Does Eternal Life Belong to Those Who Live in the Present?

by Modaser Shah

“Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present,” Wittgenstein, in Tractatus, quoted in Less Than Nothing by Slavoj Žižek.

Some random associations:

This sounds more like a koan than a philosopher’s proposition, hence the meaning is not obvious, or, like many a koan, it may be perceived as self-contradictory or even non-sensical. It is certainly not a scientific claim, for how would one go about verifying or, à la Karl Popper, falsifying this statement? Yet it does not strike one as a senseless statement; there seems to be something there, something that draws our attention, something profound, yet it also at the same time calls forth skepticism, perhaps because it feels alluring, enticing, something too good to be true: living in the moment promising eternal life. And what does living in the moment mean? Totally disregarding the past and the future would be reckless, irresponsible. What does eternal life mean and what relevance does it have to our day to day lives? This seems to be its distinction from the usual type of koan, which seems like pure non-sense, or a logical impossibility, a confusion of categories. It does not, by itself, seem to promise anything but confusion and torment, like a puzzle with no solution. Both are possible metaphors for human, perhaps all, life.

It may be that the process of struggling with these contradictions, conflicts, absurdities and impossibilities, this struggle itself—rather than a solution or a group of solutions, which can be turned into  an ideology—is what this and other koans are meant to impel us to engage in. This inner struggle with one’s demons, or conflicts and contradictions, theses and antitheses requiring constant synthesizing, is, perhaps, the greater jihad, spoken of by the Prophet of Islam and various Sufis.

As is usual with Wittgenstein, he is not necessarily telling us something but showing us, and what this statement shows will depend on the state of mind and body of the recipient and one’s stage of development as well as a willingness to leave the comfort zone of received ideas and concepts, to unlearn in preparation for learning. This also seems to me to be at least one function of Zen koans.

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