Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Coming to Terms with our Finite Existence

Barnabas Aspray

Whoever you are reading this, however rich, powerful, educated, knowledgeable, successful, or otherwise, one thing is certain: you are limited. Your wealth, success, knowledge, power, and education are finite. Your life is finite. Your time is finite. Your physical ability is finite. Everything about you is finite.

Does this frustrate you? Sadden you? Upset you? Do you wish it were otherwise? Or do you accept your finitude and all its implications, including the lack of certainty, the inevitability of death, and the limits on what you can do with your life?

The French philosopher Paul Ricœur believed that the primary task of philosophy is to help us come to terms with our finitude. Throughout his long and prolific career, Ricœur wrote on a vast array of topics – language, history, religion, interpretation, politics, and ethics – yet finitude is the common thread that runs through them all. His insights about finitude can be broken down into three stages: (1) understanding it, (2) distinguishing it from evil, and (3) embracing it.

First, understanding our finitude. Many of us know theoretically that we only see the world from a limited perspective. But we often act as if we knew more than we really do – for example, when we criticise a politician, as if we could do a better job than him or her. Likewise, we know theoretically that our moral beliefs are not shared by everyone, but we can nonetheless slip into an ethical colonialism, judging other cultures for failing to live up to our culture’s moral standards.

Ricœur keeps us suspended between two realities. On the one hand, we can never transcend the cultural and historical situation we were born into. No matter what we do, we will always be products of our own time and place in the way we think and live. But on the other hand, we can’t think at all without holding certain things as true for everyone. Even the claim that all human beings are finite is a universal claim. The human mind strives after universal truth and cannot live without it. Ricœur writes: “I do not want to invent or to say whatever I like, but what is. … So the search for truth is itself torn between the ‘finitude’ of my questioning and the ‘openness’ of being.”

The second stage is to distinguish finitude from evil. These two are easily confused. Who doesn’t sometimes get angry, sad, or plain frustrated by their limitations? Wouldn’t we all rather have all knowledge, understanding, and power? But our limits are not something to regret, says Ricœur. The real problem is not that we are finite. The problem is that we wish we weren’t finite. In other words, that we want to be God.

If you are familiar with the first chapters of the Bible, this insight might ring a bell. Genesis 3 teaches that everything went wrong for Adam and Eve when they started to want to be like God. The status of not-being-God is not itself evil or sinful, but it does make evil possible if we refuse to accept our finite status.

This leads to the third stage: accepting our finitude. We cannot change the fact that we are finite. Things will always happen to us that we didn’t want or choose. We live in a turbulent world in which we are not the master. No matter how intelligent, wealthy, or powerful we are, there are always factors beyond our control that can spoil our best-laid plans. The only choice we have is how we respond to our finitude. We have a simple alternative, says Ricœur: refusal or consent.

Refusal means living in angry and bitter resentment against the things we can’t control. It means frustration, shaking our fist at the world and at God.

Consent means humbling ourselves to say ‘yes’ to whatever situation we find ourselves in, however difficult, however much it is not one we would have chosen. It means embracing our finitude and seeking contentment within the limits that have been given us. And for those who believe in a loving Infinite, consent also means trust. We trust that the origin and goal of all things is good, without any trace of evil. We trust that everything that exists is created by a loving Creator, and that therefore we were created, not for conflict and discord, but for peace and harmony with the creation and the Creator.

Ricœur’s use of the Bible for his philosophy raises one final point. Ricœur never hid the fact that some of his insights came from the Bible. But he insisted that they are still philosophy, not theology. All philosophical insights come from somewhere. The important thing is not where they come from, but whether they can help us make sense of ourselves and the world we live in. Ricœur’s philosophy is an attempt to make sense of ourselves using concepts drawn from beyond the limits of philosophy: God (or the Infinite), creation (or finitude), and evil.

If you want to think more about your finitude, you could consider buying my new book, Ricœur at the Limits of Philosophy, which unpacks these insights in more depth.

Ricœur at the Limits of Philosophy by Barnabas Aspray

About The Author

Barnabas Aspray

Barnabas Aspray is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He received his PhD in philosophical theology from the University of Cambridge in 2020, and is an active me...

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