Thursday, July 7, 2011

Quantitative Quiddity

In my first post on this theme, I spoke of simple dualism as the dominant moral metaphor of modern times. In my second post, I suggested a metaphor taken from Lewis of "bent"-ness. In my latest post writing Of Morals and Metaphors, I advanced a third metaphor, retaining the same associations with "distortion" but relying on wormhole imagery taken from modern physics and science-fiction.

These are obviously not the only moral metaphors on which we rely. One common image association is to social status: as C.S. Lewis noted in Studies in Words, this is how "nobility" came to mean good and "villainy" became bad. To take another example, we inherit from Latin an image association between evil and the left hand (sinister).

More pointedly, our language also preserves such phrases as "stout-hearted," which analogize between goodness and body mass. The word "great" carries a similar history: before it became a synonym for 'cool' and 'groovy,' it meant 'big,' 'thick,' and 'massive.'

It is lucky I don't put stock in my own originality, or I should be very disappointed. This is precisely the metaphor I propose. To be good is to be substantial or solid. To be bad is to be translucent or ephemeral. Evil is as an abscess in the skin; immorality, a hollow in the heart.

It was this image I first encountered in C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, towards the end of a chapter on moral education.
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element.' The head rules the belly through the chest--the seat, as Alanus tells of us Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment--these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and viseral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of The Green Book and its kind [of moral education] is to produce what may be called Men without Chests [emphasis added].

Good God! I love that quote, especially the line "Men without Chests." If I lived in an earlier age, I'd probably wax rhapsodic of felicitous expression and many-splendored meanings. As it stands, I got nothing save perhaps an appreciative mumble.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis presents a whole slew of similar metaphors. As the bus ascends from hell to heaven, it rises from a deep valley over the edge of a cliff, until finally resting on a grassy meadow. We are later informed that the bus was "moving" only in terms of size: hell might fit into the merest grain of sand in the heavenly beaches. Likewise, as the 'tourists' exit the bus to walk over the plain, they soon learn that the world is more real than themselves. They are like wan apparitions, ghosts haunting a landscape, unable to bend nature to their will or even walk on blades of grass without searing pain. Heaven is simply more real -- more substantial -- than hell.

I've begun to utilize a rather idiosyncratic term for this sort of metaphoric imagery. I call it quantitative quiddity. Let's parse!

"Quantitative" should be obvious: it means something measurable, whether by volume or weight or dimension. "Quiddity" is far more peculiar. It's actually a term from medieval scholastic philosophy, derived from the Latin word quid (meaning "what"). Quiddity means, literally, the "what-ness" of a thing, the essence or substance of it. The medieval School-men contrasted it with haeccity, the "this-ness" of a thing, that which makes it unique or individual.

'Quantitative quiddity' is a deliberately oxymoronic phrase. An essence is non-physical and therefore, by definition, immeasurable. But, relying on this association of morality to mass, we might perceive goodness as a sort of solid substance that can be 'measured' by moral intuition and judgment.

I didn't realize it at first, but over time this imagery has become second nature for me. I first noticed it after my then-girlfriend pointed out how often I used the word "solid" as a term of approval or praise. I started using it in the ordinary sense of reliable or dependable, but over time it took a much deeper meaning. Solid meant substantial, and substantially human.

This raises a possible objection: namely, the danger in how this imagery might move us to treat immoral individuals. The temptation under this framework would be to treat evildoers in a condescending manner, as though they were less than human. At the same time, similar dangers surround every moral metaphor: dualism might lead to antagonistic behavior, treating evildoers as enemies, while the "bent" imagery might lead to patronizing behavior, treating them as though they were lumps of inert matter, as machines broken and in need of fixing.

To be sure, this idea has shaped and affected my moral judgments and intuitions. To be immoral is to lack the 'stuff' or substance of our common humanity. Therefore, when I look upon human evil, or even apathy to evil, I see something less than fully human. My instinctual or emotional response is a sort of pity, mixed with contempt. But this response is first and foremost directed towards the act, not the person.

We have all heard the maxim (coined by Augustine, loosely paraphrased by Gandhi) to "love the sinner but hate the sin." By distinguishing so sharply between what is the "true" person (the good) and what is not, I find it is quite possibly to live out that dictum.

Sins in the soul are like pockmarks on a face: we notice them, but it's good manners not to stare or point. There may be holes and tiny gaps where your humanity should be, but so long as they're not too egregious we'll treat you no differently. Indeed I understand this was once a sign of good breeding, or even true nobility of the soul. Like the dear old Don (Quixote), we treat the lowly-born Aldonza as though she were a princess Dulcinea. We cast others in the best light, and implicitly look for the best behavior even where we would expect the basest.

Indeed, this moral metaphor should not point us to contempt so much as profound hope. Contra the Calvinists, man is not totally depraved. Moral conduct is always within our grasp. Goodness is not foreign to us, but is the fulfillment and perfection of our nature.

There really is no convenient point at which to draw this note to a close: there are so many implications of this moral metaphor, the extent of which I'm only now beginning to grasp. But I think one final reflection might satisfy the desire for resolution.

From this metaphor, we see that moral conduct is intrinsically ennobling. Our good deeds create habits, patterns of moral behavior that fill in the gaps in our own humanity. The phrase "fake it until you make it" contains surprising insight. We don't have to be good in order to behave well; we become good by behaving like it. This lifts a tremendous burden from our shoulders.

Perfect holiness, heroic virtue, and salvation itself -- these are the outcomes of a well-lived life, not the prerequisites for it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a staunch supporter of the power of metaphors, and from a practical stand-point I really appreciate these images. However, I'm troubled by the implications of your conclusion. If, as you say, holiness, virtue, and salvation are the product of moral conduct, then the Gospel is rendered impotent through redundancy. What need have we of a savior if "moral behavior fills in the gaps," what cause for a divine sacrifice if 'perfect holiness' can be achieved through human effort?

    Taking your metaphor of emptiness, apply it to a dental cavity: A good, solid tooth, can be hollowed out, emptied by decay, and still retain a facade of strength. The cavity can be cleaned, filled, strengthened and maintained, but it's no longer a solid tooth, the damage done is irreversible. So also, a soul that has been 'bent' or caved in, cannot, of its own inclining or volition, regain an uncompromised existence.