From Eternity to Here

I recall picking up a volume of George Orwell’s criticism in a bookstore several years ago, and lighting upon a review he had written of T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in  the Partisan Review.  In the review Orwell criticizes these later, explicitly Christian poems in his refreshingly amateurish way, and comes honestly to the point about why he likes Eliot’s earlier poetry better (much more so than other literary types, who usually give some vague reason for preferring Prufrock and the Wasteland to the later poems, while avoiding the obvious answer), namely “a deterioration in Mr. Eliot’s subject matter,” by which he means the Christian content of Eliot’s poems.  Comparing two passages on death from an earlier and then from the Dry Salvages, Orwell says the earlier poem is superior, because it evinces a “pagan attitude towards death” which is “more likely to produce good literature than a religious faith which is not really felt at all, but merely accepted against the emotional grain.”  Orwell senses a certain decadent resignation in Eliot’s later poetry, a point in some ways I have to agree with, though not with his reasons for thinking it (at least not entirely, anyway).  What, then, is the peculiar cause of this limpness and lack of poetic feeling he senses in the Four Quartets?  His reasons are worth quoting in full:

In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox religious believers ususally show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The reason is that the Christian Churches still demand assent to doctrines which no one seriously believes in. The most obvious case is the immortality of the soul. The various “proofs” of personal immortality which can be advanced by Christian apologists are psychologically of no importance; what matters, psychologically, is that hardly anyone nowadays feels himself to be immortal. The next world may in some sense be “believed in” but it has not anywhere near the same actuality in people’s minds as it had a few centuries ago.

This passage is worth pondering over for a few moments; ignore, for the moment, the emotivist appeal to instinct and feeling, the denigration of intellectual assent implied by Orwell’s appeal to instinct (whatever that is exactly), the fact that he never specifies what books he has read by “orthodox” believers, or the sort of anecdotal, “I can’t believe he won the election—none of my friends voted for him” appeal to what everyone supposedly feels or doesn’t feel about the afterlife, or even his dismissal of what people’s outside of western, European society might think of the afterlife (he is after all, thinking of England in the main).  What I think Orwell, in his crude but intellectually honest way has pinpointed is something rather important, a profound problem, though it is not what he thinks it to be.  When he says that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is unbelievable, what I think he is really talking about is not just perspmal immortality but eternality of the soul as well.  He hints as much when he says, talking of Eliot’s baptism into the Church of England that “there are other deaths besides physical death,” and claims that “the Church has not now any living imagery, any new vocabulary to offer.”  There can be no doubt that in the Four Quartets Eliot to an extent does “look to the past, accepts defeat, writes off  earthly happiness as impossible, mumbles abouat prayer and repentance and thinks it a spiritual advance to see life as “a pattern of living worms in the guts of the women of Canterbury”—that, surely, is the least hopeful road a poet could take.”  But what Orwell does not seem to consider is that Eliot is not looking to the past but, however feebly, is looking to eternity.  The question becomes why does he never even consider this possible, and why is Eliot’s invocation of it so joyless and half-hearted?

I bring Orwell’s review up because it gets, I think, to the heart of one of the most momentous changes in all human history:  the apparent disbelief in anything like eternity in a classical sense.  Allow me to explain what I mean by eternity in a “classical” sense.  Traditionally, Western philosophy made a distinction between eternity and sempiternityEternity was an attribute traditionally associated with God in the West: he exists as it were “outside” of time, in a realm of perfect stillness.  Sempiternity, on the other hand, denoted what could be called “everlastingness,” or an infinite duration of time, an endless succession of moments “in” time going on forever.   A great change took place, around the time of the Renaissance and in particular in the 17th century, when certain philosophers and authors seemed to turn against this notion of eternity.  Thomas Hobbes, for example, derided the whole notion of the “nunc stans,” the “eternal present” in which eternity was present in time to the human mind, a commonplace in scholastic thought.  As Hobbes writes,

For the meaning of Eternity, they will not have it to be an Endlesse Succession of Time; for then they should not be able to render a reason how God’s will, and Preordaining of things to come, should not be before his Prescience of the same, as the Efficient Cause before the Effect, or the Agent before the Action; nor of many other their bold opinions concerning the Incomprehensible Nature of God.  But they will teach us, that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc Stans (as the Schools call it) which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of place. (Leviathan, Pt. 4, chp. 46)

Hobbes’ dismissal of the whole notion of eternity is echoed by the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, who in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature says that “reference to infinity explains the obscure by the more obscure,” in this case the attempt to define what “divine” means. (p.18) Similar statements about eternity can be found in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (see Bk. II, chp. XXIX, §15, and chp. XIV, §23) This is hardly surprising, as both eternity and infinity were attributes associated traditionally with God.  Thus it is when the traditional, medieval picture of God came under attack, at least in its scholastic form, one of the casualties of this attack was this notion of eternity.

To be continued… 

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~ by Alypius on November 10, 2007.

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