Perspective gained from the mountaintops

August 9, 2013

Summer trips to the mountains can open important vistas. The mountains provoke a sense of the sublime, offering hints of meaning that inspire reflection. Mountain vistas, oddly enough, provide a source for understanding human dignity.

It is important to occasionally observe the slow work of the glaciers, the relentless rush of waterfalls, and the immense temporal vistas of the starry night. It is edifying to lose yourself before the overpowering sublimity of the natural world. Our lifetimes are insignificant when considered from the vantage point of Half Dome. The length of human history is nothing at all when compared with the history of the planet, the solar system or the galaxy.

Romantic poets and philosophers celebrated the experience of the sublime in nature. It is sobering to know that from the standpoint of glacial time, nothing we do matters. But it is possible to be uplifted and inspired in the face of the relentless forces of nature.

Despite what the mountains tell us about our own insignificance, we know that the only thing that matters to us is this meager existence of ours. The glaciers may not care about our passions and ideas. But for each of us, present awareness is of infinite worth. The sublime contradiction between the fullness of consciousness and the fact of our own finitude is the source of deep wonder and thought.

I often ask students at the beginning of the semester whether they know the names of any of their great-great-grandparents. It is not surprising that, for the most part, they do not. The present generation has little need for remembrance that goes back beyond a few decades. We have too much to do today.

The past recedes quickly as we rush toward the edges of our lives. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will each be forgotten. But the waterfalls will roar and the granite cliffs will silently endure, as the marks we’ve left behind are effaced by the erosion of time.

How does such an awareness of our insignificance and the experience of the sublime connect to our understanding of ethics?

One response to the sublime is to “seize the day.” A sense of your own finitude can drive you to want to live the present moment to the fullest. Time is short. So make the most of every second. But we ought to avoid nihilistic hedonism and egoistic preoccupation. An ethical approach to seizing the day teaches us to live aware and engaged, embracing the totality of experience, without narcissistic self-absorption.

Another response to our fragile mortal existence aims to develop reverence for the past and a sense of gratitude toward those who paved the way. This is a feature of many religious traditions which commemorate ancient stories about those who came before. An ethic of remembrance attempts to slow the onslaughts of time, insisting that the past has meaning.

Awareness of our own mortal frailty should also lead toward deep reverence for life. If this is the one and only opportunity for life that each of us gets, then we should work to make things better, especially for those whose lives are miserable and even shorter than our own.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that two things filled him with awe and wonder: the starry skies above and the moral law within. The most amazing aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature is that we are able to conceive it. No other creature has a sense of the depths of time, understands the work of the glaciers or recognizes the movements of the planets. Human consciousness is a rare and precious gift in the vast and unconscious cosmos.

Likewise, no other creature is able to think about the meaning of existence and the questions of ethics. We are the only beings in the universe who conceive right and wrong, good and evil. That wonderful capacity for moral reflection is what imbues human life with dignity.

The mountains are majestic. The work of glaciers is awesome. The thundering waterfalls are inspiring. But there is nothing on earth comparable to the majestic and awesome thunder of the human mind that witnesses these wonders.