Thursday, November 22, 2012
(The story so far: Catullus and Germanicus, two brothers with oddly anachronistic names, are sitting in a coffee shop arguing about the nature of reality, the nature of man and his moral acts, and the nature of nature. Catullus has just graciously agreed to pretend that he believes in natural law in order to give rules to the game.)
Germanicus: Okay. So according to the natural law there are three basic precepts for practical reasoning. Self-preservation --
Catullus: Hold on. I said I would give you a natural law argument. So sit quiet a moment and listen. Premise one: the human person is, by nature, a spiritual being who is extended into a material existence for the purpose of giving and receiving love.
Germanicus: Whose definition is that?
Catullus: Mine. And I believe that it is emminently rational. Obviously we have an experience of psychosomatic duality. My intuition tells me that the spiritual or mental aspects of my self are more essentially me than my body: I can conceive of a ghost as my “self,” I cannot conceive of a corpse in the same way. I can conceive of the spiritual part of me existing without a body, thinking, reasoning, perceiving forms directly through the imagination, receiving infused knowledge and inspiration from gods and muses. So what is the purpose of the body? To me, it seems clear that it is to allow an escape from the tedious insularity of absolute subjectivism. Bodies permit intersubjective interface between human beings. And why do we seek such interface? Because we do not wish to be lonely. Because we hope to love and be loved.
Germanicus: You're assuming that we deliberately create our own bodies. That seems like a weird assumption.
Catullus: Whether we deliberately create them or have them bestowed on us by gods or by demons is totally irrelevant. Everyone past the age of deliberation is perfectly capable of divesting himself of his body at a moment's notice. If he so desires, a straight razor or noose will quickly do the trick. Therefore our bodies are, in an important respect, chosen.
Germanicus: But if our bodies are bestowed on us by something or someone else, then they're not ours to do with as we will. If they're just an epiphenomenon of mentality, then we have to get into the question of where our spiritual selves come from. You can't address questions of nature without addressing questions of origin.
Catullus: I think that you can make reasonable assertions about what a thing is for without necessarily knowing where it came from.
Germanicus: Not with anything sophisticated. Let's say you have a person who has never interacted with any human artifact before. Give the guy a knife, and even if he has no idea of the intention of the knife-maker he'll probably be using it to cut up meat by the end of the day. Give the guy an i-Pod, and he'll probably hang it around his neck as an ornament, or start sacrificing small animals to it. A human person is a tremendously complex entity.
Catullus: A tremendously complex self-aware entity. And that makes all the difference in the world. I'm not an artifact that I found lying about on the serengetti. I know what I am for because I know what brings me happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and joy. I don't need to know who or what lies somewhere over the epistemological rainbow, all I need is the evidence of my lived experience.
Germanicus: And you're saying that in your lived experience, the thing that brings you happiness and such is loving and being loved.
Germanicus: Okay, but let's say that you had an experience of loving and of being loved, but it was false. The other person was just taking advantage of you, laughing behind your back, creating an illusion for some ulterior motive. Would you be happy with that?
Catullus: Obviously not. I would be unhappy because my natural desire for love was being thwarted.
Germanicus: Because the love isn't true. Right?
Catullus: Oh, I see. You're trying to smuggle truth into the discussion. I'll concede beauty for you in advance, by the way, just so you don't have to waste time. Truth, obviously, is an important quality of true love. But in so far as truth does not serve love or beauty, I don't give a fig for it.
Germanicus: Is that statement true?
Catullus: It's honest. Truth and honesty are not exactly the same thing. Truth claims some sort of objective status, whereas honesty, good faith and authenticity are perfectly possible in a purely subjective sense. So I take back what I said about true love. So long as love is authentic, it is worth having.
Germanicus: Love and beauty are both impossible without truth. Love without truth just becomes emotionalism, and beauty without truth just becomes sentimentalism. Besides, when you love something, or someone, you love because of something of genuine, enduring value. If the object of love is not truly worthy of love, then loving it will ultimately bring unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Catullus No. If the object of love is not capable of reciprocating, then it will ultimately bring dissatisfaction. That's why you can't get through life being in love with your stuffed animals. But if the beloved is capable of loving in return, and if they do so, then the love will be satisfying. That's why people are constantly falling in love, marrying, and having happy lives with people who everyone else finds odious. Everyone else is incapable of experiencing the reciprocity of feeling which makes such love valuable.
Germanicus: I don't know if that “constantly” happens, but I do know that people very often fall in love, and then fall out of love, and that it makes them miserable. That's why love has to be grounded in something more enduring, more true, than mere passion. If it's just subjective feeling it doesn't do what you said it was supposed to do, it doesn't get us out of our insular subjectivity.
Catullus: But you're talking about escaping from subjectivity into objectivity. I'm talking about escaping from insularity into relatedness. The former requires truth, the latter merely requires authenticity.
Germanicus: I'm talking about the fact that the passions are no basis for a moral system.
Catullus: I never said they were.
Germanicus: Then what do you mean by love?
Catullus: I mean that which allows a person to transcend isolated subjectivity and enjoy communion with another person. Obviously there are numerous different modes of loving, and they are not all reducable to mere emotionalism. Loving another person requires responsibility, and perseverence, and forgiveness, and communication, and all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with the passions.
Germanicus: But how are you going to derive an obligation to be responsible, or to persevere, without appealing to objective truth?
Catullus: That is how lovers naturally behave if their love is authentic. If love is inauthentic, then there is absolutely nothing at all for anyone to gain through some sort of obligatory perseverence and responsibility. All you get then is an empty simulation of the effects of love, but without love at the heart of it. And there are few things that make people more consistently unhappy than the continuation of the forms of love after love is gone.
Germanicus: Then it all comes down to emotionalism. You're hiding behind this language of “authenticity,” but what you really mean is that if people feel love then they will do all of these other things that are morally laudable, but if they don't feel love then they won't and they don't have to.
Catullus: No. Because love itself is obligatory. It is the only obligation. Once you have set your heart on something you must not be fickle. If you stop “feeling” love, then you have an obligation to delve within yourself and within the relationship until you find it again. That is why lovers take vows, in order to relieve one another of the fear of abandonment. It is also, incidentally, why you are not going to convince me that I ought to give up my love because it is “unnatural.” I don't break my promises on the basis of casuistries.
Germanicus: You're equivocating between love and sex. I'm not suggesting that you give up love. I'm suggesting that there are cases where the latter is incompatible with the former. But since you're not willing to entertain the notion of objectivity, I'll meet you half-way. I think I can prove, within a framework of intersubjective authenticity, that sometimes sex is a betrayal of love.
(End of Part II)