Tuesday 2 July 2013

Charles William's Platonism had no rationale for valuing mortal life


Consider the following excerpt from near the end of Charles Williams novel The Place of the Lion.


That strange impulse however, to which in the serious and gay humour
that possessed him he had given the name of the necessity, allowed [Anthony]
to wander slowly down the station road, till he saw Richardson walking
swiftly along to meet him; then he quickened his own steps. They looked
at each other curiously.

"And so," Richardson said at last, "you think that the common things
will return?"

"I'm quite certain of it," Anthony said. "Won't He have mercy on all
that He's made?"

The other shook his head, and then suddenly smiled. "Well, if you and
they like it that way, there's no more to be said," he answered.
"Myself, I think you're only wasting time on the images."

"Well, who made the images?" Anthony asked. "You sound like a medieval
monk commenting on marriage. Don't be so stuck-up over your old way,
whatever it is. What actually is it?"

Richardson pointed to the sky. "Do you see the light of that fire?" he
asked. "Yes, there. Berringer's house has been burning all day."

"I know, I saw it."

"I'm going out there," Richardson said and stopped.

"But--I'm not saying you're wrong--but why?" Anthony asked: "Isn't fire
an image too?"

"That perhaps," the other answered. "But all this--" he touched his
clothes and himself, and his eyes grew dark with a sudden passion of
desire--"has to go somehow; and if the fire that will destroy the world
is here already, it isn't I that will keep from it."

Anthony looked at him a little ruefully. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'd
hoped we might have talked more. And--you know best--but you're quite
sure you're right? I can't see but what the images have their place. Ex
perhaps, but the noon has to drive the shadows away naturally,
hasn't it?"

The other shrugged. "O I know," he said. "It's all been argued a hundred
times, Jensenist and Jesuit, the monk and the married man, mystic and
sacramentalist. But all I know is that I must make for the End when and
as soon as I see it. Perhaps that's why I am alone. But since that's
so--I'd like you, if you will, and if restoration comes, to give this
book back to Berringer if he's alive, and to keep it if he isn't. What,"
he added, "what you call alive."

Anthony took the little parcel. "I will do it," he said. "But I only
call it alive because the images must communicate, and communication is
such a jolly thing. However, I'm keeping you and I mustn't do that...as
we sacramentalists say."

They shook hands. Then Anthony broke out again. "I do wish you
weren't--No; no, I don't. Go with God."

"Go with God," the other's more sombre voice answered. They stood for a
moment, then they stepped apart, their hands went up in mutual courteous
farewell, and they went their separate ways.

No-one saw the young bookseller's assistant again; no-one thought of
him, except his employer and his landlady, and each of them, grumbling
first, afterwards filled his place and forgot him. Alone and unnoticed
he went along the country road to his secret end. Only Anthony, as he
went swiftly to Damaris, commended the other's soul to the Maker and
Destroyer of images.


In PotL the Platonic archetypes invade earth. These archetypes are that eternal reality of which earthly things, including people, are merely 'images'.

What happened in the above scene is that Richardson chose to yield to these archetypes, to end his mortal life, to die (by walking into the flames of a burning house - burning with archetypal fire)  and thereby enter the eternal world of real-reality. But Anthony affirmed his intention to saty in this world, resist the invasion of the archetypes, and thereby save the life of his fiancee.

This seems a very sensible thing to do! If the next world, the world after death, is indeed the real world, and this world is only a matter of images, shadows, inklings and glimpses of that real world, then why not die as soon as possible and enter reality?

Why not indeed - IF the Platonic metaphysics is regarded as true.

So, what reason does Anthony give for NOT doing exactly this - what is the best rationale Anthony can come up with for staying in this mortal life?

This is the key passage, upon which the whole plot of the book hinges. This is Anthony's credo:

...but you're quite sure you're right? I can't see but what the images have their place. Ex
umbris perhaps, but the noon has to drive the shadows away naturally,
hasn't it?"...

"... I only call it alive because the images must communicate, and communication is
such a jolly thing.

[Note: Ex umbris means Out of the shadows, and probably refers to a longer saying along the lines of Ex umbris ad lucem meaning Out of the shadows and into the light - in other words, from this mortal world of shadows and into the eternal world of clearly perceived reality.]

So this is Charles Williams bottom-line, ultimate reason for human mortal life -  the images must communicate, and communication is such a jolly thing.

In other words, no reason at all.


And this is the intractable problem with Platonism - whether pagan or Christian - and if Christian Platonism whether that of Eastern Orthodoxy, or of Charles Williams, or indeed of CS Lewis in his Narnia books and elsewhere.

If this world is merely an image, shadow or at best foretaste of the reality which comes after death - then what is the point of it? What is the point of mortal human life? On this view there is none. It is at best an unfortunate trail, and the sooner it ends the better.

Platonism cannot answer the question of why stay alive if we get an opportunity to die - so long as we can be confident of entering this post-mortem world of truth and light.


The current two rival dominant world views are: 1. some variant of the Platonic view which sees no necessity for mortal life, and 2. the secular idealism which sees no reality except mortal life - and a choice between Heaven-on-Earth here-and-now or else no Heaven at all.


[To my knowledge, the only metaphysical system which both demonstrates the value, and indeed necessity, of mortal life, yet also acknowledges the primacy of the next world, is Mormonism. ]


Robert said...

"The two rival dominant world views in the are some variant of the Platonic view which sees no necessity for mortal life, and the secular idealism which sees no reality except mortal life - and a choice between Heaven-on-Earth here-and-now or else no Heaven at all."

Odd how the missing word makes such a difference. What could it be? "Present"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@R - Fixed.

stephen c said...

I am not familiar at all with Mormon metaphysics, but during that time frame St Therese wrote her "Story of a Soul" which is full of what many probably would consider saccharine prose but which is, it seems to me, among other things a long and difficult meditation on her deep thankfulness for both our world (often beautiful but also often cold, rainy and full of crabby lay people and crabby nuns) and for the world of heaven, and her thankfulness for the interaction of the two - symbolized in her stated desire to spend her years in Heaven shedding roses on the Earth. BTW, I am rereading Place of the Lion now and you quoted one of the best parts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@sc - It's just that I could not help being metaphysical on this point - probably because I had come from a this-worldly Emersonian transcendentalism - then went right over in the opposite Platonic direction (under influence of CW, CSL, and Fr Seraphim Rose, especially); therefore, in order to attain a balance, I needed to understand metaphysically why both this world and the next were necessary/ valuable.

stephen c said...

Bruce - I hope you didn't think I was being adversarial at all - I only replied because I remembered St Therese as being one of the few human beings who I am familiar with who expressed a strong desire to live in both worlds a long long time ... a state of mind I wish I could fully achieve, in waking hours, even if only fleetingly ...

Unknown said...

"Platonism cannot answer the question of why stay alive if we get an opportunity to die - so long as we can be confident of entering this post-mortem world of truth and light."

Wasn't this Paul's dilemma?

"21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again."

If a Christian is to live in this life, it must be a life dedicated to service and love of others.

ariston said...

I've been meaning to get around to this, but the concept of the ‘Platonism’ of Orthodoxy is a late revision with no grounding in history or philosophy. Platonism was, throughout the Byzantine era, understood as the philosophical faith of the pagans (and pagans remained throughout that period), and it became obvious during the final decades of the empire, when the openly pagan Gemistos Plethon was writing broad attacks on Aristotle, which were countered by the church. (Even Gregory Palamas, who is held up as some sort of archetype of the ‘Platonism’ of the East alludes to Aristotle far more in his extant writings.)

The further irony here, of course, is that Plethon's willing audience was found in Italy, not in his beloved Greece, and his fellow pagans there played a substantial role in the building intellectual schism in Latin society.

Kristor said...

Why does Platonism need to provide a justification for earthly life? Maybe I'm dense, but I just don't get it. Why is a justification needed? Earthly life is *good,* per se. As deformed, it can be painful, but even as deformed it retains some of its goodness.

Earthly life may not be as good as heavenly life, and deformed earthly life may not be as good as virtuous earthly life. But that the imperfect is imperfect does not mean it is no good at all. Likewise, that the humble is not majestic doesn't render it evil. We don't knock down all the village churches because they aren't as grand as Salisbury Cathedral. We don't shoot all children who whine or filch a cookie. That would be silly.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I find that I don't really wish to persuade you! If you are content with Platonism, then that is fine - all models are incomplete hence distorting, and clearly Platonism answers the most urgent needs of many.

But not mine - for the reasons given. If these reasons lack force for you then there is neither reason nor need to change!

But I suspect that Charles Williams suffered from Platonism as much or more than he benefitted from it; Lewis, on the other hand, mostly benefitted from it.

My concept/ understanding of Mere Christianity has it that Christianity is compatible with Platonism, Aristotelianism and Pluralism alike (although, naturally, the secondary characteristics will differ with each of these).

But at different eras and for different people, the one that works best is likely to be different.

In the West, now, pluralism seems to work best and Platonic and Aristotelian Christianity are declining- and this is because pluralistic Christianity provides the simplest, most concrete and more proximate answer to the most urgent needs of modern alienated Man for a personal God and an easily comprehensible meaning/purpose for mortal life.

Kristor said...

But it’s not that I argue for Platonism over against pluralism. I don’t. I don't believe there is in the last analysis any true contradiction between pluralism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism. Each of them, indeed, completes the others. So there is no question of our trying to convince each other that one or the other of them are false.

The thing is that I don't see any need for a justification of life from *any* type of philosophy, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or pluralist. Why are *any* of them called upon to justify or explain life? "Jolly" is "jolie," pretty; i.e., pretty Beautiful, as "bonny" is pretty Good. What more is needed to justify existence than its Goodness and Beauty? *Can* there be more than, or other than, Goodness and Beauty, that might serve to justify? How so?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - for Platonism the next work is realer, happier, just better than this - so why delay?

Indeed, why have such an imperfect or horrendous thing as mortal life? Why be an embryo who dies at 12 weeks or a stillborn child?

Why bother with mortality? - why not go direct to Heaven? Why be given foreshadowings and glimpses - why not experience the real thing NOW and FOREVER.

Platonism does not answer this problem in any comprehensible and straightforward way.

But if you don't feel the force of the question, and all mortal incarnate lives seem to you obviously to have a useful function - then it doesn't matter!

Kristor said...

"Indeed, why have such an imperfect or horrendous thing as mortal life? Why be an embryo who dies at 12 weeks or a stillborn child?"

Why have a village church, or a house church, or a hermitage? Why not destroy them all and everyone go to services at Salisbury or Kings College? Indeed, why not destroy all the defective entities, all the sinners and poor and wounded? Why not let the perfect drive out, displace and altogether destroy the imperfect? Euthanasia for everyone! The piers at Salisbury are bowed: down with them!

Is not the gnostic, anti-Christian, indeed satanic valence of that sentiment perfectly evident? There is gnostic, satanic Platonism, and there is Christian Platonism, after all (as likewise also for Aristotelianism and pluralism). The former reviles the world, the latter loves and redeems it. For, destroy all but the perfect, as gnosticism would do, and you end up with nothing but God. So doing, you eliminate God in the bargain. For, destroy or reject all but the perfect and you end up with no creatures, no Creation. But Creation is the one act that only God can perform. Creation is what God does; it is an ineliminable aspect of who he is. Prevent Creation, and you prevent God.

Which can’t be done. The sort of Platonism you reject is anti-Christian, gnostic, and like all gnosticism essentially nihilist: i.e., impracticable, when push comes to shove.

One important aspect of the invasion of our world by the Forms in Place of the Lion is that Williams makes clear that if it proceeded unimpeded it would result in the destruction of all mundane particularities. Instantiations of the Forms would all be swamped, absorbed, by the Forms themselves. This would eventually, quickly, altogether destroy the world, which in each of its parts and in toto is a participation in and image of certain ideal Forms, but *is everywhere different and disparate from* those Forms. It is the prevention of that immolation of his world - and, in particular, of Damaris, his beloved - that motivates the protagonist, and prompts his spiritual metanoia, which in turn provides him the metaphysical, magical power to save the world in its dear, humdrum, peculiar, parochial complexity and difference, its anfractuosity and sheer liveliness.

It is that liveliness that is the justification for mundane existence. That liveliness adds frisson, adds life and adventure, to the otherwise implacably aeviternal and immaculate and, in the final analysis, utterly still and uneventful realm of mere Forms. God wants that liveliness to happen. How do we know? Because it fulfills infinitely many links of potential goodness in the Great Chain of Being. In the final analysis, we know that God wants worlds in all their internal confusion and prolixity to happen because one of them, at least, has indeed happened.

Mortal life doesn't *need* to have a use or purpose in respect to something other or larger. It is its own point. What use is a baby boy? None. He is an end in himself. To understand him as meaningless or worthless except insofar as he serves some larger purpose is to treat him as a mere mean. But in the real world, means of any sort, or instruments, tools, or heuristics, can operate as means only insofar as they are just and loyally and fully themselves, and for themselves, *as themselves ends of being.* A hammer is only good for hammering because it is just what it is, in and for itself. Only ends can serve means. There is no such thing as a mere mean.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - What you need to do is not to assert the value of mortal incarnation (which we agree on) but derive it from Platonism. I don't think you are doing that because it can't be done. That is my point. Platonism leaves mortal incarnation, this world, unexplained. Meaning and purpose in this world are, for a Platonist, something outwith their metaphysics - something like Christianity.

This is not a problem unless the Christianity is seen as more fundamental than the Platonism, containing the Platonism. But it is easy for intellectuals to reverse things and try to fit Christianity into Platonism - which, if achieved, leaves out a proper (necessary, essential) place for mortal incarnate earthly life in the scheme of salvation.