Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Newton's Laws of Motion

What does the work of an economist tell us, not about the financial transactions, but the souls of men? What would a “shifting comparative advantage” look like when shifted, so to speak, to the realm of the spirit? These are the questions we must ever have in view. For example, in one of the key scenes in The Count of Monte Cristo, the old priest in the prison is teaching Edmond Dantes economics and science. He strikes two stones, one against the other, and says, “For every reaction, there is an equal reaction, in physics—and in life…” to which Edmond concludes, “My quest for vengeance is a reaction against the evils committed by Mondago and Danglars.”

“Precisely,” says the priest.

That was the exact realization which I had myself yesterday when I was reading about the flowering of the Scientific Revolution in The Age of Louis XIV. Actually I had the revelation several days ago, in regards to the nature of pride, but hadn’t yet made the connection to the laws of science, till my studying suggested it. My revelation ran thus: The nature of pride is to oppose itself in others; so that two prides are ever striking against one another, like the clashing rocks that at one point threatened to destroy Odysseus (the Symplagledes, I think they were called).

This is how it works: Let’s imagine that I’ve developed, for reasons owing both to my own insecurity and defensiveness—a defensiveness which has been long building from a combination of disillusionment with the Church, frustration with authority, and irritability at the chafing limitations imposed on the vainglorious ambitions of my spirit by the mere fact of my own finitude, which I then turn around and blame on the farcical, footling confines of the narrow and repressed society in which I live—let’s imagine, I say, that I’ve developed a grudge against religion; subtle and unseen, in that even I’m not much aware of it. If you had asked, I’m sure I would tell you I’m a pretty churched-up chap; and I would think that the truth.

It’s an axiom among religious types, that anyone I find to be more radical than I am, is a fanatic. We’re pretending that I have a slow-accreting, subtle, in-built grudge against religion, and against religious folk. And, to continue with the fantasy, another person comes along; this person is religious in a particularly irritating sense, meaning he harbors the sort of religion most provoking to my pride, by conjuring up, in my own fancy at least, if not in the reality, everything that I find unsavory about my religion (which I half-despise already, without even being aware of it). He quotes from the Bible; claims that certain men and certain women have, at certain times, been given the ability to hear the voice of God; blushes at the thought of nudity or sex; gives long lectures on the nature of prophecy and the nobility of waiting; listens to the most appalling music; in sum, does things which seem inspired by some devil in the depths of hell to chase me from my own religion, by exaggerating its worst aspects, as the convex lens on the inside of a telescope, to an unsustainable degree.

And why would this malevolence be accumulating, all the while, like an obscene pearl, on the small dust of my original irritation? Because of an angry, unrighteous pride, born out of a defensive sense that in everything my fanatical fool of a friend is doing, he’s passing a cool, corresponding unspoken judgment on me and all my ways.

Meanwhile, what is my religious friend thinking? Well, my religious friend is angry and defensive. My religious friend views every mere breath of an argument blown, even but lightly, in the face of his faith, as an affront to his dignity, and not only to his own, but, far more, to the glory of the cosmos—the glory of the heavens—the glory of God! My religious friend is insecure because he doesn’t even believe in his faith as much as he would like; still regularly questions his most cherished tenets, though he would never admit so to me, whom he already more than half-suspects of harboring hatred towards him; sees the world but as a sinister, ignoble shadow-show, where evil, cackling men (who constitute the majority) beat up on the lesser, meeker men (comprised of himself alone, primarily) who become so flustered and angry whenever argument is joined that they can’t even defend their own positions, but retreat into personal attacks, and pointed, irrelevant allusions to their own superiority (“Who wins the Quizbowl tournaments? I ask you!”).

My meek, intelligent, religious friend considers himself, in the secret places of his heart, neither meek, nor intelligent, nor religious, which is why he becomes, at times, so wildly self-assertive in defense of each. He’s painfully sensitive to slights and injuries; grows angry when another person, like myself, wonders aloud whether Handel really saw the heavens opened, when he wrote Messiah, or notes the corruption inherent in religious institutions. He has actually taken on himself the responsibility for all religion, through the ages; and thus feels a corresponding need to defend it all, from paving-stone to spire.

Why does he feel thus freighted with such dreadful weight of purpose? The truth is, because of his own pride. If I’m sometimes going to rile him, by questioning the tenets of particular religions, he feels that he has to lock himself into a solidly religious position, by defending everything. He can’t accept the culpability of Catholic priests in abusing children, or at any rate can’t accept that the hierarchy of the Church was responsible for provoking, and stoking the problem. Why? Because in order to do so, he must needs agree with me! When he knows, or thinks he knows, that all the while, I’m really attacking the Church because I hate religion; and so consequently, inevitably, the implication is that I must hate him.

Thus irreligious pride, and its religious cousin, shove against each other; and one pride takes particular pleasure in riling another’s. And each of us takes particular pleasure in condemning the passions of the other as useless, like the two popes who both held the throne of Peter, at the same time, and each of whom damned the other to an everlasting hell. And just as Newton discovered that the force applied to a body in physics produces a proportional (and opposed) acceleration, so that one ball slamming against another will provoke a precisely-corresponding level of violence as it flies in the opposite direction; in the same manner, my own pride, bounding against the pride of my erstwhile companion (now my foe in all but name), provokes that in his nature which causes him to rebound against me with the same vehement loathing.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Which leads you to wonder if it's possible to have any unselfish motive. Nice thoughts, bose...