Ethics and Eternity

Eternity is, at first glance, a more spiritual than a philosophical notion. Yet, philosophers have often presented their system of thought from the perspective of eternity itself. Plato is the first among them to posit the perennial existence of pure Forms or perfect Ideas which the philosopher’s mind is meant to strive for. In the absence of an eternal Being, the world of Forms constitutes a permanent moral backdrop and a constant source of intellectual inspiration. According to Socrates’ disciple, our souls once lived in the company of these pure Forms before being incarnated in a human body. One may adhere to or reject the Platonic interpretation of the Good but just like the Sun of the Good is the ultimate guardian of all knowledge and morality, God is, for the true believer, the ultimate repository of Love and Justice. Plotinus, for one, did not hesitate to see in Plato’s Good the philosophical counterpart of an eternal divinity: ’The One’.

All moral philosophers have to anchor their key principles on the solid ground of metaphysics, that is, in a dimension or realm unaffected by transient human events, well beyond the potential damage of a whimsical human nature. What is ‘good’ is ‘good’ for all eternity, such is the message from Plato to Levinas. Even for Kant, who systematically rejects the legacy of traditional metaphysics, the promise of immortality is, after all, one of the three postulates of morality, along with Freedom and the existence of God. The Kantian agent does not behave morally because of his expectation of immortal life but because of his rational belief in a world of moral principles transcending human history. After all, all ethical theories, irrespective of their historical context, imply the same timeless relation to Love or Justice.

Both theology and philosophy converge and fundamentally agree on what actually motivates the human heart: protecting or saving an innocent life from a certain death is a universal as well as a timeless act of love and justice, recognisable as such, across the ages, thus conferring it an eternal value. In a world subjected to constant changes of opinions and values, the notion of eternity helps us to judge our actions from an objective, absolute viewpoint, valid for everyone, everywhere. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked, after Spinoza, ‘in ethical decisions a man must consider his action from the perspective of the eternal and then, no matter how it proceeds, it will proceed rightly.’

… sub specie aeternitatis …

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