Disenchanting Disenchantment

Clare Coffey has a book review published in The New Atlantis about notions of enchantment/disenchantment in a secular age. She discusses the idea in relation to the history and phenomenon of mesmerism–which I learned has its origins in the work of an 18th century German physician Franz Mesmer (hence, “mesmerism”). The history of mesmerism is fascinating: as a method of medical research, it began as an accepted scientific practice and then transformed into a fringe belief akin to a belief in magic.

I wonder if most forms of scientific research can’t be traced along the same trajectory. And if so, how much of our currently accepted scientific knowledge will slip into the ever widening category of “belief in magic.” One of the things Coffey points out is that distinguishing between an enchanted past and a disenchanted present is like trying to chart two different countries without borders.

She never mentions Charles Taylor, but she does mention Talal Asad’s book Formations of the Secular, which I’ve not read. I’ll be adding it to my list of “Someday-I’ll-read-that-because-I-know-it’s-good-but-God-only-knows-when-I’ll-get-around-to-it.”

Here is a sampling of some of the passages I’m still thinking about:

“Ogden describes the process by which the debunking of mesmerism produced successor generations in terms of the “idol function” played by false beliefs. The destruction of an idol, the thinking goes, is not a closed and final process. When you destroy an idol, you must supply some account of the undeniable effect the idol had on the lives of its followers.”

“For the second generation of mesmerists, what was important about credulity was not simply that it, unlike animal magnetism, was real. Rather, credulity was both a resource to be exploited and a problem to be dealt with. On both counts, mesmerists styled themselves, quite literally, as an epistemic-managerial class.”

“Ogden adopts Talal Asad’s definition of secular agency, from his Formations of the Secular (2003), as the idea of a person “having both the capacity and the desire to move in a singular historical direction: that of increasing self-empowerment and decreasing pain.” The final goal of those who aim at secularity is total autonomy and self-realization, not simply freedom from taboo and magic. “This agent’s fundamental question,” Ogden writes, “is ‘what should human beings do to realize their freedom, empower themselves, and choose pleasure?’”

“But secular agency does not correspond well to a world in which we are often sick, ignorant, poor, or incapable in ways large and small; in which we can neither bring about our own births nor choose the hour of our deaths. It is more of an asymptote than a lived condition, an always imperfectly grasped ideal to which some come closer than others. Because, on this reading, secular agency is always an aim rather than an established fact, narratives of one’s own disenchantment are aspirations rather than triumphal hymns. Inevitable anxiety about whether you have been sufficiently disenchanted is especially urgent when the dividing line between the modern and the unenlightened is credulity. Since credulity, by nature, is not a trait easily self-diagnosed, its threat engenders a constant search for more credulous rubes against which to measure yourself. Secularism proves to be a pyramid scheme.”

“Ogden’s work suggests that the enchanted and disenchanted are two countries that lack a border, ­forever one dissolving into and reconstituting the other. And insofar as this binary reflects an opposition between mystical awe and technical power, this is nothing new. Spiritual forces can be both objects and tools of management: A canny huckster may hug himself to think of all the indulgences by which he has cheated God out of purgatory; workers can be kept in line by sermons on the Almighty’s pleasure in ­working-class thrift and industry, or by a self-help guru preaching myopic focus on individual wellbeing (after all, look at how well it’s worked for the guru). Everyone now, on some level, acknowledges a world beyond what the average Joe can immediately perceive, whether it’s quantum physics or celestial order or merely the limitless possibilities of human potential. There is no periodizing movement, forward or back, which will settle for us the question of which account of the invisible is most true — nor, equally important, what it demands of us.”

Dryads and Trees

It turns out that I’ve been wrongly attributing a quotation to C. S. Lewis for the past few years. I was reading G. K. Chesteron’s book Orthodoxy with my senior high school students when I ran across this sentence:

Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads. (“Ethics of Elfland”)

In my defense, I’m sure Lewis has said something like this somewhere. I originally thought it came from The Discarded Image where he addresses the changing human experience of the cosmos over the course of history. It’s a fascinating idea, one that’s received a fair amount of attention from people like Lewis’ good friend Owen Barfield to the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor. I hope to write more about it in the future. But for now, I’m happy to correct an error and to bookmark the Chesterton quotation for later use.

Training in Virtue

A quotation from Stanley Hauerwas (H/T: Matthew Lee Anderson):

“Individuals of character have decisions or choices forced upon them, as does anyone else. But an ethic of virtue refuses to make such decisions the paradigmatic center of moral reflection. Morality is not primarily concerned with quandaries or hard decisions, nor is the moral self simply the collection of such decisions. As persons of character we do not confront situations as mudpuddles into which we have to step; rather, the kind of ‘situations’ we confront and how we understand them are a function of the kind of people we are. Thus ‘training in virtue’ often requires that we struggle with the moral decisions which we have ‘got ourselves into’ in the hope that such struggle will help us develop a character sufficient to avoid or understand differently such situations in the future.” – Stanley Hauerwas

I plan to mull this over and hopefully have something to say about it in the near future. Suffice it to say: as an educator, I think about how to cultivate virtue often, though I’m not always sure how or why it happens for some and not for others. I like that Hauerwas draws attention to the significance and insignificance of “choice” in the cultivation of virtue–it’s not simply a matter of will power. There are many other forces at work.

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

When students ask me, “Mr. Dalbey, what time is it?” I usually respond, “Time doesn’t exist. It’s a construct of your mind. Therefore, your question is meaningless.” I’m joking of course–it’s my way of responding to students who are wondering about the time because they’re trying to avoid the assignments staring them in the face.  WIBBLY,WOBBLY TIMEY WIMEY STUFF - Tardis - T-Shirt | TeePublic

The other day I received L.M. Sacasas’s newsletter in my inbox and I was reminded that my joke isn’t too far off the mark:

…for example, we don’t experience time in some direct, unmediated fashion; we experience time as a product of technological mediation. In modern societies, this ordinarily means the experience of what we might call clock time. Of course, because clock time has been the dominant mode of experiencing time for us, it probably appears to most people as the natural way of experiencing time. Clock time simply is time. But, of course, one only needs to be spatially or chronologically displaced from modern clock time societies in order to realize that clock time does not simply equal time. We may imagine, for example, how time might be kept and thereby experienced before the invention of the clock, or we might visit places, fewer and farther between, where clock time has not yet colonized the experience of time.

As Sacasas points out, the mediation of time by way of clocks is a relatively new phenomenon. I’ve sometimes wondered how people experienced time in their daily lives before they could look at a watch, much less a phone. Heck, how did people wake up at a particular hour/time of day before alarm clocks?

Clocks, Sacasas points out, impose a default experience of time: one that is measured in linear and discrete units. The power of such mediation is that it sublimates the experience, and then transforms it into an unquestionable fact. “Time,” my students will argue in response to my joke, “is the measurable progression of one event to another!” But how do you measure a sequence of events? We don’t reference a magical ruler floating in the sky when we want to know “how long” it took for something to occur. If I can’t touch, smell, see, hear, or taste time, how can I measure it?

The Paris Pneumatic Clock Network

The idea that time is measurable, or that it is a thing by which human events are measured, raises all sorts of questions: e.g., What exactly are we measuring when we measure movement of time? What is the tool, and what makes it a reliable implement for measuring?

Understanding time is a tricky business. Thinking about the nature of time inevitably reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s famous opening lines to the Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future
and time future contained in time past.

Eliot’s notion that past, present, and future time intermingle with one another adds to the confusion. If we think of time in a strictly linear sense, then we lose a proper understanding of all three tenses. In the next two sentences, Eliot points out the problem of linear time:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

(I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what Eliot means here. The following analysis is one of many I’ve attempted in discussions about Eliot’s poem. Proceed with caution.)

Eliot’s description of the present and the future (“what might have been”) is a logical conclusion of a linear view of time: the present is the only thing that exists, but it’s so fleeting that no one can harness it in any meaningful way; it always slips into the past, unchangeable and permanent.The future, by contrast, remains a mere abstract construct of the mind. If this is true of a linear-bound view of time, then existence is slavish and meaningless.

(The one hesitation I have with this analysis is Eliot’s use of the word “eternally.” The word “eternal” evokes a whole different set of meanings and connotations, most of which are related to God’s relationship to time which is not linear. Maybe Eliot means something different by “eternally” here…or maybe he’s setting us up for how he’ll  redefine and reuse the word throughout the rest of his poetry…?)

So what’s the solution? I think it’s contained in the next sentence:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

The reality of the future–even as an abstract concept–and the un-changeability of the past (“what has been”) must exist somewhere. It would be silly to assume the non-existence of either given the almost universally shared human experience of both. But if past and future exist somewhere, then that somewhere might as well be called the Present (capital “P” intentional) because they would both occupy the same “space” (…for lack of a better word).

So why do I care about any of this? Apart from the fact that I’m a glutton for punishment, I think there are several philosophical and scientific reasons to be concerned about the nature of time.

But I have theological reasons for being interested in the nature of time as well. The western church has recently entered its Easter season, and that alone has prompted questions about the nature of Christ’s death and resurrection as an act that influenced both the past and the future. Christ died once, in a particular place, at a particular time–i.e., in a present moment. But his death is efficacious for all time. How can this be? I don’t think this would be possible if time by its nature is merely linear, since linear time maintains hard and fast boundaries between past, present, and future. The passion of Christ, his death and resurrection, and Christ himself are always present to us. Christians do not simply commemorate Christ’s victory over death. They live it. Fr. Stephen Freeman says it better than I can:

The liturgical life of the Church is not a rationalizing activity. It is a sacramental presentation of the whole universe in the presence of God. All things are there as are all times. The actions of Holy Week are not required as an exercise in historical memory. They allow us to be present to the fullness of time. We do not merely think about the events of that week – we walk in their midst and take a share in their reality. All of those things are “for our sake.” St. Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” because he is utterly present to that day, just as that day is utterly present to and in him.

From the perspective of our limited human experience, it’s possible to say that there was a point when Christ had died and saved us from our sins. But after that moment, when Christ was raised from the dead, all time was transformed. All time has been redeemed in the eternal present of God in which both time past and time future are contained.

Happy Easter to my western friends! And a blessed holy week to my friends in the eastern church.

Unfiltered: Persuasion

*Unfiltered (and unedited!) thoughts on the idea and practicality of persuasion*

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The chair and blanket is a helpful metaphor for an aspect of the human experience that perplexes me often. It’s easy for me to despair of any possibility for true communication or persuasion among people who have a fundamentally different conception of what’s under the blanket.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. How do people who believe the unborn is a fetus and people who believe the unborn is a child talk with each other in any meaningful way? To put it in the terms of the metaphor: the collection of cells and tissue is the blanket and the reality of the being underneath is the chair. For any progress to be made in such a debate would seem to require a complete overhaul of a person’s philosophical and theological presuppositions. Such a transformation would cut to the core of of an individual–a sense of identity and understanding of personal experience would have to be completely reinterpreted.

It would be easy to say, “Well, if that’s what it takes, so be it.” But it’s easier said than done. Who honestly wants to pull the rug out from under themselves like that? No one.

Buried in the issue of a debate like abortion, the whole world is at stake. “So,” in the words of Eliot, “How should I presume?” If you’re religious, can you hope to persuade anyone without divine intervention? And if you’re irreligious, can you hope to persuade without an existential crisis?

Maybe I’m making too much of it. But some days I wonder if it’s worth arguing with anyone unless you are willing to put your whole life on the line. I know that’s dramatic, but I don’t see a way around it if the goal is true persuasion.

For one perspective on the issue, I recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Liz Bruenig. Liz argues that respect for human dignity and general hopefulness should motivate us to argue with one another. I think she’s right. To despair completely would enact a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Worried about being able to persuade someone? Don’t bother and you’ll know for sure that they aren’t persuaded!

I’d also add that it seems to me that true persuasion happens incrementally. To be persuaded is of cosmic significance, and no one person could survive a complete transformation of view/thought/experience. I just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory which impressed me with this reality. Not even sinners after death can expect to have their sin removed from them in its entirety. Such a surgical removal would annihilate a person. Cleansing, purification, transformation is slow and methodical. The sinners in Purgatory do not wish to rise too soon. When Dante meets Statius, a poet who had recently been released from his punishment, claims to have been surprised by his sudden desire to ascend. For the past five hundred years, he’s desired that his punishment last as long as necessary. And he did so without any idea of how long that might take.

So too with persuasion. No one will be persuaded of anything significant overnight. Someone who has believed that the chair shaped blanket covers a series of discrete cubes to give the illusion of a chair will not likely be convinced otherwise–that is, until argument and personal experience begin to converge and present a different picture altogether.

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.

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.