Saturday, 10 November 2018

The hungry sheep look up for metaphysics... and are given morals

The quote is slightly adapted from Charles Williams; it struck me as both absurd and true.

Absurd, because of the idea of the modern masses looking up from their mobile phones and asking their Christian pastors (which they don't have) for metaphysics!

(However, if they did; they would still be given morals.)

But the statement is true, nonetheless - in the sense that nothing less will suffice to address the modern malaise than a different basic understanding of the nature of ultimate reality.

Christianity gets nowhere in stressing morals rather than metaphysics; because morals depend on metaphysics; and when the basic understanding is modern materialism, then morals will inevitably be some species of the hedonistic (as well as incoherent): there is nothing else for them to be.

But when Christian metaphysics is dry and abstract - as so much of mainstream traditional Christian theology is dry and abstract; and as Charles William's own metaphysics was dry and abstract - then the sheep may feel that their fundamental problems are not being addressed.

The sheep find The World - the world as described by their assumptions and as experienced in daily life; and indeed them-selves as people, as souls - to be utterly dull and deadly: hence the mobile phones.

Modern Romanticism, as accessed via those mobile phones, and social media; is nothing but distraction, escapism, superficial stimulation: thus cumulative despair. It is just politics, sex and pleasure; the mere stimulation of responses - anger, hatred, resentment, schadenfreude, lust, laughter, luxury, smugness etc.

What the sheep need, what they 'really want' is a Romantic Metaphysics that is true, hence liveable. They don't know they want it; but nothing less will suffice.

Metaphysics needs to be Romantic, hence desirable; and True, hence liveable.

Luckily, it is.

But so far, Romantic Christians have done a poor job of explaining their metaphysics - often because they understand it in ways that are abstract, over-complex, too systematic - until Romantic metaphysics sound like just-more-bureaucracy...

Charles Williams fell into this trap with his writings on Romantic Theology. His basic ideas were exciting: that falling- and being-in love could be a path of Christian life; that a life of creative activity could be a path of Christian life; that life was an adventure quest and we were part of an altruistic and mutually helping fellowship.

But when Williams got down to specifics; the exciting ideas dissolved into complex, incomprehensible terminology. More crucially, Williams's detailed ideas were either wrong or simply incoherent.

In fact, Williams could in practice make around-himself a world of Romance, in which he and his circle of friends, disciples, colleagues could live their lives. It was this magical personal charisma that so impressed so many people; which made Williams so popular and admired.

But this was the person, not the metaphysics. Once Williams had died, it could be seen that his writings held only the shadows of that ecstasy in living that the man' presence could impart.

So, the problem of Romantic metaphysics remains unsolved.. at least by Williams. But there is an answer.

The answer can be found in the writings of fellow Inkling Owen Barfield; albeit again in a complex and abstract way. The answer can also can be found in William Arkle, and at times much more simply expressed; but Arkle is hardly known.

Probably, in practice, people will have to solve it for themselves or it will not be solved at all. And one would suppose that there are strong incentives to do so. Yet who - of the millions of mainstream, miserable, modern hedonists - is making any serious attempt?

There exists an answer. But one thing is sure: without personal effort, there will be no answer.


Chiu ChunLing said...

It's true that morals depend on metaphysics, but once you nail down the metaphysics and impose a bit of internal consistency in applying them, you mostly end up with the same base set of morals. The difference is in which morals take precedence.

This also applies to the precedence of teaching morals over metaphysics. Every significant moral philosopher agrees with Christ that you have to have a solid foundation of morality prior to engaging in serious metaphysics. The reason is simple. Metaphysics requires scrupulous intellectual honesty, conscientiously tracking which assumptions you've granted and which you have not. If you are disinclined to honesty, your metaphysics will fail. And honesty is trained by morality. Morality can be described simply as being honest about what you do and why. Or it can be described as how an honest person would act.

Habits of morality are in any case inextricable from a habit of honesty, whether we consider honesty an attribute of morality or morality as an expression of honesty (or accept that both are true).

You can of course introduce people to metaphysics before they have a firm moral basis. But it is mere dabbling, the moment they reach a conclusion that condemns a present immoral behavior, they will resort to sophistic evasion or obfuscation of the result, and they would be better off quitting their attempt at metaphysics right there.

This is why we speak of shepherds and sheep.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - "Every significant moral philosopher agrees with Christ that you have to have a solid foundation of morality prior to engaging in serious metaphysics. "

That was then, this is now. Now it is the metaphysics that undermines the morals.

But of course, as I wrote on this blog a while back, the success of modernity is that - to escape - it needs at least two things to change 'simultaneously'; and this is very improbable. Hence the great resiliance of modernity.

The reason metaphysics comes first is that everybody already knows true morality - at least they know it well-enough; since it is built into everyone (the Tao as CSL calls it in Abolition of Man) - and they also know it in a distorted and hostile form, as what traditionalist religionists/ 'fundmentalists' believe.

Therefore, it is easier and more-likely to move swiftly/ instantly from metaphysical refrom to moral reform; than the other way about (when personal morality is seen as individual, ephemeral, utilitarian etc).

William Wildblood said...

Isn't the point that, without a proper metaphysics, morals are unstable and can change according to circumstances? I'm not sure how long even the Golden Rule could last without a religious underpinning or the memory of that. And if it did last in any significant way, it would only be because it would be a necessary glue that holds society together, thus a purely practical thing only which is hardly moral in any real sense.

Chiu ChunLing said...

While there are many different schemes of morality that could be considered the results of infinite variation in possible metaphysics, nearly all of them are incoherent as a result of contradictions in the metaphysical assumptions on which they are based. There are only so many metaphysical outlooks that do not assert or give rise to contradiction once you start analyzing them logically.

And these all share a fairly closely overlapping set of moral tenets, among them the rule that you should essay to treat others how you would like to be treated. Exactly why this is a rule would change with the metaphysics, but if the metaphysics are logically consistent it will end up as a rule of morality. But it will only be primary in a select few cases (it is not primary in Christianity).

A firm grounding in morality is what is necessary to see (or admit, rather) that modern metaphysics (and their results) are wrong. To 'know' good morality only as "what bad people do" is precisely the opposite of knowing it. To see honesty particularly only as an intolerable offense against society/fairness/liberty/whatever is to lack any capacity for serious intellectual rigor.

And metaphysics cannot be seriously studied nor applied without such rigor.

The strength of modernity lies mostly in forbidding parents to teach their children morality before allowing them to engage in metaphysics. This ensures that those children cannot bring any serious intellectual rigor to criticism of modernist metaphysics, which are essentially a bag of cats tossed in an oven.

Of course, that's the great weakness of modernity as well, it ensures that you end up with what C.S. Lewis called 'men without chests', a spiritually impotent and cowardly lot who don't have the strength or courage to preserve civilization. So modernity inevitably destroys itself, along with those who cling to it's delusions. We've seen that happen on the local scale many times, now we're seeing it occur on a global scale.