In his thought-provoking article, Individualism: The Root Error of Modernity, George Stanciu proposes that the foundational problem of Modernity lies in the false assumption that everything in the cosmos exists in-and-of-itself. He contrasts this belief with the Medieval assumption that things exist only in relationship.
This seems to be the same idea that Tolkien explores in his excellent poem “Mythopoeia,” which was written in response to (pre-Christian) C.S. Lewis’s claim that myths were “lies breathed through silver,” and therefore worthless. In his poetic response to this claim, Tolkien ultimately rejects the mechanistic modern mythos which views everything in the cosmos as existing and being defined in isolation:
“You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees,’ and growing is ‘to grow’)”
…a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain
In Tolkien’s view, the materialist is forced to define the things in nature by the things themselves, because they bear no ultimate relationship to anything else in the cosmos.
Rather than walk with these “progressive apes”, Tolkien aligns himself with the Christian mythos, which allows humanity to exercise the creative nature instilled in them by God when He made them in his Image. This view allows Tolkien to instead see a star as “…living silver made that sudden burst/ to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,/Whose very echo after-music long/has since pursued.”
Tolkien rejects the cold, lifeless picture of the materialistic universe, and instead proposes a living, dynamic, meaning-ful way of understanding our world–one that understands things by comparing them to other things.
We are so steeped in the modern mythos that its metaphors linger unseen in our hearts
Metaphors and analogical thinking allow humanity to interact with the cosmos in a fundamentally relational way, seeing and understanding things in terms of how they are like and unlike other things. Everything in the cosmos exists in relation to other things, and the relations between Man, the Cosmos, and God are the foundation of all our knowing, understanding, and living. According to Tolkien, it is only in this kind of cosmos that any truly meaningful experience can be had.
Most Christians would undoubtedly align themselves with Tolkien’s Christian mythos over a materialistic one, but the reality is that most of us nonetheless retain in our imaginations the same basic pictures or metaphors that the materialistic mythos draws upon. We are so steeped in the modern mythos that its metaphors linger unseen in our hearts, even if we deny it with our lips.
In my classes, one of the things that most students struggle the most with is a good, solid definition of what something actually is. And, to be fair, it can be a difficult thing. Defining things like Justice, Truth, or Luxury can quickly lead into a confusing haze of conflicting ideas. Many quickly want to throw up their hands and simply turn to the popular conclusion that “it’s all relative.”
I wonder if the root problem links back to the metaphorical assumptions that we carry within our imaginations. As I watch my students struggle (and I myself struggle to come to an understanding of these ideas) I notice a subtle, yet powerful pattern of assumptions: it seems to me that when we define abstract ideas (such as Justice, for example) we tend to assume that Justice will turn out to be some static, unchanging Formula that we can apply to various situations in order to get some predictable, homogenized answer. We assume that Justice will work like a math equation: if you just plug in the correct variables then you will get your logically necessary (and correct, of course) solution.
If we were to break it down into a simple physical metaphor: we assume that Truth is always a Solid.
Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples of Justice. When most of us think of an example of what Justice looks like, we might think of the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi’s Code is one of the oldest known codifications of laws and punishments for a society, and it lays out the necessary boundaries for transgressions of laws, punishments for said transgressions, and exceptional cases. The development of this Code of ethics marked an important period in human history, because it attempted to consolidate Justice into a single, unified, system that provided hard and fast rules that could be duplicated and replicated in any part of the kingdom. In many ways, this is a picture of the kind of way we internally visualize or understand Justice in our imaginations: a solidified code of laws that scientifically organizes right and wrong behavior into two neat and tidy categories. There is some thing called Justice, and it is hard, inflexible, and unchanging, able to be written on a tablet and distributed at will.
But what if Truth is a Liquid?
Compare Hammurabi’s Code with the approach to Justice taken by the wisest man to ever live: King Solomon. According to my understanding, what made Solomon qualified to claim the title of the wisest man was his vast knowledge of proverbs. Proverbs were seen as a way of truth-telling, of getting at the reality of things through the use of stories and examples. In our modern-day epistemology, of course, we do not really hold proverbs as being a legitimate form of truth-telling, and this is telling. But the point is that Solomon’s approach to doling out Justice came in a very different form than Hammurabi’s Justice: Solomon took the individual cases that came to him, and instead of applying some strict, rigid, universal code of laws, Solomon rather sorted through his prodigious collection of sayings and found the one that applied best to that particular circumstance. Every instance was different, involving different situations, peoples, and problems, and Solomon took each instance and dealt with them individually. His approach to Justice was not rigid, static, and scientific, but fluid and poetic.
Let me re-affirm, for those of you who may be thinking that I am advancing an argument for moral relativism, that this does not mean that there is no such thing as Truth. What I am saying is that Truth is real; it does exist, but our pictures of it can be either misleading or enlightening as to its essential nature, and as moderns our standard epistemology is absolutely suspect.
Ultimately, the truth is not a natural element, but rather a person
Let’s take another example: In Plato’s Republic, after searching diligently for Justice, Socrates gives this beautifully elegant definition: Justice is minding one’s own business. What he means by this is that justice is a kind of harmonization of the various impulses within our souls, and ordering ourselves such that the noblest parts of us rule the more base parts of us, rather than the other way around. A just man, he argues, who knows how to have each of the parts within himself operate according to their proper function, will be what creates a just city–in which each member of society would engage in the role most fitting to his nature. Minding one’s own business, then, is the way in which a just individual and society operate: by giving the appropriate authority to the appropriate authorities.
Socrates’ definition of Justice being “minding one’s own business” is not some relativistic cop-out; rather, he sets forth a flexible description that is able to be contextualized to fit a variety of situations. If you are looking for some static formula for justice, then you will probably find Socrates’ definition underwhelming and unsatisfying. But if you are prepared to accept his more ‘fluid’ metaphor, then you will delight at its intuitive simplicity that allows room for relationship and common sense. Determining Justice will then require the asking of questions like, “Who was involved,” “Why did it happen,” “What will happen because of this/who will be effected by it.” There is room for relationship, context, and common sense.
It also necessarily takes into account normative questions, like, “What should this person have been doing,” or “What should this person not have been doing?” Or, ultimately, “What is my/your/his/etc. business?” In this sense, Justice is inherently dependent upon religion, faith, or the gods. Answering the question of “what is Just” in a particular situation requires you to consider supra-factual variables: namely, relationships and normative values. What is and is not a person’s ‘business’ is something that will vary from person to person. Defining Justice in any particular case requires a prior judgement as to what is proper or appropriate. Perhaps Lewis’s metaphor in Mere Christianity would be helpful here: Morality is like the keys of the piano–there are different types of keys that must be played at different times in various people’s lives; there are no ‘right keys’ and ‘wrong keys’ until you consult the piece of sheet music that you are trying to play. Here, morality exhibits both definite, real physical properties–but it also remains flexible (or fluid) enough to conform to an infinite number of situations and songs. Justice is like Music.
Propriety and relationship also constitutes the foundation of the art of Rhetoric: the first thing to consider when making any kind of communicative act is to consider the audience that will receive your message, and tailor your content to best suit your audience. This is also the reason that I have come to appreciate Andrew Kern’s definition of Rhetoric as “decision-making in community.” Being skilled in the art of Rhetoric means that you are able to understand complex relationships, not just between ideas, but between people.
To the great disappointment of all of my students, there is no secret rhetorical formula that you can just apply in every situation. Good rhetoric always requires wisdom, discernment, and love. Rhetoric, and Justice, it appears, are not franchise-able. They are (in most cases) too fluid. It is impossible to define the thing except in relation to other things outside of itself, because that is the nature of the cosmos that God in his wisdom has placed us in.
I suspect that there are many who will be loathe to abandon any metaphor for truth except as a solid: our science-worshiping culture has conditioned us to believe that the the only real Truth is the kind that is testable, reproducible, formulaic and predictable–the kind that (like magic) brings us power. The ‘Truth is always Solid’ metaphor allows us to imagine ourselves as powerful sorcerers, able to summon fire and lightning into existence on a whim. We like our Truth to be of the solid kind . . . perhaps because it allows us to hit people over the head with it, or because it allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are self-sufficient.
Just to clarify: I am not saying that we should never use a solid metaphor for understanding truth. Sometimes a liquid can be hard and inflexible (when it is frozen) and sometimes it can dissolve into a gas. It depends on the situation. No single metaphor will be sufficient to encapsulate these ideas, but they do each in their own way shed a different sort of light on how we see the world.
Ultimately, the truth is not a natural element, but rather a person. Christ says that He is “the Truth.” If we are to take Him seriously, then we must conclude that ‘knowing the truth’ is not primarily a mathematical or intellectual proposition, but is rather a fundamentally more relational experience. Understanding, defining, and acting in this incredible world is not an impersonal, rigid, formulaic activity, but rather a dynamic, living, and personal one.