Wednesday, April 4, 2012

GK Chesterton in Defense of an Ethic for Change

"Every act of will is an act of self limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else."

GK Chesterton, 
"The Suicide of Thought"


In response to an argument I made for transformation, a colleague rightly criticized that this may be unjustly condemning of compulsive behavior to describe it as “demanding, repetitive, and consumptive.”

The argument I was proposing was in part (a large part) an analysis and an imperative of Queer Christianity in CS Lewis; a description of a form of queerness in his philosophy as well as an inviting experiment in applying queer theory to his thinking. As such, my initial response is to pull a quote from the second primary text I am considering in this study, the Great Divorce:

"The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble.... the whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.... It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it... And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine" (CS Lewis, the Great Divorce).

As we see, the distinction between transformation and repetition, and the ethical imperative which I am reading in Lewis’s work strongly in favor of the prior, comes down to the basis of ethics: the power of choice. To explain this, I will explicate the relationship and the priority of life, creation, transformation, and choice.



I am in favor of creation as a part of trans-formation, and choice but wish to be so for reasons more than a simply preference for that which is familiar to me and the powers over those things which are afforded to me because of my various privileges. In response to my colleague’s critique, I would say then that there is a logical reason to favor these things in regards to ethics in a metaphysical study.

In will explain this by using Heidegger’s phrase “being toward death” although I may be using it differently than he intended it. I say may, because I do not believe that this was necessarily the best phrase to explain or translate what he meant when he wrote it, but also because I don’t claim to fully understand what he meant; also because I generally don’t agree with it, which may cloud my judgment.

When I use the phrase, being-towards-X, I mean to say acting in a way which is oriented towards this as the priority over its alternatives, but which may include the alternatives (as I will show) as subordinate goods. In acting in such a way, then, we not only enact and affirm this direction but also maintain the power to choose that direction again.


Changing Lives

"Being-Towards Life" or "Being-Towards Death?" What's the difference?

This starts us generally, with all that Life and Death connote. Taken literally, which I believe Heidegger was less interested in doing, I favor Life because it maintains and affirms the joys and goods of the world and myself; as well as their relationship. GK Chesterton calls this loyalty, and I affirm loyalty as a virtue. I however admit that in this respect, I cannot answer my colleague's response without going further. Loyalty to “the system” we call Life is all well and good for those whom Life has been kind and given privileges to. Life may be and very well is seen as an oppressor by many.

Thus, I further define Being-Towards Life or Death as: Being-Towards Creation over Being-Towards Nothingness.

In this way, I define Life in terms beyond those of the biologist, and say that all things that create are alive. I further propose that since there is no creation of new essences (as far as I know) but rather the same matter-energy constantly changing form, creation means trans-formation (for us, not in a metaphysical, what I would describe as “divine” or “essential” office of creation; “essential literally meaning here “of essences”). Because we cannot be-towards being or be-towards nothingness absolutely, we cannot essentially create or annihilate, we can only be-towards in the sense of seeking either the diversification of forms or the reduction of the diversity of forms.

Thus this statement becomes, Being-Towards Transformation over Being Towards Repetition.

Nothingness is the par-excellence of singularity and repetition, because as Shakespeare writes “Nothing comes from Nothing.” Here I defiantly disagree with Slavoj Zizek who proposes in a metaphysical reading of the Un (the Un-Conscious, Un-Being, Un-Life, and Un-God) expressed in the Monstrosity of Christ. I stand with many of the classical (Greek/Roman) thinkers as well with Christian Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas to eschew Nothingness as a real possibility either as an origin, a possible end, or a fully imaginable idea to us. Yet, Being-Towards Nothingness can still manifest in what I called “demanding, repetitive, and consumptive” behavior and orientations. But, Chesterton, who I invoked earlier, reprimands transformation, or change, for similar problems:

"It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable. If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress. It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote -

“Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”

He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is. Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can get into. The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible."

GK Chesterton, "the Suicide of Thought"

What this brings me to, is the necessary understanding of an Ethic (for Transformation) which affirms all of the virtues I extolled in the other formulations, which is,

Being-Towards Choice over Being-Towards Determinism.

Thinking back to the dialog from the Great Divorce, Lewis’s metaphysical ethic seems to affirm that for us, who can chose, we must chose and continue to chose in order to remain ourselves. The problem is that to give ourselves completely over to a single choice, to become completely and eternally the result of that action/being, is to end our ability to chose. This is good for four related reasons:

(1) the notion that in order to “be good” or “love” we must be perpetually free to chose to do otherwise;

(2) our experiences as persons constantly invite us to make choices and to lose this ability (however limited, contingent or a fantasy of perceived powers) would be to lose a vital aspect of how we define what we are;

(3) Ethics requires choice; without the ability to chose or without free-will, we are no longer capable of discussing ethics (as far as I know);

and (4) Choosing choice allows us to chose mechanism, determinism, enslavement (Christians have long described “sin” or “bad behavior” as a kind of enslavement, and Hell as the ultimate form of bondage; which again, in Lewis and Aquinas, Hell is defined as nothingness or as close to nothingness which we as we can get, and may chose to embrace over being; rather than Hell as other forms of divinely sadistic punishment). The reverse is not true. If we are machines or slaves, we by definition cannot choose. Choosing to choose allows us the power to choose to become a slave, to enjoy the power to imagine it as alternative, or to live in a limited form of slavery while maintaining the principle power of choice. This is what I meant by subordination, we may become slaves in a limited way, while maintaining choice as a principle power, and thus enjoy the benefits of both.


Fredrick Nietzsche and others have often described those bound to moral or ethics as slaves, and in a way they are right; but they are slaves that maintain the power to chose and refuse that choice generally and that slavish action specifically. The only unthinkable thought, the only real taboo and sin which we must not choose, writes GK Chesterton, is to give up the power of thought or choice. And yet, he admits, if our world is just, it is that we can even choose to abdicate choice; and all too often exist-towards determinism by our choices. This is what we must guard against, that is our ethical imperative, because it is the basis for all ethics.

Now, to go back and to summarize, we have found that because choice permits us to engage in its alternative in a subordinated way and to at any moment give ourselves wholly to that alternative, we may say that:

Being-Towards Choice can mean, Being-Towards Determinism IN Choice;

Or, Being-Towards Repetition in Transformation;

Or, Being-Towards Nothingness in Creation;

Or, Being-Towards Death in Life.

The reverse, you will find, is logically impossible. Nothing comes from nothing and the determined machine cannot choose. Unless, of course, the machine exists, lives, transforms and can in a sense choose (as we may say we are, and do) in which case we are back affirming to my thesis; because then the machine is not determined after all. Thus the most logical (I do not say “only” logical out of skepticism of my own position) we must generally ethically affirm a preference for choice, transformation, creation, and life as I have offered them.


The Crip Contingency

Considering the crip example which my colleague offered specifically, we may say that they are less able to make an “ethical choice” or that their powers are more contingent. It is our imperative, I would argue for different but related reasons, to see that all persons and that person be given the utmost powers to choose.

In the end though, the ethical imperative for choice, and thereby transformation, remains; it’s simply a matter of degree of execution, as it always is. The person with the power to rule nations, or create worlds, or cast magic spells that can turn humans into fish, or to cure diseases, or to help the poor, all have different abilities and thus different ways in which their ethical choices may manifest. Each person has different abilities and thus different abilities and forms of choice. It is a fact that many things are not a choice for me that are choices for others. It is also a fact that I have choices that others do not.

We can of course expand this in as many permutations as I like, considering the difference and contingency of each thing and its relationship to free will. We may ask if a dog has choice and therefore ethics. Does a rock make choices? They are clearly not the kind of choices which we experience, but this is a fundamental question in what I have (now) been calling, queer, vital, or speculative realism.

There is also the interesting and possibly impossible question of in what and who is to judge our choices; or the choices of a dog or a rock for that matter. THAT is a challenge I do not in any way intend to grapple with here.

Now, you may say that ethics don’t matter, because we all die or it all turns to shit anyway, but again, that doesn’t defy the imperative of ethics, merely their importance in the grand scheme of our lives or this cosmos; and that is a very different, but related, question.


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