Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #2

In my last note, I spoke of the dominant moral metaphor of modern times: a straight line, spanning good and evil. I also noted several points of weakness in that metaphor, and asked how else we might visualize questions of morality.

In this post I want to offer the first of two alternate metaphors, both of which originated (for me) in the writings of C.S. Lewis.

The first metaphor shows up in his "Space Trilogy," particularly Out of the Silent Planet. The hero, Ransom, is a rather gawky linguist who finds himself unceremoniously deposited on the alien planet of Malacandra. He quickly learns the language, but is surprised to find the natives have no word for "badness" or "evil." This actually reflects the medieval mythopoeia in which Lewis was grounded, a cosmology in which the Fall of Man affected the earth alone and left the heavens unblemished.

Ransom is forced to improvise, to invent a new vocabulary for moral negatives. In order to warn the natives about his enemy, the imperious Dr. Weston, Ransom lands on the term "bent."

As a metaphor, "bent" lacks the simple elegance of a linear black-white spectrum or gray-scale. But through a single modification -- a slight angle in place of a straight line -- it has access to a far richer pool of image associations.

Humans live in a notoriously intractable world. Cars break down in the middle of nowhere, household appliances have to be replaced with alarming frequency, and rain will inevitably fall on the first day of a week-long camping trip. In my family, we call that "God's sense of humor."

This world is profoundly non-cooperative. Even at the most basic level of existence, Nature sometimes seems to rear and buck, itching to rid herself of her riders. Take our bodies, for instance. As Lewis notes in The Four Loves, St. Francis of Assisi was in the habit of calling his body "Brother Ass." Is this not the  perfect and quintessential expression to encapsulates the feelings of bemusement and occasional frustration that every man and woman feels at some point in their lives towards to the very bodies by which they live?

So we see the metaphor is indeed a potent one. Through it we may unconsciously associate evil with the malfunctioning machine, a pipe warped out of alignment, a plumb-line or ruler that do not give a straight line, or in some cases a decidedly hostile force of nature.

As stated before, every sin is at root a corrupted or distorted image of virtue. This mental link conveys that crucial information with efficiency and concision.

But in the last analysis, this too fails. The metaphors withstands most critique, far more than the linear model. Indeed, it may be said it withstands all critique but one: darkness is the absence of light.

Evil is purely the negation of the good. We may treat sin as "bent" or corrupted virtue, and this is true in many senses. But the evil lies solely in the bend, in the corruption. Evil consists in what a thing is not, or what it was but is no longer. It never lies in the thing itself. The thing itself is purely good, for only the good can exist in reality.

This is a theological point, but one we will expand on in the next post. In the interim, once again we face the same question. What other ways might we rely upon, to visualize good and evil? What metaphors might incorporate this latest insight, and how might it also incorporate the content-rich imagery of these previous metaphors?

Stay tuned. It's quite a treat.

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