, in this descent to the deep being of our life. In the depth where we are now, living appears to us as feeling forced to decide what we are going to be. We will no longer be content to say, as in the beginning: life is what we do, it is the set of our occupations with the things of the world, because we have warned that all that doing and those occupations do not come to us automatically, mechanically imposed, like the repertoire from records to the gramophone, but they are decided by us; that this being determined is what they have in life; the execution is largely mechanical.
The great fundamental fact with which I wanted to put you in contact is already there, we have already expressed it: living is constantly deciding what we are going to be. Do you not perceive the fabulous paradox that this contains? A being that consists, more than in what is, in what is going to be; therefore, in what is not yet! For this essential, abysmal paradox is our life. I am not to blame for it. So it is in rigorous truth.
But do some of you think this: “How long is it going to be here? Decide what we are going to be! For a while we have been here listening to you, deciding nothing, and yet, what a doubt, living! ” To which I would reply: “My lords, during this time you have only decided over and over again what you were going to be. It is one of the least climactic hours of your life, most condemned to relative passivity, since that you are listeners. And yet it exactly matches my definition. Here’s the proof: while you were listening to me, some of you have hesitated more than once between stopping attending to me and vacating your own meditations or generously continuing to hear alerts when I was saying: They have decided either for one or the other -to be attentive or to be distracted, to think about this topic or another-, and that, thinking about life or something else is what it is now their lives. And, no less, the others who have not wavered, who have remained determined to listen to me to the end. Moment after moment they will have to nurture that resolution again to keep it alive, to continue to be attentive. Our decisions, even the most firm, they have to r to receive constant corroboration, that to be always loaded again like a shotgun where the powder is useless, they have to be, in short, re-decided. As you entered through that door, you had decided what you were going to be: listeners, and then you have reiterated your purpose many times – otherwise you would have escaped me little by little from the cruel hands of a speaker “.
And now it is enough for me to draw the immediate consequence of all this: if our life consists in deciding what we are going to be, it means that at the very root of our life there is a temporal attribute: deciding what we are going to be – therefore, the future. And, nonstop, we now receive, one after another, a whole fertile harvest of inquiries. First: that our life is, above all, bumping into the future. Here is another paradox. It is not the present or the past that we first experience, no; Life is an activity that runs forward, and the present or the past is discovered later, in relaxation with that future. Life is futurition, it is what it is not yet.