Gospel & Universe
Poor, Bare, Forked
This page observes that our human state is thoroughly precarious and that the comfort of the Medieval vision only briefly interrupted the uncertainties of the Classical and Modern worlds.
Unaccommodated Man - Lear - Outing the Brief Candle - Uncertainties
We may feel that we understand the world around us. We may even feel that we have control over our lives. Yet however much we need to believe these things, however much they may even be necessary to our survival — giving us meaning and the will to go on — I fear that this sense of understanding and control is at best a necessary illusion.
Regardless of what we feel or think, this sense of understanding will toward the end of our lives be erased by physics and chemistry — that is, by things such as blood pressure and hormones, neurological degeneration and cellular decay. Our sense of our own importance has also over the last 400 years been erased by an understanding of the stars. The more we chart the scope and composition of the universe, the more we find ourselves to be fragile, tiny earthlings who live for a micro-second in the cosmic day.
Even within our short span of life this truth becomes evident to all. Out grandparents sink into senility, and then our parents, and then we can't quite recall our phone number. Unless we die suddenly in our sleep — or get hit by a bus because we thought the light was green when it was really red — we'll become unrecognizable to ourselves. At ninety-five, we'll be lucky if we can hold a twenty-second conversation with a mosquito.
While we hope that the glow of candles will light our way to dusty death, it's more likely that cancer cells and gravity will lower us — smoothly or shaking — to our final rest.
The grown man becomes a baby,
the King a pauper, the athlete a paraplegic.
We live in the glory, and at the mercy, of chemistry and physics.
Sooner or later, King Lear will rage in the waste land,
will beg for scraps,
and will tell trembling Edgar:
Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor,
bare, forked animal as thou art.
And yet we cannot stop ourselves from dreaming
that we understand,
that we grasp what's going on,
and that in some way we control the storm,
standing tall on our barren heaths.
Outing the Brief Candle
In many ways, the Christian Medieval view of the universe gave us an escape from all that lack of control. It assured us that there's a Plan even though we can't see it. Or, as Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Man (1734), "All Nature is but art unknown to thee / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see."
The Christians didn't of course come up with the idea that the universe has a meaning, but they put such a fine point on this meaning that the previous polytheistic systems seemed chaotic in comparison. The Christians capitalized Meaning, hallowed It in a Book (The New Testament), and argued that It had been incarnated in a single living Person (the Son of God) who was an exemplar for all of humanity.
By comparison, the cosmic meaning of the Classical gods was like the meaning of thunder — the will of some far-off god who we couldn't know intimately and who didn't much care whether we lived or died. This thundering god, whoever he was, wasn't about to share his secrets, or inscribe the ultimate Meaning of life in a single volume. Nor was he much of an antidote to our excruciating awareness of our fallible nature and our limited understanding. Instead, he engendered the type of despair Gloucester speaks of in King Lear when he says that We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys; they kill us for their sport.
Shakespeare stands at the end of the Medieval world and at the start of the Modern. Three centuries before Jean-Paul Sartre, he articulates the predicament of doubt and meaninglessness in a poetry so profound that it's hard to fathom he was also a poet of fancy and light. In a single word — perchance — Hamlet questions the inevitability of the afterlife:
To die, to sleep-
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. (Hamlet 3.1)
Just as Hamlet's grand perhaps anticipates the Modern Age's doubt about the afterlife, so Macbeth's metaphors of candle and stage anticipate the angst and despair of twentieth-century existentialism. Macbeth's soliloquy, spoken just after the death of his wife, is perhaps the grimmest expression of nihilism in the English language:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5)
Belief systems were deeply affected by scientific discoveries in the 17th to 19th centuries. Astronomy showed that we're not at the centre of the universe. Geology showed that the earth was older than in the Bible. Natural science put into doubt the optimistic notion that we're the special creation of a just, loving God. The Industrial Revolution turned Adam Smith's invisible hand — that might guide us toward a wealth of nations — into a lever, a cog, an angry fist. In the 20th century, Smith and Marx duked it out in proxy wars from Guatemala to Vietnam. Further discoveries — in physics, medicine, transportation, ecology, etc. — at once cemented and complicated the scientific explanation of who or what we are. Following in the wake of Darwin, biology and the social sciences suggested that we're programmed by the probabilities and contingencies of such things as DNA, geography, history, language, and culture.
Whatever sense people had that God was in control and that He had a clear Plan for humanity was slipping fast.
At the end of the First World War, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem called "The Second Coming," which begins, Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. He adds, Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Yet if The Rapture or The End of Time was on its way, it got permanently delayed. In brief, the end never came.
Fifty million people died in the Second World War. This was followed by a Cold War in which Russia and the U.S. could have destroyed all human life on Earth. God's End of Time never came, but humans were doing a scary facsimile.
In such a climate, it wasn't easy to maintain the notion that the individual had a free and meaningful soul and that God had a Grand Plan for humanity, from Alpha to Omega. The apple of knowledge was becoming more dangerous, more complex, and more real than the mythic tree from which it was supposed to have come.
Next: Doctors of Revolt