Friendship and Society

From Micah Mattix’s recent Prufrock newletter:

I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

The themes of friendship and hospitality have been coming through loud and clear as I’ve been rereading the Odyssey this summer. I’m teaching The Odyssey and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics next year to a group of high school freshman. Discussing the idea of “friendship” seems like a great place to start analyzing and understanding both works…not to mention the myriad of other connections to the other books we’ll read as well (e.g., The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Metamorphoses, etc.). It’s going to be a great year!

THS: BenOp before BenOp

Continuing my observations after reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Observation #2: St. Anne’s is the BenOp prior to all the hubbub about BenOp
I was struck by how St. Anne’s on the Hill more-or-less prefigures the recent discussions and debates surrounding Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Tour the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand | HGTV

St. Anne’s is a quasi-agrarian household–complete with a garden and (from Jane’s perspective) a backward social structure based on conservative/traditional values regarding gender, religion, etc. St. Anne’s is the primary resistance to the growing threat of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE).

The NICE, in contrast, is a bureaucracy: it abstracts humanity into numbers and then attempts to harness the evolutionary process through technology. It is, more importantly, progressive. It wants to better humanity by discarding tradition and marching towards an ever purer form of human existence–one that is free from the messiness and limitations of biology.

One of the recurring debates at St. Anne’s is the usefulness of their resistance. MacPhee, the hyper-rational logician and skeptic, frequently raises the complaint that while the NICE continues to grow and gain power, the small group of insurgents at St. Anne’s continue to do nothing. They garden, cook meals, argue with one another, corral Mr. Bultitude–the bear–whenever he traipses through the garden or wanders too close to the fence, and–worst of all–wait for orders from Ransom’s masters (i.e., the eldil) in whom some of the members have little or no faith.

There is so much waiting at St. Anne’s and so little doing. There is no “warrior class” or “special operations unit” making attacks on the NICE. There is no “war room,” per se, where the members of St. Anne’s talk at length about their plans. There is only waiting.

In an article from 2015, Jake Meador describes the St. Anne’s strategy well, comparing it to the current state of evangelical Christians in 21st century America:

In one of the essential texts for today’s church, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the insurgents rebelling against the sexual industrial complex of the modern west are not culture warriors assailing the institutions slowly consuming our earth and its creatures. Rather, their insurgency takes the form of faithful living in an out-of-the-way manor house out in the English countryside called St. Anne’s. It was at St. Anne’s that these people could live in fellowship with one another and with God’s creation while they waited for the undoing of the NICE in a Tower-of-Babel-style collapse. The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne’s or it will not exist.

I like Meador’s emphasis on the lack of “culture warriors” in his description of St. Anne’s: the urge to “DO SOMETHING” productive–i.e., something quantifiable and empirically useful–would be the undoing of St. Anne’s because it would result in its dissolution. NICE is too big to be threatened by an external attack from the small group of people at St. Anne’s. And NICE’s cultural influence and political power is too ubiquitous to be hampered by a political campaign based on the St. Anne’s way of life. Anything other than small, faithful living would be doomed to fail.

It’s worth noting, however, that St. Anne’s, despite being an out-of-the-way manor house, remains the sole form of rebellion against NICE. Lewis intentionally wants to draw our attention to St. Anne’s as the only productive form of resistance. It may feel like useless inaction, or passive aggressive behavior, or even like a retreat to the bunkers. But we would be mistaken. To live faithfully in small ways requires a herculean effort of courage, determination, and hope no military charge would require of its members. It’s easier to act rashly than it is to wait patiently.

If you’re concerned about cultural trends in 21st century America, think small. Forego flashy exploits or rhetorical dunking on your opponents. How does your way of life reflect your beliefs? Are you willing to sacrifice the conveniences  and cachet of cultural relevance–and I mean everything from staying up-to-date on the latest Netflix shows to life-style trends like minimalism and F.I.R.E.?

The cultural battles ahead (…if you can call them battles…) won’t be won on a grand stage; it won’t be decided by a single showdown where the champion will win glory for himself/herself. It will probably be won in a garden–somewhere on an obscure patch of land in an obscure region of the world. After all, as Meador points out, the battle is not ours to win.

The Odyssey and Not Knowing

I’m rereading the Odyssey right now and it has occurred to me that one of the fundamental themes throughout the entire story revolves around the problem of uncertainty.

Because Telemachus and Penelope do not know the fate of Odysseus, they cannot maintain order in his house. If he were dead, then there would be social customs Telemachus could set in motion that would keep the evil (i.e., inhospitable!) suitors at bay. But because Odysseus’ whereabouts are unknown, neither Telemachus or Penelope have sufficient grounds for taking action and restoring order to the home.

And for some reason, the gods seem to be in on the whole thing.

Athena sends Telemachus on a journey to Pylos, where he’ll meet with Nestor and eventually Menelaus to ask about his father’s condition. She goes to great lengths to set this errand in motion:

  • She pleads (twice!) with the council of the gods (…mostly with Zeus) to save Odysseus and they agree to do so;
  • She disguises herself as a friend of Telemachus (Mentor) and urges him to provoke the suitors and then to take a ship to Pylos;
  • She goes with Telemachus to visit Nestor, and then heads back to the ship.

Then there’s the strange moment where she sends Penelope a dream at the end of book IV, assuaging her sorrow about Telemachus’ journey and to encourage her to stay strong in Odysseus’ absence. Penelope, recognizing the dream as sent from Athena, does a reasonable thing: SHE ASKS ATHENA ABOUT ODYSSEUS’ WHEREABOUTS (…something Telemachus has neglected to do up to this point).

But does Athena give Penelope an answer? No.

“As for that other one (Odysseus), I will not tell you the whole story

whether he lives or has died. It is bad to babble emptily.” (IV.836-37)

Leaving aside the fact that it wouldn’t be empty babble since Athena in fact knows where Odysseus is and whether he’ll return to Ithaca, I wonder what the purpose of holding Penelope and Telemachus in suspense serves.

Is it purely for dramatic effect? Maybe. But that seems cheap and uncharacteristic of Homer if it’s the only reason.

My current thought hovers around the idea about the purpose and effect of knowledge itself. One of the conditions of the human experience is its uncertainty about it’s past, present, and future circumstances. Nevertheless, despite a felt lack of certain knowledge, humans attempt to bring order out of chaos, justice out of injustice. In order to do so, there needs to be some shared sense/acknowledgment of a fundamental ordering principle–e.g., what is justice?

In the case of the Odyssey, that principle is Odysseus. His name, his accomplishments, and his reputation have brought his house into existence by giving it definition and a source from which it’s renown and order stems. Presumably, Odysseus could die, and his house would remain given the social customs surrounding death.

(E.G., one of the reasons Telemachus wants to find out what has happened to Odysseus is so that he can erect a funeral pyre and tomb to bring everlasting honor and fame to his father).

But what do you do if the fundamental ordering principle of your house is missing? Not just dead, but absent without trace or explanation? What if he’s still alive, but you can’t find him? Do you continue to behave as if he is still alive? Or do you behave as if he’s dead?*

In other words, how should you live?

Odysseus’ house is in disarray at the beginning of the Odyssey. Not because it has been openly attacked, but because it has been in a state of arrested development for nearly twenty years, and now the effects of its slow deterioration have surfaced.

And isn’t this state of affairs characteristic of the human condition: more often than we care to admit, we suffer more from our sins of omission than sins of commission. Unlike Telemachus and Penelope, we lose hope that Odysseus will return, or fail to search for him as ardently as Telemachus. If we’re lucky, we’ll wake up to our inattention, like Dante waking up to find himself lost in a dark wood.

———-

*Questions along these lines have me thinking a lot about the opening of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus: “One, two, three; but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth…?”

 

 

That Hideous Strength: Fiction vs. Reality

I just finished reading the third book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. I haven’t read it since high school, and I regret every decision that distracted me from picking it up again.

In the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on a few observations that stood out to me this time around.

Observation #1: Fiction vs. Reality

Several aspects of Lewis’ biography stood out to me–he quotes directly from Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres, he references Owen Barfield’s theory of semantic “ancient unities,” and Tolkien’s myth of Numenor. I’m also convinced that it would be possible (and I’m sure someone has already done it) to map many of the real-life Inklings members onto the characters in the story. Lewis, obviously, is the Ulsterman MacPhee–the snuff-addicted, hyper-rational skeptic member of St. Anne’s on the Hill.

The cross-over between Lewis’ real life and the fictional world of the story creates an effect that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The self-assertion of the narrator also contributes to the effect. The narrator frequently interrupts the story with personal/retrospective opinions about the events; he refers to himself with masculine pronouns; and he explicitly states his own limitations as a narrator. However, it’s not clear how/why the narrator knows as much he does about the details of the story–especially the thoughts and emotions of many of the characters. This narrative device is often used in fairy tales, which makes sense given the subtitle of the book: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. But I think its significance plays into Lewis’ deeper philosophical conception of the relationship between fiction and real-life.

For example. In his essay, “On Stories,” Lewis writes:

To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series–the plot, as we call it–is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path.

The “quality” or “state” is the reality caught by the fictional series of events and characters who act, think, and appear in very specific ways. For Lewis, this has a direct correlation with everyday life and forms one of the underpinning themes of the book. Based on the knowledge we have about biological life we have three interpretive/philosophical options in front of us, all of which are represented by three different groups of people in That Hideous Strength:

  1. The Materialist Interpretation: We can, like Mark Studdock and many people within the N.I.C.E., define life down to purely physical phenomena–e.g., emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain; the appearance of “ghosts” are hallucinations, etc. The physical world does not point beyond itself. It is, instead, a highly rationalistic, machine-like system. Every event or phenomenon has a material explanation that explains away whatever spiritual significance we think it may have.
  2. The Evolutionary Interpretation: The N.I.C.E. looks at human evolution and attempts to harness it and direct it to what the organization perceives as a “higher” mode of existence. The ultimate goal is to transcend human physicality–i.e., the aspects of an embodied existence that hamper intellectual achievements. Birth, decay, and death stand in the way of human achievement. This philosophy is a form of trans-humanism–the attempt to evolve beyond our physical limitations.
  3. The St. Anne’s Interpretation: I don’t know what label to give this interpretation. Fundamentally, it stems from a traditionally Christian anthropology: man is neither solely beast (materialist) or solely angel (evolution); he is by nature an in-between creature–one for whom there seems to be infinite potential, but never at the cost of either aspects of his nature. In the image of St. Anne’s on the Hill, Lewis describes a kind of monastic commune where the people work in a garden, maintain friendly relations with animals, submit themselves in obedience to the authority of Ransom, and, in the end, entertain the gods. The community of St. Anne’s represents the ultimate–and only–resistance to the growing evil and encroachment of the N.I.C.E. It resists by cultivating a way of life, not by marching out against the enemy (much to the frustration of MacPhee). It’s an odd form of resistance because it doesn’t feel like anything is being done. No quantifiable progress is being made–nobody attempts to capture enemy soldiers, commit espionage, or invade N.I.C.E. headquarters. Instead, they simply wait and obey. Preserving a way of life, especially one centered on an anthropology that is conducive to man’s dual nature, is the only effective resistance against evil. Any other active form of resistance falls into the trap of mirroring, and ultimately being consumed by, the enemy’s own tactics (…there are echoes here of Saruman’s downfall in Tolkien’s The Two Towers).

Like our understanding of a story, all three philosophical alternatives attempt to make sense of the world by way of it’s events, characters, and physical structure. These give rise to the plot of every day life, the net whereby we try “to catch something else.” And in this instance, the “something else” is a proper understanding of human nature and the cosmos.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality in That Hideous Strength, Lewis prompts readers to confront their conception of reality–or, at least, our interpretation of the physical world which suggests/signifies/indicates/catches “something else.”

 

 

Descartes before the Machine

I read Frankenstein for the first time last year which also happened to be the centenary of the first publication. So that worked out.

In this piece, David Lloyd Dusenbury re-asks the question at the heart of Mary Shelley’s story: why should we not mechanically recreate life? Dunesbury answers the question by first discussing the philosophical context of Shelley’s work. Naturally, Descartes comes up. He then mentions this interesting piece of biographical information:

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

I did not know this about Descartes, and it doesn’t improve my opinion of him. Read the rest of Dusenbury’s piece at First Things.

A Tale of Twos

The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (TTC) is a glorious one hundred nineteen words long. Even if you haven’t read the novel–and unless you’ve been living under a giant rock–you’re familiar with it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Before teaching it over the past three weeks, I hadn’t read TTC, which I realize is an embarrassing admission from someone who has a graduate degree in English literature. But better late than never! While reading and discussing it with my students, I was struck by Dickens’ artistry, specifically his ability to blend both the formal and thematic structure of the story without detracting from the momentum of the plot.Image result for tale of two cities

Like the title of the book and the opening sentence, the story revolves around opposing extremes. At the heart of the story are the social and political extremes of the unchecked authorial abuses of the French aristocracy and the blood lust of the French revolutionaries.* But the pairings form the macro as well as the micro components of the story. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

Wine & Blood

The color red shows up everywhere in the story, from the revolutionaries red hats, to the spilled wine cask in the street, to the blood spilled by the French revolutionaries and aristocracy. The Eucharistic imagery is unmistakable–in fact it might be an unspoken rule in western literature that if an author pairs wine with blood in any way, shape, or form, then you should expect a theological theme running just below the surface. Dickens uses the imagery to great effect by turning the Eucharistic image on its head. At the beginning of the novel, a large cask of wine breaks and spills all over the streets of St. Antoine where the French lower-classes and poor live. A frenzy ensues: the people ladle it with their hands, bend their faces into the gutter where the wine has pooled and lap it up. The red wine stains everything and everyone. Dickens parallels this scene with another scene toward the end of the book. The people of St. Antoine have been transformed into revolutionaries. Dr. Manette and Jarvis Lorry, standing on a balcony above a courtyard, look out to see these same people stained with blood as they sharpen their weapons and prepare for more killings and executions.

There are varying Christian beliefs about what happens to the wine during a Eucharistic service, but historically the Church has taught that a change occurs to/within the elements–whether that’s the Roman Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation or the more common teaching of Real Presence. Dickens avails himself of this theological point: in the same way that the people have been transformed into revolutionaries, the wine at the beginning of the story has been transformed into blood. Unlike the Eucharist, however, the transformation is not salvific. If anything, TTC presents us with an inverted image of Christian soteriology. Dickens’ description of the revolutionaries, like his description of the French aristocracy, is not overly sympathetic. The pendulum of injustice has swung to the opposite extreme.

Sydney Carton & Dr. Manette

Another important pairing, and one that ultimately extends the wine and blood imagery, is that of Sydney Carton and Dr. Manette. Comparing these characters may seem odd since the narrative explicitly connects Carton with Darnay. Physically Darnay and Carton share such a close resemblance, that Carton uses it in the opening courtroom scene to clear Darnay’s name of false charges. Later, Carton expresses disappointment in himself, recognizing that Darnay has shown him what he has fallen away from, “and what [he] might have been!” (II.iv).

In terms of character arc, however, Manette and Carton exhibit a closer parallel. Aside from their general supporting roles, neither character is very useful at the beginning. Manette’s mental instability and Carton’s alcoholism and unchecked self-deprecation render them mostly unreliable. Nevertheless, they both share a deep love for Lucie Manette (Dr. Manette’s daughter) which proves redemptive. Lucie manages to restore her father’s mental health when his memories of his Bastille imprisonment haunt him. And Carton briefly becomes reacquainted with a side of himself that has been all but forgotten. In the scene where he responds to Lucie’s kind rejection to his marriage proposal, Carton attempts to reassure Lucie who is concerned that he will relapse into his old ways:

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this home made such a home by you,has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight (II.xiii).

Manette and Carton’s love for Lucie sets the stage for the final scenes of the story. When Darnay is imprisoned in France, Manette steps into the role of savior. As someone who suffered at the hands of the French aristocracy and who has a friendly history with the leader of the revolution, Manette recognizes his influence with the revolutionaries and uses it without hesitation to save Darnay from “Sainte Guillotine.” No longer an old and feeble former prisoner haunted by the demons of his past, Manette trades roles with his daughter by becoming a source of security and consolation.

Unfortunately, Manette’s efforts fail. The night after Darnay is released from prison, he’s rearrested. Manette dangerously relapses into his old pattern of mental instability. It’s at this point that Carton returns and trades places with Manette. Only this time, Carton’s attempt to save Darnay is successful.

I like to imagine Dickens graphing the character arcs of both Manette and Carton prior to writing the story itself. Manette’s line of ascent begins at the end of book II and reaches its zenith half way through book III. His down turn then crosses paths with Carton’s ascent. Both characters rise above their troubled pasts and personal flaws, and both do it for the love of Lucie at great personal cost.

Carton’s sacrifice reasserts the wine and blood imagery. If Dickens has turned the Eucharistic image on its head with his description of the revolution’s trajectory, then he’s attempted to restore it in the character of Carton. Carton’s character is closely associated with wine (and alcohol in general) throughout the story. He’s a drunk, unable to exercise any self-control. In book III, however, he’s reappears sober. His vow to serve Lucie and anyone she loves calls him out of himself. He trades his alcoholism for a sober self-sacrifice that will “recall to life” Lucie’s husband. His wine becomes blood and saves those he loves most.

There’s more to be said about the various pairings throughout TTC. Right now, I’m tempted to think that the Eucharistic imagery is at the heart of the story, and every other pairing a variation on that theme. The pairings, however, are not inflexible. Miss Pross, for example, could be compared with Madame Defarge and Jerry Cruncher; Cruncher with Jarvis Lorry and Monsieur Defarge; Dr. Manette with Lorry; and on and on it goes. In every instance, Dickens will have illustrated new aspects of his theme. The result, like all good literature, is a work of art that will always reward close attention to detail.

 

 

*I realize Dickens’ understanding of the historical circumstances of the French Revolution is mostly wrong. But for the purpose of his story, his description of the context serves him well.