Friday, February 15, 2008

Eliot on memory

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

- T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding II.138-42.

An act of harm done with good intentions is still an act of harm. This too, is part of the human condition: the inability to secure our desires through our limited capacity for action. And so all our actions must be committed to God in hope and open to repentance.


Dawn said...

More limiting than our inability to act is our lack of understanding and information, but also those limitations are ones that, with patience, we are more likely tto be able to overcome.

byron smith said...

Dawn, thanks for that suggestion. Would you be able to expand on it a little? Why do you see lack of understanding and information as more significant than our inability to secure our desires?

Dawn said...

Our body and our environment do severely limit what we are capable of, but are options are still wide enough that any particular problem might be overcome if we build a sufficient grasp of cause and effect. I love Four Quartets precisely for the humility it teaches - and I love your statement "all our actions must be committed to God in hope and open to repentance." That is very true. But awe before God must be somehow coupled with confidence in our own, human strength. I would like to counter your poem with another poem, but I don't know that pragmatism is a very popular topic among poets! Actually, there is probably something by Whitman that would be appropriate, but I can't think what it is.

Drew said...

a sufficient grasp of cause and effect

Is cause and effect a sufficient way of thinking about our actions and the world?

byron smith said...

Our body and our environment do severely limit what we are capable of
These are parts of our limitations, but were not primarily what I was referring to when I mentioned our inability to secure our desires. Just as much, if not more, I was referring to such things as conflicts between our desires (both internally and with others), the opacity of some of our desires to our own understanding, the coincidences of competing desires that cancel out both, the myopia and failures of imagination that thwart our desires, and so on.

I have no opposition in principle to humanity's search for knowledge of the world we inhabit. But technology will simply end up as a path to more frustration of desire (or the greater oppression of the desires of the many by the few) if we do not also pay attention to the human heart, that is, if we do not receive a new heart by the work of the Spirit.

Martin Kemp said...

An act of harm done with good intentions is still an act of harm.

So what does a virtue theory of ethics have to say about this issue? Isn't it possible to be a little too deontological?

byron smith said...

Marty - intention is not irrelevant; my comment was merely intended (!) to rule out the (commonly held) opposite position - that intention is all.

Dawn said...

I was referring to such things as conflicts between our desires...

It seems to me the underlying, abstract desires, the ones that ultimately drive us, are not in any way intrinsically conflicted. (I'm talking about things like physical needs and comforts, the desire to be loved and respected and the desire to offer love and respect, physical affection, etc.) The disharmony only arises in the particular ways our environment shapes these abstract needs into specific ones. Maybe the boys in high school taught Jill that the only way she was lovable is by offering sex and so now her boyfriend feels unloved because Jill has cheated on him. There are a billion ways it can happen and only with meticulous study of how cause and effect works in the world can they be overcome... and that means, especially, seeing us humans as a part of that world, as information processing machines.

None of that is to say we are merely information processing machines, or that science has a monopoly on truth, just that science needs its breathing room to do its thing... and in the case of psychology that means seeing people as information processing machines.

By the way, the potential for technology to "simply end up as a path to more frustration of desire" is something I worry a lot about as well. But again, it is science that needs to play the primary role in figuring out how to prevent/overcome this... while spirituality provides the impetus to do so.

And I believe science will ultimately know to leave a space open for religion, too. How can reason be a legitimate biological instinct if religious faith is not as well?

Howdy, this is a long post! Oh, but if I'm at it, I have to say as well that if you are interested in the heart, then you might be interested in the poetry of Dorothea Lasky as well. She is concerned with the things you are concerned with and is offering a solution through art, art with an ecstatic, revelatory feel.

Dawn said...

Awe: A Dialogue
By Dorothea Lasky

He was always distant.
No he wasn't

Yes he was, you told everyone.
Sometimes he wasn't

And what about poetry?
My friend said she wanted to kill herself because she couldn't write a poem

Well, what's it to you?
I understand, I want to kill myself now

And what about the real one over there. He loves you.
He never calls

Yes he does, when he can.
Not really, not with the obsessive quality he should

I love him.

He's sweet. He reminds me of the forest.
Of the fog on the forest in California?

No, not that, the other sort of forest
With the fires and that sort of thing?

No, not like that, like the fog.

And what is the fog?
I don't know, the world's saliva

Do you really mean that?
Yes I do, I mean the spirit

And what about the things you've learned?
They mean nothing

And fire?

And what of longing and the din of metal?
Those are occupiers. Leave me, I am free.

Then why are you still awake?
Freedom is not contentment. Freedom is only art.

And is love art?
No, art is nothing like fire

And how do you feel?
I am burning

And what is happening?
My spirit is ascending, my soul is trapped

And what is trapping it?
God. God and Awe.

Megan said...

I like the Eliot quote. Good intentions are a tricky thing though - I wonder whether they are the motivator as often as we like to think?