There be dragons!

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Paradox


A certain individual was commenting to me the other day that as a society we have the overarching malady that we look good without being good. He intimated that there was a certain hypocrisy in how we lived and that it needed to be fixed.


Seems to me that such a thought about our society is a mistaken notion derived from a misread of Platonic insight into the soul and that such a notion leads to a desire of intimacy with others that is not possible as well as a fanaticism bordering on Zwinglian severity.

In his great dialogues, most notably "The Republic", Plato notes that interior justice or goodness is superior to the outer hypocritical mouth service that most people give to goodness. Josef Pieper has suggested that Plato claimed a clairvoyant insight into the soul not possible to humans. Justice, Pieper writes, must rest on man's choices manifested in action. Law cannot expect to change the interior person except through correction of the outer action, but no man has insight into another's soul.

Plato never really makes any such claim to insight. Rather, he is suggesting a metaphor or myth by which the individual can come to understand his own interior state. He is a mystic more than a philosopher. The state of goodness in my soul is between me and GOD but I can have an inkling of that state through Plato's works.

Pieper is right in his commentary on law, however, which must be based on outer action and is, therefore, subject to the same hypocritical mess experienced by the individual soul. Law attempts to correct or fix the problems of human actions and thus to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." But it seems a frequent human misconception, reminiscent of B.F. Skinner, that by repeated actions forced on a person life can be solved and made neat. As though if we strapped the subject to the chair and force fed him Beethoven and images of violence we could force him to change and become good.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

Yet every human being endures a hypocritical dichotomy between what we profess and how we live.

Our life, like life in general, is messy. We have moments of great clarity, and moments of utter stupefaction. We stumble and shuffle our way toward Bethlehem to be born. We experience great successes and triumphs and we endure tremendous failures and incompetency. One moment we are sweet, insightful and loving, the next we are wrathful, annoying and incapable of seeing beauty in anything. Sometimes we fail utterly, but mostly when we fall we pick ourselves up again and once more go over the top.

Goodness. What is goodness? Is it attitudinal? Is it vision? Is it simply obedient submission to the law or forcing ourselves to succeed in everything? OR is it allowing life to be the complex, frustrating, infuriating, terrifying, mystifying, beautiful mess that GOD desires? Life is a mystery to be lived; a riotous garden of incredible wonder and disappointing failure.

It is not a problem to be solved.

Seems that the desire to solve this beautiful mess stems from an innate terror of or inability to cope with that very messiness. We can certainly claim, as did Aristotle and Thomas and other makers of law and doctrine, that certain actions lead to certain results. We can also make laws preventing or discouraging certain actions or methods to overcome certain frailties or errors. We can even demand that certain people under our care meet specific, well-laid out criteria for success or failure in a field.

But who has insight into the soul of another person? At what point can I claim that you ARE good? When do I have the ability to rectify that vast hypocritical gulf between your outer actions and your interior darkness? Do we scrub the soul maniacally like some pale-handed Calvinist or force the soul, through fire and water and incantation, to become good? What constitutes goodness, in such an instance, but my own vision of good? And if so, am I not GOD?

The Jews said that only GOD in heaven is wise, only GOD is good. Man is born a hypocrite and to live our lives with our hypocrisy always before us, never measuring up, never bridging the gulf between what we say and what we are, is the curse of Adam.

The Church calls this abyss "sin" - withoutness (sine) and it seems that the curing of sin belongs to the auspice of GOD not man.

For man to attempt to reconcile this hypocrisy generates only violence, anger, frustration, draconian law and ultimate disappointment at the failure of others to live up to our perfect and perfecting methodologies. We have to allow life to be out of our control and messily so such that the Sabbath remains for man and not man for the Sabbath.

Consequently, I don't save souls; I merely attempt to give them the ability to handle salvation when it comes to them.

GOD alone knows where your soul or my soul is and GOD alone will send the charging bull, or the Misfit, or the hurricane on board the Ghost, or the death of Patroclus, or the whiskey priest, or the bitter word from Absalom, or the wise word from Vergil to help you change.

Man's duty is to tend the field. To listen, as Simone Weill said, to what it is that we must do. To allow, as the I Ching suggests, the balance of all things to remain. To bring, as Plato suggests, what souls we can to freely choose light over darkness.

3 comments:

  1. My father wrote in his last journal entry (three days before he died):

    Yes. I believe and in a very childlike way. No real profundities. I just believe. I trust. God is good.

    I am content to say "Yes" to every item of Creed or Last Rites. Because under it all, I trust Jesus of the Divine Mercy. I trust God who has spoken to me all my life. I believe. I trust God in HIs angels and in His saints. All else is the messy intractableness of the limited human mind.


    Strange how we were thinking about the same things almost at the same time.

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  2. I am perplexed that people get so worked up over the untidiness of life. The fact is: it's untidy because that's how life is. Babies diapers need to be changed (quite often, apparently!) and the dog tracks dirt onto your freshly mopped kitchen floor. There is life. But oh, life is very beautiful. The pattern is messy, but so tremendously lovable. It just is, and it isn't that complicated a thing to spend so much anguish on.

    There's something odd about that: life is messy and simple at once. How funny.

    Time to go out and live it! :)

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  3. Absolutely agreed. Life straddles a paradox even at the physical quantum level. Mathematicians are terrified at the prospect of a world that openly fosters an inherent ambiguity. Both at the beginning and the end of every journey, whether it be philosophical, spiritual, academic or simply real, a leap of faith is required. First, one must have the faith to say, "this pursuit is worthwhile," and in the end one must finally admit, "this pursuit is so worthwhile that it is beyond me." Without these supports of faith, life is not only sterile, but fake.

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