Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Matthew Arnold or George Meredith


Perhaps I rationalize, looking away from philosophy some time ago and turning back toward poetry, but I don't believe modern philosophy has many (any?) answers.  No philosopher today has produced a thoroughgoing "system."   Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, et al don't tell us what to think but strive instead to tell us how.  Many of them concentrate upon the interpretation of words and expressions.  Matthew Arnold's poem on the other hand falls into the what to think category.  Up until 1859 our ancestor's were happy with religious explanations.  After Darwin things changed.  In Lovett and Hughes' The History of the Novel in England,  page 318 they write, "Both Meredith and Hardy lived in the intellectual atmosphere of science, and are evidence of its penetration into thought and style  There are some hundreds of references to science in Hardy's novels  Both accepted the theory of evolution, but while Meredith's reading of it gave hope of infinite achievement for man through the development of his intellectual faculties, Hardy saw consciousness as an adventitious circumstance in the cosmic process, something for which nature had made no provision.  In 1883 he wrote in his diary: 'We [human beings] have reached a degree of intelligence which Nature never contemplated in framing her laws, and for which she consequently has provided no adequate satisfactions.' . . .  It is to him the fundamental principle of tragedy.    He has declared explicitly in his poetry the philosophy which is implicit in his novels.  In his poem on New Year's Day, 1906, he represents 'God' as asserting:

    .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  My labors, logicless,
        You must explain, not I.
    Sense-sealed I wrought without a guess
    That I evolved a consciousness
        To ask for reasons why.

    Strange that ephemeral creatures who
        By my own ordering are,
    Should see the shortness of my view,
    Use ethic tests I never knew
        Or made provision for.

Hardy, like Meredith, bears witness to the advance of the nature-sense during the century after Wordsworth.  In his noting of natural phenomena, 'the business of the elements,' he was extraordinarily minute and delicate.  His senses were instruments of rare precision.  And, like Meredith, Hardy uses the symbolism of scene to express his philosophy.  Egdon Heath, in The Return of the Native, typifies the enduring force of nature against which man vainly pits his puny strength.  Only those of the characters who accept it and live nearest to it, survive, while Eustacia Vye, who represents opposition to it, brings ruin upon herself and those about her. . . ."

There are plenty of philosophers who have told us what to think but as far as I know, few of their conclusions are accepted today -- at least conclusions of the sort Matthew Arnold required when he wrote,

"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

It is easy to place Arnold in Lovett and Hughes definition of Hardy's philosophy.  The whole educated world drew conclusions after 1859 and it seems fair that these people must fall into either Meredith's camp or Hardy's.  Or, to hark back to William James Varieties of Religious Experience, religious people fall into two categories: They are either sick souls or healthy souls.  Within the Christian framework, which James assumed, they were either people who dwelt upon their own sinfulness (sick souls) or were people who assumed God's forgiveness (healthy souls) and moved on.

Taking Meredith's view we can generate a positive attitude about evolution.   Evolution isn't going to stop and we have every reason to expect that man's mental abilities will benefit.  Process Theology deriving from Alfred North Whitehead's Process Philosophy takes the gist of Hardy's poem (in a manner of speaking) and makes something positive from it.  God didn't intend creatures who could "ask for reason why" but now that they have asked them, God is learning from them.  Humans along with God are evolving.

There are plenty of "healthy souls" out there but many take the view that "sick souls" probably have the right idea:  Better to be a sick soul and be realistic than a "healthy soul" and be naive.  There is no room in nature, red in tooth and claw, for optimism.  Watch the movies based on comic book heroes if you wish, but if you want reality read Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.  At least that's my impression.  I don't think that view holds up well when it is analyzed.  You have to go back into the constellation of presuppositions of the now-pessimistic writer.  Did he take a simplistic view of the Christian religion that doesn't hold up well against scientific advancements?  If so, is his simplistic view the only one possible?  Clearly it isn't but perhaps taking a more liberal view of the Religion vs Science argument we can be religious if we wish, if we need to be, or if we must.  Then the world along with its beauty will provide joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and help from pain. . . . although in the last regard, having witnessed Susan's endurance of pain, no thanks to the medical profession or the niggard insurance company that paid them, there is considerable room for improvement.

I should note here that if I was an advocate of the Matthew Arnold view I'd be in big trouble about now having just lost the "ah love, let us be true to one another" person of my life.  It might be possible to read the poetry I've written over the last few months and come to the conclusion that I have nothing left to live for.  Susan's final illness has been uppermost in my mind for a long time.  Whenever the idea of a poem occurred to me, even if I didn't start out with Susan as my focus, the idea of her would creep in.  There was a third novelist in the chapter from the above reference, George Eliot.  In her case she was very good, according to Lovett and Hughes when she wrote about the people and situations with which she was intimately familiar.  But later on when she became more ambitious and sophisticated her novels weren't as good.   I imagine I see something like that in Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden:  When they teach out of their sophistication in their poetry, they are teaching poetic, religious or philosophical viewpoints current in their day.  What will happen to their poetry when the evolutionary machinery move us past those viewpoints.  Beyond that, what happens when language moves us past the ability to understand them?   I have been wrestling with Malory's Le Morte Darthur.  Malory lived from 1405 to 1471 but who today can read him without a lot of special education or at least a well-prepared and annotated text?  For that matter, Shakespeare living from 1564 to 1616 is extremely difficult.  So who will read Stevens and Auden in four or five-hundred years?  Will anyone other than literary historians be interested in their political or aesthetic theories?  If I were a "sick soul" I would be overwhelmed by the futility of writing anything at all.

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