Saturday, April 21, 2012

Diving Deeper 16 - War and Peace 12

Those Mind-Enlightening Metaphors

As I type these words I am listening to Andy O'Mahony's wonderful programme Off The Shelf which is discussing Rev Dr. Brendan Purcell's recent book From Big Bang to Big Mystery  (see Here for a brief description, not a review of this book) which is a 366-page book that deals with that big mystery – where did human beings come from? David McConnell, atheist and Professor of Biology in TCD and and the philosopher Dr. Paul O'Grady, also of TCD are discussing this book with the erudite O'Mahony.  Once again, I am entranced with the breath of knowledge shown by both the presenter and his guests.  None of them is arguing for the Christian perspective on the origins of the universe as both O'Grady and O'Mahony approach the question of origins from an agnostic and open attitude. See Here for podcast of the show.  There is so much that scientists and philosophers don't know, like exactly what the mind and consciousness actually are,  or how either comes about, or why there is something rather than nothing?  Is there such a thing as creation out of nothing - or as we learnt it many years ago, creatio ex nihilo

In the end, we are often left somewhat confused as there is so much which we simply do not know.  And yet we are knowledge-seeking and meaning-seeking creatures who both want to expand the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe and the frontiers of our own self-knowledge respectively.  In this task of seeking knowledge and meaning we are literal forced to stretch our language and invent metaphor, which essentially is a way of doing that stretching. And so we forge metaphors like the following on our quest to grapple with these questions:  (i) plumbing the depths and scaling the heights of the Self, (ii) getting to the heart of the matter, (iii) marrying heart and head, (iv) the longest journey is from the head to the heart, (v) diving down is a metaphor obviously, (vi) there is need to have a strong foundation on which to build any good theory of X, Y or Z, (vii) the world is a hospital (St Augustine), (viii) an archaeology of the mind (Freud), (ix) getting one's act together and (x) struggling with one's demons and so on and on and on.  We are constantly minting metaphors in attempting to come to grips with what life means for us.  It is in this way that I as a reader engage with War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  This will be my last post in this sequence here on this particular book.  What I have been about in these posts is to show how literature can help us engage with the big questions in life, grapple and struggle with them, to speak more metaphorically. We do not just need religion to do it for us, though for some it may help, as Tolstoy is also keen to argue for some of his characters.

Prince Andrei's thoughts on dying:

Prince Andrei could could no longer restrain himself, and wept tender compassionate tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for their errors and for his own.  "Sympathy, love for our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies - yes the love which God preached on earth, that Princess Maria tried to teach me and I did not understand - that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived.  But now it is too late.!"  (War and Peace, p. 968)

The Mystery of Motion/Physics:

It is impossible for the human intellect to grasp the idea of absolute continuity of motion.  Laws of motion of any kind only become comprehensible to man when he can examine arbitrarily selected units of that motion.  But at the same time, it is this arbitrary division of continuous motion into discontinuous units which give rise to a large proportion of human error.  (Ibid., p. 974)

Philosophy of History:

The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people.  Men leave their customary pursuits, tear from one end of Europe to the other, plunder and slaughter one another, triumph and despair, and for some years the whole flow of life is transformed into a powerful current which at first runs higher and higher and then subsides. What was the cause of this activity, by what laws was it governed?  asks the human intellect. 

The historians, replying to these question, lay before us the sayings and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris, calling these sayings and doings "the Revolution."  Then they gave us an elaborate biography of Napoleon.... and say: "That is what was at the back of this movement and those are the laws it follows." ....

But the human intellect not only refuses to believe in their explanation, but flatly declares that this method of interpreting is not sound, because in it a smaller phenomenon is taken as a cause of a greater one.  The sum of men's individual wills produced both the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.  (Ibid., p. 976)

The Futility of War:

On the faces of all the Russians, on the faces of the French soldiers and officers, without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that he felt in his own heart.  "But, who, after all, is doing this?  They are all as much sickened as I am.  Whose doing is this, then?  Whose?  flashed for a second through his mind.  (Ibid., p. 1143)

The Example of the Ideal Peasant of Faith:

One notion one comes across in much of nineteenth century Russian literature is the romanticisation of the peasant, especially the romanticisation of brave, courageous and spiritual peasants like Platon Karatayev.  Here is Pierre (Tolstoy) singing encomiums to this ideal human being:

Pierre remembered them afterwards as misty figures, except Platon Karatayev, who forever remained in his mind as a most vivid and precious memory, and the very personification of all that was Russian, warm-hearted and round... Karatayev had no attachments, friendships or loves, Pierre understood them, but he felt affection for and lived on sympathetic terms with every creature with whom life brought him in contact... He loved his dog, loved his comrades, and the French, loved Pierre, who was his neighbour; but Pierre felt for all Karatayev's warm-heartedness towards him (thus involuntarily paying tribute to Pierre's spiritual life)  he would not suffer a pang if they were parted. And Pierre began to feel the same way about Karatayev.  (Ibid., p. 1150-1152)

The Question of Love: A Eulogy to Love on the Brink of Death

Love hinders death.  Love is life.  Anything at all that I understand,  I understand only because I love.  Everything is, everything exists because I love.  All is bound up in love alone.  Love is God, and that I, a tiny particle of love shall return to the universal and eternal source....

He dreamed that he was lying in the room in which he was actually lying... Gradually, imperceptibly, all these persons begin to disappear, to be replaced by a single question, that of the closed door.  He gets up and goes towards the door in order to shoot the bolt and lock it.  Everything depends on whether he can lock it quick enough.  He starts, tries to hurry, but his legs refuse to move and he knows he will not be in time to lock the door, yet he still frenziedly strains every effort to get there.  Agonising fear seizes him.  And this fear is the fear of death: It stands behind the door.  But while he is helplessly and clumsily stumbling towards the door that dreadful something is already pushing against it on the other side and forcing its way in.  Something not human - death - is breaking in through the door a hold the door to.  He grapples with the door, straining every ounce of his strength - to lock it is no longer possible - but  feeble and awkward...

It comes in, and it is death.  And Prince Andrei died.  (Ibid., p. 1165-6)

Happiness: Peace of Mind

He had spent long years in the search for that tranquillity of mind, that inner harmony, which had so impressed him in the men  at the Battle of Borodino.  He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by the path of intellectual reasoning, and all these efforts and failed him.  And now, without any thought on his part, he had found that peace and that inner harmony simply through the horrors of death, through privation, and through what he had seen in Karatayev....

He often recalled now his conversation with Prince Andrei, and fully agreed with his friend, except that he interpreted Prince Andrei's idea rather differently.  Prince Andrei had been wont to reflect that happiness was purely negative - but he had said so with a shade of bitterness and irony - as though he was really saying that all our cravings for positive happiness were implanted in us merely for our torment, since they could never be satisfied.  But Pierre acknowledged the truth of this without qualification.  The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of elementary needs and consequent freedom in one's choice of occupation - that is in one's mode of one's living - seemed to Pierre the sure height of human happiness.  Here and now for the first time in his life Pierre fully appreciated the enjoyment of eating because he was hungry, of drinking because he was thirsty, of sleep because he was sleepy, of warmth because he was cold, of talking to a fellow creature because he felt like talking and wanted to hear a human voice. (Ibid., p. 1198)

A Further Insight into Happiness:

Again Pierre is musing on what happiness and peace of mind really are:

While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned, not through his intellect but through his whole being, through life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness lies within himself, in the satisfaction of simple human needs; and that all unhappiness is due, not to privation but to superfluity.  But now, during these last three weeks of the march, he had learned still another new and comforting truth - that there is nothing in the world to be dreaded.  He had learned that just as there is no condition in which man can be happy and absolutely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and not free.  He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that these limits are not far away... (Ibid., p. 1255)

The two passages above are startlingly modern in their sophistication.  They smack of good psychology.  They are even suffused with what we would now call a sort of Buddhist wisdom.  I doubt, or at least I do not know, if Tolstoy had ever read any Buddhist philosophy.  Indeed, Pierre is repeating the wisdom of one who has gone through the suffering and come safely and wholly out the other side.  Here, I am reminded of the profound wisdom of Victor Frankl, who came through the horrors of Auschwitz, and who said that the oppressor could take away everything but never one's choice of how to take that suffering: "Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."