Monday, December 24, 2018

Imperfections (1)

The ancients hit upon the two basic ways of handlng existence: acceptance or denial.

Lucretius suggested that the universe and every living thing within it was irretrievably accidental. We just had to accept this and get over it.

Quite possibly very sound advice, but it was the Platonic idea that the whole cosmos was instead a degradation of something perfect that stuck.

This became the primary notion of the Absolute in western thought. All our other absolutes (Marxism etc.) are either elaborations of it or, ironically, degradations of it. Christianity is little more than a system of ideas tacked onto it by St Augustine.

The way the Platonists saw things, time is a disarranged version of eternity that allows for the possibility of conditional existence and subjectivity. But before all that, there was but one, unified, self-sufficient, perfect thing.

So how did we get from this unified good to the manifold mess we actually experience? And is this existence predicated on finding a way back?

Plotinus thought ‘the One’ somehow experienced a superabundance of good - an excessus bontatis - which radiated out from it. In the contingent reality that resulted you need a sort of cosmic Geiger counter to determine how near to the source of this radiation you are. Pure evil marks its limit, the point at which the needle ceases to flicker.

This was a first valiant attempt to explain the essential contradiction of creation - that a perfectly unified, self-sufficient being would necessarily lack any reason for creating stuff, especially stuff that had the potential for being bad.

Augustine adopted the Platonist notion that eternity was our true ‘home’, but added that we are unable to get there by ourselves without God’s grace. We belong in the absolute, but have become lost in the wilderness of relativity, where things have both a beginning and an end. (Though conceivably not in that order.) 

When the Archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that God was gender-neutral he was actually saying something that would have been bleeding obvious to any early medieval theologian, for they had inherited the idea from Plotinus that God was Being without any particular qualities, and Augustine was pretty clear that sexuality was a primary example of our descent or hypostasis from an existence beyond limitation.

Quoting Hegel, the now ex-Manchester United manager José Mourinho suggested at the start of this season that his failures would become un-manifest the moment his career was contemplated ‘in the whole’. Christian theodicy - the art of explaining away evil - has sometimes relied on a similar trick. It’s not really there, it only appears to exist from a partial perspective.

Another way of dealing with evil is to regard it as a kind of negation resulting from the potential for wilful disobedience that comes packaged with rationality. This is not without problems, such as the suggestion that we have a form of initiative which is independent from the absolute.

Anyway, the Mourinho version is the more interesting one as it leads, via several less-than-orthodox strands of Christian thinking, towards a more dynamic conception of existence, towards the dreaded D-word (Dialectic). 

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