Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dickens’s Dark Side

Charles Dickens definitely had a dark side. About twenty years ago, a good friend asked me what attracted me to Dickens so much, and I said that in his books, the main characters see a parade of love and joy that they are hopelessly separated from. That answer surprised him, and he said he’d have to have another look at my favorite author.

My answer surprised me more than a little, too, if I’m being honest. Beyond what it revealed about my own emotional state at the time, it’s not the standard take on CD. And for good reason. If you just think about Scrooge dancing around as merry as a schoolchild at the end of his story, you think of Dickens’s world as one in which bad people get their just deserts, good people find happy endings, and a very few special people are shown the path that will lead them from the first group back to the second.

But while recently rereading all of Dickens in (mostly) chronological order, it becomes increasingly clear to me that my answer applies quite accurately to the second half of the Great Man’s career. In every completed novel after David Copperfield, prominent – if not leading – characters lead frustrated, dissatisfied lives while the dance of Dickensian giddiness goes on around them. In Bleak House, Richard Carstone wastes his life trying to break open an old Chancery case while John Jarndyce puts up every guard just to stay away from the case. In Hard Times, Stephen Blackpool looks for a way out of his poverty, but finds life “aw’ a muddle.” In Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam considers himself past age to find earthly happiness in marriage and resents the Puritan upbringing that left him with no desire for heavenly bliss. In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton can only dream of the garden of delights that his dissipation has made an impossibility, and Charles Evremonde says he is bound to a cursed system of aristocracy that he can neither condone nor deny. In Great Expectations, Pip decides he’d rather be poor than live with ill-gotten gains, and he ends up, in Dickens’s original ending, with neither the money nor the girl. And in Our Mutual Friend, Eugene Wrayburn suffers a debilitating malaise that wastes all his talents and opportunities.

These characters, as distinct as the master of character makes them, nevertheless have a lot in common. They aren’t villains, for one thing. These are all characters accepted by and beloved by the good characters. They’re all men, too, and I think Dickens identified with these characters as he wrote them. (I know I identified with them the first time I read most of these books.) He was ashamed of his terrible marriage but didn’t do much (if anything) to correct the situation. The Anglican Church had dissatisfied and angered him to the point that he left it for a time to flirt with Unitarianism. Knowledge of these biographical facts together with the grave tone of the later novels puts together a picture of a generally unhappy man.

And yet the same man in these same years produced Lawrence Boythorn, Caddy Jellyby, the Plornishes, Miss Pross, and John Wemmick – all unstoppably determined, unstoppably trusting, unstoppably optimistic. And, except for the ending his publisher wouldn’t let him give to Pip, he always found happy endings for his tales, even if, in the midst of the guillotine’s thirsty rampage, he had to get Sydney Carton out of the terrestrial vale of woe and give him The Happy Ending: a far, far better rest in the Celestial City.

And I have to remember this faith in the happy ending as I read through Little Dorrit. It’s the grimmest of Dickens’s books, bleaker than Bleak House, and harder than Hard Times. But it’s a beautiful artistic response to the dark night that Dickens went through, and I have to let him go through it. I know I’ve been through it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Aristotle Covers It All

I’ve said sometime before in this blog that one of the very few interesting things I learned in high school sadly turned out to be totally misleading. I don’t remember who said it or what class it was in, but I learned once that a long time ago a crazy fool named Aristotle said many crazy, foolish things that other crazy fools believed for two thousand years because no one ever tested them out. He may have been mostly trusted for two millennia, and the new scientific method coming out of seventeenth-century Florence certainly ended Aristotle’s prime authority on natural law. But he was anything but a crazy fool. Every year when I come back to the man Aquinas called “the Philosopher,” I’m amazed all over again at the brilliance of the man who wrote a systematic (well, almost systematic) and organized (well, almost organized) account of physics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, art, biology, and psychology.

I may be just a guy with a teaching position in a lightweight field amazed at anyone whose intellectual achievement goes beyond counting half steps. But in my reading of philosophy and history, I come across many more passages praising Aristotle than ones belittling him. In preparing to tackle an anthology by American philosopher Charles Peirce, I’ve been reading a bit in an introduction to his works by James K. Feibleman. In the first chapter, Feibleman quotes Peirce as saying that his goal was “to make a philosophy like that of Aristotle, that is to say, to outline a theory so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind, in mathematics, in psychology, in physical sciences, in history, in sociology, and any other department there may be, shall appear as the filling up of its details.” Of what other scholar in all of history could that be said?

I assigned myself the Metaphysics this year. Notes scribbled on the table of contents show that I have already read several parts of it over the last fifteen years or so: whatever highlights Mortimer Adler had me read in the first ten-year plan. But this year I want to read all of the book. And on the first or second day of it, I got a reminder of the reason I do this. Aristotle starts the book off with a history of philosophy, from Thales to Plato. I already knew the sound bytes that go with the names Thales (“Everything is water”), Democritus (“Nothing exists but atoms and the void”), Heraclitus (“Everything changes; you cannot step twice into the same river”), and most of the others Aristotle names, but he puts them all into perspective and explains what they were trying to do in making these sometimes rather bizarre statements. Being a good philosopher, he also shows neatly how all his predecessors prepared for the insights he himself offered without any of them seeing it all as clearly as he.

But the part of the account most interesting to me centered on his most immediate and most successful predecessors: Socrates and Plato. I had known that scholars believed that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogs wasn’t exactly the historical Socrates and that Plato had planted some of his own ideas (or Ideas) into the words of his mentor. But I always assumed that critics of our time teased out the strands by some sort of careful textual analysis, trying to identify word patterns that didn’t fit in with the rest, or some such thing. It turns out that the truth (at least the basis of it) is much simpler: Aristotle tells us what’s what. Socrates, he says, in fighting the notion that everything is in flux and hence unknowable, sought stable definitions of things but mostly limited his search to ethical issues. Plato, on the other hand, granted the constant change of physical objects and posited stability in a transcendent world of ideal Forms. Simple.

In an essay on “old books” in C. S. Lewis’s God in the Dock, I recently read Lewis’s advice to get philosophy and theology straight from the sources. Most people, he says, approach these topics with too much humility, assuming that they’ll need a contemporary guide, when Plato, for instance, is much easier to understand than any modern interpreter of him. (Lewis even warns against reading his own books in lieu of the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas.) I experienced a case in point when I discovered how clearly Aristotle told the story of philosophy. Now I wonder two things: (1) Have any scholars of the last four-hundred years decided that Aristotle was a crazy fool to have told this history in the simple way he did? and (2) Why am I reading Feibleman before I read Peirce himself?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Zinc Rule

As a child, I learned the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After growing up, I learned that Kant developed what someone (I don’t remember who) has characterized as the Silver Rule: Don’t do unto others anything that you would not have done unto yourself. Most recently, I have learned from Schopenhauer what I have to characterize as the Zinc Rule: Do unto others because they are yourself.

In the last post, I discussed Schopenhauer’s view that in an event of pure contemplation of the World, viewer and viewed are one, and Will knows itself. Will is the essence behind everything that is. It’s not that the natural world I see is the representation of a will while my body is also the representation of a will (namely, my will). No, he says; there is only Will, and every thing I see, including myself, is a representation of that one Will. The basic of ethics, according to Schopenhauer, follows logically from this doctrine: it is the recognition that any apparent distinction between myself and the next guy is purely illusion. I love another person because in doing so I love myself.

Now, I’m OK with loving self. The force of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” depends on the agreement that one should love oneself (and, I could add here, on the understanding that the neighbor does not equal thyself). I know that Paul enjoins every husband to love his wife with the acknowledgement that the two are one and that no one hates his own body. What really bothers me about Schopenhauer’s view (apart from the whole “all is one and one is all” business) is that he explicitly says that to see a distinction between myself and my neighbor is to be selfish. To see things correctly, he says, is to love oneself and serve oneself and to concern oneself with oneself – and oneself alone because oneself is all there is. But not to agree with his view, he says, is selfish. Now what does “selfish” mean other than serving oneself and concerning oneself with oneself alone?

Soon after reading this bizarre sophistry, I started Little Dorrit and found Dickens examining selfish people. Curiously, while these characters serve only themselves, they all rationalize their actions as serving someone else. Mrs Merdle says she would rather live on an island dressed in leaves but keeps up her lavish lifestyle in order to please Society. Mr Merdle says he makes money to keep the country strong. Various members of the Barnacle family make fortunes dealing internationally with the professed goal of preserving Britain’s sensible reputation in the world. Fanny Dorrit says she stays away from paupers in order to preserve the dignity of her family (half of whom have lived in debtor’s prison for over two decades.) These are the true pictures of people serving themselves by serving others, and not one of them is attractive. By contrast, Little Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and other “good guys” in the story help other people only because they recognize that these other people are other and then spend the mental and emotional effort to sympathize, to put themselves in the place of the other. But if I am he as you are me, I/you/he can’t put myself/yourself/himself in the place of any other because there is no other place.

Perhaps Schopenhauer, unlike Dickens, never saw or even imagined an altruistic action. Maybe he could never imagine someone doing something selflessly for someone else. But if someone is to act selflessly, isn’t it logically necessary that there be something other than oneself on whose behalf to act?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Confusion

I’m confused. I thought Schopenhauer was saying one thing for a while, and then later it seems as if he’s saying just the opposite. I reached the part in my reader in which the philosopher explains the view behind the title of his most famous work, The World as Will and Representation, and all seemed clear and interesting. Kant, he reminds the reader, says that space, time, causality, and several other concepts we naturally ascribe to the natural world around us can truthfully only be traced reliably to our own perceptions. What we think of as the world is only a Representation. Of what things are in themselves – whether they exist in cause-effect relationship, for instance – we have no idea.

But, Schopenhauer says, we each actually do have a glimpse into the true essence of one object that reaches our senses: our bodies. And the true essence of my body is the Will. When I will my arm to move, I see and feel it move. When I see something touch my skin, I have an experience of pleasure or of pain depending on whether the sensation agrees or disagrees with my will, in other words, with how I wish my skin to feel. Because my body is the perceive correlative of my will, I should assume that Will is the true essence behind everything else I see, touch, hear, taste, and smell. The growing trees, towering mountains, crashing waves, and on and on – all are manifestations, representations of a universal Will. The person of true genius can rise above perception of the world as Representation to pure contemplation of this world-in-itself, the essence of the world, the world as Will. In pure contemplation, the Will within sees the Will without; it is Will knowing itself.

OK, admittedly not everything is clear to me even at this point. Schopenhauer says that pure contemplation makes the genius a “pure, will-less subject of knowledge.” The “ordinary” person, he says, only sees the world in relation to how it can serve personal desires; the genius observing the essence of the world purely, on the other hand, doesn’t seek self-gratification. So is “pure contemplation” the act of Will observing itself or of a will-less genius?

But even greater confusion comes a few chapters later in the anthology. There, Schopenhauer says that the genius can become pure knower at a single glimpse of nature, abstracted from all change. “Then the world as representation alone remains; the world as will has disappeared.” What happened to seeing the world in its true essence? Does the genius see Will or Representation? To be fair, Schopenhauer says here that the truth can only be told in paradoxical terms, although he doesn’t address, as far as I can see, the particular paradox of pure contemplation being both a view of the world as will and a view of the world as representation alone. And maybe Schopenhauer means that I must understand that Will is the essence of the world in order then to block it out and see the world only as its image in my head. And maybe he reaches his culminating point when he says that nature wants (i.e., wills) itself to be seen only as representation. Maybe it all makes sense somehow. But when I got to this point in the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the passage in The Principles of Psychology I read last year in which James says that some philosophers talk around and around vague ideas without successfully expressing them while sounding intelligent only because they use consistent terminology and normal rules of grammar.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Suffering with Schopenhauer

I’ve really grown to love edited collections of a given philosopher’s writings. I got started with Aristotle through a little reader back in 1988. I loved what I learned in that sampler, so why did it take me so long to try more of them? In the past few years, I’ve read anthologies of Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hegel, and others. This year it’s Peirce and Schopenauer. It seems I’ve come away from each of the ones I’ve finished with a good overview of an entire system, an idea of the philosopher’s development, and an expert’s selection of the most important, influential, or famous passages. So I’m hoping the same will happen this year.

Right now I’m about halfway through The Essential Schopenhauer, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher, president of the International Schopenhauer Society. Now, what must it be like to belong to the International Schopenhauer Society? Or to be its president? The book begins with Schopenhauer’s assertion that life is so full of pain and suffering, it is not worth living. The only reason we don’t all commit suicide, he says, is that death is so terrifying. It is absurd to think of a God creating this wretched world. And yet, he says, man causes his own special brand of pain by trying to increase pleasure. Schopenhauer says the only thing that makes sense to him about the Old Testament is the story of the Fall of Man, because it shows our race choosing its own miserable doom. I can’t imagine going to a convention with the morbid body of people who not only agree with this outlook but wish to promote it.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I know that suffering surrounds us, threatens us, plagues us every day. I believe in a God who reminds us with constant images of blood just how disgusting our condition is. Talk with me privately, and I’ll be only too ready to bore you with a litany of the history of anguish in my life. But that this is worst of all possible worlds? That life isn’t worth living? Schopenhauer says we’re all incurably unhappy, but the evidence clearly says otherwise. It doesn’t matter how unhappy Schopenhauer was or how unhappy I’ve been at times in my life or how unhappy any one person is: some people are constitutionally happy. Many of them even live lives of pain and still keep smiling and caring for others and thinking life is worth living.

Schopenhauer strays maybe even farther from the evidence when he says that pleasure is only the absence of pain: only pain has a positive presence, he says, while pleasure is mere negation. I agree that relief, as wonderful as it is, only lasts a while before we take it for granted, showing its absent quality. But relief is not the only kind of pleasure, and I can only pity the man when I think that if his doctrine on this point is sincere, it means he lived a life never having felt a positive pleasure.

But set aside Schopenhauer’s extreme position. Perhaps he suffered clinical depression. He fathered one child, but it died within a year, so one can forgive him for not thinking to mention beholding his child’s face for the first time as a positive pleasure. Whatever the particular conditions of his life and however gray they may have colored his view, most of his position on pain and suffering still cannot be denied: all humans suffer, and all make their own suffering worse by needless desires. Schopenhauer builds a simple ethic on the idea: we should treat everyone we meet as a fellow sufferer and offer all the grace, forgiveness, and assistance we can. No argument here, either.

I have two remarkable coincidences to report regarding this first part of my Schopenhauer reading. The first connects Schopenhauer to two or three of the Lewis essays on animal pain that I just read in God in the Dock. Both authors, comparing the actions of insects and dogs, conclude that the sensation of pain requires intelligence. They even both mention the situation of an insect eating calmly while its body is torn apart. Lewis must have remembered the earlier man’s observation. The second coincidence came up when I looked up a passage of Les Misérables for my previous blog post. In the short chapter in which Hugo defends the existence of God and the power of prayer, he mentions Schopenhauer’s theory of the world as will just long enough to disagree with it. More about that theory in a later post.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Top 100 – Part III

When I started this blog in August of 2010, I had no thought of making it through 300 posts. I didnt know if it would be easy or difficult, fun or tedious. I didn’t even know if I could figure out how to start a blog. But here we are, two-and-a-half years later, and today’s post is in fact the 300th in exlibrismagnis history. As I did on the 100th and 200th posts (here and here), today I’m sharing details of seven books – details that I think about often. Some of the books would be considered among the Great Books by anyone who cares for such a concept at all; others may be great only in my eyes. But they all find a place among my favorites, and these glimpses reveal just part of the reason why.

• Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army. You’ll find several posts on this website about Bruce Catton, all of which, I hope, convey some idea of the power with which his poetic historical writing moves me. I love the whole trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, but the passage I think about most often describes a typical evening of song in Civil War camps. In the winter of 1863, the opposing armies in Virginia were encamped for months facing each other on opposite banks of the Rappahannock. They traded coffee, cards, tobacco, jokes, potshots, and music. On the evening Catton describes, the armies’ bands compete for a while and then good-naturedly play each other’s songs, the band in blue playing “Dixie” and the band in gray playing “Yankee Doodle.” But then both bands play together “Home Sweet Home.” “150,000 fighting men tried to sing it and choked up and just sat there, silent, staring off into the darkness; and at last the music died away and the bandsmen put up their instruments and both armies went to bed. A few weeks later they were tearing each other apart in the lonely thickets around Chancellorsville.”

• C. S. Lewis, Perelandra. I had to take a break to recover after writing that last paragraph. Thanks for waiting. I’m sneaking two favorite moments in on this one. First, when Ransom says to God that it seems a bit ridiculous that he should play an instrumental role in ransoming a whole planet just because his name is Ransom, the Savior answers (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you know how long I worked to make sure that you got that name?” Second, the Stephenson household occasionally laughs when one of us unintentionally copies the Unman’s hideously annoying nonconversation: “Ransom?” “Yes?” “Oh, never mind.”

• Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Mr. Harding conducts and leads music at his church, but he gets caught up in a horrific and ethically challenging political tangle involving the clergy. It sounds, oh, so familiar. But I sometimes take solace in thinking of the good warden sitting on a bench along a dirt path silently fingering his air cello.

• Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. I don’t adhere to the Great Man theory of history, but I don’t dismiss the importance of the Great Man, either, as Tolstoy did. Still, I love Tolstoy’s summary example of his position: Napoleon would never have been able to march a million men across Europe if a million men hadn’t wanted to march across Europe. Now what I want to know is, how do you get a million men (or eighty freshmen) to want to do what they don’t want to do?

• Homer, The Odyssey. I often use Homer’s epic (and the rest of the story leading up to it) as the perfect example of the most essential plot:
    Things are good at home.
    Then they’re not good at home.
    Hero leaves home to make things right.   
    Hero meets many adventures on his way to making things right.
    Hero meets many adventures on his way back home.
    When he gets home, hero finds still more problems.
    Hero achieves final resolution.
This plot also happens to correspond neatly to the basic shape of sonata form, so it really makes sense to teach it in music class.

• Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Atheistic philosophers, by being great minds, prove the existence of God, says Hugo in one of his frequent “asides.” I just looked this passage up on Project Gutenberg, and it doesn’t exactly say what I remembered it saying. I thought Hugo said that the better their proofs against God were, the more they showed the greatness of the mind and of logic and thus proved God’s existence. The difference could be due to either embellishment on the part of my translator or abridgement on the part of Isabel F. Hapgood, the translator of the Gutenberg text. Or it could be due to loose translation in my loose memory. (While I’m on the topic, wouldn’t the musical and the recent movie be much, much better if they ended immediately with the death scene, without then going to the crowd of revolutionaries singing “Hear the song of angry men” on barricades in Heaven?)

• Stephen Ambrose, The Wild Blue. Ambrose’s history of B-24 bombers and their crews ends with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. It would take too many words to tell it all, and the result wouldn’t be even 14% as good as the original. But I encourage you to get a copy of the book, turn to the back, and look for a story involving George McGovern, the birth of a baby, a failed bombing run, a fifty-year wait, and a farmer who hated Hitler.

I believe now that there will one day be a 400th post. It should appear sometime in December or January, I should say. At that time, I’ll write about seven more snippets from the list of my favorite books. In the meantime, the next post should be about Schopenhauer, who will not, I think, ever make it to that list.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard”

The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.
Thus begins Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard.” My sympathies for this romantic poet have waxed and waned meteorically over the last few days. But I find this poem compatible enough with my way of thinking that I can enjoy the loveliness of the language.

Sound and sense float hand in hand in these first lines as closely as Shelley’s Silence and Twilight. A string of W’s in the first line, for instance, gets the reader virtually blowing away vapours himself. One of them hides in the word “swept,” a fortuitous past-tense form; “sweep” itself carries the swishing sound of the broom, but the short vowel and added T of its past tense add a tinge of finality. Another W begins the word “wide,” whose placement in an inverted foot makes it the first of two consecutive accented syllables and causes the reader to slow down when saying it, as if taking a long, determined sweep at the last stubborn wisp in the air. Shelley begins the sixth line with another word that carries its own sound associations with it. Unlike “swept,” though, “creep” doesn’t seem to have any onomatopoeic connection with its action. But the “cr” blend seems to carry a root of meaning with it since it begins so many related words: “creak,” “crawl,” “crouch,” “cranny.” Whether it’s in our blood or just our common experience, somehow, for English speakers, the sound of those two consonants enhances the inner image of slow or contracted movements.

And what a romantic image these sounds serve! The personified Evening – Shelley calls it pallid, beaming, and dusky all at the same time to convey its mystical glow – braids its hair (why not “her” hair, I wonder?) and covers Day’s eyes. And then, as if not merely caused by the dying of light and sound, the palpable Silence and Twilight make their own entrance, moving up slowly from the shades of depression between the hills. Shelley’s got me. I’m there with him in that churchyard.

After two more stanzas, the poem ends in this way:
The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense, half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,
And mingling with the still night and mute sky
Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night:
Here could I hope, like some inquiring child
Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.
Here is romanticism in its full melancholy splendor: nature mirroring and interpreting events, the sublime mystery of death, sounds only half heard with the ears, and truth only half heard with the mind. Like the persistent air that finds its way through the gauntlet of S’s, the solemn, soft, serene, sweet secrets of a land beyond reason and comprehension force their entrance into the romantic heart.

At least, that’s what the Romantics felt and taught. I have such sympathy for their mechanism; I also believe that the ocean waves, the singing lark, the glowing moon, the empty forest, and the craggy peak impart messages. “Day to day pours forth speech.” On the other hand I often strongly disagree with the messages the Romantic poets and artists and musicians believed they heard from these heralds. But that’s a topic for a later post.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The One and the Many

I started both Shelley and Schopenhauer Thursday, so naturally I have more ideas for posts than I can possibly write before I forget it all. And yet today, I’ll not go much into either author and instead just share a flight of thought instigated by one line in Shelley’s Adonais:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
OK, two lines:
No more let Life divide what Death can join together.
Many metaphysicians, theologians, mystics, and physicists, each in a different way, search for the One that binds (and perhaps causes) the bewildering multiplicity that we experience every day. The pre-Socratic philosophers generally put forth material substances as their candidates for First Thing: water (Thales), air (Anaximenes), the boundless (Anaximander). Plato and Plotinus, the founder of neo-Platonism, both sought in the world of immaterial Ideals for the ground of all existence, the ultimate reality. In Plato’s Parmenides, the title character explores a conundrum: both Unity and Being seem to be the First Thing, and yet neither can be. If Unity is the First Thing, then it exists; and if it exists, it partakes of Being; and so Being must exist first. But if Being is the First Thing, then it is one thing, dependent on no other; thus it partakes of Unity. Consequently Unity must be the First Thing. And so it goes around and around forever.

Plotinus (as far as I remember) left Being out of the picture as a separately identifiable entity but brought Goodness in to the mix. Aren’t unity and simplicity good? Isn’t existence good? Is the Good then the First Thing? Plotinus settled (if that verb can be used of the arabesque trains of thought in his Enneads) on Unity (or the One) as First Thing. But if Unity is first and simple and consists of no parts, how can it create the multiplicity we see? How can it do anything, for that matter? His influential answer was to say that all else emanates from the One. And in his phihlosophy the Good is the first emanation, the second existence in the order of things. Perhaps Shelley believed something like this Big Bang of emanations and had an Ideal Big Crunch in mind when he wrote those lines in Adonais: if everything emanated from the One in the beginning, poetic justice would suggest that they all return to the One in the end, all distinctions between things dissolving into nothingness. (If justice makes sense of it all, is Justice the First Thing?)

Unity, Goodness, Being. In Plato’s dialog, Parmenides actually carries the paradoxes even farther. Unity is all, but all, i.e., the universe, has multiple parts; so Unity is both singular and plural. Unity is like itself, but it is unlike the many things; so Unity is both like and unlike. Unity is both this and that. Unity both is and isn’t. What a muddle! Socrates is very young in that dialog, and doesn’t have any satisfactory response for Parmenides and his riddles. But I just finished rereading Theaetetus the other day, and there an older, wiser Socrates very quickly dismisses all the circular problems involved in thinking about Ideals. A thing is defined, he says, by its distinguishing attributes. But the attributes of being, this-ness, like-ness, alone-ness, itself-ness, etc., belong to absolutely everything, and so they distinguish nothing. Don’t even try to argue using those words, he says. An element – a first thing – has no attributes.

Problems still remain, though. Socrates and Theaetetus can’t even find the elements of language, let alone the First Thing of all existence. But the theology of the Christian God does provide an answer for the riddles. God is Being; not just that he exists, but that He is Existence. “Tell them I AM sent you.” In this way, Socrates was right: God doesn’t have the attribute of goodness; He is Goodness. He is Justice. He is Mercy. He is Love. And all of these come as a package. He isn’t One at the bottom of it all, and then Good as a bonus. He isn’t primarily Justice, and then decides to be Mercy as an afterthought. He is equally all these Ideals. He is even both One and Many in that He exists as three Persons in one Substance. In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley pictures God as “Omnipotent but friendless.” But God is Himself a Community of three, with no lack of friendship or love.

In researching for this post, I came across a book called The One and the Many by Rousas Rushdoony that claims to trace the history of the philosophical problem and offers the triune God as the solution. I’ll have to fit it into year 8.

After discussing the First Thing, here’s my Last Thing: I resisted all temptations to make reference in today’s title to either Star Trek lines or Led Zeppelin lyrics. But I know you’re thinking of them now!