Emanuele Severino: On The Presence of Absent Things

Was there ever a time this essay didn’t exist?

Photo by Felix Mittermeier from Pexels

Is the past still present? In memory, yes, at least to some extent (possibly a very small one), but beyond that, does it still literally exist? Most people would say no. Even in spiritual circles it is common to hear that only the present exists and the past and future are mere ideas.

Yet according to the late contemporary Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino this is a mistake: the past and future are just as real as the present, and eternally so. Severino, little known in North America, passed away on Jan 17 2020 at the age of 90. He was well known in Italian philosophical circles for arguing that every moment is eternal and neither the past nor the future are nothingness, but rather exist now and forever in the radiant mansion of being.

“The Whole rejoices because its completeness is not perishable, but eternal. This eternity is the foundation of all joy. But all is eternal. All, in the most intense and richest of senses: each of the things and each form, appearance, state, gesture, shadow, mention, startle, relation of theirs. Each of the things and their staying all together gathered within the Whole.”

This doctrine, which asserts, in a sense, the presence of all absent things, is in line with some interpretations of modern physics. A form of it has been discussed recently by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli in his book The Order of Time as well as by several other philosophers of physics. The current existence of both the past and the future, which is called Block Universe Theory, is in fact suggested by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein famously said that the universe could just as well flow backwards as forwards and that present-centred time is an illusion.

Similar teachings run like a subterranean river through many spiritual traditions, although only occasionally showing themselves. The ancient Indian Buddhist sect of the Sarvastivadins (“those who say all is real”) taught that all phenomena, past, present, and future, have continued reality and exist forever, neither coming into being nor entering nonbeing. The Bhagavad-gita states that everything exists in the unmanifest (avyakta) before appearing in the manifest and again becoming occulted — but not non-existent. Parmenides in Greece, who is among Severino’s inspirations, taught around the same time that nothing with being can ever cease to be, and nothing that is not can ever become.

Kurt Vonnegut, the 20th century writer, explored his own (possibly Einstein influenced) ideas in novels like Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and Sirens of Titan, where all moments exist eternally. Vonnegut shared Severino’s interest in the therapeutic value of this idea. In Vonnegut’s books the Trafalmadorians, an alien race who comes upon humans, have to wrap their minds around the suffering and madness of human beings who think that things only exist momentarily.

What would it mean for us to believe that the past and future are both present to being, and that nothing is ever truly lost?

The Joy of Being

“The history of the Western philosophy,” said Severino, “is the story of the alteration and therefore of the forgetfulness of the meaning of being, initially glimpsed by the Greeks’ most ancient thought.”

Severino argued that there is a logical contradiction in asserting that something can be, and then not be. Once a thing is, he argued simply, it is impossible to then assert that it becomes nothing.

The very definition of a being is something that it is not nothing- how can we say that at some point a not-nothing is nothing? For Severino, the belief in the impermanent being of things is the form of Nihilism, and is a kind of contagious misunderstanding which has dominated human thought for millennia.

“This body burns and this body is replaced by its ash… just a succession of events: the white piece of paper, the approaching of the flame, the flame that raises, a smaller and with a different shape piece of paper, a smaller flame, an even smaller and with another different shape piece, the ash. Every event is followed by another, in the sense that a second event starts to appear when the first one appears no more. But the fact that this, which appears no more, is also no more, is not revealed by the appearing […]..the being is and cannot not be and it remains eternal within itself.”

What Severino is saying is that all that we perceive is the appearance of new things, one after another. His view of life is thus purely positive. Nothing ceases to be; things that exist eternally and necessarily in the flow of cause and effect appear and then disappear from view, but not from being.

Severino believed that we had become hypnotized by a false way of looking at things, taking a mere interpretation of reality- that things first don’t exist, then exist, and then don’t exist again- for fact. One might well ask yourself, have you ever seen nothing? Can you imagine it? Do we actually know anything but ever-changing being? Perhaps “nothingness” is simply a human belief, an abstraction of human thought which we make concrete and believe in.

Severino’s view is underpinned by the acceptance of necessity — the claim, accepted by many scientists, that everything arises from a cause and therefore all of time and space, present and future, are pre-determined. As in Einstein’s theory of relativity, causes and effects are mutually interdependent across time and space. In other words each being is an effect of the whole history of the universe. Everything that has been or will be exists in necessary interconnection with all times and all spaces. As such it can never lose its being but exists eternally within the Whole.

In this view the landscape of being is something we walk through; it is already there before we arrive and continues beyond our passing; life is a country. The fact that things leave traces and effects is a hint to their eternality. If a thing became pure nothingness, how could it continue to have real effects in the world? For Severino every entity is eternal; it appears above the ocean of time like an emerging iceberg, only to sink again below the waters, but it never to become a nothing.

A night of blissful lovemaking; the kindness of a parent; the taste of a madeleine cookie. These things do not fade into the night of non-being, but rather exist eternally, never robbed of their being. Everything that was is; everything that will be is now. We are travellers through this eternal country.

“We turn back some millennia,” writes Severino, “and things- for instance, voices coming from the street- have always been there, together with the rain that surrounds them this evening and the lamp suffusing the room with light. We move onwards for millennia, and they are there forever, just as they now appear, in their entirety.”

According to Severino we already know this in our depths. Our denial of this truth feeds our obsession with control and our pursuit of imaginary salvations from a nothingness that doesn’t exist. “We are Joy,” he writes, pointing not to a passing emotion but a deep feeling more akin to the Vedantic concept of ananda which one feels in the presence of the infinite. “The word does not indicate a psychological feeling: it indicates the rejoicing of the Whole for its being Whole. Fulfilment of every need, liberation from every pain, filling up of every lacuna.”

It is not moments of beauty or love which are eternal, of course: moments of pain, horror and terrible error are as well. Yet Severino writes that when seen within the eternal weave of being “folly and pain” are overcome by the joy of the whole: “Eternal are extreme folly and pain; but eternal, in their being, always already overcome by Joy. Folly and pain always already stay eternally overwhelmed within Joy: lamps lit under the sunlight…..Under the layer that covers them, shines the Joy of the whole. Joy is the essential unconscious of mortals.”

Severino, here as elsewhere, speaks more like someone trying to unpack an Ahayuasva vision or a near-death experience than a solemn philosopher, but his arguments appear to come from a rigorous logic which he develops in several weighty volumes.

Severino thinks that this joy can be touched by us now. How does it feel to think that every moment of beauty and happiness you have ever experienced still exists, an essential part of both the present moment and the eternal being of the universe?

Rather than a short-lived agent whose every experience is dissolving in the void of death and who is charged with grabbing, keeping and defending all that we value in the face of eternal darkness, how does life feel if we contemplate a past still present? One that shines in eternity as every single moment no matter how seemingly banal and a future that already exists, inviting us to walk into it with calm acceptance and curiousity?

On the other hand, one might well ask how it matters to us now that our dead loved on and every moment still exists in an eternally existent past if we can’t talk to them now. And what does it matter if the future exists already if I still have to make decisions? For some these objections will be fatal and Severino’s philosophy useless. Even more compelling an objection to Severino, at least for me, is the objection that he is offering us just another belief system. How do we know the past still exists as he claims? We cannot see it, so aren’t we just embracing a metaphysical conviction?

It seems correct that what Severino offers us is a belief and a metaphysical conviction. In a sense it is no different than the assertion that God remembers all of our past deeds, or that our loves ones still exist now in heaven. Yet there is a possible difference: Severino’s view is backed up both by modern physics and a logical argument about the definition of being that is hard to refute. For those of us open to a metaphysical comfort that is based in science and philosophy, Severino may indeed offer us glimpses of a cosmos where the pain of loss is overcome in the joy of “being gathered together in the eternal Whole.”

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