Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nature's Vengeance: C. S. Lewis and the Natural Law

LEWIS FEARS, AND HIS FEARS ARE REASONABLE ENOUGH, that the "Conditioners"--those people in whom the power over human nature shall rest--will not be governed by the Tao. Indeed, their very enterprise--to control human nature, to govern it, to dispose of it as they see fit--means to supersede the Tao. They have already soiled their hands, committed the great, unforgivable sin against the Tao, to be in the position they are in. Without the Tao reigning, arbitrariness is king. "Everything except the sic volo, sic jubeo has been explained away."* Abolition, 65. There is no more right, and the human will slips through any sieve of rational or spiritual standard, as if it were the thinnest and most mercurial of fluids. "If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere 'nature') is the only course left open."**

There is not much hope that anything will manage the impulse of those who hold the power over human nature. Look at the controversy in trying to control those who would experiment on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) or dabble in human cloning. These "Conditioners," who seek to trespass the Tao and treat the human embryo, indeed, the human person, as a thing, cry foul each time any restriction is placed upon their will. Their only ethics is power and control over human nature, though they dress it up in their view of the good.

Indeed, if history is to be referenced, it is dubious indeed that man, once holding rein over other men, will use that power for the common good: "I am very doubtful," says Lewis, "whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently." Abolition, 66.

But nature is not so easily fooled, and when deprived of the Tao and shown out the front door, she returns to the back with arbitrary, irrational, and darkened mien. Nature is not only reason and standard, but will and impulse, chaos run amok, and that is how she comes to take over her household from the back porch. She wields the sharpened knife and the wild-eyed look of a mad termagant.

At the moment, then, of Man's victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely 'natural'--to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioner and, through them, all humanity. Man's conquest of nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man. . . . We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. . . . Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit*** . . . .

Abolition, 68.

The Demystification of the World

Lewis elaborates by retracing the evolution of the thinking that has got us to where we are. The scientific revolution, and its attitude to nature as simply a subject matter to work with, has had its price. In the main, the benefits derived from its techniques are too tempting for us. But to deny the consideration we have had to pay is not to recognize the cost associated with the bargain. There has been a progressive de-mystification of reality--it is the disenchantment, the Entzauberung of the world, that Max Weber spoke of a century or so ago.
We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who dis so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture.
Abolition, 71. Something of great beauty has been lost in this process. And what is true of rustling trees and shivering leaves, of stars flickering gently in the carapace of the heavens above, of the silent death of germinating grains of wheat, the example of which the Lord himself ennobled (cf. John 12:20:36), is seventy-times-seven true, when the scientific and exploitative enterprise touches man.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been . . . .
Hopkins, "Binsey Poplars."

Not only is something of great beauty lost, a hugeous truth is lost:
It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality is lost.
Abolition, 70-71. Emphasis on the empirical by our scientific and exploitative Horatios has made us too familiar with matter, and we have lost the sense of "strangeness" that is required to have wonder with respect to the greater reality behind the detail of the empirical:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Shakespeare, Hamlet act 1, sc. 5, 159–167.

*The reference "sic volo, sic jubeo" refers to "sic volo, sic jubeo, stet pro ratione voluntas," which, translated, means, "thus I wish, thus I insist, my will shall stand as reason." It is a popular though inaccurate quotation from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who actually stated without changing the meaning much: "Hoc volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas." Satires VI. 223. Martin Luther, a "Conditioner" of the Word of God, after being accused of conditioning the biblical text to conform to his teaching by adding "alone" to Romans 3:28 (So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben. The Greek text does not warrant the addition of the adverb "allein" or "alone": λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου), fittingly adopted Juvenal's saying: Sic volo, sic jubeo. Sit pro ratione voluntas. Lutherus ita vult, et ait se doctorem esse super omnes doctores in toto papatu. "Thus I wish, thus I command. Let my will stand for a reason. Luther wishes it so, and says that he is a teacher above all the teachers in the whole of the Papacy." Not particularly submissive, but then again, when was Luther submissive?
**By "nature" Lewis means here natural or irrational impulses or urges, whims: "heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas." Abolition, 67. He does not mean nature as a stable standard. "Chance here means Nature." Basically, the will of the Conditioner is what sets the standard for human nature.
***Ferum victorem cepit: it took captive its savage conqueror. From Horace's Epistles where he describes how the culture of the conquered Greeks took over their savage Roman conquerors, so that the defeated actually conquered the defeators: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio. "Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium." Bk II, epist. i.156-157.
****Virgil, Aeneid, III.24-35; Spenser, Fairie Queene, I.ii ("He pluck'd a Bough; out of whose Rift there came / Small drops of gory Blood, that trickled down the same.") The reference to the "Dying God," the Deus moriendi, is a reference to the various myths, both Eastern and Western, of a dying good, most frequently related to agriculture, but such myth, and the intimation of reality, the logos, that was behind it, became flesh, and is historically true in the God-become-Man Christ Jesus. As Lewis himself put it in the book of essays God in the Dock:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
C. S. Lewis, "Myth Become Fact," in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1967), 66-67.

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