Tuesday, January 29, 2013
As a mathematician may love the pure beauty of numbers, each one for its individual attributes, so let me give to each word that I use its deserved clarity, dignity and honour. They may come to me soiled and blunt, like weapons used too often in skirmishes lacking dignity and honour. Words like love, God, happiness. (Not to mention spirituality!) “Love for sale”; “God is on our side!”; “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Context, as ever, helps suggest the speaker’s meaning.
More than two thousand years ago, Plato fostered the notion that an abstract word embodies an idea, one which enjoys a real existence on a higher plane than this earthly imperfect one. So a philosopher may retrieve the soiled earthly term “love”, for example, rescue it from the debased usage of the market-place, and thereby do the world a service; showing that love can never be for sale, despite the harlot’s trade. Whenever word-meanings are discussed, I see the miasma of Plato’s ghost still confusing the issue. I always want to cut through the fog with Wittgenstein’s explanation that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”; which is obvious when you look at a good dictionary. And whenever I use a word of my own volition, rather than refer to someone else’s usage, I want to be clear what I mean by it, and make sure my interlocutor is clear too. I’ll gladly speak about God, love, spirituality and happiness in their terms—never my own.
Now ever more than before, words take their turn in the market-place, in this great explosion of literacy opened up by the Web, especially this great expansion of public written self-expression, via text messages, Twitter, blogs, all the social media. Word meanings and spellings are determined by common language usage, the most perfect form of democracy we have. People use words for their purpose in hand. When you’ve a nail that wants hitting, anything that does the job becomes your hammer, and be damned to Plato. I was thinking about this whilst soaking my boats to get the weekend mud off. Avoiding our usual public footpath behind Bledlow Parish Church because it was too muddy, we improvised a different route which turned out, at one point, to be even muddier. And I thought, it’s not the function of walking boots to look brand-new. They’re there to protect your feet when you end up ankle-deep in mud. Just like words, they exist to serve us and not vice versa.
I remember a school exercise when I was probably 11. We had to write an essay on “Pleasure and Happiness”. As well as the usual aim of practising our written English, it was to make us think: specifically to think morally. I didn’t need telling that pleasure was to be considered an inferior thing, whereas happiness … well, what was it? As an eleven-year-old, I would have asked myself what I was expected to say, not what I actually thought. But anyhow, sixty years later, I have no difficulty in defining happiness. There are two sides to the coin. Firstly, happiness is everyone’s aspiration, without exception. It’s an algebraic x, standing for what everyone wants. Whatever you aspire to, that’s called happiness. X is a variable: it might stand for riches, power, recognition, requited love—or a hero’s death in the midst of battle. Then again, it might be an end to the pain, a release from jail, a reprieve from the death sentence. But secondly, there’s the actual thing: what I shall call embodied happiness is something different. It is the state of not wanting anything to be changed, in this moment now. Here is my purely personal conception, my own value for the variable x, my sole aspiration: to be seduced by the moment. As to how this can take place for others, I don’t take a moral, a judgemental view, of the kind “That (action or condition) is merely pleasure: happiness is something higher, more spiritual.” Ugh! That would be an unclean saying, as if one chose oneself as a mouthpiece for God. Let each man or woman judge in their own case what is happiness. I’ve seen drunks in the street looking very happy. That’s their business. The law’s job is to limit any nuisance and destructiveness of drunkenness. The moralist’s job is to moralise, and I won’t take on that job unless I plainly have to.
The most reliable way I know to be seduced by the moment is to step outside for no other aim than aimless wayfaring. It starts when I sniff the air. If this blog has a unifying theme, if it has an actual purpose, it’s to celebrate the moment and remind myself; and then—by some sympathetic magic—the reader too, if possible. But clearly, the recipe which works for me is not offered as a prescription for anyone else.
It’s seldom possible to capture the moment in words actually fashioned within the moment. It doesn’t work that way, though I take a voice recorder just in case. The moment commands you, demands your attention to the exclusion of thought; but then it might whisper to you, too, in words. The real writing has to take place whilst the memory of the moment is still vivid; even if it occurred, as sometimes in my reminiscences, in the mid-twentieth-century. Failing that, the act of writing must ignite itself, in the moment, and burst aflame into light and warmth.
So what shall we say to Plato, to whom all good things are reflections of something in Heaven? I confess I’m fond of telling him, “You’re wrong!” It gives me pleasure, and I cannot see it being bad for the health. These good words like God, Love and Happiness must be embodied to have a meaning. Embodied means that they live in me. Christian doctrine is well aware of this. Doubting Thomas had to feel the wounds of the resurrected Jesus. God came to earth in embodied form, but what use is that to us two thousand years later, unless it’s personal? We may long for the Second Coming. We may attend Mass, to ingest his body and blood through the transubstantiated wafer and wine. We want living saints, we want hard evidence in the form of our own experience. We want the Kingdom of Heaven in some tangible form, not a make-believe.
Unless it is embodied in me, I don’t understand anything. Not understanding is a better place to be than make-believe. Is there such a thing as God? Happiness? Enlightenment? Satori? I only know what I know.
Meanwhile, it’s a muddy world, the lotus has its roots in the mud, the mud gets on the boots and never mind Plato, that’s Heaven enough for me.
* Arash’s blog, referred to above: See his post on happiness from a Buddhist perspective.
Posted by Vincent at 3:52 p.m.