Monday, July 14, 2014


There's a fine line between perspicacity and wisdom and I'm not sure on which side of the divide falls George Bernard Shaw's statement that, “A man's interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself."Taken by itself the statement seems more clever aphorism than philosophy, a cheap sophism to indulge the narcissistic. Yet taken with another quote from the very same man–that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."–there appears a wisdom to the thinking. I'll charitably assume so, at any rate.

The wisdom seems to me the realization that a great deal of man's struggle is with the fact that the world is not he. We rejoice in individuality, but we long for reconciliation. It is man's curse that the otherness of the world so essential for even recognizing his own being is simultaneously a source of antagonism. Moreover, the otherness from which we are separated is large, intractable, and worse than incomprehensible, parts of it are inscrutable. The mysterious world and the other wills in it are not wholly mysterious and the ensuing possibility for success is a source of both dynamism and despair. Yet what does success look like? Happiness and virtue, but the search for happiness conceals its origin in the ontological quandary, a need to reconcile with a multifariously different and often hostile otherness. To find this reconciliation he has three choices: remaking, rejecting, or redeeming.

Remaking is perhaps the most common path. Man can either attempt to remake the world or himself. Some men are concerned with the matter of the world and attempt to reconfigure the atoms of the world for man's good. These are the scientists and engineers who've been elevated to the preeminent ranks of society in the last two hundred years. Other men, the architects, build structures to dominate the land, and their structures reform the face of the earth. Shaw was right that without such dissatisfaction man would enjoy precious little material progress. Yet most people are incapable of such labors and passing aside their inability to remake the physical world, they attempt to remake men. There is no way persuasively to fake the ability to build bridges and make medicine, but promises of justice, liberty, and unity are too easily sold. Such are of course the goals of political liberalism and progressivism, but despite what they support on ballots, most people don't have a political bent to their actions. Instead we attempt to remake people we know, nudging them slowly but surely until they resemble us. This is usually subconscious, and frighteningly so, but do we reward those who do what we want and punish those who differ? Do we not by our actions encourage others to do the same, and are we not drawn to follow? We remake to reconcile.

Not ourselves, usually. Sometimes with great reluctance, though, we can nudge ourselves into habits more conducive to prosperity. The transformation can of course be major or minor, and stem from pragmatism or principle, but we can change with effort.

Rejecting the world is a period through which everyone passes, although it's possible to ground rejection in principled nihilism. It's no small coincidence that rejection tends to spur rejection. When we're spurned by lovers, we reject love. When we're spurned by bosses, we reject business and economics. When the political reigns are held by the opposition, we say that the system is broken. Most people come to terms with basic facts of life–you need a job, some people won't like you, not all problems can be fixed–but the paranoid reject the world as a malignant otherness.

Redemption is the release of man from the lonely quandary of being a self among others. It is instead of a change, a reunification. As we have observed this reconciliation is sought politically, socially, scientifically, and psychologically, but these means are transient and imperfect. The unification is sought aesthetically too, and perhaps this experience surpasses the others. For for what seems to unify all more than the pervading strains of music? How easy it is to imagine life, whether walking about town or pondering the cosmos, set to music. Too the aesthetic experience invites a coming together of personal impressions–those of artist and audience–with aesthetic principle. Still the experience of art is temporary and cannot fully transcend the isolation of otherness.

The only full redemption has already been paid for man, though, by the suffering of Christ, a passion which redeems man both on earth and in eternity. Man is unified to man each by their unity with Christ, and then man is unified with creator in eternal contemplation.

In his two perfect prayers, St. Thomas employs terms of redemption to describe the freedom and unification in the Eucharist. The Body is healing, enrichment, clothing, and cleaning; freedom from necessity. It is also the extinction of desires and lusts, the quieting of impulses; freedom from one's own and all wills but the divine. Finally it is a happy "consummation" and an "ineffable banquet," a fulfilling to the utmost. We are fortunate that the English translation retains the beautiful sense of consummation here: the bringing to perfect and thus ultimate completion.

It's unlikely that we can choose just one path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming. We need to make a safe place for ourselves in the world that is somewhat inhospitable. Likewise we do need if not to remake others, to restrain evil, which requires a polity of virtuous men. We need to remake ourselves, to extirpate vices, yes, but also to love, for all forms of love require a change, whether to virtue or selflessness. All loves are likewise a form of unity, as hatred and war of destruction. This polar model has been cluttered for us by cheap pop references to love and war, but the classical (and especially Epicurean) conception of love and war, Venus and Mars, as natural forces is fundamental. Lastly it is evident that the bad must be rejected.

Our goal ought not to be excluding a given path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming, but learning prudently to perceive and cultivate by kind, expecting, as Aristotle encouraged, no more or less than what each can offer. Much heartache and suffering could be avoided by not expecting perfect reconciliation now and forever through each path alone.

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