Notes from Underground

This is best criticism of reason as a solution to the problem of evil, especially our own sin. I think this is also a good commentary on those of us who struggle philosophically (not merely as a practical matter) with Romans 7.

I’ve broken up the text with a bit of commentary. In each passage I highlight a few phrases that seem most important. Effectively he proves that reason has not been, nor can it provide, the answer.

First on the nature of reason’s mastery of desire (that is, what it would mean to freewill if reason mastered desire through reason):

Our choice is usually mistaken from a false view of our advantage. We sometimes choose absolute nonsense because in our foolishness we see in that nonsense the easiest means for attaining a supposed advantage. But when all that is explained and worked out on paper (which is perfectly possible, for it is contemptible and senseless to suppose that some laws of nature man will never understand), then certainly so-called desires will no longer exist. For if a desire should come into conflict with reason we shall then reason and not desire, because it will be impossible retaining our reason to be SENSELESS in our desires, and in that way knowingly act against reason and desire to injure ourselves. And as all choice and reasoning can be really calculated–because there will some day be discovered the laws of our so-called free will–so, joking apart, there may one day be something like a table constructed of them, so that we really shall choose in accordance with it. If, for instance, some day they calculate and prove to me that I made a long nose at someone because I could not help making a long nose at him and that I had to do it in that particular way, what FREEDOM is left me, especially if I am a learned man and have taken my degree somewhere? Then I should be able to calculate my whole life for thirty years beforehand. In short, if this could be arranged there would be nothing left for us to do; anyway, we should have to understand that.

Then on to the nature of reason and its limitations:

You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives.

So then he turns hard against reason’s mastery for a very particular case:

But I repeat for the hundredth time, there is one case, one only, when man may consciously, purposely, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid–simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. Of course, this very stupid thing, this caprice of ours, may be in reality, gentlemen, more advantageous for us than anything else on earth, especially in certain cases. And in particular it may be more advantageous than any advantage even when it does us obvious harm, and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage–for in any circumstances it preserves for us what is most precious and most important–that is, our personality, our individuality. Some, you see, maintain that this really is the most precious thing for mankind; choice can, of course, if it chooses, be in agreement with reason; and especially if this be not abused but kept within bounds. It is profitable and sometimes even praiseworthy. But very often, and even most often, choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason … and … and … do you know that that, too, is profitable, sometimes even praiseworthy?

Now he proposes a better understanding of human nature based on our disparity between moral compass and life (I just love the line about being an ungrateful biped which seems to fit with our problems arising through failing to give thanks):

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid. (Indeed one cannot refuse to suppose that, if only from the one consideration, that, if man is stupid, then who is wise?) But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity, perpetual–from the days of the Flood to the Schleswig-Holstein period. Moral obliquity and consequently lack of good sense; for it has long been accepted that lack of good sense is due to no other cause than moral obliquity.

Let’s get some history:

Put it to the test and cast your eyes upon the history of mankind. What will you see? Is it a grand spectacle? Grand, if you like. Take the Colossus of Rhodes, for instance, that’s worth something. With good reason Mr. Anaevsky testifies of it that some say that it is the work of man’s hands, while others maintain that it has been created by nature herself. Is it many-colored? May be it is many-coloured, too: if one takes the dress uniforms, military and civilian, of all peoples in all ages–that alone is worth something, and if you take the undress uniforms you will never get to the end of it; no historian would be equal to the job. Is it monotonous? May be it’s monotonous too: it’s fighting and fighting; they are fighting now, they fought first and they fought last–you will admit, that it is almost too monotonous. In short, one may say anything about the history of the world–anything that might enter the most disordered imagination.

But what can we NOT say about history (and about human nature itself):

The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. And, indeed, this is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbors simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one.

What does this mean? What are we saying, but that in our ingratitude we ruin ourselves.

Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.

How far will man go to prove that he is not merely the keys of a piano? (Here is the triumph of the stupidity of man.)

And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated–chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!

Back to freewill:

You will scream at me (that is, if you condescend to do so) that no one is touching my free will, that all they are concerned with is that my will should of itself, of its own free will, coincide with my own normal interests, with the laws of nature and arithmetic. Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!

And now from me: So then we are ungrateful, impossibly so. There is no other condition for us but to be an ungrateful biped who, to prove himself that he is not a piano-key will deliberately do something harmful to himself, to others and even the whole world. Reason cannot meet this. Even if reason could be made to meet it, we would simply abandon reason so that we might continue to do it.

The Prologue Bookmarklet

A little javascript diddy I wrote last night, shared for my English speaking Orthodox Christian friends, a bookmarklet for today’s reading from The Prologue from Ohrid.

The Serbian Diocese of Western America has hosted the Prologue online for some time, but the menu was not very friendly, particularly for a quick read on mobile devices, so I whipped up a quick javascript to connect to do today’s page.

Here’s the code to paste into the bookmarklet:
javascript: var d = new Date(); day = d.getDate(); longdate = d.toLocaleDateString(); a = longdate.split(' '); month = a[1]; document.location="http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/prolog.cgi?day=" + day + "&month=" + month;

The Poet and the Logician

To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

From G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

The Grand Inquisitor

Finally, on the matter of silence by way of an example:

The following video is a dramatization of one of the most dangerous passages penned by the human hand. If you do not discern the knife blade at the throat of eternity while watching this video, perhaps it is for the best. Even though I love Dostoevsky, I rarely encourage people to read his works. It is too easy to forget that the medicine for a man suffering from an iron deficiency could, if given to another, poison his life.

But such as it is, I offer it here. Set aside some time and a clear mind, this is not one for viewing as a chance encounter. If it does you more harm than good, forgive my poor judgment.

I do not like the special effects at the end of the production, but such is my gratitude at the rest that this is easily forgiven.

A Little Nonsense

Something that I have been saving for a rainy day. And since I feel a bit like the White Rabbit now as I am far behind on many important things, this is as good a post as I can muster today. It seems to say very little, but perhaps says more about me than I would like to admit.

And yes, I know that I am crossing two different Johnny Depp movies; this is intentional. Have I told you why I like Johnny so well in all his roles? I suspect it is because he’s such a snappy dresser.

An Appropriate Interlude

I ran across this passage today in an unlikely place; reprinted here because of a sympathy I have had for Kafka in the past. Sympathy is not agreement, but sometimes it is more important.

Before the Law, by Franz Kafka

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has also come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”