The Legend of Briar Rose

From my own comment on the “About” page of this blog:

The painting I use for the top banner is called “The Briar Wood” and it was painted by the British artist Edward Burne-Jones in the late 1880′s. It’s part of a series of four paintings called “The Legend of Briar Rose.” It depicts the legend commonly known as Sleeping Beauty, when the traveling knight discovers an entire kingdom under a spell. The other three paintings depict the slumbering King and his court; weavers sleeping at their looms; and Sleeping Beauty in her rose bower. Beneath each of the four paintings there is a short poem, and beneath the “Briar Wood” painting I use here, is written

“The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose.
But lo the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart.”

All four paintings today hang together at a house called Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire, England. From what I’ve been told, they are lovely to behold in person!

There is a solid wikipedia entry on these paintings. The next panel is “The Council Chamber.”

The threat of war the hope of peace
The Kingdoms peril and increase
Sleep on and bide the latter day
When fate shall take his chain away.

After this, comes “The Garden Court.”

The maiden plaisance of the land
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand
No cup the sleeping waters fill
The restless shuttle lieth still.

And finally, “The Rose Bower.”

Here lies the hoarded love the key
To All the treasure that shall be
Come fated heart the gift to take
And smite the sleeping world awake.

***

I find all four paintings exquisite. My favorite to gaze on is actually “The Garden Court.” I like how the pale greenish-grey walls behind the main scene highlight the lovely rose and blue gowns of the women. Rose and blue are the main colors in all these paintings, but they are offset by different surrounding hues in each panel. In the “Briar Wood,” there is much more brown, rust, and dull steel grey. Though I love all four, and get most pleasure from the third, I chose the first one because I identify with the knight and, as a young(ish) man, I like the martial theme.

In a sense it’s egotistical of me to insinuate I am the knight. He is the one awake, while the others sleep. Do I mean to say I see the truth while others have their eyes shuttered? Well, perhaps, but only in comparison to some. And in comparison to others, it is I who sleep and they who walk with eyes wide open.

Rather than call myself the knight, I say then that I wish to identify with the knight. He is an ideal, a model to emulate.

Not incidentally, this is a very European, and indeed a very Christian story. It’s not hard to see (or it shouldn’t be!) how the knight is a Christ-figure. One need not be a Christian to appreciate it, of course. All native Westerners are so thoroughly drenched in Christian culture and blood that we can barely see it, even in today’s dark times. Even today’s degraded Hollywood movies are traceable to the central themes of European Christianity (be they romances or action movies or serious dramas).

I think it is a great mistake to assume all these stories are universal. Or at least that they are universal in the Joseph Campbell, “Hero With a Thousand Faces” way that people tend to think. It is not false to say that we can find some myths that are remarkably similar across widely disparate cultures (like Sky Father figures in Native American religion, among the Abrahamic tribes, in African religions, and in Norse mythology, for example). “Mother Earth” is not a narrow intuition — almost all peoples in all times have thought of the Earth as a Mother in one way or another. Also: the prior race of the mighty (Titans; Atlanteans) replaced by the current ruling race (Olympians; Mediterraneans). Etc.

So, yes, there is universality. But anyone who thinks that heroes have always been like the heroes we know so well today in pop culture and high literature should take another look at Achilles, or Gilgamesh, or Raven (of the Pacific Northwest American tribes that peopled the lands where I now dwell until quite recently).

Thinking liberal humanists explain the seeming-universality of the Christ story this way: it was universal to human nature before Christ, and this universality is in some way a feature of the way humans evolved in tribal hominid societies. I’ve not heard it argued this way specifically, but I can imagine a relatively coherent explanation that has to do with how young men, unmarried and low in status, did extraordinary, unconventional things to gain the love of their fellows. Even though the existing powers-that-be wanted to (or did) punish the outcast for his break with existing powers, society later came to revere him for his extraordinary sacrifice. Perhaps he found a new way to conquer woolly mammoths, or something. The elders decried his disobedience, and he was abandoned on the hunt to die at the hands (er, tusks) of the mammoths. But later his hunting methods were adopted because they were superior. So he is a martyr for the tribe.

[I just made that up. Please go easy on me. I’m just trying to construct a plausible argument… I’m not arguing it’s actually true. This might be absurd when you think about it, but my point is that it’s not prima facie absurd, from a materialist-humanist point of view.]

Thinking Christians would argue that hints of the Christ story in Gilgamesh or in Odysseus — who are really not very Christ-like but who can be said to be interestingly Christ-like in this or that sense — exist because the Word has been present since the dawn of creation, and because the whole world was anticipating Jesus until he came. And the even more Christ-like nature of the heroes we think of as universal today is because those “universal” heroes — the heroes of literature, movies, comic books, etc. — spring from Christian society. That is: we wouldn’t have the illusion that all peoples have a Christ story if we didn’t live in a world in which the actual Christ story has been so massively influential. Christ himself is the reason we have Christ figures in our myths.

I would say the Christians are right, whether or not Christian religion is true. The Jesus story truly is unique among world-historically important myths. So materialist-humanists should be advised. If they argue the Christ story is universal, then they are admitting that Jesus himself is universal. Ancient literature has Sky Fathers, has Mother Earths, has Heroes. But it does not have Jesuses.

Whether or not Christianity is true, it is radical. It is a complete break in the history of human mythology. The Legend of Briar Rose paintings simply would not exist if it weren’t for Christianity, and this is more than trivially so (i.e. it’s not simply so in the sense that if you alter the past, you alter the present).

***

Finally, I would like to say that this is not a “Christian blog.” I find that I have more to say, explicitly, about Christianity than some of the bloggers that I admire the most. [You can find them in the blogroll at right, but I am thinking specifically of Christian writers that rarely address Christianity directly and therefore (presumably) do not scare off non-Christian sympathizers — Lawrence Auster, Laura Wood, and Jim Kalb, for instance. They are writers who are Christians, not “Christian writers,” if you understand the distinction. While presumably their Christian beliefs influence their thoughts and words, they don’t spend endless posts picking apart Bible verses or what-have-you.]

But I also find it absurd how short a shrift I have given Christianity in the past. It is a major, major philosophy. Perhaps the most influential one the world has ever known. And it’s far, far more coherent that most non-Christians want to realize or admit. And it’s — objectively speaking, I truly believe — certainly more coherent than standard, modern left-liberalism. That doesn’t prove it’s true, but it certainly proves it’s worth taking seriously.

I certainly get a lot of joy from Christian-based art, culture, music, literature, etc., etc. I figure it’s only fair to assume that the link between great culture and the religion that inspired it is more than incidental. It seems to me to be willful spite to do otherwise. Some people these days seem happy to sign onto willful spite. But, ugh, what a vile motivation. Count me out. I’d rather be out-of-fashion than ugly-faced and bitter.

***

Finally finally, I apologize for the lack of posts in the last 5 days. My goal is to post something every weekday, and to post something incidental on the weekends when I can, for an average of, say, 6 posts a week. I’ve only had this blog since August, so I’m still learning how to manage my work and private life schedule in relation to blog posting. I have a lot more I want to say and to ask on this blog, and the comments have been outstanding. I intend to keep it going for a good long while still. If you have enjoyed it so far I ask you to keep coming back and, when the inclination strikes you, to comment as well. Salvete!

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Ireny

“Ireny” is not actually a word in English, but it should be. I hereby coin it:  Ireny. (EAR-eh-nee).

A friend of this blog wrote me an email a few weeks ago with some encouraging words. He said he was struck by my overall irenic tone, calling it “winsome.” I’m charmed and flattered by the praise, and obviously I’m proud enough to repeat it here. (If anyone comes to this blog looking for true humility, he will be disappointed! Out of Sleep ego knows no bounds, me pretties.)

But, as I wrote back to my friend, I didn’t actually know the word irenic until he used it. I looked it up and followed the etymology, thanks to the wonder of the internet. The Oxford Dictionary definition of irenic is here. Oxford calls it “formal,” and gives the primary definition as “aiming or aimed at peace.” The secondary definition is “a part of Christian theology concerned with reconciling different denominations and sects.”

The Greek word eirēnēi means “peace.” Interestingly, the most prominent human who ever had a name based on this word is St. Irenaeus, an early church father from Gaul. Irenaeus is best known for a treatise called Against Heresies, an anti-Gnostic work of Christian theology. I have not read St. Irenaeus’s work, for the record. But it’s funny how irenic means “finding points of agreement” when Irenaeus himself was intent on rooting out heresy. By the way, I don’t mean to say there’s a contradiction here. One can be open-minded and peace-seeking without also being automatically non-judgmental. It is characteristic of the modern mind to say that any form of value judgment is heinous. Obviously I reject this modern tendency. The true spirit of “ireny” seeks after truth with a peaceful and open-minded demeanor, but does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. Some things are just plain evil. I would not want my head to be so open that my brain fell right out!

[My friend also notes that he has always considered “Irene” to be among the most beautiful of names. I agree. Americans know that we recently had a very destructive hurricane strike the U. S. that was named Hurricane Irene. As a matter of fact, I had to go to Puerto Rico for work the very day that Hurricane Irene was striking the eastern Caribbean. I ended up stranded in Atlanta at a God-forsaken airport hotel where I made friends with other stranded travelers at the bar. The next day I was able to get a connection to San Juan, but when I got there the entire island was without power, and some parts were without water, and all the major roads were closed due to fallen trees and power lines. I spent three days doing basically nothing in my hotel (which had a generator with enough power to electrify about a third of the place, my own room thankfully included). It’s a curious thing, how we give beautiful names to storms which we will only remember if they become truly destructive. I have an acquaintance named Katrina, a stunningly beautiful and sweet-hearted young woman, who cannot give her name to strangers without them asking about the famous storm that devastated New Orleans, with which, of course, she has absolutely no connection. Strange. I myself am named Daniel, and I have no problem when someone asks me about Daniel in the lion’s den. It gives me strength to remember the story of my namesake. I can imagine that if some future Hurricane Daniel caused deaths in Florida (or wherever), it would make me feel strange.]

In any case, all flattery aside, I do indeed intend this blog to be irenic in tone. The fact that I only recently learned the word does not change the underlying intent. There are synonyms that might be more common, but they are usually also more loaded, due to to long use. For example, I mentioned “syncretists” in a recent post. Commenter Peter S. pointed out how I was using the word inaccurately, at least in reference to certain writers (René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon). Another word that might be used is “ecumenical.” Ecumenism is a hotly debated topic among Christians, and it means many things to many people. Some view it as the highest possible goal of the earthly church; and others view it is a dangerous pipe dream. And ecumenism means something different to Catholics, to Protestants, and to Orthodox Christians (obviously).

So in embracing the mantle of my coined word ireny, I am careful not to involve myself in any of the debates (ancient or otherwise) about syncretism or ecumenism. I do not discount the importance of these discussions, and I do not mean to imply that right and wrong answers don’t exist. They may exist or they may not. It might, in fact, be a matter of (eternal) life or death to get these questions right. But, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am eminently unqualified to speak on such important issues.

Neither, however, do I mean to imply that I’m willing to stop thinking about such issues. In embracing ireny, I want to embrace all the best there is to embrace about peacefulness, love and inquiry, without embracing that hideous zombie-skeleton, relativism.

I realize it’s very close to splitting hairs, but that’s why I’ve bothered to write an entire post about it, and even gone to the extent of attempting to coin a new word.

So then, ireny. As long as it’s winsome, useful, and leads me closer to the truth, I want to be irenic. If it becomes a burden or a crutch or an excuse, I pray that I can recognize it and move on. In the meantime, I can think of worse guiding principles.

So ireny it is. Once more unto the breach, my friends.

 

 

Zombies, Horror, Pornography, Souls

The Thinking Housewife always has fascinating ongoing discussions. This week, Mrs. Wood and her readers have been talking about the popularity of horror films and what it says about us. The discussion is broken up into separate post, as is the style at TH. In order, the posts are concerning horror, hipsters, horror-lust, zombies, and children. The discussion was prompted by an essay sent in by a reader, by Spengler at the Asia Times. (Note: that last link results in irritating, auto-playing video advertisements. Be advised.)

I added this comment:

I think part of the explanation for the popularity of zombies, at least, is very simple and close to the surface. Zombies are animated corpses without souls. They are shaped like people, but they are not people because they have no spark of life within them.

This fantasy reflects one fear and one reality. The fear is that we truly are all zombies: soulless, meaningless, just meat-bags walking around. This is the ultimate teaching of materialism, of course. It’s not true, but most people these days are convinced that it is, on the intellectual level. The fascination with zombies is the heart (which knows itself to be ensouled) reacting to the modern world which “knows” souls to be a myth. Zombies are terrifying because they are reality exactly inverted, and yet they are plausible in a way because we are told over and over that yes, essentially, we are all zombies. The most thrilling scarifiers are always the things that seem most plausible. Still, it’s only a myth.

The one reality which zombie tropes reflect is the numbness and deadness of modern people. We all have souls, but that does not mean that we are all currently alive to reality. Our sparks are dim and obscured. Mass media, rejection of history and tradition, atomism and individualism, love as a “lifestyle choice” … you know the litany. So it’s natural for people to get a nagging feeling they are surrounded by zombies.

Not to say this is a healthy phenomenon, but it’s certainly understandable.

Thomas Bertonneau, (who writes in many places, you can find some great essays at The Brussels Journal, and some more scholarly work in the Anthropoetics journal), comments:

There are “dead soul” movies that are not “zombie” movies. The classic example is The Body Snatchers(1956), in which “pods” from outer space take over human beings, who retain their human shape but become emotionless cells in the alien collective.

“Zombie” films, going back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) are “gross-out” films the point of which is to represent cannibalism and blood-spraying violence with cinematic ultra-realism. The Body Snatchers is amenable to “Spengler’s” thesis. First, it’s a genuinely frightening film (with no blood-and-guts element whatsoever), and second, it makes obvious comment on conformism whether of the totalitarian or the consumerist variety. Immense contemporary popularity belongs, not to scary films likeThe Body Snatchers (there is nothing like it today), but to ultra-realist torture-and-murder films like Sawand Hostel. The spate of Night of the Living Dead spin-offs, like the current AMC television series The Walking Dead, is more closely related to the ultra-realist torture-and-murder genre than to the “dead soul” genre.

The pornography of explicit violence shocks me more than the pornography of sex. In the hierarchy of perversity, the desire to look at nakedness is salacious but understandable; the desire to look at other people having sex is genuinely perverse; but the desire to be a spectator of torture and murder is alarmingly perverse.

This is an excellent point. I started to think of a rebuttal, but then realized I don’t really have one. I think I’m right and Mr. Bertonneau is right. But one interesting thing that occurred to me is that the violence in horror films (zombie or otherwise) is simulated, whereas the sex in pornographic films is real.

Does this make a difference? Well, I don’t want to say it makes one worse and the other okay, or vice versa. That’s not the point. Let’s try some brief thought experiments instead.

In order to be real, the horror films would have to show actual torture, murder, cannibalism, etc. Obviously this is illegal. But would the makers and consumers of horror movies have a moral problem with it? Certainly they would claim so in public. But, let’s say a high-production-value film, done in the style of popular horror movies, came out that featured non-simulated acts of torture wherein real human beings actually died. Would it do well at the box office? The question answers itself, I presume.

[I would not claim, obviously, that this is a new phenomenon in human history, the desire to watch death, dismemberment and torture.]

But what about sex pornography? Another thought experiment is to think what changes would have to be made to sex films to make them the equivalent of simulated horror films. Would it have to be two robots or dummies having sex? Would it have to be one real human (an actor) pretending to have sex with a doll or dummy? Or would it be like the love scene in many R-rated movies, where two actors simulate having sex without any actual penetration (with kissing, caressing, etc, but not technically engaged in intercourse)?

I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think it’s worthwhile to tease these questions out forever. But the train of thought got me thinking about the essence of violence and the essence of sex. In a sense, pornographic films already are the equivalent of zombie films. (From a Aristotelian/Thomistic point of view, the problem with pornography is self-evident, of course). The two bodies involved are real, and the acts are real, not simulated. But the act is totally simulated from another point of view.

Would a horror film be any more terrible if it was real humans being killed? Yes.

Would this, in the end, stop people from watching it? I fear the answer is No.

Would a porno film be any less obscene if it were a (real) man having sex with a simulated doll? No. If anything, it would be more obscene.

So then… no human bodies are harmed in horror films, but human souls presumably are. And human bodies are involved in sex in porno films, and it does damage to human souls (of the actors, the filmers, the audience). But it seems like the bodies themselves are incidental (as are the dummies and robots used in horror films). And it is this very incidental, instrumental nature of bodies in porno that makes it so soul-destroying, right?

Obviously there is nothing novel about this observation of mine. But, of course, the ongoing quest of this blog is to never say anything novel.

This is a distasteful subject and I’m having difficulty coming to any conclusions, so I will stop this entry here, and perhaps return to it if I have an insight. Thankfully, the easy answer to all of this is to not watch pornography and not watch blood-sport movies. Then, as they say, it’s all academic!

[Edit: In the time it took me to write this, there’s another link at TH on this topic!]

Comments No Longer Moderated

I’ve changed the settings on the blog so that comments are no longer moderated. The spam-filter WordPress provides seems to work very well. Also, I have yet to reject a single comment made on this blog. Everyone has been respectful, articulate, and on-point. So I don’t see any reason to discourage discussion by moderating.

Obviously, if any of this changes, I will have to go back to moderation of some kind. In the meantime, if you feel like leaving a comment on future posts (or past ones), please do.

Also, I’ve changed it so that “nested” replies can go up to 5 comments deep. Beyond that, you will have to start a new thread within the comment page.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to comment on this blog so far. It is very helpful and interesting for me.

A Question

Christianity seems to make some pretty explicit claims about being the only true path to God. Within Christian theology there are some concessions made for “virtuous pagans,” and there is always and above all the reminder that no one can know the mind and the ways of God. So there is (correct me if I am wrong) no explicit claim that the only people in heaven are practicing Christians.

Nevertheless, those virtuous pagans and others would just be — within Christian theology — the exceptions that prove the rule. Generally speaking, one might squeak into heaven as a result of ignorance of Christ, but never through a rejection of Christ.

Now there are syncretists like Steiner, Guénon and Schuon, who seem to want to say that all religions are a path to God, each one suited to a particular people. I don’t wish to argue the truth or falsity of this point today (it seems to me at least to be a non-absurd notion). But in modern times, how does one make this claim without then immediately falling into relativism?

And then, if one has a relativistic view of the truth-value of the various religions, how can one square this with the explicit claim of Christ? How can a syncretist say, “All religions are potential paths to God, including this one that claims to be the only path to God”?

Either the syncretist is not thinking very hard; or he must claim that Christ never said any such thing and the Christians just made it up after; or Christ did claim that but there’s some other mitigating factor (perhaps some gnostic initiation claimed by syncretists?).

This is, as far as I can tell, a dilemma that only comes up for Christianity. Pagans, Hindus, and Zen Buddhists can presumably get signed on to the syncretist project without any such trouble.

Samwise Gamgee, Scourge of Marxists

It’s almost comical how little play the action of The Lord of the Rings gets in the text of The Silmarillion. Everyone comes to the latter text after reading the former and, knowing it to be something of a history or legendarium, looks forward to seeing the exploits of their favorite hobbits written down in the high-style of the elves.

And then, there are only a few sentences about the War, and about the entire quest of Frodo and Sam, we get only this:

For Frodo the Halfling, it is said, at the bidding of Mithrandir took on himself the burden, and alone with his servant he passed through peril and darkness and came at last in Sauron’s despite even to Mount Doom; and there into the Fire where it was wrought he cast the Great Ring of Power, and so at last it was unmade and its evil consumed.

This comes 377 pages into my edition. This casts the rest of the Silmarillion in a proper epic light. If the entire action of the Lord of the Rings can be summed up in under a page, then the rest of the history of Arda and Middle Earth stretches on into the horizon of the past seemingly endlessly. Tolkien deliberately used these kinds of devices to create depth. Names of heroes and long-lost places and epic tales are dropped into the text, as if the reader knew what they referred to. It creates the illusion of distance. Of course, often it wasn’t illusory. Tolkien as we know developed his world to astonishing levels of detail.

One thing Cory Olsen mentions is how “Sam fans” might dislike this passage for the short shrift it gives to Frodo’s “servant.” After all, it’s Sam who saves Frodo’s life time and again, and Sam who carries Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom. He doesn’t even rank getting named? He’s just some servant? He’s Sam! He’s important!

This brings up another thing that makes some people bristle: the very fact that Sam is Frodo’s servant. This makes many modern people uncomfortable, especially Americans. [The film versions only vaguely reference Sam’s social status, casting him more as the somewhat more rustic version of Frodo. In the books it is explicit: Sam is from a lower social class and he “works for Frodo,” who is the hobbit equivalent of a landed gentleman.]

My Tolkien-loving fellow American friend told me he really dislikes how subservient Sam is. But Cory Olsen points out why this is so. The LOTR is a story about humility (among many other things, of course). Only Frodo is humble enough to carry the ring and only Sam is humble enough to carry the carrier of the ring. Gandalf does not ride into Mordor on the back of Shadowfax, staff blazing with light. Aragorn does not lead a mighty army of Gondor up to Mount Doom. It is the smallest, the least-likely and the most humble that must journey the hardest road, and who have the only chance of succeeding, and who in the end do succeed. Sauron’s might is unequaled; and yet Sam’s humility is mightier.

Modern propaganda tells us there is no such thing as happy humility. Modern brainwashing tells us that the poor are miserable. Anyone with lower status than anyone else is by definition unhappy and unfortunate. It is impossible to live a fulfilled life as a humble, poor person. Etc.

The idea of the virtuous poor used to be a noble and respected trope in European society.

Now it is considered impossible. Anyone who is poor, virtuous, humble and happy … must be a fool. Marxist ideology teaches that any poor person who claims to be happy is being fooled. He is brainwashed by the economy’s superstructure (or whatever). He is so unhappy that he doesn’t even know it! It is the job of all educated, enlightened and right-thinking people to remove the ignorance of this person … to destroy his illusions and remove his false happiness.

So that he can have gadgets, cable television, air conditioning, an iPhone. His way of life must be destroyed. If he protests that he is happy — he must be browbeaten until convinced how wrong he is.

In fact, while Marxism claims to fight for the poor, it works tirelessly to stamp out any happiness the poor have.

So Samwise Gamgee sticks in the craw of the modern. [And what is the average modern but a Marxist of one kind or another? We are, on average, well-trained in the arts of resentment, destruction, and hate … all in the name of progress, equality, and abstract love.] My friend loves Sam, but then cringes when he’s reminded that Sam is a servant.

My friend might assume that it’s just a reflection of Tolkien’s place and time. That Sam’s lower status is not essential, but merely incidental. But this would be to suggest that Jesus could have been born at the Four Seasons… that whole manger business was incidental.

Incorrect assumption. It’s the very point of the whole story! So all this makes me like Sam even more. He’s still stabbing Sauron in the eye — rubbing our Marxist sensibilities the wrong way, being a defiant example of how true happiness springs from the heart and not the ballot box or the balance book spouting rustic colloquialisms — long after the departure of the elves and deep into our modern Age of Men.

Interview With a Consistent Hedonist, part II

Out of Sleep: Welcome back, Consistent Hedonist. I hope you are well.

Consistent Hedonist: Quite well, thank you.

OoS: I’d like to return to something we touched on briefly last time. I asked you “How do you determine which pleasures are worth pursuing? Is it instinctual? And do you ever question your judgment, wishing you had pursued some other course of action?” And you answered the second part first. But we never returned to the first part.

So let me ask again, if as you say hedonism is not just grabbing the nearest cookie, not just “hook a morphine tube to my arm, please,” then how do you determine which pleasures are worth pursuing?

CH: Well, some of it seems to be inborn. Not every person likes the same things, and that’s just fine. For many people, I suspect, it comes awfully close to just grabbing the nearest cookie. Other people, myself for one, have high intelligence and low time preference. I’m from Northern European stock, and most of the people in my family share these characteristics with me, so it’s probably largely genetic.

I’m simply not the kind of person who can get much consistent pleasure from, say, fatty foods and internet pornography.

OoS: So, genes determine what you find pleasurable?

CH: There’s also a cultural factor, of course. Nothing is purely genetics. But yes, it is largely genetic.

OoS: So that purports to explain your suite of desires, but what about the choices you face daily within that range? How do you prioritize your pleasures?

CH: Well, I start with the desire to stay alive as long as possible, in as optimal a state of bodily health as possible. So that means I need to have a basically healthy structure to my life. I need to work to earn money and accumulate resources. That provides a basic structure to what I choose to do. I’m willing to do less-than-thrilling things like work at my job, etc., if it maximizes my overall opportunities for pleasure.

From there, I must admit it’s really about whim. I don’t think too much about it. Certainly sex is a top priority. I could go into all the prurient details, but I’m not sure your audience would appreciate that.

OoS: We’d all be secretly titillated, I’m sure.

CH: Ha. But yes, generally I look for unique experiences. Travel is a wonderful thing, though it has its down side. Women are a top priority. I love great food, great wine. And, as I think I mentioned before, I do enjoy intellectual stimulation and even debate. Hence agreeing to do this interview with you.

OoS: And the provenance of these more refined desires, also genetic?

CH: Genetic and, again, cultural. I don’t see why this should be any harder to accept than the concept that desires for sex and fatty foods are genetic. Man has a huge brain, capable of all kinds of abstract reasoning. This evolved over time as an adaptational advantage. Men that are better at abstract reasoning tend to get a leg up on their coevals. Therefore it is to be expected that abstract reasoning give pleasure.

OoS: So the content of the reasoning is irrelevant?

CH: Hmm. That’s an excellent question. Well, I think there has to be some basic truth content to the reasoning, if it is to give one true pleasure. Just messing around with ideas and numbers can be fun, but not as pleasurable as getting to the core of things.

OoS: Do you see why this is problematic, coming from your lips?

CH: Yes, because it implies I believe in a concept of truth. And a theist would say “whence objective truth?”

OoS: Yes, that’s one way to put the dilemma.

CH: Let me try and reason out oud with you then. Let’s take something we can both agree is a natural desire, the desire for sex. Now, this desire, in a male, is presumably based on the desire for a real, live woman. But of course there need not be a woman in the room for a man to feel this desire. A picture of a woman, the mere thought of a woman, is enough to stimulate the desire.

Some men — more and more these days, I suppose — live entire lifetimes where this innate desire is played out almost entirely through fantasy. And I don’t mean “fantasy” in the sense that two humans often have skewed understandings of each other in their interpersonal dealings and thus might be said to have “fantastical” views of each other. No, I mean full-on fantasy. You know the type. Pornography is the most obvious manifestation. But porn isn’t just pictures of living women, even; it can be drawings, animations, computer simulations. There are men who masturbate to pornographic cartoons depicting characters from video games, projected via electronics onto a flat, glowing two-dimensional screen. Now this, surely, is fantastical.

But the entire complex doesn’t exist without the original desire for women. There were no computers with video-game character drawings on them in the ancestral environment.

OoS: Indeed not.

CH: So, where was I?

OoS: I’m not sure where you were going with this, but you were talking about the difference between desiring the real thing versus a facsimile, and perhaps what this had to do with the desire to reason out real truths rather than just mess around with logic problems or whatever.

CH: Yes. So who is to say which is more true, “real truth” versus logic games? It’s just like sex with a real woman versus some computer simulation. Some people are perfectly happy with the simulation.

OoS: Perfectly happy?

CH: Well … a figure of speech. Content enough not to do anything about it. How about that?

OoS: As you wish. But you just claimed that there was a real desire for human women that lies at the back of the desire for computer-simulated women. Is there not then a real desire for truth that lies at the back of the desire to play logic games?

CH: That’s stretching the analogy, I think.

OoS: It was your own analogy.

CH: Fine. Then yes, there’s a real desire. Desiring the truth was an evolutionary advantage, therefore it developed.

OoS: And does the object of this desire actually exist, in the sense that the object of the sexual desire, flesh-and-blood women, actually exist?

CH: No. Not in that sense at all. Desiring truth is an epiphenomenon, you see. People are only good at solving problems because it confers an evolutionary advantage. The first problems we solved were simple, like some chimps can manage. Then more and more complex, like small children and retarded people. And so on.

OoS: But what is the matrix within which these problems are being solved? How is it even possible that there be true and false solutions?

CH: Yes, I see you are trying to get at a proof for objective truth. But that’s no problem, don’t you see? All I have to do is posit that the universe has physical laws — which you also believe — and that solves my problem. All our abstract concepts of true and false are just extrapolations from the basic operation wherein man tries to make predictions about the natural environment and use those to his advantage. And our concepts of right and wrong are just the result of evolving as a social or tribal animal. Actions that lead to getting banished by the tribe feel evil to us. Actions that lead to our fellows accepting, trusting, and mating with us feel good.

If the question then becomes, “Yes but where did the physical universe itself come from?” my answer is that I don’t care. Why does it matter? It’s there now. It makes for a fascinating mind puzzle, but it has no impact on my conduct and it’s essentially unknowable anyway.

OoS: So when you argue with me like this, it’s not because you believe in an absolute truth that lies behind your arguments, but because you’ve evolved to enjoy these kinds of arguments?

CH: Precisely. That’s the answer to the question theists ask, “If you don’t believe in truth, why do you bother saying or doing anything at all?” The answer is, I get pleasure out of it, because that’s how I’ve evolved. It’s not very satisfactory, but where is it written that it must be satisfactory? That’s assuming a premise that I don’t accept.

People also ask, “Why not commit suicide if nothing matters?” Which is an absurd question. It’s like they are listening to me at all! Why not? Because I was evolved not to commit suicide. There is an extreme disincentive to suicide from an evolutionary perspective, obviously. It feels wrong, to most people most of the time. Now, as to the question why not commit suicide once you are past reproductive age and if you are suffering? Well, I would answer that it’s definitely the best option in that case, but that many people can’t manage it because of the evolved fear of dying. The case for suicide is hedonistic, and the case against it is also hedonistic. It’s a matter of where each individual is on the spectrum, a matter of hedonic emphasis, if you will. As with everything in life of course.

OoS: Thank you for clarifying that. Would you be willing to undergo some more directed questioning next time? I’m curious what your take is on the hedonic content of religion. I assume we can go beyond the “God-shaped hole” argument?

CH: Well, that’s not an argument to be dismissed out of hand. But yes, I promise you more than a facile retort. I look forward to our next session then.

OoS: Until then.