Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Ordering of the Ordinary

I'm currently reading (though stalling in progress) The Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor, a book that I've had on my to-do list for a year and a half now.

I'm really only at the beginning. Frankly, he's taking quite a long time to say a lot of things I already knew and believed. But maybe the sort of "philosophers" who infest our universities today, poisoned with their modern arrogance, take a lot more words to convince, and maybe they're his real intended audience. But, basically, the main point I've gathered so far is that because The Good is only definable relative to human subjectivity, that any attempt to construct an "objective" philosophy of it is incoherent.

This is something I've just always assumed. Specifically, as Catholic Encyclopedia points out, we can only define the good circularly with reference to desire and vice versa; the good is that quality which moves the Will, like magnetism is that which moves a magnet. This is something I discussed on a Vox Nova thread a few months ago and plan to eventually come back on this blog regarding eudemonism and the natural law (which the poster seemed to have some fundamental misunderstandings about).

To me, consciousness clearly must be a "structural" feature of any picture of the universe we have, and the only perspective we can have it from. This was always just intuitive to me since I was a child. I think pure materialism is a delusion that involves defining ones own conscious subjectivity out of existence; it is solipsism, not pure materialism, that is the much more "likely" philosophical extreme for me. After all, all the external matter could all just be a "dream" in my own consciousness, "illusory" sense impressions, whereas my consciousness itself is immediately apparent to me as real (in the only possible definition of "real" I could formulate; something else I've written about before and maybe will come back to again on this blog).

Taylor specifically seems to be framing this truth in the form of an argument that notions of identity don't even make sense without notions of relative valuation, and so that to try to apply an "objective" account onto the realm of human behavior or meaning (and this latter, especially, is the only real job philosophy has) like we do with the material world...is basically a category error, as human beings exist as subjects who do make subjective valuations, but these are no less "real" for the fact of their subjectivity, and any account of moral questions cannot simply dismiss this in a naturalistic way.

Perhaps I just didn't realize how decadent the state of modern philosophy was, as to me all these things go without saying and I find that having to make these points through meticulously revealing the internal contradictions in the naturalistic paradigm to be rather plodding. But then, I am in some sense (it seems so far) a choir being preached to.

Another point he keeps hinting at (and which I'm sure is explicated later) is about the "affirmation of ordinary life" as a feature of modernity. This is a defining feature of the secularity characteristic of our age (secularity, not secularism; secularity in the sense of "in the world," secularity in the sense that diocesan priests are "secular," or at least should be.) In the medieval past, people understood the monastic life of contemplation, religious consecration, and constant prayer and worship to be the clear "standard," whereas today there is a sense that "the good life" is to be found (or, at least, can be found) in the ordinary life of work and family, of production and reproduction. Whether this takes the form of "the American dream" or of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasies or romanticization of the working class (or the "peasants.")

The observation of this contrast is clearly true. But what should it mean for us? I'll be interested to see what Taylor says as I keep reading, but right now I would like to just sort of share some of my own thoughts on the question of "ordinary life" vs. "extraordinary life" (say, of religious consecration or monastic contemplation, etc), and what an affirmation of ordinary life implies (and doesn't imply) philosophically and morally.

It has been noted often before that Christianity, by its very nature, contains something like the seeds of humanism. It is, after all, the story of God becoming Man. However, does this necessarily lead to something like Nietzsche's "death of God"? Does, like Žižek says, Christianity need to abandon real faith, is it "possible today to redeem this core of Christianity only in the gesture of abandoning the shell of institutional organization (and, even more so, its explicit religious experience). The gap here is irreducible: either one drops the religious form, or one maintains the form but loses the essence. That is the ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity: in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself—like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge."

After all, isn't the characteristic feature of our society compared to any past analogues that ours is a post-Christian society? That it is one who has seen Christianity's insights, cannibalized them perhaps, but ultimately is what we got something inherent in the values of Christianity from the start? Did or will the valuation of human life that began in the Christ story necessarily play out as man's self-actualization transcending God through escaping self-alienation in the Marxist sense? Was Christianity just "scaffolding" needed to get to a certain point of humanitarian development that now can be discarded?

I don't think so. And I highly doubt that's what Taylor himself is saying. The valuation of ordinary life is, I think, actually highly compatible with the Catholic vision which also recognizes the extraordinary life of the contemplative. This is one of the geniuses of the Catholic notion of The Good: that transcendent meaning is present, that the eschaton breaks into history and confers goodness and meaning here and now.

There was perhaps, mistakenly, a notion in the past something along the lines of "labor and getting married and having children...are only good inasmuch as they are means to an end; labor allows you to keep living so that you can praise God (and materially support those who do so more constantly). Having children is only good because they perpetuate the institutional church (some of your descendents may become priests or monks someday!)" There was perhaps an attitude among some (or, at least, some people misunderstood it that way) that ordinary life was purely functional, "merely" a means to an end (of contemplation). That life was "merely" a test or preparation for heaven with no value or meaning right now, with value or meaning constantly deferred to the Beatific Vision.

However, what this attitude (or, rather, this modern interpretation of past attitudes; I'm not convinced it ever really was the official stance in the past either) fails to understand is the Catholic notion of the value of being ordered or oriented towards the good. I've discussed this regarding NFP and sexual morality. I've also discussed it regarding the use of language and the question of lying.

You see, the real genius of the Catholic notion of morality is that meaning can be dependent on the Absolute, on the transcendent, and yet is also immanent, is here in this moment. Yes, sex (of the natural variety) is good "because of" procreation, that is the only reason that renders that desire intelligible. However, if it is good "because of" procreation, that also means it is good, period. It is ordered towards that goodness, but that ordering towards makes that goodness already inherent, internal to the nature of that act itself (whether it bears fruit or not, or even can). A couple doesn't need to wait for procreation to result (and, indeed, maybe it never even does, or they don't even want it to) for the act itself to be rendered good, as if it only happens "retroactively" in the light of the procreation. Rather, it's goodness with reference to procreation is not conferred externally like that, on account of some subsequent effect to which it was a cause, some subsequent end to which it was a means, but as something that is part of the very "internal logic" of the ordering of the act itself (whereas, you will note, other sorts of [unchaste] sexual acts can only "explain" themselves with reference to that natural act; they contain their own subversion or contradiction).

Many people will object that if a couple positively doesn't want children to result and deliberately takes advantage of natural infertility, there is no way it can tend morally towards procreation (though tend towards is all it has to do.) However, I think there are many examples that prove this untrue. For example, policemen or armies. A state or municipality can have these while still truly saying they don't ever want to use them. A policeman on a street corner, or army training exercises, are only intelligible with reference to crime or war, they only make sense as ordered towards those ends. And yet that doesn't mean a policeman or army is purposeless if there is no crime to stop currently or no war going on. Indeed we can, and usually should, hope there never is! Yet a person would be stupid to say that, for this reason, we should get rid of the police or army, or that a policeman skipping work is equivalent to him going to work in a quiet neighborhood where he knows he won't have to stop any criminals.

Or a hospital. Doctors (should) hope no one is ever sick or injured, and yet hospitals are ordered towards helping the sick and injured, and the doctors still go into work each day prepared to ("open to") helping the sick and injured, even while at the same time they should be hoping there is actually no one to help. As a friend suggested to me, "even when the ER is empty, nurses and docs need to be awake," they can't all go out for beers just because they hope (or even know for sure) that no one is coming. Or just even more simply: you don't run a red light even when you can clearly see there are no cars coming at 3AM, because that's not how Law works, civilization would fall apart if people lived like that. The lack of (or hope of lack of) explicitly fulfilling a purpose, or of actually realizing the Reason that renders something's existence intelligible, its end, does not mean they are not still ordered towards that end (if they do their job correctly), because "realization" is always eschatological. It's always just a "tendency" towards final meaning, the question is whether its "trajectory" is correct in orientation, whether it is connected back up to the transcendent chain of meaning internally (or whether it is curved in on itself and self-contradictory and unintelligible).

Or take language. Language only makes sense in a relational context (and this is something else I remember Taylor mentioning). A solitary creature would have no language, language is by nature communicative, the very concept of "meaning" makes no sense outside the concept of having someone else to receive and understand your words. Language would not have developed with people just speaking to themselves. And yet...we can write meaningful things that we never share with anyone else. I can write a poem and keep it a secret. And yet, my words have meaning because, as language, they are ordered towards communication. Communication is a good contained in the very internal logic of language, and thus even if I never share my poem with anyone, it may be rendered good and meaningful nevertheless, still by communication (even though that good is never externally actualized, nor even desired to be actualized, in this case!)

I think the same idea is essential to our understanding of an "affirmation of ordinary life" or of "Christian humanism" or whatever you want to call these notions. Certainly I think it would be a misunderstanding (both of Christianity and of Taylor) to see an affirmation of ordinary life as necessitating some sort of rejection of the extraordinary life, as saying that ordinary life is "better" than it, or that there is some imperative to be ordinary, secular, ("normal," mediocre, etc, as the case often turns out.) I don't think the message is "no one should be a monk anymore, I shouldn't consider that vocation, it's mere escapism" or that "suburban family life is the real highest calling" (which would be nothing more than bourgeosie capitalist propaganda ala "the apotheosis of the family.")

No, I don't think that's the point. I think the point is that things being ordered towards a good end (ordered, not disordered; the ends can't justify the means) means that they are good even without immediate or explicit reference to that end. I often quote the Catholic Encyclopedia article on gluttony on this point: "it must be noted that there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one's mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God."

Yes, there is a "chain of meaning" that connects eating back up to the Absolute and makes it good, something along the lines of: eating is ordered to nutrition, which keeps us alive, which allows us to continue living and praising God in soul and body, so that we can be saved and merit and someday get to heaven. However, as I said above, the statement "eating is good because..." implies that eating is good. Period. The "because" doesn't mean that the only thing of real value is at the end of the causal chain and that all the means on the way there are ultimately worthless in themselves, that meaning is "deferred" until we get to heaven, and that if we don't our eating during life was really just meaningless. No, the very nature of this "because" is that the Good at the end of the chain "shines back down upon" all the means on the way there; their ordering towards their Final End makes them, in some sense, also ends in themselves. The final end is contained not merely at the end of the chain when it is actually achieved but, like how the eschaton breaks into history, actually becomes immanent in each and every "step" on the way there.

And so, language is still meaningful as ordered towards truth-communicating even if you write something that you never intend to share with anyone else (as long as you don't disorder it by making it a lie). Natural marital sex is still meaningful, the desire and pleasure still intelligible, as ordered towards procreation even if the couple knows it will be infertile (as long as they don't disorder it by choosing an act without that natural significance). Labor is meaningful as ordered towards sustaining ones life for worship, yes, but that doesn't mean it is in itself meaningless fluff, a practicality that we need to "get through" so that we can "get to the real point of life" which is worship. No, indeed, the very ordering of ordinary life towards the extraordinary confers a meaning on it here and now, before we ever know if that outcome is ever realized! Yes, in some ways we toil (like God) for the whole week to make it to the Sabbath, but if we died in a bus crash on Thursday, that doesn't mean Monday-Wednesday were all just meaningless because we never actually made it to Sunday where the chain of meaning could terminate.

The post-modernists speak about how meaning is always "deferred," about the so called dictionary paradox (where you can only define a word with reference to other words which are then defined only with reference to other words) and yet we know this whole grand relational chain nevertheless does contain immediate meaning when a word is spoken, if only by the very fact of human consciousness perceiving its place in that semantic web. We have the question of "turtles all the way down." Meaning is deferred, and yet we understand here and now in the present!

Likewise, if I became Pope someday, I might be inclined to see this as conferring "meaning," as it were, "back onto" the lives of my Polish peasant ancestors toiling away in the 18th century. However, the wonderful thing about the Christian message is this: I don't ever have to become Pope. Their lives, their having children, were meaningful even then as ordered towards descendents glorifying God. I think something of this notion is symbolized in the fact that St. Thérèse of Lisieux's parents are soon to be canonized. Both of them dreamed of entering religious life, but found married life instead and at first were "disappointed." However, their ordinary life went on to produce five nuns, one of whom is one of the greatest Saints of our times! And this reflects back on and "redeems" even this ordinary life. However, once again it must be emphasized: this is not "conditional" on a family producing a Saint. The meaning that the "openness" of ordinary life towards, say, producing Saints, gives it a meaning in the present, not merely after-the-fact if a Saint actually results.

Life is a preparation for heaven, yes. It is only heaven that gives life meaning. But, it gives meaning to each and every moment even in the here-and-n0w in an "internal" way. This is the genius of Christian eschatology. The Second Coming of Christ is an event at the end of time, yes, but this eschatological reality confers meaning at each and every moment to my life, which is why the Parousia is important spiritually for Christians of every age, why our spirituality must needs be Apocalyptic even if we are not the generation that will see the literal end of the world. I don't need to "wait" for the actual event to have its meaning, I have had meaning here and now with reference to the eschaton, the great chain still hangs on a "hook" even if that hook is in the future. (And, you will note, all this remains true even if fall into sin and die and go to Hell; my life up to that point still had real meaning with reference to God).

So is the contemplative life higher, or at least a more "immediate" fulfillment of the purpose of human life? Yes, there can be no doubt of that. However, this does not denigrate ordinary life, but elevates it, for ordinary life "basks in the glow" of heaven, or of the monastic life, etc, to which it is ordered.

I think this same dynamic is also seen in the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. We know that the Old contains the New in the manner of prophecy, in the manner of typology, etc. Everything in the Old Testament is really about Christ. But this isn't true only after Christ came. We have to assume it was "there all along" in the text. Maybe we only "see it" now, but the Old Testament was rightly revered and held meaningful by the Jews even before Christ came.

Even Christ's descent into hades to redeem the righteous of the Old Testament symbolizes something like this; they weren't just "scaffolding" to be discarded or dismissed once the building was built, as it were, once Christ came. No, rather, the "grounding" in Christ conferred meaning "back onto" their lives. In one sense this is "retroactive," but in another this "retroactivity" was already there in the Old Testament, the meaning was not "deferred" until Christ, but was there in the present (and yet still because of Him).

The danger, of course, is this: that we will forget the absolute that grounds our meaning. This is the threat that faces our age, the reduction of everything to essentially just masturbatory, as it were. Human life was recognized as valuable because of Christ and because of God. But being valuable "because" of something else, also means it is valuable, period. But then once we have the recognition of human life as valuable, period, modern man thinks we can just discard the God and Christ that made it valuable in the first place!

Sex is desirable and pleasurable because of the good of procreation, which means it is good, period. But then people think we can just discard the ordering towards procreation that was the whole reason for its goodness in the first place, the "foundation" which rendered its desire and pleasure intelligible. Language exists to communicate truth, and it remains meaningful even if you are not actually speaking to anyone; symbols carved in a rock remain "meaningful" even if no one is reading them at the moment. But then people use it to communicate lies!

Ordinary secular life is recognized as good because it is ordered towards heaven, and even in some sense towards worship and the contemplative life (whether in the form of descendents someday pursuing that, being able to support it materially with our donations, or just we ourselves making it to Mass again on Sunday, etc), which means, however, that it is good, period (ie, it's goodness does not depend on the "eschatological realization" of the promises it already inherently contains; it is good, because of that, even now, even before that, and thus even if it never happens). And yet, people think the fact that meaning is immanent, is here and now, means we can discard the transcendent, can ignore the eschaton that is the source of meaning. That since "such and such is good because..." means that "such and such is good" here and now, even before the realization of the "because" (and even, thus, if the "because" is never realized)...that we can just discard the "because," that it must be superfluous.

However, we have seen the results of that in our society. That becomes a philosophy of despair. Hope is good in the moment even before the thing hoped for is achieved. And if it is good in the moment, it is thus good, period; it's goodness in the moment cannot be "undone" just because the thing hoped for is never achieved. And yet, "hope" is only intelligible with reference to the thing hoped for. Hope is good because it is ordered toward that hoped for, and that means that it is unintelligible if we "pull the carpet out from under" it and remove the reference to the thing hoped for.

There is a common confusion (and I'm just repeating myself now) that might think that because hope is a good experience in the moment even prior to its fulfillment (and even if it is never fulfilled or we know it can never be fulfilled and yet choose to keep hoping as an end in itself; I think unrequited or unrequitable love is the example par excellence here) that this means that its fulfillment is accidental and thus can be discarded as unnecessary. But obviously, nothing could be farther from the truth. The very concept of hope, its "in itself" goodness in the moment...is nevertheless still dependent on its fulfillment, its ordering towards that fulfillment (whether that ever comes or not), because the concept of that fulfillment is already internal to the idea of hope itself, and thus the source even of its "in itself" goodness.

Some people will say the quest for the Holy Grail finds its meaning in the quest itself. That the nobility or adventure or relationships built along the journey are what it's all about, not the "destination." That the Holy Grail is just the "stone" in Stone Soup. And yet, there is no quest if you aren't questing for something, there would have been no stone soup without the stone! Even if it's something I know it is highly unlikely I'll ever find, like the last unicorn, an End like that is necessary for any sense of purposive action. Otherwise it's just wandering around. And, say what you will about wandering around, that certainly has a different dynamic than a quest ordered towards something, that has an end driving it. There can be nobility in a quest, even a failed or impossible quest. There is no nobility in wandering aimlessly.

And we can have an aim (or, rather, our wills can be "aimed") even when we hope not to actually reach the end, mind you. Like my "hospital" example above...take searching around a house for a burglar, for example. You come home, you think someone may be in the house, so you check every possible place a burglar might be, even while positively hoping you won't find someone, and even perhaps speaking loudly to scare him off (if he is there) before you reach him, or coming home only at those times of day when you know that no burglar will be there (even if he may have been there at some other time). And yet, the act of going through the search is clearly ordered towards something (finding a burglar), this action is intelligible and purposive to that end, even when you are hoping and trying NOT to find him. It is very different from just wandering around a house not actually looking (either randomly, or because you're too afraid of what you might find and so deliberately omit searching certain nooks or crannies).

The Absolute may never be reached in this life, and yet it is a sort of limit, it is asymptotic (to get mathematical).
Just because nothing in this world is truly infinite does not mean the concept of Infinity is not structurally important to mathematics; in fact, as it turns out, Infinity is necessary to make sense even of finite things once you start getting to calculus and beyond. God plays a similar role in the cosmos. Even if you think the meaning in the here and now is really "in the tension" of meaning being forever deferred, that tension is still held in place by the hook upon which everything hangs (even if it's a hook "out at infinity") and if you remove that anchoring "hook" (no matter how inaccessible it is)...the present tension of the rubber band in the here and now will "snap."

So let us never lose sight of this, about language, about sex, about hope, and about "ordinary life" in general. A society that removes the eschatological end towards which everything must be ordered, that "cuts the cord" on which all meaning hangs, out of some notion that "because life is good now, even before heaven, why do we need heaven?" or "things are meaningful now, even before terminating in the ever-deferred Absolute, so the Absolute itself must be unnecessary," is like saying "hope is good now, even before its fulfillment, so what's the point of positing a fulfillment?" And yet, of course, hope would not be hope without referencing a fulfillment, and certainly would not be good. And neither would life, ordinary or otherwise.

1 comment:

Curtis said...

That's an excellent book. It took me a long time to get through, too. I found "The Secular Age" to be a little more readable, possibly because I found the subject matter more interesting, but I enjoyed both.

I remember reading it at a Scout camp and someone commenting that that was inappropriate cottage reading. Bah.