04/02/2013 02:06 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Confucius Say, 'YOLO!'

I had not heard the commonly expressed idiom YOLO ("you only live once") until my son mentioned it to me recently in a conversation saying, "So what does Confucius have to say about that!"

As I understand the phrase, it is used to suggest a lifestyle that finds what meaning there is in the world only in the here and now, not what might come afterwards. Live with "no thought for the morrow" -- so the expression goes. Pleasure in the here and now. Take it while you can. And, perhaps most importantly, "it is all about me" and only me, with little or no thought for others and the possible ethical responsibilities we have to others even of our own generation, much less future generations! I want my pie-in-the-sky here and now, not by-and- by! And by the way, that pie is only for me! Point made...

Granted that the YOLO perspective captures a certain contemporary world-view, and perhaps even more a certain generational perspective, what explanation might we find for the emergence of this perception of the world? On the world scene we witness almost daily what appears to be a significant decrease in the role of religious traditions in our world. We witness equally an increase in a secularism often disassociated from any ethical foundation. We see as well a rise in ideologies that seem to be more about "me" than the "other guy." Where some might celebrate any or all of these characteristics, it is hard to deny the emergence of "self" and the "here and now" as dominant. With such dominance, the question arises of just how we do contemplate the future, and what responsibility we might have for it.

At its simplest level YOLO has denied any importance to the future -- whether collective or individual. In religious terms questions about the future are referred to as eschatology, the question of the future, the future in terms of what follows this life. And religions and religious perspectives are "all about" eschatology, whether a single life or multiple lives, postulated with goals of Heaven, Enlightenment or any other religious goal!

With eschatology the future counts, in a profound way! To the phrase "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," a religious response might well be, "What happens here, leaves here!" The Vegas metaphor by contrast is profoundly YOLO!

So as our eschatological leanings and proclivities have slipped away just as our religious commitments have slipped away, one might ask, is it possible to hold to any world-view other than YOLO in a postmodern and largely post-religion world?

Let's segue back to my son's question: What would Confucius say about that?

It is precisely in the area of eschatology that Confucianism, almost alone among religious traditions, has a distinctive position. Essentially there is no eschatology in Confucianism -- no discussion about what follows life, no ideology about the wince and future of the individual. There is simply no reference to what we might describe as some form of ultimate transformation, what we call soteriology or more commonly salvation, whatever form such a notion might take.

So here is the rub. If Confucianism has no eschatology, then is it not itself potentially closely allied with precisely the perspective born out in the expression YOLO? With no articulation of the future, then are we not in a position to justify precisely the perspective that makes up the foundation of the YOLO perspective? You only live once -- with no principled goal providing guidance for the significance of one's actions for the morrow, we are free to live today's actions with no implication of consequence. Anything goes, anything, that is, that one wants for oneself.

What then is the endpoint of the Confucian tradition? How might we describe that fundamental religious requirement of eschatology when it seems to be left wanting in Confucian expression?

The answer lies in the unique focus found in Confucianism upon life itself, rather than what comes after life. Life is the groundwork for the cultivation of the religious life and it is within life that one fulfills one's religious quest and finds ultimate meaning. It is for Confucius, as he articulates from the very first passage of the Confucian Analects, in a life dedicated to learning, that the seeds of ultimacy are sown and that the deepest meaning of life itself is fulfilled. The goal of Confucianism is nowhere better expressed than in Analects 2:4, an autobiographical footnote of Confucius himself:

The Master said: "At fifteen I had set my will upon learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I heard it with a listening ear. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping what was right." (R. L. Taylor, Confucius, the Analects, p. 121)

The goal is the fulfillment of a life of learning such that one comes to accord with the Way of Heaven, T'ien Tao, not in some eschatological point beyond life, but within one's life itself. And what of the afterlife? Simply of no concern and thus no articulation.

What then of YOLO? If YOLO is built around a world-view that sees little or no meaning in life other than the immediate gratification of what the self desires with no thought for the morrow, then Confucianism provides a most interesting antidote. Confucianism does not propose meaning to life because of the hereafter, but meaning without a hereafter. In this respect Confucianism's response answers the void left by the post-modern articulation of "meaning" expressed by the attitude of YOLO. Maybe there are grounds for optimism after all!