Friday, July 25, 2008

Reflections: On the Imperfection of Existence

From the ridiculousness of my last two posts, back to the sublime of Plato. Here, through the agency of the character Timaeus, Plato contemplates the origins of the physical universe:

Timaeus: Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable.

Monotheists in the tradition of Abraham will note that Plato's creator—the Demiurge—is good, but is not omnipotent. Everything that he constructs, using the raw materials available to him, is good only so far as good things can be made of imperfect material. He is making beautiful, but essentially imperfect, copies, modeled on the Ideas of the Intellect or Mind Most High. So our world is neither created ex nihilo, nor is there any need of a Fall to explain the presence in our world of that which is less-than-good.

As for the situation in which we find ourselves relative to existence, Iris Murdoch notes in her essay “The Fire and the Sun” that:

Order is obviously more beautiful and good than disorder… Our participation in [this joy] must, however, be seen as modest. The contact with changeless truth brought about through insight into pure living mind can only for incarnate beings be limited and occasional, and we are likely to see more of necessary causes than of divine causes. The truth which we can grasp is something quiet, small in extent (Philebus, 52 C), and to be found only in the lived real moment of direct apprehension out of which the indirectness of mimetic art and writing and perhaps language and discursive thought itself always tends to remove us. Those who want to be saved should look at the stars and talk philosophy, not write or go to the theater.

Necessary causes that bind us to the material, to contingency—expressed by Simone Weil as that “gravity” of downward motion which impedes the upward-tending desire for grace—keeps us trapped, and moving horizontally, in a linear motion across time; time which is the created ape of eternity. Circular motion around an axis being infinitely more perfect than progress from point A to point B, the best we can hope for is to keep to the straight and narrow path on our journey—avoiding as best we can the many temptations gesturing from the shadows beneath the glittering lights of the broad way to perdition.

The conservative, then, as symbolized by circular motion, should be more perfect than the progressive. What is the cause of conservatism’s failure to partake of a larger portion of the grace offered by the beauty and the goodness of existence? Why does conservatism fail so badly in the service of love?