Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”
I like this quote; it consists of several interesting elements. Most obvious is the ambiguity of stars: they can both guide us and blind us. I’ll get back to that.
We live in dark times, where terrorism, fascism, racism, sexism, and rigid nationalism seem to flourish everywhere. In addition, I am not even mentioning the environment, that is, how we treat this lovely earth that we are lucky enough to inhabit for a time. We live in a time where egoism has hindered us—that is, all sentient beings—from seeing how we are all interrelated.
Just a few days ago, the city where I live, Barcelona in Spain, suffered an awful terror attack, like so many cities before it. It happened in La Rambla, a commercial and touristic area characterized by its openness.
People come and go; even the locals that tend to avoid it have to pass through or by it, stroll along for a while when they go to the theater, the market, the museums, bookstores, cinemas, etc. It’s an intersection where all paths in Barcelona are fated to pass, once in a while. What happened in Barcelona was, of course, just one of far too many murderous attacks on innocent people, which has happened, and continues to happen, all around the world.
But let me step away from the street and over to an important and relevant book in these dark times. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism opens with a German quote from Karl Jaspers. In my English translation, it says something like: “Don’t give in to the past or the future. Be entirely present is all that matters.” Or, “What matters is to be entirely present.”
The moral is clear: to pay attention to the present moment, that is, to what happens right now. Totalitarianism emerges because of our ignorance, our lack of awareness of what is taking place right here and now.
This Jasper quote makes me recall the story of Oedipus, who, after realizing that he had killed his father and made love to his mother, tears out his own eyes. He couldn’t take or carry the pain. For me, philosophy is about trying to become capable of carrying, that is, live on with pain. In Barcelona, like so many other places, people screamed, “We are not afraid!” I share this but yet, I am afraid … afraid that we don’t learn to see better, that this act of terror will not sharpen our senses, afraid that we will still neglect to deepen our questions about ourselves, involve ourselves.
If Oedipus were a philosopher, he would not have blinded himself but looked the fear and pain right in the eyes.
Let’s return to Dr. King’s quote emphasizing how we ought to look into the dark, perhaps to reflect why we didn’t notice the stars before it became so dark. Apparently, terrorism, racism, fascism, hatred, stupidity, etc. were already there; yet, how come we didn’t see them, just ignored them? Yes, many of the elements on my list have been very overt in many places in recent times, and still, how come so many didn’t notice the hate? Here, of course, the stars don’t refer to anything heroic—quite the contrary: they blind some, they seduce some with their too naïve logic. No one is born hating another person because of the color of her skin, as Barack Obama once said. It is easy to stigmatize. They appeal – those hateful ideologies – because they don’t require the hard work related to thinking, analyzing, etc.
A simple example is how changes in society happen gradually. Some people use diminishing and hateful words to describe other forms of life; some make jokes about minorities. And people let these pass. “It’s nothing,” they say. And yet, gradually what began with us not paying attention to how people use language strangles us.
On a more positive note, when it is dark we can see the stars, referring to those who are already fighting back, resisting stupidity. Those stars guide, inspire, or challenge us to think. It can be through demonstration (recall the women’s march soon after the election of Trump), humor, as well as serious and thorough in-depth journalism that allow readers to sharpen their vision. Those who meet hate with hate are not the stars. Hate is too easy. Instead, the stars are those who are capable of creating alternative ways of living, who are open to more compassionate and loving paths, who establish sustainable futures where we all can live together without being reduced to the same. We must take direct action. Question the dominant worldview in our culture such as neoliberalism, white supremacy, sexism, rigid religious interpretations, etc.
So, in dark times, like in all times, we need philosophy. Luckily, philosophy is for all. No discrimination here (see more here). Furthermore, love and thinking have always walked hand in hand in philosophy; if you’re not capable of loving, you’re not capable of thinking. That is why you find no convincing philosophy among political and religious terrorists, fascists, sexists, or racists. Socrates, one of the first philosophers, interacted with people out of love, and he cared for their reasoning, as if he knew that depression, unhappiness, or feelings of inferiority were symptoms of mental illness.
It is as if people who can’t think are responsible for what we call “evil.”