Once upon a time, my youth group was riding on a gigantic ferry from the western Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan to the eastern Michigan shores. The moon brooded upon the face of the waters while a few of us sat around a table playing Othello. One of us would turn the tokens white and the other black, each striving to drive the other from the game. It was a totalizing contest, day or night winning, and no compromise possible.
On the box, the makers of the game proclaimed their surely well researched motto: a minute to learn; a lifetime to master.
I’ve always been slightly below average in my ability to play strategy games, probably because I digress into the sort of philosophical speculations that undercuts one’s ability to focus on the immediate strategic questions. Nonetheless, I have learned that every strategy demands that the participants maintain a tension between the simple and the complex.
Every game has principles that are pretty simple and that the human mind is able to grasp. And every game has complex variations that arise in circumstances that the human mind can’t possibly anticipate. The better you understand the principles, the more effectively you can respond to the variations.
This pattern extends beyond games into very serious matters like warfare, business, politics, ethics, and even reading and writing.
No matter what you are working on, playing, or experiencing, your mind and heart seek the simple core that unifies it: gravity, a musical key, an underlying pattern. At the same time, while seeking the one, they encounter particular details. These tend to be unpredictable. Sometimes they can extend the unity brought about by the pattern or principle, but sometimes they can threaten it.
Sometimes we say that some people are predisposed to the simple pattern or principle while other people are predisposed to the details. That may be true, but I’ve begun to wonder. I suggest that, in areas that we know well and where we feel confident – where we feel comfortable with the pattern or principle – we are flexible and adaptable.
On the other hand, in areas that we don’t know as well and about which we feel less confident – where we are not comfortable with the pattern or principle – we tend to worry more about the details. For one thing, we don’t know where they belong in the pattern or in their relationships to the principle, so we feel insecure.
In every experience, we encounter both the underlying stable simplicity and the whirling circumstances that threaten to upset it.
It follows that in every decision, interpretation, or action we take, we have three basic options:
1. We hold to the principle and protect it from circumstances
2. We embrace the circumstances and discard the principle
3. We apply the principle to the circumstances
The first is occasionally a good idea, but not very often. Normally it is the reaction of fear. In religion, it becomes Phariseeism; in politics, reactionary conservatism; in reading and writing, simple-minded literalism.
The second is at least theoretically a good idea sometimes. Normally, it simply extends confusion. In religion, it becomes cynicism; in politics, sentimental progressivism; in reading, impressionistic self-centeredness; and in writing, a corollary expressionistic self-centeredness.
You can’t separate principles from circumstances and think, govern, read, write, or live well. This might be the lesson of Greek philosophy; it is certainly the lesson of political history.
Happily there is a third option and at least in principle it is always the best; to apply principles in the circumstances.
To apply principles in the circumstances is mentally healthy because it gives us a toe hold when chaos is overtaking us, a ground when the waves are rolling us, a key when the band is going mad. I consider mental health a good thing, but I don’t think we can prove a position by saying it keeps us sane unless we have other presuppositions about the relationship between the mind and the world we live in. However, that is another article for another day.
Here I want to point out that the benefits of this mode of thinking are indeed extensive, and they include mental health, but the reason this mode offers so many benefits is because it reflects the nature of reality. That is to say, it is the form of truth in the world we share.
If I have simple principles and am not willing to let them inform the circumstances because I fear that those circumstances will overcome my principles, I don’t trust my principles. Perhaps I need to review them. Unfortunately, I have made it very difficult to do so, because it is the variations and details within the circumstances that trigger such a review. I might be the most practical of men, the most blue collar of workers, but I have transformed myself into a stubborn philosopher and that has made me less able to make sensible decisions about every day matters.
Principles are wonderful things. Without change, they can enter the situation they govern and conform themselves to the many and varying details that define that situation. Without harming either themselves or the details, principles can in-form the experience. The result is that, rather than becoming hardened, the participants in the experience are strengthened, made more flexible, and, if they are humans, made more wise.
We give this third response various names at various levels of being: in theology and philosophy we call it wisdom, in politics, statesmanship, in military and business endeavors, visionary strategy, in every day affairs, common sense. My favorite word for it is prudence.
The only way we can attain this much-yearned-for virtue of wisdom, statesmanship, vision, common sense, and prudence is by learning to see the governing principles in the circumstances and honoring the circumstances in the situation.
The ancient Greeks wrestled with this issue under the terms of the one and the many. Our founding fathers learned from that tradition and strove to establish a union out of multiples – e pluribus (out of many) unum (one).
They seemed to understand something that we find hard to accept: you can’t ever achieve a settled state where you or your community can say, “there, now I have arrived. I have attained pure simplicity and nothing can ever come along to adjust it. I understand the principles so well that I can ignore the changing circumstances of life.”
To do that, we would have to eliminate the circumstances, and when you do that, the very least harmful thing you do is confess either that your principles are inadequate to the circumstances or that you are unable to apply them.
In my next post, I will apply this to reading and writing. In everything we do at CiRCE, we strive to recognize and accept this fruitful and generative form. We try to discover and express the principles and forms that underlie and generate an activity or art while we simultaneously strive to open a path for particular and varying gifts to develop, for adaptation to circumstances, and for students to so equip students with principles that they become their second nature, something with which they are equipped for the journey through the varying and unpredictable circumstances of our lives.
Perhaps someday they’ll be riding a ferry under the moon making day night and night day. It only takes a minute to learn.