Sunday, March 11, 2007

What is The Tao, The Summum Bonum, or The Good?

Dear Clive Staples Lewis,

I didn’t cut my teeth on the tales of Narnia. My first visit was shortly before my own children met the lion, sailed with Caspian, and found themselves faced with the great dilemma of whether to set free the crazy man in the Silver Chair who called upon the name of Aslan.

I do dearly love those stories with the lion that is unashamedly dangerous. I love the talking animals and I love the children who are imperfectly courageous and kind but who have an unremitting sense that something important is going on. I love the Tertullian Spirit that the little Narnian visitors come to see, that “staying alive” is not the Sunum Bonum. They are faced with that ethical question that is so much our own, if not as obvious, “Must we live?” and answer in the negative.

You were a person of your time, and I won’t, here, discuss your mistaken conceptions about women and your female characters, though I may take them up sometime soon in an essay I have in my head entitled, “Why Did Lewis and Faulkner Discount Women?” Is that a little strong? Perhaps, for though you didn’t send Lucy or Susan to battle, you developed them as complete people and not as fools, true heroes of the story whose wisdom and intuition, and ACTION was every bit as integral to the salvation of Narnia as the sword play of the boys.

But I digress, for I am not reading the Narnia series right now. I am reading The Abolition of Man. I am intrigued by the Appendix entitled Illustrations of the Tao. In the book you defined the Tao as “a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart.” We post-moderns are struggling with this issue. Not just, what is this Tao, but does it exist?

I explored this subject a little in the early days of my blog in a survey entitled “What is a Characteristic of a Good Person.” It was more than a blog entry, for I had spent a number of months asking that question to many people in my life, from my mother to a waitress in Washington D.C. One of the interesting things about this experience was that most people did have an answer and the answers that I received did fall, to a great degree, within the parameters that are listed in your Appendix on the Tao. I have another interesting factoid about my blog survey, which I have discovered since I applied an analytic to my blog.

I get hits from all over the place. I’m fascinated that people from Caloocan to Wheaton to Calgary come to visit. The one blog entry that is hit regularly from everywhere, week after week, is that entry about the characteristics of a good person. How fascinating, that in a world of sex, violence, and war, people remain curious about goodness. I too am curious. I want to know goodness. I want to be good, in fact, in the face of both evil and my own tendency toward evil.

You say, (A of M, pg. 73), “We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

I remember a middle school history lesson on the importance of the Magna Carta. It was Ms. Ford who I remember, tiny in stature and generally rapid in her movements, stepping to a green chalk board, picking up a piece of chalk neatly poised in an aluminum holder, writing, The Magna Carta, and then briskly returning to the front of the desk, leaning back and looking at us intently. Ms. Ford was more precise than handsome Mr. D’Elia who taught English and wrote on a black board with dusty stubs of chalk, wrote, turned, licked his fingers, and asked our class to write articles for the school newspaper. Ms. Ford’s classes never got as far as World War II. Perhaps, she deliberately avoided reaching that point in more modern history, for she could not imagine teaching about the horrors of the holocaust and a world gone mad. But, oh, she could teach the Magna Carta.

Does Ms. Ford still teach the Tao of the Magna Carta, or has she been replaced by someone younger who aptly grapples with the ideas of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.

And what would Tertullian say about a philosophy that teaches that there is no Tao, only (what would Nietzsche call it) custom? Is there no longer, and was there never, anything to die for? When, Tertullian called out, “must we live?” should the answer have been, “Yes, for there is nothing greater, nothing holier than life itself, your own life, selfishly hoarded and protected and with nothing else to grant it higher meaning.”

I'm not a philosopher, and I'm not sure that I understand either Nietzsche or Wittgenstein. I think I could confidently say that Wittgenstein would say that all this talk about Tao, and Good, and Ethics is just simile without reference, hence nonsense. He would say, "I must admit it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value." However, even Wittgenstein, ends where many of us without such philosophic wit, more simply begin, that we have "a tendency in the human mind which[we] personally cannot help respecting deeply and [we] would not for [our lives] ridicule it." (Last sentence of 1929 Lecture on Ethics.)

So C.S. I lean toward your thinking here and toward the advice of Puddleglum from The Silver Chair, who said, "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones." I wonder what other people think?

Betsy DeGeorge


cadh 8 said...

Love this essay. Lewis has such a way of capturing ideas and helping you see them in a different way. He used his imagination to teach things about the human condition...what it is and what it should be. I wonder if Jesus' parables read a bit more like Lewis for those of the culture of the time. Not to hold Lewis too high, though...I just mean really capturing your heart and mind together.
But anyway, two Sundays ago I was teaching a Sunday school lesson on sin and finding forgiveness. I read a passage from the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It was where Eustace has become a dragon and then Aslan takes him to a pool of water and tells him to undress. Eustace tries to shed his skin like a snake, but layer after layer comes off with no sucess. He thinks he will never be able to bathe in the water. But then Aslan uses his claw to rip away the Dragon's skin. The process obviously was very painful, but so is the process of removing sin from our lives and cleansing our hearts. But once all that skin is gone, we can become clean. The imagry in the book was so cool.

brd said...

I agree that this ability of Lewis to speak truth through story is wonderful. Myth almost. Ms. D is reading 'Til We Have Faces. That one is even more like myth.

brd said...
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Josh Stock said...

I am that one who consistently hails from Wheaton. And I have not yet read your article on "Characteristics of a Good Person", but intend to shortly.

Lewis speaks of the Tao, and while Nietzche and Wittgenstein might dismiss it as cultural habit, the Catholic church knows it as Natural Law, and I saw it first in Romans 1. If you haven't already, I would suggest reading "What we Can't Not Know" by Budziszewski--a great book about Natural Law and the things we can't really disagree on...

brd said...

I will have to try and find the book you recommend Josh. Sounds like it is addressing the very issue that my thoughts are playing with.