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About the Author
James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.
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The Vision of the Soul
Truth, Goodness, And Beauty In The Western Tradition
By James Matthew Wilson
The Catholic University of America PressCopyright © 2017 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
The Hunger for Reality
Phantasmagorias of Desire
When we look at the world around us, we see it positively teeming with desires: squirrels foraging for food to fill their bellies, dogs on the prowl for a mate, flowers craning their heads upward to drink in the sun. Indeed, desire is not limited to living things, as all material objects tenaciously cling and conform to the laws of nature, though not by a will of their own. Human beings offer the most varied spectacle of desire, not only seeking a wide range of objects to slake their hungers, but also seeming to be moved by desires that are idiosyncratic and peculiar, so that we can understand that they want something, but perhaps not what; or, having figured that out, we find ourselves at a loss as to why anyone would want it.
We may well, at first, be wonder-struck at this panorama of hungers and desires, but so completely can it overwhelm that we are sometimes led into dismay, cynicism, and, at last, indifference, as if the whole of nature were just an endless show of meaningless appetites frustrated, or attained and forever renewed: as if it were desire itself, not some particular object of desire, that drove the roving cosmos. The Irish poet Thomas Kinsella described this view of things many years ago, and did so with chilling brevity, in a sketch of a barn owl. He imagines the owl's hungry, circling flight in search of prey. Her return, fed and full, to the rafters. There, she will wait for that same hunger to come back and the circle to recommence. He writes of
the drop with deadened wing-beats; some creature
torn and swallowed; her brain, afterward,
staring among the rafters in the dark
until hunger returns.
Can there be any end to such desires? Can the owl's iterated hungers cease in any way but death? Is the owl herself anything more than a brain that stares, hungers, flies, and devours? Finally, is there any difference between the owl's life and that of any other creatures? Kinsella, elsewhere, suggests no, that "life is hunger, hunger is for order, / And hunger satisfied brings on new hunger // Till there's nothing to come ..."
The conservative and Christian Platonist tradition proposes that such questions need not lapse into interminable despair, but may receive a positive answer. Nearly twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato argued in his dialogue, the Symposium, that every action seeks some end; every desire has an object of one sort or another. In the same way we can identify the desire for food and the desire for sunlight as both being desires, so too, he argued, can we settle upon a common term for those myriad things we seek. They are goods: to be a good means simply to be an object that is desirable. Plato then asks, given that all human beings are seeking goods — as he puts it, that they love what is good — what happens to them when they get the good they want the most? They become happy. To be simply happy — permanently, and not just for a moment's feeling — means, he tells us, to possess the good forever.
After Plato establishes that we desire goods, and to possess what we desire forever is to be happy, a leading character in his dialogue, the priestess Diotima, voices a striking conclusion. She says,
That's what makes happy people happy, isn't it — possessing good things. There's no need to ask further, "What's the point of wanting happiness?" The answer you gave seems to be final.
Consider for a moment the question she tells us we need not ask. We can ask a person who goes into a store to buy a bag of nails, "What do you want those nails for?" We can even ask, "Why did you buy that hamburger?" and receive a meaningful, if obvious, answer. But if happiness really means to possess forever the good we desire, then it would seem both superfluous and hopeless to ask, "Why do you want to be happy?" You could hardly desire anything else. For, Plato's definition of happiness as the possession of the good forever seems to have anticipated all possible objections. Even those people who seek out things sorrowful or depressing are seeking such things as goods; they merely illustrate the paradox that some people search for happiness in feelings of sorrow. We may be disturbed by those who find great joy in horror films, dirge-like rock music, or weepy romance novels, but we nonetheless understand the economy of happiness in which such things can play a role. While our disturbance should prompt us to ask whether such things can really make one happy, it is nonetheless true that the query why one would wish to be happy is unanswerable. There is nothing to ask beyond happiness, because there is, by definition, nothing qualitatively better than that which is most good and nothing quantitatively beyond forever.
Here is my point. Most of us are aware of the omnipresence of desire in our world: it is everywhere, and if that were all we could be certain of, it would make for a grim if dynamic spectacle. Many of us look about us and feel the nausea conveyed by Kinsella's poem. But we can also be certain that everywhere desire is present, so too is a conception of goodness and a view of happiness. What seems so unsettled in our day is not that everyone wants to be happy, but that so many persons seek happiness in such irreconcilable and erratic ways as to tempt us to despair of finding the real thing. We see that no one desires anything except what seems to him to be a good, and so, when we see how many things people seek as goods, we doubt whether there is available any reasonable standard for deciding which goods are better and which goods are worse. When we hear Plato tell us that happiness is to possess the good forever, we wonder if he might simply mean that, like the barn owl, we must continually refill our stomachs with mouse meat, or our ears with another three-minute pop song, or our eyes with a new image on television after the last one has faded.
Our familiar condition thus resembles that of the ancient Athenians for whom Plato was writing, who had an abundance of good things in their world to fulfill every desire the flesh could imagine, from food and drink to sex and warfare. But, at least according to Plato, they still were neither happy nor sure how to seek happiness. We are, even more so, in a position much like that in which the French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, found his contemporaries four hundred years ago in seventeenth-century France. Pascal wrote then,
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.
It is incontrovertible, Pascal tells us, that everyone seeks happiness. But we are so constituted, or rather, corrupted, that both one thing and its opposite can be perceived as good and pursued by the same desire; some persons can even come to believe that their own extinction is their lasting good, their true happiness.
Pascal was a skeptical Christian, confident in the goodness of God, but even more confident that something had gone terribly wrong at the core of human beings. If we had once known what truly would make us happy, we had fallen away from perfect knowledge, and lost any reliable, reasonable means of rediscovering it on our own. All that remained in us of true desire, and true reason, was a "trace." Consequently, Pascal wrote, "there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable" in appearing as man's true good. He then gives us a quirky list of examples: "the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices, adultery, incest." He explains, "since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction," despite all the reasons we might give to the contrary. His view of human beings, at first, might not seem to differ much from Kinsella's vision of the barn owl. Our search for the thing that will make us happy is so various, incorrigible, and contradictory that it also appears irrational, inexplicable, and futile. It seems to stretch on forever and to go in every direction without any defined path.
Thinking of Pascal's account of man's confused and corrupted appetites, T. S. Eliot once wrote of the
Thousand small deliberations [that]
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, [and] multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.
We wander through that wilderness, seeking any shard of glass that may shine, any spice that may excite the tongue, and any sudden emotion, however morbid, that may keep our feelings heightened for another moment. Unable to possess the good forever, we seek out myriad broken mirrors that dimly reflect it, and we wander from mirror to mirror, as if hoping one will finally put an end to the wandering. But, as Eliot's lines tell us, though we never abandon the search, we have given up the hope: we come to take the mere sensation of desire as the only good that does not fail so long as we remain tireless in the experience of novelty and proceed from new to new, from the surprising to the still more strange.
Although I would dissent from the icy and stark light in which Pascal and Eliot put this account of mankind's dogged but wild search for the good, I do think they and Plato converge on a definitive explanation of what human life is all about. Desire, but not just desire. The hunger for real happiness. What causes so much confusion, heartache, and even despair in our world today is not the impossible worry as to whether we all really want to be happy. Rather, we find formidable obstacles set in our paths by the world that frustrates our discovering where that happiness may truly be found. We have no shortage of goods in this world, so how do we choose among them? Is there a good that lasts forever? Or doall the short-lived pleasures of this world simply have to be clutched together, one after the other, stimulation after stimulation, as a hodge-podge tragic parody of lastingness?
If conservatism can offer a just critique of the modern world, it is precisely on the grounds that the modern world provides us myriad false images of happiness and attempts to content us with them. Promising freedom of choice, including the choice of how to be happy, modern liberalism has served, by and large, only to add to the natural difficulty of determining what is that good which alone will make us truly happy. This is not primarily the case because it has been the coincidental regime under which a dazzling, cosmic marketplace of goods has come into existence with no purpose other than to await our consumption. Rather liberalism has been foundational to the categorical intellectual or spiritual negation that led to such a marketplace being built in the first place. Our age holds up many things for our desire, but it does so only by deliberately discounting the reality of other things that may compete for that desire and absorb it entirely.
In this chapter, I shall describe, first, what I see when I look out at the general culture of this age, what it is I observe being held up as good sure-fire-recipes for happiness in the streets, on television, and in that wide placeless world of the internet. But it will not do merely to describe the "wilderness of mirrors" constituted in our day by flat screens and touch screens. One might reasonably object, after all, that no one expects to find happiness in what the talking heads have to tell or to sell us. No one really confuses the often-fervent browsing we do on Facebook with the search for a good that lasts forever. Often though we turn to these things, it is not in seeking our salvation. For that we go elsewhere: we seek out education, for instance, precisely because it is supposed to make possible our discovery of what is truly good, to form our mind to desire the good, and to train us in the virtues necessary to obtain it.
How wonderful it would be if this were always the case. How much more wonderful it would be if the leading voices of modern thought wished to cooperate with us in that discovery. In fact, however, many of those voices, during the last four hundred years, have sought to narrow the scope of education and to thin out or simply deny the traditional answers given to the question, "Where lies the true happiness of mankind?" I shall discuss several instances of this to indicate that education in modern times has not generally been the ally of human happiness, because many of its major authorities have sought to render meaningless the idea of a lasting good in order to clear away obstacles to a desire without end and rooted only in power. For, if Eliot is right that the modern mind mistakes the sensation of desire for the good desired, then it is only through power that we may keep our senses primed. Some of the most formidable minds during these last few centuries have, in practice, sought to make it more difficult for us to develop those skills of discernment that would save us from the condition Pascal woefully describes, in which leeks, cabbages, and disease can actually convince us they are the good we seek and the font of our happiness. They have offered us power in the place of goodness, the force of desire in place of knowledge of the desirable.
If this part of my argument is successful, it will demonstrate as far as possible that human reason and modern education as they are usually conceived in our day can be the very enemy of realizing our potential as human beings. The methods of apparent intelligence can be the enemies of truth; promises of advancement and upward mobility can distract us from the real pilgrimage we are called to undertake by our nature as persons.
I shall, second, try to offer a description of the realities that our age tends to look on askance or deny outright. In place of the impoverished goods on offer at large and in most of our places of education, I draw on the resources of the Christian Platonist tradition to propose that the possession of the good forever that constitutes human happiness is to be found in the contemplation of three realities that modern thought has tried to conceal, namely, those of truth, goodness, and beauty. I propose that this triad constitutes the fundamental terms of what is real, and yet their reality is routinely denied by many of the authoritative voices in our culture. However, if we can defend their reality, that will allow us to sketch a richer vision of human happiness, to explain the central role of education in providing us the means to its attainment, and to live out our humanity in a manner more in accord with its dignity.
Clues to Happiness in a Consumer Culture
I do not want to spend too much space rehearsing the goods that our society implicitly proposes as the makings of human happiness in our day. Complaints about them are nearly as common as the proposals themselves. We are all familiar with the popular conception that our lives are being thoroughly "commercialized," so that at any given moment someone is trying to invent a new need, that a new product might be manufactured to fill it, with the one constant being that the buying of the new itself remains a kind of perpetual desire, and the new is never in short supply. No wonder Kinsella wrote that unsettling sketch of the barn owl: to buy and to devour, and to rest that we may buy and devour some more, seems to be not simply the habit but the purpose of everyday life. It is not uncommon to hear of the "commercialization" even of those unconscious aspects of ourselves that we do not think available for exploitation by advertisers in actuality finding themselves increasingly to be targeted. Indeed, it has been decades since soft-drink bottlers began advertising their wares by making specific appeal to our desire not to be marketed to. The very fact that we are so wise to the ambitions of marketers to sell us happiness should put us on guard that our knowingness and cynicism may themselves be harnessed by some future advertisement campaign.
What most impresses me about everyday life in our age is not so much the obsessive capitalization and consumption of the new, but the way in which so many of the commercial and non-commercial elements in our life are geared to giving us a sense of epistemic and communal connection — to the world of information and to other persons. While the sale of computers and smart phones is obviously big business, the desire for a perpetual contact with others — a desire to be recognized, seen and heard, and to hear and to see — seems to drive us even more than does the desire for the novelty of a new purchase. Our way of communicating generates a continuous stream of brief flickers, so that we are at every moment finding out something incidental about others and informing others of our incidental "status" through what is erroneously called "social networking" software.
Excerpted from The Vision of the Soul by James Matthew Wilson. Copyright © 2017 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction. The Drama of Cultural Conservatism 1
Part I The Real, the West, and the Good
1 The Hunger for Reality 37
2 What Is the Western Tradition? 63
Part II Art, Being, and Beauty
3 We Must Retranslate Kalon 113
4 Style and Truth: Conservatism as Literary Movement 125
5 What Dante Means to Us 138
6 "Only What Does Not Fit into This World Is True" 151
7 Re-Reading the Book of Nature 161
8 Art as Intellectual Virtue 177
9 Beauty as a Transcendental 190
10 The Need for Proportion 210
Part III Reason, Narrative, and Truth
11 Reasoning about Stories 237
12 Mnemosyne: Mother of the Arts 244
13 Novel, Myth, Reality: An Anatomy of Make-Believe 258
14 Retelling the Story of Reason 272
15 The Consequences of Our Forgetting 324
16 Still Interested in the Truth 326