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!

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