In a class on Dante I’m currently enrolled in, Professor Frank Ambrosio of Georgetown University quoted the nineteenth century philosopher Friedric Nietzsche that human beings, as far as we know, are the only animals who make promises. I only add that humans are also the sole ones who break them.
According to Ambrosio, Nietzsche puts the significance of human promising and its place with regard to freedom this way: “In man, nature set itself the task to breed an animal worthy of making promises.”
It’s an extraordinary idea. What is it that allows an animal that lives in the here and now to break through the limits of simply what’s present and reach into the future? What is it that propels this animal to think he can, in a sense, assert control over that future? It’s as though I will wake up one morning and, as Ambrosio suggests, shout out,
“I promise that in the future, under circumstances I cannot foresee, calling upon resources I don’t yet command, I will do this. I will write a new identity for myself.”
Whoa! Am I so arrogant as to make such a proclamation? Like Dante, we all eventually discover that we will not necessarily be able to deliver on some of our promises in the years to follow. In the “Dark Wood” of our existence where Dante found himself at the beginning of The Inferno, the road to the fulfillment of our promises will more often than not lead us astray. Before we know it, our path will be lost and we will go missing. As is the case with most of us, Dante doesn’t know exactly the repercussions of what he’s been promising. In fact, who knows, at any crucial juncture of a human life, what it will take to complete, to fulfill, to live up to, a promise?
I think of the various promises I have made over the years to myself and to others, promises that I have not always fulfilled. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to begin to grasp a hint of the magnitude of this gap. It’s as though I’m finally becoming more comfortable within the confines of my own little bit of irony. At moments, I can detect this perception in my simple understanding of life, a life metaphorically spent around an open fire where I can find contentment in the promise of just breathing in the precious moments of air and being illuminated by the starlight. On the other side of this campfire is the “civilized” artifice of a life that tries to hold us to our own fragile promises that are as elusive as butterflies or the understanding of death. I prefer the comfort brought by my small demands of love and companionship within the close circle that is my campfire.
The only way promises ever make sense to me is in the context of the hope that flickers in that fire. Like Robert Frost in his buggy behind that poor little pony in another dark wood, we all have an obligation to ourselves not to linger too long over our many fears and all the things that are beyond our knowing. In this way, I always think it is best to accept the ineluctable without tears. Why create phantasmagorias of heaven and hell when all we really need is right in front of us? And like Frost and Dante, my evolution is little more than a journey of hope, not certitude, that someday I will be able to fulfill the promise in those promises before I sleep.
And I promise myself that I’ll keep slogging away since I definitely hope I have many more miles to go before I sleep. I am not yet that person who can fulfill, live up to, or make good on all of what I promise now. But while there’s life, there’s the promise of hope.