Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Errors, Rush-ian Orthodoxy and Giraffes (again)

Happy Ascension!

One of the greatest, and most important, things I learned in college - I mean the academic part, not the social part - was that one does not get to know more about computers through the gate of higher mathematics which is labelled "Calculus". The mathematics of computers is not to be found on the great branch of the Tree of Knowledge which is called "Continuous" - but on the other, far smaller, and much less well known to most students, called "Discrete" - the mathematics which deals with numbers - that is, whole numbers, integers (Latin integer = whole, entire) in the old-fashioned way, as separate (discrete) things, and not just another point on a line.

Anyway - when I had my very first course in computers, our first assignment was to type up a very short program - we used punch cards in that class, though there were also "terminals" which were quite comparable to what you are no doubt using to read this. We had to check very carefully that we had "punched" them correctly, and when we had finished, we "submitted" them to the computer... and maybe 20 minutes later we received our "printout" results.

The curious thing was this, as our professor told us: "If you did this assignment correctly, you will have an error. This is intentional, and part of your learning about this subject."

And this is borne out by the Great Lecture given to Milo by the Princesses Rhyme and Reason: "you sometimes learn more from doing the wrong thing for the right reason than doing the right thing for the wrong reason." (In The Phantom Tollbooth, the movie; I quote from memory.)

(An aside: sure it is better if we always do the right thing - even if it's for the wrong reason. But the point made by R&R is that it is possible to learn even from our errors, even if we live in a Castle in the Air!)

But I'd prefer to say that this is part of the mystery of Sin. God permits (actually, tolerates, one of the few accurate uses of that dull word) sin because He can bring greater good from it. Think Adam: "o felix culpa the priest sung 40 nights ago: "O happy (or better, fruitful) fault!"

Why do I bring this up? Because in the next few verses from Orthodoxy, our current textbook, we shall hear in very quick order, the names of several dark-minded Heretics - those who are in error. And yet, our guide Uncle Gilbert shall show us how to use them to get over this last rough "Nietzsche Ridge" and receive some wonderful gifts...
Click here when you're ready.

Before we resume, just remember where we are: nearing the end of the chapter called "The Suicide of Thought", examining the ways that modern thinkers strive to make others (and themselves) STOP thinking. GKC pauses, nearing this last rather rough but not very tall ridge, and considers our journey thus far:
At the beginning of this preliminary negative sketch I said that our mental ruin has been wrought by wild reason, not by wild imagination. A man does not go mad because he makes a statue a mile high, but he may go mad by thinking it out in square inches. Now, one school of thinkers has seen this and jumped at it as a way of renewing the pagan health of the world. They see that reason destroys; but Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say, is in will, not in reason. The supreme point is not why a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it.
The Will, hmmm. I mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth according to a plan, since I must now also mention the correlative text, The Neverending Story which (like so many fairy tales) emphasizes that most mysterious gift called The Will. (In an orc-tunnel beneath the Misty Mountains I hear someone murmuring "pity"...) For that is the error common to Nietzsche, Wells, Shaw, and some other authors. I shall not dig into this in detail - which is nearly what GKC writes too:
I have no space to trace or expound this philosophy of Will. It came, I suppose, through Nietzsche...
Now that I have stated this dark, sinister name, I can tell you why I began with my "error" in computing. I began this way to highlight the mystery of such a name - because in Deus Caritas Est the very first quote made by the Holy Father comes not from Aquinas, nor even from a saint - but from Nietzsche! He sounds very Chestertonian here, too:
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice.[1] Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?
[Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 3; note [1] states "Cf. Jenseits von Gut und Böse, IV, 168." This is quoted from the EWTN Library.]
Like my computer science professor, and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, Benedict shows us that sometimes we need to see an error first in order to learn more about the truth. And remember, we are travelling through this very difficult territory with Uncle Gilbert to learn, as he did, the ways which are wrong - so that we shall know the Right Way.

GKC thinks that the error bean with Nietzsche, and goes on to its appearance in other Heretics:
But however it began, the view is common enough in current literature. The main defence of these thinkers is that they are not thinkers; they are makers. They say that choice is itself the divine thing. Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw has attacked the old idea that men's acts are to be judged by the standard of the desire of happiness. He says that a man does not act for his happiness, but from his will. He does not say, "Jam will make me happy," but "I want jam." And in all this others follow him with yet greater enthusiasm.
Ah, jam. (I had some grape jam at my feast-day breakfast this morning.) You might say I delight in quoting children's fantasies - I do, and even more because few others do, and at least I have a familiarity with them. (Didn't I tell you how I lectured from Alice in Wonderland when I taught computer science classes? I did. Ahem.) But I might just as well quote Chesterton's children's fantasies, as those of you will know who have read the treasure-trove called CW14. The scene is at breakfast, a number of people are sitting around the table. Our hero, Petersen, has just made a very grand insight which I cannot take the space to quote, and the room is silent for a moment.
Marjory was watching him keenly: she had just had a gleam of hope. His eyes were slowly filling with the pale blue fire she knew well: it was so he used to look when she read him a poem, or when the sunset grew red and gold over the wooded hill. At such moments he would say something which she couldn't understand.
At length the words came, with a kind of timid radiance.
"May I have jam?"
"Certainly," she said, raising her eyebrows wearily. He only smiled ravenously, but she felt sure that if any earthly chair had been high enough he would have kicked his legs. There was another silence.
"Some fellows like butter and jam," said the religious enthusiast of the morning's conversation. "I think that's beastly."
"The main benefit of existence," said Marjory bitterly, "seems to be eating."
"Hardly the main benefit surely," said Petersen calmly, "though I agree with you that it is a neglected branch of the poetry of daily life. The song of birds, the sight of stars, the scent of flowers, all these we admit are a divine revelation, why not the taste of jam?"
"Not very poetical to my fancy," said Marjory, scornfully.
"It is uncultivated," said Petersen, "but a time may come when it will be elaborated into an art as rich and varied as music or painting. People will say, 'There is an undercurrent of pathos in this gravy, despite its frivolity,' or 'Have you tasted that passionate rebellious pudding? Ethically I think it's dangerous.' After all, eating has a grander basis than the arts of the other senses, for it is absolutely necessary to existence: it is the bricks and mortar of the Temple of the Spirit."
And he took a large bite out of the bread and jam.
But now I am only doing what GKC did - he mentions John Davidson, H.G. Wells and another snippet from Shaw (apparently quoting Bentham) about this same thing - then gives the summary:
The real difference between the test of happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of happiness is a test and the other isn't. You can discuss whether a man's act in jumping over a cliff was directed towards happiness; you cannot discuss whether it was derived from will. Of course it was. You can praise an action by saying that it is calculated to bring pleasure or pain to discover truth or to save the soul. But you cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say that is merely to say that it is an action. By this praise of will you cannot really choose one course as better than another. And yet choosing one course as better than another is the very definition of the will you are praising.
And as you have noticed, I also like to quote rock music. Here, we see an idea powerfully expressed by the Canadian group "Rush":
"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice..."
["Free Will", Rush]
(Wow, I wonder if they ever read any GKC.) It is worth going further along this ridge - as you have seen if you have travelled with us so far, we acquire new and powerful tools at each stop. Here is today's gift, derived directly from those great Heretics GKC quotes. This is one of the most quick-moving, most verbally rich, most fireworky, but also most deep and useful passages we have seen - perhaps because from here we can see a grand view of the territory we shall shortly be travelling. This bit might be called the "Pleiades" - the Seven Sisters - of Orthodoxy, for from it we receive (as if at Pentecost) a sevenfold gift! What a remarkable place we are now at! Read it carefully:
...they [these Heretics] always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite.

(1) Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation.

(2) In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.

That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.

(3) Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion.

Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon. It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense. For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits.

(4) But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits.

(5) Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.

If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.

(6) The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.

You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles"; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will.

(7) The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.
Yes, the line-breaks and numbering are mine. You may see from number (2) why I speculated whether "Rush" had read GKC. You will also recall that I promised we should see our friendly giraffe again, and here he is! And if you are interested in the "larger" map of GKC's works, you may wish to add a cross-reference to his fiction: Gabriel Gale asks:
"Were you ever an isosceles triangle?"
"Very seldom," replied Garth with restraint. "May I ask what the devil you are talking about?"
"Only something I was thinking about," answered the poet, lifting himself on to one elbow. "I wondered whether it would be a cramping sort of thing to be surrounded by straight lines, and whether being in a circle would be any better."
["The Yellow Bird" in The Poet and the Lunatics]

The last three of the seven, which speak of art and limit, (and of science, as readers of Fr. Jaki already know, and as we shall shortly learn from GKC) are found in many other places in GKC's writing; the idea constitutes what I call a "motif" within his writing: like a musical theme, the idea appears in many other forms and places, and I would fill in another posting or two to quote them - perhaps someday we'll explore them. But for now we must hurry along our present course. Yes - as we begin the Great Novena tomorrow in our preparation for Pentecost, let us think on all this richness - remembering that with great gifts comes great responsibilities. And pray for each other as we proceed with our journey...

--Dr. Thursday

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, dr. ... do you disagee with Eliot's Becket?

    The last temptation is the greatest treason:
    To do the right deed for the wrong reason.


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