Sunday, December 28, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt. II: The Redeemed Hero

Where the Hellenic weltanschauung found its greatness and its vitality in the dynamic of man vs. gods, the finality of fate, and the triumph of tragedy, the Christian one finds its own in man's moksha, his overcoming of an ouroboric cosmos, and the reversal of death into eternal life; where the Christian dies to himself and the world in order to be re-integrated into redeemed man, the pagan dies only to be re-inserted into the world of becoming and the 'Spindle of Necessity'.

This difference partly derives from a fundamental disagreement over the nature of man, namely in regard to the doctrine of Original Sin. Because we have all inherited Adam's crime we are by default members of a fallen species, of a being less than what it was; but because of Christ's crucifixion we are also members of a redeemed species, which means we can be more than anything we ever were before: felix culpa, happy fault. For the pagan the tragedy was the fact of man's inevitable death, his incessant re-entry into a cosmos he cannot perfectly understand. Thus it was possible for Nietzsche, expressing the sad wisdom of the Greeks, to say to man: 'What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is - to die soon' (The Birth of Tragedy).

For the Christian, however, the tragedy already happened; Adam partook of the forbidden knowledge, allowed sin to corrupt him, and therefore entered the world of death. We are living in the reality of that tragedy every day, but, because of Christ, we do not die in it. The victory of the Messiah consists in his triumph over death, his descent into hell, his destruction of sin's permanence in our soul, and therefore his redemption of man. His life is defined no longer by a bitter, heroic, futile defiance of fate but by an obedience to God and the pursuit of joy; the end for man is no longer death but life.

The Holy Sinner is not one of Thomas Mann's greatest books. It lacks the philosophic existentialism of The Magic Mountain, the bold familial honesty of Buddenbrooks, and the mythic grandeur of Joseph and His Brothers; but is also lacks their ambition, and does not deserve to be critiqued on the same metric as those books are. There is certainly a more amiable, lighthearted impression with this one, something that is generated by the proxy narrator, a Benedictine monk by the name of Clemens whose function in the story is to convey a sense of medieval historicity, which Mann good-naturedly satirizes. Poor pious Clemens, for example, is clearly uneasy when describing sexual events, which through Mann's playful prose come across as endearing rather than contemptuous, as it might otherwise if it were another, more draconian monastic brother.

There is little that is objectively historical about The Holy Sinner, of course, with its narrative ostensibly belonging to the Dark Ages but is nevertheless infused with chivalric elements of the medieval era (the original story belongs to the German poet Hartmann von Aue). This is consciously, ironically done, and is of no significance in relation to the broader point, which is to propose a suprahistorical myth that expresses a relevant truth to the contemporary reader. Mann's objective is to present modern questions through a medieval perspective, showing a human need for grace and forgiveness; this is so particularly from a German point of view in the aftermath of World War II, when the entire nation felt burdened from the calamity of the war, from bearing responsibility for it. Without bothering with some of Mann's anti-clerical points, which are typical of the modern novelist, we will extract from this text what is germane to our own subjects of fate and original sin and show that, while Mann is foolhardy in attacking the Christian institution, he is adept in articulating the Christian spirit.

The Holy Sinner bears in certain obvious respects a resemblance to The Oedipus Cycle. The hero, like Oedipus, is born of incest and is prophetically destined to perform the same perversity which created him. Like Jocasta, Mann's mother character Sibylla fails to subdue her love and compassion in sending her cursed son into exile rather than killing him, attaching a tablet detailing the wretched circumstances of how he had come to be to the raft that carried him to sea. So he is raised in the home of a fisherman and under the tutelage of a monastery, the Abbott of which recognizes in him a trace of latent greatness or some ordained mission. When Gregorious (the name given to the castaway by the monk who found him) leaves the monastery, however, it is not as a monastic himself as the Abbott had hoped, but as a young adventurer hoping to be knighted. He learns who he really is when the Abbott lets him read the tablet, but instead of seeking refuge in the cloister as he had hoped, Gregorious seeks all the more to venture into the world:

'I must seek [my parents] through all the world, until I find them and tell them that I will forgive them. Then will God forgive them, probably He is only waiting for that. But I, according to all that I know of divinity, I who am only a poor monster will through pardon win humanity.'

The result of this departure, however, turns out to be devastatingly different. Using more trickery than a warrior's prowess, Gregorious is able to defeat a Duke who is besieging the city of Bruges in single combat, and relieves the kingdom thereby. He falls in love with the ruling Queen and marries her - the Queen who is none other than his own mother. Now, a key difference between Sophocles' story and Mann's rendition becomes plain. While Oedipus had no idea that the woman he had wived was also the woman who birthed him, Gregorious is keenly aware of that dual relationship as he daily reads his tablet, miserably weeping each time, confessing his sins privately but unable to cease doing them.

As a microcosm of humanity, an archetypal representation of fallen man, Mann's hero becomes something altogether more depraved and far less heroic than that of Sophocles; Gregorious takes a
long leap away from the Aristotelian ideal by admitting a serious flaw. This shows us how man is not merely a passive participant in original sin, a stigma or misfortune indelibly stamped on him through no fault of his own, but an actor in his own right; the fault comes by his own volition. This reinforces our comprehension of how man is more responsible in Christian cosmology; he is an active player, the principle determinant in what happens to him rather than exterior entities such as fortune or fate. Yes, man unwittingly bears original sin as he is born, but it is through his own actions that he is really burdened; the cross he bears is the accumulation of his failure rather than his inheritance.

In time, after the birth of two daughters, Sibylla comes to learn of her husband's real identity, and recognizes him as the 'dragon' in the dream she had after giving birth to Gregorious: the dragon which tore out of her womb only to return later and cause even greater pain. When her misery becomes too much for Gregorious to bear, the truth of it all comes out, and Gregorious finally confronts himself as 'a man sinful not only as all the world is but whose flesh and bones consist entirely in sin', and embarks to do penance worthy of his state. Through the assistance of a cynical fisherman who is distrusting of his humility, Gregorious imprisons himself on an island, where he lives for seventeen years, sustained only by a strange, mythical nourishment that comes out of the rock. He has thrown aside his own way in the world, of being monk or knight, and decided that his will shall be one with that of God - but is that not itself an act of will, to freely align human will with that of the Divine? God preserves Gregorious through a miraculous sustenance much like he preserved the Hebrews after they escaped Egypt with the manna that fell from Heaven.

Gregorious is eventually discovered by two Roman clergymen who have been shown prophetic visions of the future Pope, the saviour of Rome, but he has wasted away to the size of a 'hedgehog', and slipped off of the shackles which bound him. His humanity has fallen away, but with it has his sin as well, both that which was with him at birth and that which he confessed to God. Upon eating of the bread and wine, however, his first real meal in seventeen years, Gregorious partakes in the Eucharist, and therefore resumes the full form of humanity, his strength and size restored to health. Upon leaving Sibylla at the start of his penitence, Gregorious says: 'Not for naught have I studied Divinitatem in the cloister of God's Passion. I learned that He takes true contrition as atonement for all sins'.

To his mother he also advises: 'Then descend from your seat and practise humility.... [Have] an asylum built built from your jointure, on the high road, for the homeless, the old, the sickly, the halt and crippled. There shall you preside, in the grey robe, lave the sick, wash their wounds, bathe and cover them, and give to wandering beggars, washing their feet. I have naught against it if you take in beggars'. So Gregorious practises penance, performing the fullest form of faith that accords entirely with the will of God, allowing his life to be entirely in God's hands, whereas Sibylla practises humility, expressing her own penance through the performance of good works and seeking to salve her soul thereby.

That Gregorious becomes Pope, and a saintly Pope at that (we are ignoring some of Mann's liberties in poking fun at dogmatic Catholicism for our own purposes), expresses the converse of our agency in the world, the power and the freedom of our will: by choosing to ignore reality, to refuse facing the consequences of our actions, we are only pushing ourselves deeper into delusion and therefore strengthening sin. Doing something we know is wrong only worsens our situation, even if it seems to be the easier option. By acknowledging the debts that we owe, however, we approach the part that we play, our role in reality, and can therefore begin to influence it in a more constructive way. Genuine progress in the future can only occur by our understanding of, and atoning for, the past. Gregorious was dealt a poor hand, to be sure, but he made it worse by following through on the sin of incest out of a misplaced love; in fully recognizing that, and making up for it in his extreme contrition, he was introduced to a supreme joy and the life of a holy man, the life wholly ordered by God.

Again, we can juxtapose this with Sophocles. The character of Oedipus was one which was adversely affected by fate, by fortune, by things mostly beyond his control; he was born of incest, he killed his father whom he did not recognize, he married his mother whom he did not recognize. The gods, the world acted on him, and the only thing which he could do in response was to kill himself, to quit playing altogether. The weight of his tragedy was simply too much to bear so long as he continued to draw breath, so he shrugged it off via suicide, in accordance with what the gods wanted. The arguments of his companions were only words, small comforts through which he could not truly escape; there could only be one thing to do in his position, the only logical thing to do in pre-Christian civilization, and that was to die.

The character of Gregorious, on the other hand, was one which was equally affected by the cruelty of chance or the hardness of fate, but also by the grievous errors of his own choices; yes, he was born of incest, yes he incredibly met and fell in love with his mother, but what made his state truly wretched was that he pursued and wedded her anyway, despite the fact that Gregorious 'very well knew that it was his mother whom he loved'. Fate had acted on him, and he responded according to the fallen nature of man, and doomed himself - or would do, if it were pagan Greece and not Christian Europe. For unlike the typical protagonist of noble, sad, tragic Hellas, Gregorious had alternatives to suicide, simply because the weight that had so oppressed Oedipus was already carried by Christ, who shrugged it off on the Cross.

By imitating Christ, the ultimate 'tragic hero', Gregorious could not only relieve himself of the sin through suffering, he could even convert it into something else; the Abbott, for example, muses wisely: 'Very well can love come out of evil, and out of disorder something ordered for the best'. The sinner is sublimated into saint by his active involvement in reality, by becoming like the God-man who forever altered the way in which we interact with reality, by submitting to the Divine will in a way the Greeks never could. The holy sinner is made so not by submitting to the laws of men, but to the laws of God, which command that we die to this world that we might live again in his world.

In one of the most profound moments of all Classical art, sweet, beautiful, virtuous, blameless
Antigone died for the sins of her family. The curse of her grandfather ended with her, because she chose to obey the divine will rather than that of men, who executed her: 'Your edict, King, was strong. But all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of God'. Only the most prejudiced of readers could not perceive this as a presentiment of Christ's story. The only real difference, the one that makes the whole thing so crucial, is that Christ did not just die for his family, but for God's family, that is, all the children of Man. Just as Antigone died for the sins of Laius, Christ died for the sins of Adam. The wisdom of the Greeks interlaced with the traditions of the Judaens to host God's Incarnation, the apotheosis and salvation of man.

The Gospels, upon their exegesis by the developing Christian tradition, also solved the problem of fate and chance as outlined in Part I. Where the pagan was increasingly frustrated by life's apparent randomness, or anguished by the seemingly malevolent nature of fate which too frequently rewarded bad men while punishing good men, the Christian reconciled the problem by establishing a doctrine of providence. The fact of the matter is that we do not, we cannot understand God's will, at least not at once; sometimes it becomes evident with time, sometimes it is never evident, but we know that there is indeed a reason for everything. This world is not perfectly ordered; it leaves room for pain, blood, rape, disease, war, natural disasters. Why should not the bad man delight in his chances in this world, even as the good one suffers? His affairs are those of this world, while the Christian's lie in another, which is perfectly ordered.

The Christian's suffering, so long as he can endure it, makes him stronger, and, in opening himself to God, gives him real hope: 'we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience trial; and trial hope; And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us' (Romans 3:3-5). The Christian's suffering not only leads to strength in this world, but gives him also the promise of reward in the next: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us' (Romans 8:18). Like Job, Aeneas, and Oedipus, the Christian subscribes to the will of God, and accepts his sufferings as temporal, as something to be endured as a conduit to a greater glory. Fate therefore seems to be less of a malicious ploy meant to plague man on the part of the gods, but more of a tribulation that man must struggle through in order for him to grow, to show himself worthy of being man.

The Roman philosopher Boethius formulated something of a template for the Christian doctrine of providence even while never explicitly making use of the Christian religion; The Consolation of Philosophy became a cornerstone of Christian theology in the Middle Ages despite its occasional pagan tendencies. He says, for example:

'In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God's understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things,whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the same name the ancients gave it, Fate.... Providence is the divine reason itself. It is set at the head of all things and disposes all things. Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God's mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 4:6).

Boethius goes on to explain how God is the divine architect, the mind which creates the craft, and how the blueprint is providence; fate, on the other hand, is the instrument, the means by which the plan is carried out in time and space. So it is as we said: we cannot know providence, the divine reason, except through fate, which only conveys the part of truth we can know through experience. There is a vast divide between the being of God and the beings which comprise our cosmos. We are on two different scales, therefore we can only know God in an 'analogical' sense, where he can be compared to perfect goodness and perfect truth but is nevertheless impossible to comprehend due to our incapability, limited beings as we are, to comprehend real perfection. This explains the necessity of fate, since God can hardly interact with us on his level; he needs to act within the temporal realm, and to do this he needs to use limited measures, hence fate, the machinations of time and space to serve greater ends. If he were to really enter our world, aside from isolated miracles and specific acts of providence, it would cease to be defined by space and time because it would be incorporated into the eternal. That will happen at the end of time, but only after man has played himself out.

To live inside fate and only catching glimpses of the divine providence behind it is rather like being in the middle of a novel: the hero is increasingly trialed and troubled by various events, and you can sometimes guess at the way the story is going to go, but you can very rarely be sure of it. If the novel is any good at all, however, there are reasons behind the struggles the hero goes through, even if neither he nor the reader know them yet. Everything happens for a reason, whether it be an incidental or an essential one. To fixate upon the misery of something happening means a failure to recognize the greater picture, to neglect the concourse of the story where events and thoughts and hopes meet to form the whole; it means a failure to 'see the forest for the trees', as it were. This is exactly what Mann's monastic narrator says as he tells the deeply providential story of Gregorious: 'But human reckoning does not go far, except in the narrator's case, who knows the whole story up to its wondrous ending and as it were shares in the divine providence - a unique privilege and one actually not proper to the human being.' Only God knows the full content of any man's life because only he can see his beginning and end as one wholly congruous entity; because only God can read his story from front to back instantaneously.

This relates also to the problem of free will, obviously, for if God knows everything that has happened right up to the end, how can we possibly dictate anything on our own? We return to Boethius for the answer:

'Since, therefore, all judgement comprehends those things that are subject to it according to its own nature, and since the state of God is ever that of an eternal presence, His knowledge, too, transcends all temporal change and abides in the immediacy of His presence. It embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present. If you wish to consider, then, then the foreknowledge or prevision by which He discovers all things, it will be more correct to think of it not as a kind of foreknowledge of the future, but as the knowledge of a never ending presence. So that it is better called providence or "looking forth" than prevision or "seeing beforehand". For it is far removed from matters below and looks forth at all things as though from a lofty peak above them. Why, then, do you insist that all that is scanned by the sight of God becomes necessary? Men see things but this certainly doesn't make them necessary. And your seeing them doesn't impose any necessity on the things you see present.... And if human and divine present may be compared, just as you see certain things in this your present time so God sees all things in His eternal present. So that this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature and property of things; it simply sees things present to it exactly as they will happen at some time as future events' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 5:6).

The nature of things in the temporal realm precludes them from understanding how things operate in the eternal realm, just as the nature of beasts preclude them from understanding how humans operate. The present for a being in time is categorically different from the present of a being in eternity, who sees things as they happen in time all at once. Thus the agency of the human will is kept free, for man is still a cause unto himself, able to decide upon one option and not another, for God in his omniscience sees the action which man chooses; he saw it all along, but from the lens of eternity, which means that he only saw it because man chose it 'first' (obviously the notion of 'happening first' does not exist in eternity, the nunc stans, the eternal present). This is mysterious to us, but only because time can never comprehend the eternal; he can dream of it, see glimpses of it, rationalize about it, but it will never be wholly understood so long as his present belongs in time and therefore below eternity, for the lower can never understand the higher. So God established this world of causal determinism, of things which all happen for precise, defined reasons, but he places us in it as the sole free actors to play in it. We are dreadfully influenced by a great many things, but there is always the opportunity for our choice, there is always our own sanctified volition, without which the whole endeavour would be fruitless, for both ourselves and for God, who wants not automatons predestined to hell or heaven, but autonomous beings capable of choosing either-or. We are indeed characters in a story set by someone else, but we are characters created semi-independently of the writer; we choose what to do in this drama, but real freedom consists in doing what the writer advises, for only he knows the designs of providence.

This is what Aeneas does upon leaving Carthage, saying to his beloved Dido as he leaves her: 'I set sail for Italy - all against my will'. His duty to the high god Jove is more important than even his love for the Queen of Carthage, and he ends up fathering a son not to her, but to Italy, a son that would conquer the known world. Real freedom consists in aligning our will with God's will. Oedipus was inextricably tied to a fate which he could not possibly avoid, not for all his trying and willing. After denying his culpability in what had happened early on in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally admits who he is and his guilt upon realizing that the grove he has wandered into, that his daughter Antigone has led him into, is that sacred grove which the oracle had foretold would be the place of his death. His death is now a divine blessing to any city which hosts his corpse, but he dies in that grove instead; that it is not a painful, miserable death, but something easy, graceful, even miraculous by another character's account, is indicative that his life is redeemed. God granted him gentle passage and a boon to posterity because he had succumbed to his will, that he had proclaimed his guilt and then died in the place chosen by fate.

Poor Gregorious was fated to be born of incestuous parents, and then fated to meet and wed his mother. He did not try to avoid his fate, like Oedipus did, but plunged into the world to try to absolve his fate, to forgive the sin of his family, a noble, godly aim. He was hardly strong enough, however, and upon meeting his mother he fell hopelessly in love with her; his will was separated from that of God's, and he suffered for it. His penance on the island, however, represented a total submission to God, who then rewarded him not only with the mysterious sustenance that preserved his lowly life, but raised him up into the highest position of ecclesial power. Again, we can only see how fate works out in retrospect, upon seeing something as a whole; only by seeing life from above can we see it providentially, how fate works to perform the designs of God. It may be wondered if Christ himself knew the full import of his work as he wept to his Father in Gethsemane, but he said anyway: 'My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice fall from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Matthew 26:39). Providence was accomplished by Christ's submission to God's will.

In Part I we described how the ancient world was conflicted about the role of fate and man's relationship with the gods; they were capricious, claimed the pagans, rewarding bad men while punishing the good. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Epictetus all had greater or lesser inklings of the resolution, but it was only finally formulated in the Gospels, that tremendous statement on man and how he became one with God. The answer consists not in following fate blindly, losing one's will in a slavish servility to a capriciously organized cosmos, but in confessing one's frailty, his guilt, his crimes, his dependence on someone besides himself; the escape from our travails does not reside in our world or our will but in God's. Man is fallen, and is therefore in need of saving; that accounts for the 'randomness' of this life, for the fact that bad things do happen to good men. The pagans looked for a sinless man to whom bad things happened for the essence of tragedy - they looked for it in Oedipus and Antigone, but it was only found in Christ.

This was the sudden change in direction, in perspective: man was no longer someone who feared the gods, who feared and could not explain fate; man was someone who loved God, who submitted to him in the hope of redemption, who could explain fate as the simple fact that this world is not wholly comprehensible except through the eyes of providence, the eyes of God, the eyes of someone who has read the whole story. Oedipus had to literally die because the pagan had no other way to really redeem someone; Gregorious had only to die to this world, because the Christian understands that the soul is already redeemed by Christ's action, and we need only act on it. Christ died literally so we could all die spiritually; we are each of us a tragic hero, with all of our own sins, our own 'incests', and to find the peace of Oedipus in the sacred grove or the wisdom of Gregorious on the chair of St. Peter we need only do as they did, to submit our will to the will of God. To surrender one's will to the highest will is the truest freedom of all, for in so doing we no longer serve the slave of our self but the master of all - and thereby become masters ourselves: 'God became man that we might become a god' (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

The freedom from fate means to understand that nothing that ever happens is a meaningless event or a random dead-end that signifies a disorderly cosmos, but a piece of a puzzle that has not been figured out yet, a part of the story that has not been fully told yet; the freedom from fate means to surrender our understanding to God's understanding, meekly knowing that our reckoning cannot compare with the one who made not only ourselves, but everyone and everything around us in this beautifully, blissfully created universe. The freedom from fate ultimately means the freedom from this world, for with Christ we transcend death and the ouroboric cycle of rebirth; with Christ we live as eternal beings no longer subject to the mysteries of fate but to the shining truths of providence.

'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.' (Galatians 5:1)

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