This article was originally published in the newsletter of the Secular Humanist Society of New York (SHSNY). It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
There is a very old saying, “…and Caesar wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Attributed to be about Alexander the Great, the phrase often connotes the idea that when we meet the purpose of our lives, feelings of emptiness and a lack of purpose will invade our psyche, leaving us lost and wanting.
It is true that Alexander might have put himself out of business by conquering the known world. But in reality and in an alternative reading of the quote, he might more accurately be weeping out of anger rather than sorrow. For now, there were no new throats to cut.
Regardless of how you might interpret the saying, it still has deep meaning to me. No, I am not assuming we humanists are set to begin a bloodthirsty rampage across Europe and Asia or, to a lesser extent, start pillaging our neighbor’s yard. Such actions would be anti-humanistic to say the least!
But the saying does deny the fact that life is an open, rather than closed system. That there are choices for us to make, mountains still left to climb, ideas, people and places to become acquainted with—all before we leave the stage. A humanist life well lived is a life spent moving forward like a shark, who would otherwise perish should it stop moving, rather than an autocratic genocidal emperor.
Indeed, the shark analogy is almost perfect. We can learn a great deal about sharks in terms of persistence and purpose. After all, as a species they have survived all five of the Earth’s recorded mass extinctions. And it is a shark’s sleek evolutionary body that designers have used for decades to streamline cars, boats, rockets, and a host of objects.
It’s said that sharks have an acute ability to sense blood in the water from miles away. While this might not be totally accurate (I checked), I conclude that we as secular humanists should all be smelling the blood in our ecological, political, and social justice waters. All in search of new vision, purpose, opportunities to help create a more just and equal future.
The other wisdom about sharks, as I mentioned earlier, comes from their biology. If a shark stops moving, it cannot take in oxygen and it will perish. So the idea of a life based on the concept of “move or die” is as real for sharks as it should be for humanists.
Unlike sharks, we secular humanists are bigger thinkers. We’re not just hunting for food as a sole “raison d etre”. But we are still seekers. We are still hunters and gatherers of a sort. As a group we are future-focused beings working in the present while looking to a common future based on justice and kindness.
We are active in creating a world humanity that encourages love and protection of each other and our environment. We are supporters of truth, science, and secular democracy. We are agents of change that support human, civil, and ecological rights. And according to data collected by Pew Research and even the Catholic and Evangelical churches, secular numbers are growing faster than our religious brethren.
So there is no time to weep, each of us being the “Caesar” of our own lives, but there is still much left to accomplish and to build out for the future. To create for our current creature comforts, and more importantly for human rights, not just for the NOW but for those who come after us.
As someone who respects and understands evolutionary biology, we either adapt, speciate, or go extinct, just like a shark that either moves forward or dies. This is true for us genetically as I would contemplate that it is also true for our species as social primates as well.
Not that there is one overarching cultural elite or one monolithic perfect way of being. But there is a system of knowledge found in secular humanism as a life philosophy that is liberating. That permits each of us to be kind, democratic, and humane to one another for the betterment of our entire species and our planet.
And here Caesar and shark alike can be masters of their domain. Just as we secular humanists view our times and lives with equal vigor. But with our hearts and eyes, as well as our motives and actions, all firmly planted on making the world in which we live safer, richer, and kinder.