The Ugly Celibate

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest.  As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks:  he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had.  For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”

Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way?  Other interpretations were possible:  he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary.  In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.

There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.”  Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance.  Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection.  And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.

Here’s the problem:  can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid?  It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.

In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this:  Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself?  Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence?  An aphorism from Nietzsche helps:  “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”  If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.

Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.