Monday 22 June 2015

Being child-like, apostasy, recovering child-like-ness - The three phases of life (referencing Thomas Traherne)

Most children have an innocence about them, which is (more or less - widely varying) corrupted as they mature towards adulthood - the best people then regain a childlike quality: there is a recovery of innocence.

The holiest people have a childlike quality; all geniuses have a childlike quality (even the nasty ones); some of the most courageous people (for instance in war) are also childlike - it seems likely that this is what is supposed to happen.


Of course, while child-like-ness in an adult is good, child-ish-ness is bad.

Adolescents are self-conscious and selfish, and most modern adults retain adolescent selfishness - and they are proud of it!

It is a modern compliment to be described as 'youthful' - youthfulness is clinged-to into the twenties, thirties... nowadays even into the fifties and sixties; but actually youth is the worst phase of life, and youthfulness is (traditionally) the worst time of life.

Yet youth is necessary, and it is a necessary transition - adulthood (adult child-like-ness) lies on the other side of youth.

But it is bad to get stuck in a transition phase.


If both are child-like; what is the difference, then, between the ideal child and adult state?

Simply that the child un-self-conscious - the child does not know he is childlike. The mature adult is child-like and knows it: he has consciousness of his own child-like state.


Consider this passage from Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, describing his childhood experience: 

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason.

My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious, I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread. In the absence of these I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour. and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me: All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath.

Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

Traherne writes of those things which as a child he knew by intuition, and which since his Apostasy he collected again by the highest reason. By this he means that his primordial state of child-like-ness was lost, and then he recovered it - and it is this recovery which enabled him to write the above passage. 

When I read Traherne it is tempting to mourn the loss of the first stage of natural religion - in which:

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world.

The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels.

I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire.

The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them.

So that is phase one. And then what happened? Phases two and three...

With much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

Elsewhere, Traherne explains that his corruption was by 'the world' - and not from any intrinsically sinful nature - his childhood innocence was real innocence.

Nonetheless, the corruption was 'unlearned' - and he became 'as it were, a little child again' - the evidence for which is all through his writing. 


This three phase division of life, seems to be a universal metaphysical destiny; it seems to be how things are meant to be.; it seems to describe the shape of history and the shape of culture and the template for each human life. 

It can be described in terms of a phasic development of consciousness,  or a phasic increase in freedom, or a process of divinization: of Man becoming a god (a Son of God - as Christians call it; a Son of God necessarily sharing in God's divinity).

This also describes the phases of pre-Christian monotheism of God the Father; the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ; and the consequences of that event on the history of Mankind and of each man.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

C. S. Lewis talks about these three phases -- which he terms enchanted, disenchanted, and reinchanted -- in his essay "Talking About Bicycles."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - And no doubt he got the idea from the same place as I did! - Owen Barfield.

John Fitzgerald said...

I think this is Susan's problem in The Last Battle - not that she's refused entry to Heaven by a harsh God, but that she in a sense excludes herself by becoming fixated on the trappings of youth - "lipstick, nylons", etc. She's lost touch with her 'Narnian' childhood while barring herself from the restored innocence which mature adulthood offers. 'Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again'" as Lewis writes to his god-daughter in the inscription to The Lion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JF - Yes, that would fit.

ted said...

David Bentley Hart says "wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience."

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - Good quote - but DBH never struck me as himself innocent and childlike... is he?

ted said...

I don't know him personally and find him to be a tad academic in his online talks, but his recent book was well written in this regard.