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Pradise Revisited by Peter Helms

Several people have told me how much they like reading entries that Peter has written. So I thought I might post a paper that he wrote for a Western Civilization course during his senior year.  Though it’s possible that his Union University and NCFCA friends will enjoy it most, I hope that more may appreciate it. I thought it revealed Peter’s humor and his Christian anchor, in the form of a satire both subtle and gentle. A friendly “key” to his thought: the Landlord is God; Anthropos is a blend of fallen Adam and a godless type of Job, who is approached by the philosophers who influenced much current thought: Rousseau, Hobbes and Hume. Many of the words these characters say in the paper are taken from their works, but Facebook wouldn’t carry over the italics. There are places that you can definitely tell it was written by a 17-year-old earthy young man.

 

– Selah

 

Peter Helms

Paradise Reconsidered

 

Or an Enquiry into the Choices set before Natural Man on the Subject of how he may escape his Miserable Condition and improve upon his former Estate of Innocence, excepting the inconceivable option of Supplication to the Landlord.

 

“I stood up for my rights. What more can a man do? Was it not mine to question, mine to reason with him? What an irrational, malevolent reactionary! All my troubles, all my pains, all my disappointments, what fault are they of mine? What did I do to deserve this? Why does my miserable condition cover me like night? That famed Bard-of-Avon, William Shakespeare, stated my plight well, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”

 

My troubles started when my landlord and I had an insignificant disagreement over the terms of the contract. If I said he was a reactionary, I would be doing him a favor. He threw me off his “Estate of Innocence,” all because I, in a spirit of candor, called into question a rather arbitrary rule of his.Things have gone straight down from there. Since then, my wife has quarreled with me every day, complaining incessantly of my foul breath, my sons threaten each other with fratricide, I have lost the greater part of my possessions, and illness, fatigue, grief, and guilt consume me. The thought of death brings continual dread. I am, in short, a miserable man …”

Herein contains the history of the circumstance following upon my fall from the Estate of Innocence. I, Anthropos, wish to inform the reader of what happened in the midst of my overwhelming despair. How I looked to three friends; three sages whose wisdom reached deep into the heart of my question. Why had these things come upon? Whose fault was it? What was wrong with me? What was it that made me miserable? And chiefly, what was the answer? In my enquiry into these questions, I am happy to say that I truly became an enlightenend man. I found the happy alternatives to the “paradise” of the Estate of Innocence which I had left.

 

The first of my three friends who came to comfort me was the esteemed Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had this to recommend him, that he was a great lover of humanity. But sadly, no particular mortal had yet been deemed deserving of the bestowment of that lofty privilege of his affection. He had a pleasing air of French carelessness and arrogance, which instantly invited full confidence that whatever he said must be true. He had the appearance of an untidy vagabond, with a sooty fur camp and stinking clothes of the finest quality. His curious appearance was complemented by that of a companion who walked by his side: a tall native of the Caribbean, who carried himself with such innate grace and dignity, that I was immediately ashamed of my European pretensions. He had golden buckles fastened to his moccasins, a bejeweled monocle fastened to his loincloth, and a preeminent powdered wig fastened to his astute and stately brow. When they walked up, he was in the act of muttering Latin phrases of great purport, and quoting the wisdom of the pre-socratics by heart for the benefit of all who might hear. He was, in short, a very noble savage.

Hearing my groanings, the good Rousseau asked me what the matter was. When I told him, he gave a very knowing sigh, saying, “Such are the unhappy results of society.”

“Society?” I said. “What has that to do with it?” For I am indeed ashamed to say that at that time I had no recognition of the undeniable connection between one’s public circumstances and one’s private ills, as obvious as the relation now appears to me.

“Yes indeed, mon ami. It is no fault of yours. It seems to me that this Landlord of whom you speak is entirely to blame, for laying claim to an estate of which he had no more right to, than you have right to this humble little piece of ground on which we now traverse. For it is clear, that private property is the root of all evils.” I was certainly ready to agree with him that it was not my fault, but I did not at first like his idea that my property did not belong to me. And so I said as much.

Mon ami, mon ami,” he softly cajoled, “there indeed is your problem. For it is certain, that the first person who having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared by someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men: beware of this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the earth to no one.”

 

“But if that had happened,” I protested, “we would all behave like low savages in a classless and unordered society.”

“On the contrary,” he replied, “Nothing is as gentle as a man in his primitive state. But try it once and you will find, as myself and my esteemed friend,” (here he indicated the savage, who was studiously observing the scientific properties of a black beetle, preparatory to putting it into his mouth) “have already found out, that when all is held in common, nothing is held in enmity, and equality and contentment abound.”

I agreed to try out this utopian vision, and soon discovered its implications. It was a sad and unfortunate circumstance that, homeless as they were, my two fellow citizens brought nothing into the collective treasury, and instead found it in keeping with justice to use my—pardon me—to use the collective resources for their own individual needs. For example, when my good friend found it within the interests of the community to buy a new fur hat, he did so with what had been my money. When his sophisticated friend the savage found need to blow his nose, he did so in the collective washbasin. By the end of the first week, the collective coffers were empty, the collective chest-o-drawers devoid of garments (the savage took particular liking to my finest suit), and the collective storehouse devoid of food. I am indeed ashamed to say that I grew rather indignant, for at the time, it seemed to my unenlightened and vulgar mind that it was only fair that as we shared in common the fruits of labor, we ought also to share the labor itself. But I was the only workman of our small community. One day, I finally mustered up enough courage to voice my complaint to Rousseau, who did not answer for a while, on account of the fact that he was preoccupied with using the sole and collective toothbrush to polish his shoes.

After awhile, a look of magnanimous condescension passed over his visage, and he replied, “Mon ami, I must say that I am rather startled at your naivete. For it seems clear to me that someone must do the work, and as you have no doubt observed, my worthy friend and I are chronically indisposed toward labor. Moreover, I will tell you that the General Will,”—here he indicated with a careless gesture, himself and the savage, who was at that time lounging on the collective armchair, taking the liberty of scrawling his own enlightened criticisms, counter-examples, and annotations into the collective Shakespeare with one hand and picking dirt from between his toes with the other; he looked up with supreme dignity and disinterestedness when he was mentioned—“as I was saying, the General Will has decided that it would be best for the community as a whole if you did all the work. Or do you wish to oppose the General Will?”

This effectively put an end to my objections. Yet in the end Rousseau magnanimously put an end to my feeble-minded frustration, for after all of the resources were used up, and I found myself in an even more desperate condition than when first he came, he and his companion graciously betook themselves off, presumably to spread their message of hope, change, and equality to the next miserable mortal in their path, and that was the last I saw of them.

My second friend came directly on the heels of the noble pair, and presented a rather striking contrast to the Frenchman. Although he too possessed the air of uncouthness which I had observed in Rousseau, he had not the same advantage of French conceit and presumption which renders one proud of his own “defects” and scornful of the “virtues” of other men. Instead, this new visitor possessed the curse of British sincerity.

In a word, he was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Solitary, because he was a philosopher. Poor, because he was an unpopular philosopher. Nasty, because, to his inexpressible bitterness, he was acutely aware of the preceding two facts. Brutish, because he ferociously held this all as a grudge against humanity. And short, because he was not endowed with that blessing of gallant and heroic stature which naturally elevates to a state of virtue even the most vicious of men. (Of this last great misfortune of his, it may be added that he was not much taller than a riding boot, earning him the ignominious appellation of “Bildad the Shoe-height”.) Indeed, his true given name was Thomas Hobbes.

When he came to help explain to me my natural condition, he was rather more bluntly pessimistic than Rousseau. Indeed, he described it in far harsher terms than even I, miserable as I was, could have done. “Anthropos,” he growled, “What else would you expect? In your condition, it would only be natural to look for calamitous misfortunes. I see no hope for you, no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture…no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death. That is your condition!”

The vivid and hopeless description set before me brought tears of anguish to my eyes. I cried for a long time, while Hobbes only chuckled malevolently and muttered, “Dratted inconvenience isn’t it?” Trembling, I asked, “Is my estate that bad? Surely it is not that bad?”

Hobbes but shook his hoary locks and in a cryptic tone replied, “Bellum omnum contra omnes.”

 

At this the icy fingers of despair gripped my heart, for I did not understand Latin and I knew from childhood that they who did must necessarily be wiser than I. Therefore I concluded that the fiery prophecies of my learned friend Hobbes must indeed be true. From the depths of despair I cried out, “Where then is my hope?”

Across Hobbes’s craggy face spread something I had never seen there before—a long, toothy grin. “I know of someone,” he said, “who might be able to help you.”

He then pointed me to one “Rex Absolutis,” who, he claimed, would manage all of my cares and worries for me. Of course, Hobbes added, he felt obliged to tell me that, in payment for this favor, Rex Absolutis would demand complete and total obedience. Hearing this, I revolted.“For,” said I, “those are the conditions which I just left, and miserable as I am, I will not surrender my freedom for terms as harsh as those of the old Landlord against whom I have rebelled.”

“Landlord?” Hobbes snarled. “What Landlord?”

“The Landlord of the Estate of Innocence,” I replied.

Ah,” he said knowingly, “that Landlord. I assure you, Anthropos, it is quite different. For Rex Absolutis is a man like yourself. He may demand your lands, your possessions, your cattle, and your petty little rights, but he will not demand you! Unencumbered by cares or responsibilities, you may live freely and in accordance with your own desires. Your soul, at least, is still your own, something not granted with your old Landlord. But if you say ‘perhaps I will not agree with the dictates of Rex Absolutis’ or ‘perhaps they will be unjust,’ surely you are naïve, for justice is not the crafter of the law. It is not wisdom, but authority, that makes a law. But think upon it. You must be under some kind of authority. Would you choose to merely relinquish your cares, responsibilities, and cumbersome rights, so that you might be free to live for yourself, or would you choose to surrender your very being to the tyrannical Landlord, and get nothing in return?”

He convinced me. I served Rex Absolutis for ten long years. I must say, it was better living than Rousseau’s utopian dream, but I was still miserable, for I found that even when Rex Absolutis was reasonable and kind, and my public affairs peaceful, my inner soul was still tumultuous and troubled. To my utter disappointment, I found that neither Hobbes’ politics nor his materialistic gospel of determinism, which he at another time expounded to me in great length, could assuage my despair, for while they comforted me when my circumstances were favorable, they did nothing to help me the other nine-tenths of the time. I found that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau could give my soul happiness, however much they might try to change the necessary outward circumstances of my existence. And so I began to despair even more.

In this condition my final friend came to console me. His name was David Hume, and his sagacious words of wisdom brought me to the end of my pilgrimage of enlightenment. My first impression of him was of his polished humility, which, accompanied by his great intellect and sophisticated manners, invited my complete confidence in him. He had a pleasantly condescending, refined, and altogether altruistic air about him. I must here say that throughout my life I had put great stock in intelligence, and especially in my present state, as Rousseau’s romantic socialism and Hobbes’s materialistic absolutism had both equally fallen short, I felt deep within my heart that some unseen path of preeminent rationality would be the answer to my troubles.

Accordingly, I was at that very moment musing over subjects of rational inquiry, such as my innate knowledge of the property of hypotenuses which I had perfected in my infant years. As I was contemplating on whether “a squared” + “b squared” = “c squared” because some man had at the beginning of time decided that it was so, or whether it was simply true because it was, the good Scotsman approached and voiced the following observation: “What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call ‘thought’.

I was surprised at such belittling characterization of what I viewed as the indispensable tool to the salvation of mankind, especially coming from a man of his intellectual standing. “Surely you can’t talk of thought that way,” I said, “when it is rationality that has given us our ability to use never-failing geometry, unconquerable natural science, and indefatigable philosophy for the betterment of our race? For it is certain that reason is the answer.”

“Well surely you can see, my dear friend,” he said sympathetically, “that there are also things that intellect can’t do. For example, ‘that the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.’ ” I found, upon reflection, that this was certainly the case, especially as it had been overcast for several days. But if reason was not the key to my existence, then what was?

In my consequent lessons with the great Scottish philosopher, he taught me many wonderful truths of liberating knowledge in a full week’s time. In my first lesson, with heated and passionate claims, he discovered that the root of my problem was my preoccupation with dangerous tendencies inherited from the Landlord, the ultimate cause of my troubles. In my second day under his tutelage, he ridiculed my faith in reason, deriding it as some unfounded trust inherited from the said Landlord. With great conviction and warmth, he taught me on the third day to see the extreme and petty arrogance of propositional truth, certainty, or of any claims to an all-explaining meta-narrative. In contrast, on the fourth day my esteemed teacher calmly related the preeminent humility of not claiming to know anything for certain, but rather holding all knowledge on equal terms of uncertain ambiguity. On the fifth day he had me firmly and irretrievably convinced that there are no absolutes (save perhaps one) and that every “truth” is relative to one’s own limited perspective; or, as he so persuasively put it, “To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all is nothing but to perceive”. On the sixth day, as a logical consequence of these claims, he taught me to doubt my own existence, or at least to doubt that it had any meta-physical significance, for, as he so wisely said, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” On the seventh day I was at rest, for I had found the sure footing of skepticism. I discovered that, “All that belongs to human understanding, in its deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical.” This was the key for which I so long had looked!

Although to this day I esteem my tutor David Hume as leading me to final liberation, yet I must admit I made some alteration to his philosophy. For it seems to me, that in the clouds of darkness and doubt, and in the miseries of the alternatives, nihilism seemed to me much more certain footing than dubious skepticism. Accordingly, I claim it now, that I am a nihilist, and I am not. Surely and certainly I am not. Why would I care if I am not? But while once I was miserable and despondent, now I am carefree and almost even happy. My troubles have vanished from my eyes, for indeed, what matter if “a” or “b” lead to “c,” if there is considerable doubt as to whether “a” or “b” exist at all? For at last, now I am an enlightened and free man.What matters if I left a paradise, or live in a madhouse, if the “I” denies its own existence? The landlord is not, the paradise is not, faith is not, reason is not, and I am not.

I am not concerned, for I am not . . .

[The reader is cautiously advised that, shortly after completing this autobiography, Anthropos ended his own tumultuous life, so as to finally and firmly banish from his mind the recurring and troublesome doubts of his own non-existence  ]

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