Who can be a simple man?

সহজ লোকের মতো কে চলিতে পারে।
কে থামিতে পারে এই আলোয় আঁধারে
সহজ লোকের মতো; তাদের মতন ভাষা কথা
কে বলিতে পারে আর; কোনো নিশ্চয়তা
কে জানিতে পারে আর? — জীবনানন্দ দাশ (বোধ)

Who can be a simple man.
Can navigate in this confusion
like a simple man; Can talk like them
anymore anyway; Any certainty
who can know anymore?

A recurring idea in modern writings, literature or scholarly, is the spiritual crisis of the modern time. The implication of this crisis is something we have yet to explore much.


The origin of this crisis is in the rise of natural science. Physics (especially astrophysics), and evolutionary biology, had put organized religions in a tight position. Now the faith has been demolished for a modern person, intellectuals found themselves deeply disturbed. This phenomenon worked across the globe, and that's also at the same time. Jibananada felt it as much as Pessoa did (though they reacted differently in some important details).


The most obvious effect of this crisis is the disorientation, the emptiness left by the dead faiths. Joseph Campbell has expressed the implication of this void quite succinctly in The Power of Myth:

With the loss of that, we've really lost something because we don't have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don't know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don't want to give it up.

Pessoa, though, told us something about how the modern thinking persons felt about it:

Bereft of illusions, we live on dreams, which are the illusions of those who cannot have illusions. Living off ourselves alone, we diminish ourselves, because the complete man is one who is unaware of himself. Without faith, we have no hope and without hope we do not really have a life. With no idea of the future, we can have no real idea of today, because, for the man of action, today is only a prologue to the future. The fighting spirit was stillborn in us, because we were born with no enthusiasm for the fight.

Pessoa chose to defend faith in The Book of Disquiet though. But it didn't come naturally and was in stark contrast with his scepticism:

They bring me faith wrapped up like a parcel and borne on someone else’s tray. They want me to accept it, but not open it. They bring me science, like a knife on a plate, with which I will cut the pages of a book of blank pages. They bring me doubt, like dust inside a box; but why do they bring me the box if all it contains is dust?

This doublethink says something about the magnitude of the problem. The faith have something to say about how to cope with death and our temporality.[1]

Attempted Solutions

Campbell was silent, Jibananada lamenting, Pessoa was confused.

On the other hand, the solutions of the crisis are numerous. Some philosophers worked their way to build new paths. They are a very differently aligned lot. The significance lies in their lifestyle. Faith, or spirituality, had very different meaning to them than the classical one.

Russell was one of them. His deep passion for logic, and the ability to invoke them efficiently, bloomed into a life view simple, pretty much independent and self-sufficient:

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Carl Sagan is another, and a more poetic one. He built a whole modern system of living in the Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and other writings. Where Russell insists on a progressive system of moral, Sagan gives us a live example of how we can work on such a system practically:

There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true.

But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.

The emphasis on love and knowledge is also dominant here. Curiosity took the place of the disorienting emptiness left by the dead faith. The psychological shift is fundamental. It is not like Campbell, Pessoa, or other modern intellectuals were completely ignorant of such ideas. They were just caught between the transition. Also, the mass people are still largely faithful. So, they found themselves particularly alienated in respect to the mass.

  1. See this and the following passage from Importance of Dying ↩︎