The question of to be or not to be — to be political or not — has been a classical problem for much of human existence, argued between different philosophers, political theorists, and virtually everyone. This question appears to be especially relevant in today’s political world: Covid-19 politics, political movements for freedom and civil rights, intense party elections, military actions, just to name a few. Moreover, being at a diverse university like NYU Abu Dhabi gives us an even more vivid sense of how national and international politics affect the lives of our community members, sometimes with great fatal velocities that deeply traumatize many of us. Many students from China, for example, were deeply saddened by the recent party meeting in light of a strict Covid-19 policy
that, quite literally, locked freedom up. For community members who care about United States politics, the recent midterm election also worried many, especially as it is the norm for politicians to claim every election to be the single most important election ever. Furthermore, since many also see active political participation as a virtue for citizens, political participation is also a much more complicated topic at NYUAD where many of us aim to become global citizens: how should we understand our political agency in relation to our interwoven identities?
Recently, depoliticization seems to be a much popular trend with people becoming exhausted of endless politics. Some people, for example, hope to isolate themselves from the arena of politics: to be free from the cares of political affairs. In other words, our cares, concerns, and to some extent, attention to politics seem to be the source of our political anxiety. But what does it mean to be carefree?
The nature of human concern and desire has been an important topic for philosophical debate since ancient times. In ancient Greece, philosopher Epicurus (d. 270 BC) famously defines our ultimate concern as our upcoming death and remarks that:
“Non Fvi — Fvi - Non Svm — Non Cvro”
(I was not — I was — I am not — I care not).
In other words, when we exist, death is absent but when death is here, we no longer exist; therefore, our fear toward our ultimate concern should be eliminated. But does this mean that we should, therefore, be carefree? Or, perhaps, is it even possible for us to be carefree?
For many philosophers, the possibility to live a carefree life is more than an ethical or psychological question but an ontological one: are our beings grounded in our cares, concerns, and values? In fact, human life seems to be defined by countless desires: the desire to win over others, to control over contingency, to know over confusion, to love over abstraction, etc. If we are completely carefree, do we still exist as humans? After all, if we are totally free from cares, are we any different from material objects that don’t have emotions, feelings, and values?
Yet many questions arise. What does it mean for our ontological existence to depend on our cares? If our being does depend on our cares, what kind of human condition does it entail? After all, would human life be (ultimately) boring as it is simply defined by our pathological desire to transgress? Our desire to know, for example, seems to be limitless because humans, as curious beings, are curious about everything. But what is a limit? Unlike a closed border, a limit is that which can be overcome. However, in overcoming any limit, one simply sets a new limit to be crossed: for example, a swimmer continuously striving to improve and to swim faster. To care about limits, therefore, is to abandon our hope of satisfaction since there can always be something better. But if the meaningfulness of our lives are defined by our desire to transgress our natural limits — a limitless task in itself — what exactly gives us meaning? After all, if there is no closed limit to this limitless limitation, meanings could only be invented during the process in which we transgress against these limitations. In thinking about the unboundedness of our cares, our existence extends beyond the past and presence to the future as long as time exists: it is impossible for humans not to be humans. Therefore, it is impossible for humans to become carefree unless one ceases to be a human.
Obviously, to ponder this existential crisis itself is not carefree. Perhaps we might try to be carefree, but we need to remain careful: in philosophy, in politics, and in everything. While we try to be carefree about the political drama to ease our anxiety, we remain careful about our identities; while we try to be carefree about our complicated and perhaps even contradictory inner selves, we remain careful about our desires … Before we are stressed by our heavy duties as global citizens, our first class liberal arts education teaches us to ask something even more fundamental: what does it mean to exist, to be a human being?
Simon Zhang is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email him at email@example.com