Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Consumption, the Market, and the Eucharist by William T. Cavanaugh

Source: The Other Journal at Mars Hill Graduate School (link)

There was a woman named Rosalinda with whom I attended Sunday mass when I lived in Chile in the 1980s. Rosalinda lived in a small wooden shanty with her elderly mother. Their income, which sufficed for little more than bread and tea, was derived from the potholders and other items that Rosalinda crocheted and sold at the local market. On one of my first visits to her home, Rosalinda gave me a little crocheted bird that is used for grasping the handles of hot tea kettles. When Rosalinda presented it to me as I was leaving her home, my first impulse was to reach into my pocket and give her some money for it. But I sensed that that would have been the wrong thing to do.

The little blue-green bird with a white fringe currently adorns the rice container on my kitchen counter. I live with my wife and kids a world away from Santiago in St. Paul, Minnesota. We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts. The stories both overlap and compete. I will try to tell these two stories briefly, and reflect on what they mean for Rosalinda and the bird.

I. Hunger and the market

Economics, we are told, is the science which studies the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. The very basis of the market, trade – giving up something to get something else – assumes scarcity. Resources are scarce wherever the desires of all persons for goods or services cannot be met. Hunger, in other words, is written into the conditions under which economics operates. There is never enough to go around. But it is not simply the hunger of those who lack sufficient food to keep their bodies in good health. Scarcity is the more general hunger of those who want more, without reference to what they already have. Economics will always be the science of scarcity as long as individuals continue to want. And we are told that human desires are endless.

This insight about desire is not new. For St. Augustine, the constant renewing of desire is a condition of being creatures in time. Desire is not simply negative; our desires are what get us out of bed in the morning. We desire because we live. The problem is that our desires continue to light on objects which fail to satisfy, objects on the lower end of the scale of being which, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing. (1) The solution to the restlessness of desire is to cultivate a desire for God, the eternal. Augustine famously prays to God that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”(2)

In a consumer-driven market economy, the restlessness of desire is also recognized. Marketing constantly seeks to meet, create, and stoke new desires, often by highlighting a sense of dissatisfaction with what one presently has and is. In a consumer culture, we recognize the validity of Augustine’s insight: particular material things cannot satisfy. Rather than causing us to turn away from material things and towards God, however, in consumer culture we plunge ever more deeply into the world of things. Dissatisfaction and fulfillment cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not in possessing objects but in their pursuit. Possession kills eros; familiarity breeds contempt. This is why shopping itself has taken on the honored status of an addiction in Western society. It is not the desire for any thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself that makes malls into the new cathedrals of Western culture. The dynamic is not an inordinate attachment to material things, but an irony and detachment from all things. At the level of economics, scarcity is treated as a tragic inability to meet the needs of all people, especially those whom hunger and extreme deprivation confront daily with death. At the level of experience, scarcity in consumer culture is associated with the pleasurable sensation of desiring. Scarcity is implied in the daily erotics of desire that keeps the individual in pursuit of novelty.

For a number of reasons, desire in consumer society keeps us distracted from the desires of the truly hungry, those who experience hunger as life-threatening deprivation. It is not simply that the market encourages an erotic attraction toward things, not persons. It is that the market story establishes a fundamentally individualistic view of the human person. The idea of scarcity assumes that the normal condition for the communication of goods is by trade. To get something, one must relinquish something else. The idea of scarcity implies that goods are not held in common. The consumption of goods is essentially a private experience. This does not mean that charitable giving is forbidden, but it is relegated to the private realm of preference, not justice. One might always send a check to help feed the hungry. One’s charitable preferences, however, will always be in competition with one’s own endless desires. The idea of scarcity establishes the view that no one has enough. My desires to feed the hungry are always being distracted by the competition between their desires and my own.

Adam Smith thought that this distraction was a result of the fact that every person is “by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care.”(3)

Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own."(4)
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith pondered the question of how disinterested moral judgments could ever trump self-interest. He developed the idea that pain and other sentiments are communicable from one individual to another by the ability of the human person sympathetically to put him or herself in the position of another. Nevertheless, according to Smith, nature has made our resentment to a lack of justice greater than our resentment to a lack of benevolence, so only the former is subject to punishment: “when a man shuts his breast against compassion, and refuses to relieve the misery of his fellow-creatures, when he can with the greatest ease… though everybody blames the conduct, nobody imagines that those who might have reason, perhaps, to expect more kindness, have any right to extort it by force.”(5) Society can exist without benevolence, but not without justice.(6) Absent explicit violence or theft, the inability of a person to feed him or herself is not a failure of justice, but a call for benevolence, which falls to individuals. The communicability of pain in the body of society is faint. Moral indignation in its strong form is reserved for explicit attacks on the status quo of life and property.

Adam Smith does not simply leave the care of the hungry to individual preference, however, for in the larger scheme of The Wealth of Nations, the needs of the hungry are addressed by the providential care of the market. According to Smith, the invisible hand of the market guides economic activity such that the pursuit of self-interest by uncoordinated individuals miraculously works out to the benefit of all. The great economic machine of society is driven by people’s wants. Through the mechanism of demand and supply, the competition of self-interested individuals will result in the production of the goods society wants, at the right prices, with sufficient employment for all at the right wages for the foreseeable future. The result is an eschatology in which abundance for all is just around the corner. In the contemporary consumer-driven economy, consumption is often urged as the solution to the suffering of others. Buy more to get the economy moving – more consumption means more jobs. By the miracle of the market, my consumption feeds you. One story the market tells, then, is that of scarcity miraculously turned into abundance by consumption itself, a contemporary loaves-and-fishes saga.

In reality, however, consumerism is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no inbreaking Kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty. As Vincent Miller writes, “Since desire is sustained by being detached from particular objects, consumer anticipation wishes for everything and hopes for nothing.”(7) The witness of the martyrs to living the Kingdom of God in the present becomes a curiosity; how could someone be so committed to some particular thing as to lose his life for it? We are moved by the suffering of others, but we can hardly imagine a change radical enough to undermine the paradigm of consumption. Even the suffering of others can become a spectacle and a consumable item(8) – tsunamis sell newspapers. And so we choose to believe that, through the miracle of free competition, our consumption will feed others. The truth, however, is that self-interested consumption does not bring justice to the hungry. The consumer’s pursuit of low, low prices at Wal-Mart means low, low wages for the people in Asia who make the products we buy. Eschatological hope easily fades into resignation to a tragic world of scarcity.

II. Hunger and the Eucharist

The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’” (John 6:35). The insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace in the gift of the body and blood of Christ. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (6:54), they are raised above mere temporal longing for novelty. And the body and blood of Christ are not scarce commodities; the host and the cup are multiplied daily at thousands of Eucharistic celebrations throughout the world. “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37).

This invitation to come and be filled is assimilable to private spiritualities of self-fulfillment if it is packaged as an “experience” of divine life. But the abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the cross. The consumer of the body and blood of Christ does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of the Body. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). The act of consumption of the Eucharist does not entail the appropriation of goods for private use, but rather being assimilated to a public body, the Body of Christ. Augustine hears the voice of God say “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”(9) The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside-out, such that the consumer is consumed.

When we consume the Eucharist, we become one with others, and share their fate. Paul asks the Corinthians “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” Paul answers “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage,

"because he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, and that which shares is different from what it shares in, he removed even this small difference. For after he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, he sought again to express it more precisely, and so he added FOR WE, THOUGH MANY, ARE ONE BREAD, ONE BODY. “For why am I speaking of sharing?” he says, “We are that very body.” For what is the bread? The body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The body of Christ; not many bodies, but one body."(10)
The enacting of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist has a dramatic effect on the communicability of pain from one person to another, for individuals are now united in one body, connected by one nervous system. Not only can the eye not say to the hand “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:21), but the eye and the hand suffer or rejoice in the same fate. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). For this reason, Paul tells the Corinthians that we should take special care for the weakest members of the body (12:22-25), presumably because the whole body is only as strong as its weakest member.

This communicability of pain underlies the obligation of the followers of Christ toward the hungry. The point of the story of final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46 is not simply that an individual performing good deeds -- such as feeding the hungry -- will be rewarded with a ticket to the Kingdom. The force of the story lies in the identification of Christ with the hungry: “for I was hungry and you gave me food” (25:35). The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is therefore also the pain of the member of Christ’s body who feeds the hungry person. Unlike in Adam Smith, there is no priority of justice to charity here, no prior sorting out of who deserves what before benevolence can take place. In Matthew as in Paul, the hungry and the benevolent are confused in Christ, such that distinctions between justice and charity, public and private, become impediments to seeing reality as God sees it.

Adam Smith’s economy underwrites a separation between contractual exchanges and gifts. Benevolence is a free suspension of self-interested exchange. As such, benevolence cannot be expected or even encouraged on the public level, because the market functions for the good of all on the basis of self-interested consumption and production. Benevolent giving freely transfers property from one to another, but nevertheless respects the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours. In the Eucharistic economy, by contrast, the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique persons – Paul’s analogy of the body extols the diversity of eyes and hands, heads and feet – we cease to be merely other to one another by incorporation into the Body of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active nor passive, but participate in the divine life, such that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.

Our temptation is to spiritualize all this talk of union, to make our connection to the hungry a mystical act of imaginative sympathy. We could then imagine that we are already in communion with those who lack food, whether or not we meet their needs. Matthew is having none of this, placing of the obligation to feed the hungry in the context of eschatological judgment. Paul too places neglect of the hungry in the context of judgment. At the Eucharistic celebration in Corinth, which included a common meal, those who eat while others go hungry “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (I Cor. 11:22). Those who thus, in an “unworthy manner,” partake of the body and blood of Christ “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:27. 29). Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.

The Eucharist places judgment in the eschatological context of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. There is no gradual immanent progress toward abundance which the market, driven by our consumption, is always about to -- but never actually does -- bring about. The Eucharist announces the coming of the Kingdom of God now, already in the present, by the grace of God. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in these terms: "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims..."(11) In the Eucharist, God breaks in and disrupts the tragic despair of human history with a message of hope and a demand for justice. The hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now. The end-less consumption of superficial novelty is broken by the promise of an end, the Kingdom toward which history is moving and which is already breaking into history. The Kingdom is not driven by our desires, but by God’s desire, which we receive as gift in the Eucharist.

I think I have an idea now of why it would have been wrong to give Rosalinda money for the bird. It would have annulled the gift and turned it into an exchange. It would have re-established the boundaries between what is hers and what is mine, and therefore reinforced the boundaries between her and me. The Eucharist tells a different story about who we -- the hungry and the filled -- really are, and where we are going.

Endnotes

1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 29-30 [Book II, §10].

2. Ibid., 3 [Book I, §1].

3. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. A.L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 82 [II.ii.2.1].

4. Ibid., 86 [II.ii.3.4].

5. Ibid., 81 [II.ii.1.7].

6. Ibid., 85-91 [II.ii.3].

7. Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum Books, 2003), 132.

8. See ibid., 133-4.

9. Augustine, 124 [Book VII, §16].

10. St. John Chrysostom, Homily on I Corinthians, no. 24 in The Eucharist: Message of the Fathers of the Church, ed. Daniel J. Sheerin (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1986), 210.

11. Sacrosanctum Concilium 8, in Documents of Vatican II, Austin P. Flannery, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 5.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What Is Religion? by Keiji Nishitani (Part Two)

The following is excerpted from Religion and Nothingness by Keiji Nishitani p. 5-13. For part one, click here.

Being the multi-faceted reality that it is, religion can be approached from any number of different angles. It is commonly defined as the relationship of man to an absolute, like God. But as that definition may already be too narrow, there are those who prefer, for example, to speak in terms of the idea of the Holy. If this relationship is taken more concretely, however, still other possible angles of approach suggest themselves. For instance, the relationship of man to God may be spoken of as the abandonment of self-will in order to live according to the will of God; as the vision or knowledge of God; or, as the unveiling of God to the self, or in the self. Again, it may be thought of as the immediate perception of the absolute dependency of self-existence on divine existence, or as man's becoming one with God. One might as well pursue the view that it is only in religion that man becomes truly himself, that the self encounters its "original countenance." Furthermore, it is possible to regard the essence of religion, as Schleiermacher does in his Reden über die Religion, as the intuition of the infinite in the finite, as "feeling the Universe." On a variety of counts, of course, each of these views is open to criticism. Rather than enter any further into their discussion here, I should like instead to approach religion from a somewhat different angle, as the self-awareness of reality, or, more correctly, the real self-awareness of reality.

By the "self-awareness of reality" I mean both our becoming aware of reality, and, at the same time, the reality realizing itself in our awareness. The English word "realize," with its twofold meaning of "actualize" and "understand," is particularly well suited to what I have in mind here, although I am told that its sense of "understand" does not necessarily connote the sense of reality coming to actualization in us. Be that as it may, I am using the word to indicate that our ability to perceive reality means that reality realizes (actualizes) itself in us; and that in so doing the self-realization of reality itself takes place.

It follows that realization in its sense of "appropriation" differs from philosophical cognition. What I am speaking of is not theoretical knowledge but a real appropriation (the proprium taken here to embrace the whole man, mind and body). This real appropriation provides our very mode of being with its essential determination. The real perception of reality is our real mode of being itself and constitutes the realness that is the true reality of our existence. This perception of reality can constitute the realness of our existence because it comes into being in unison with the self-realization of reality itself. In other words, the self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real.

The question will no doubt arise as to what this "reality" signifies. If the question is posed merely in the form of the usual request for knowledge, in expectation of a simple, conceptual response, then it is inappropriate to the reality I am speaking of here. In order for it to become a real question, one that is asked with the whole self, body and mind, it must be returned to reality itself. The question that asks about reality must itself become something that belongs to reality. In that vein, I should like to try to interpret the religious quest as man's search for true reality in a real way (that is, not theoretically and not in the form of concepts, as we do in ordinary knowledge and philosophical knowledge), and from that same angle to attempt an answer to the question of the essence of religion by tracing the process of the real pursuit of the true reality.

When we think of "reality" from an everyday standpoint, we think first of all of the things and events without us: the mountains and streams, the flowers and forests, and the entire visible universe all about us. We think, too, of other people, other societies and nations, and of the whole skein of human activities and historical events that envelop them. Next, we think of reality as the world within us: our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires.

When we pass from the everyday standpoint to that of natural science, we find that it is the atoms, or the energy that makes them up, or the scientific laws that regulate that energy, rather than individual events and phenomena, that are now regarded as reality. In contrast, the social scientist, for his part, might posit that economic relations provide all human activity with its basis in reality. Or again, a metaphysician might argue that all those things are only the appearances of a phenomenal world, and that the true reality is to be found in the Ideas that lie behind them.

The problem with these various "realities" is that they lack unity among themselves and even seem to contradict one another. On the one hand, even if one assumes that things in the outer world are real, they cannot at bottom be separated from the laws of mathematics and natural science. The space the things of the outer world occupy and the movements they make conform to the laws of geometry and dynamics. Indeed, things cannot even exist apart from these laws. Moreover, our grasp of these laws obviously underlies the technology we have developed for controlling things and improving them. In a similar way, conscious phenomena such as feelings and desires cannot be separated from the laws of physiology and psychology nor, as the stuff of concrete human existence, can they be considered apart from the kind of relationships that the social sciences take to be real.

On the other hand, no natural scientist would deny that the food he eats or the children seated at his table are all individual realities. No modern social scientist can help considering as very real the admiration he feels for a piece of Greek sculpture or the gloom he feels during the rainy season. On this point the scientist differs not in the least from men of ancient times. The same holds true for the metaphysician. Indeed, the relationship between ideas and sense objects, which has long been the most debated problem in metaphysics, comes down to the question of deciding what is real.

In short, while the various standpoints of everyday life, science, philosophy, and the like all tell us what is real, there are grave discrepancies and contradictions among them. What the scientist takes to be real from the viewpoint of his science and what he takes to be real from the viewpoint of his everyday experience are completely at odds with each other, and yet he is unable to deny either of them. It is no simple matter to say what is truly real.

In addition to the things mentioned so far, death and nihility are also very real. Nihility is above negativity with regard to the very being of all those various things and phenomena just referred to; death is absolute negativity with regard to life itself. Thus, if life and things are said to be real, then death and nihility are equally real. (1) Wherever there are finite beings - and all things are finite - there must be nihility; wherever there is life there must be death. In the face of death and nihility, all life and existence lose their certainty and their importance as reality, and come to look unreal instead. From time immemorial man has continually expressed this fleeting transience of life and existence, likening it to a dream, a shadow, or the shimmering haze of the summer's heat.

This brings us, then, to another sense of the real altogether different from the various meanings discussed so far. As an example of this sense of the real, I recall a passage from Dostoevski's The House of the Dead recording how, one summer day during the author's term of imprisonment, while he was at work carrying bricks by the banks of a river, he was suddenly struck by the surrounding landscape and overcome with profound emotion. Reflecting on the wild and desolate steppes, the sun blazing overhead in the vast blue vault of heaven, and the distant chanting of the Khirgiz that floated his way from across the river, he writes:

Sometimes I would fix my sight for a long while upon the poor smokey cabin of some baigouch; I would study the bluish smoke as it curled in the air, the Kirghiz woman busy with her sheep.... The things I saw were wild, savage, poverty stricken; but they were free. I would follow the flight of a bird threading its way in the pure transparent air; now it skims the water, now disappears in the azure sky, now suddenly comes into view again, a mere point in space. Even the poor wee floweret fading in a cleft of the bank, which would show itself when spring began, fixed my attention and would draw my tears. (2)

As Dostoevski himself tells us, this is the only spot at which he saw "God's world, a pure and bright horizon, the free desert steppes"; in casting his gaze across across the immense desert space, he found he was able to forget his "wretched self."

The things that Dostoevski draws attention to - the curling smoke, the woman tending her sheep, the poor hut, the bird in flight - are all things we come in touch with in our everyday lives. We speak of them as real in the everyday sense of the word, and from there go on to our scientific and philosophical theories. But for such commonplace things to become the focus of so intense a concentration, to capture one's attention to that almost abnormal degree, is by no means an everyday occurrence. Nor does it spring from scientific or metaphysical reflection. Things that we are accustomed to speak of as real forced their reality upon him in a completely different dimension. He saw the same real things we all see, but the significance of their realness and the sense of real in them that he experienced in perceiving them as real are something altogether qualitatively different. Thus was he able to forget his wretched self and to open his eyes to "God's world."

Later, in A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski tells us that God may be found in a single leaf at daybreak, in a beam of sunlight, or in the cry of an infant. This way of speaking suggests a great harmony among all things in the universe that brings them into being and sustains them in mutual dependence and cooperation, a mystical order that rules over all things so that God can be seen in the most trivial of things. This is, we might say, the backdrop against which the author's profound sense of the real in everyday things came into being. We know from The House of the Dead that his remarkable sensibility was connected with the prison life that had deprived him of his freedom; but the experience of such a sense of the real does not require such singular circumstances. On the contrary, it is an experience open to anyone and everyone. It is something to which poets and religious men and women have attested down through the ages.

Although we ordinarily think of things in the external world as real, we may not actually get in touch with the reality of those things. I would venture to say that in fact we don not. It is extremely rare for us so to "fix our attention" on things as to "lose ourselves" in them, in other words, to become the very things we are looking at. To see through them directly to "God's world," or to the universe in its infinitude, is even rarer. We are accustomed to seeing things from the standpoint of the self. One might say that we look out at things from within the citadel of the self, or that we sit like spectators in the cave of the self. Plato, it will be recalled, likened our ordinary relationship to things to being tied up inside a cave, watching the shadows passing to and fro across its walls, and calling those shadow "reality."

To look at things from the standpoint of the self is always to see things merely as objects, that is, to look at things without from a fiend within the self. It means assuming a position vis-à-vis things from which self and things remain sundamentally separated from one another. This standpoint of separation of subject and object, or opposition between within and without, is what we call the field of "consciousness." And it is from this field that we ordinarily relate to things by means of concepts and representations. Hence, for all our talk about the reality of things, things do not truly display their real reality to us. On the field of consciousness, it is not possible really to get in touch with things as they are, that is, to face them in their own mode of being and on their own home-ground. On the field of consciousness, self always occupies center stage.

We also think of our inner selves, and of our "inner" thoughts, feelings, and desires as real. But here, too, it is doubtful whether we properly get in touch with ourselves, whether our feelings and desires and so forth are in the proper sense really present to us as they are, and whether those feelings should be said to be present on their own home-ground and in their own mode of being. Precisely because we face things on a field separated from things, and to the extent that we so so, we are forever separated from ourselves. Or, to put it in positive terms, we can get in touch with ourselves only through a mode of being that puts us in touch with things from the very midst of those things themselves. We are of course accustomed to set ourselves against what is without by looking at it from within, and to think of ourselves as being in our own home-ground and in touch with ourselves when we do so. Such is the basis of consciousness. In fact, however, the self that is self-centered in its relation to the without is a self that is separated from things and closed up within itself alone. It is a self that continually faces itself in the same way.That is, the self is set ever against itself, as some thing called "self" and separated from other things. This is the self of self-consciousness. In fact, however, the self that is self-centered in its relation to the without is a self that is separated from things and closed up within itself alone. It is a self that continually faces itself in the same way. That is, the self is set ever against itself, as some thing called "self" and separated from other things. This is the self of self-consciousness, wherein a representation of the self in the shape of some "thing" or other is always intervening, keeping the self from being really and truly on its own home-ground. In self-consciousness, the self is not really and truly in touch with itself. The same can be said in the case of the internal "consciousness" of feelings, desires, and the like.

Things, the self, feelings, and so forth are all real, to be sure. On the field of consciousness where they are ordinarily taken for real, however, they are not present in their true reality but only in the form of representations. So long as the field of separation between within and without is not broken through, and so long as a conversion from the standpoint does not take place, the lack of unity and contradiction spoken of earlier cannot help but prevail among the things we take as real. This contradiction shows up, for example, in the opposite between materialism and idealism; bit even before it shows up on the level of thought, it is already there beneath the surface of our everyday modes of being and thought. The field that lies at the ground of our everyday lives is the field of an essential separation between self and things, the field of consciousness, within which a real self-presentation of reality cannot take place at all. Within it, reality appears only in the shape of shattered fragments, only in the shape of ineluctable self-contradictions.

The standpoint, which we may best call the self-contradiction of reality, has come to exercise a powerful control over us, never more so than since the emergence of the subjective autonomy of the ego in modern times. This latter appears most forcefully in the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. As is commonly known, Descartes set up a dualism between res cogitans (which has its essence in thought or consciousness) and res extensa (which has its essence in physical extension). On the one hand, he established the ego as a reality that is beyond all doubt and occupies the central position with regard to everything else that exists. His cogito, ergo sum expressed the mode of being of that ego as a self-centered assertion of its own realness. Alone with this, on the other hand, the things in the natural world came to appear as bearing no living connection with the internal ego. They became, so to speak, the cold and lifeless world of death. Even anamals and the body of man himself were thought of as mechanisms.

That such a mechanistic view of the world would come into being and that the world itself would turn into a world of death were, we might say, already implicit in Descartes' identification of matter with extension and his consideration of that extension as the essence of things. This did enable the image of the world we find in modern natural science to come about and did open the way for the control of nature by scientific technology. But it had other consequences. To the self-centered ego of man, the world came to look like so much raw material. By wielding his great power and authority in controlling the natural world, man came to surround himself with a cold, lifeless world. Inevitably, each individual ego become like a lonely but well-fortified island floating on a sea of dead matter. The life was snuffed out of nature and the things of nature; the living stream that flowed at the bottom of man and all things, and kept them bound together, dried up.

The idea of life as a living bond had been central to the prescientific, pre-Cartesian view of the world. Life was alive then not only in the sense of the individual lives of individual lives of individual people, but, at the same times and in a very real way, as something uniting parents and and children, brothers and sisters, and thence all men. It was as if each individual human being were born from the same life, like the individual leaves of a tree that sprout and grow and fall one by one and yet share in the same life of the tree. Not only human beings, but all living beings belonged to life showing itself. Appearing as men, life took the form of a human soul; appearing as plants and animals, that of a plant or animal soul - for plants and animals, too, were thought to have their own souls.

Furthermore, on the basis of the life that linked individual things together at bottom, a sympathetic affinity was thought to obtain between one man's soul and another's. This "sympathy" was meant to bespeak a contact prior to and more immediate than consciousness. It was meant to point to the field of the most immediate encounter between man and man, at the ground of the instincts and drives that underlie all thought, feeling, and desire. More than that, this same sympathy was thought to exist not only among men, but among all living things. In other words, the vital connective that bound individual beings to one another was thought to appear as a field of "psychic sympathy" between souls. Of course, this view seems to have all but been wiped out completely by the modern mechanistic view of nature. But is that cause enough simply to dismiss it as antiquated?

On a summer's night, a mosquito flies into my room from the outside. It buzzes about merrily, as if cheering itself for having found its prey. With a single motion I catch it and squash it in the palm of my hand, and in that final moment it lets out a shrill sound of distress. This is the only word we can use to describe it. The sound it makes is different from the howling of a dog or the screams of a man, and yet in its "essence" it is the selfsame sound of distress. It may be that each of these sounds is but vibrations of air moving at different wavelengths, but they all possess the same quality or essence that makes us hear them as signals of distress. Does not our immediate intuition of the distress in the sound of the mosquito take place on a field of psychic sympathy? Might we not also see here the reason that the ancients believed animals to have souls? In this sense, whatever modern mechanistic physiologists or functionalist psychologists, who are busy trying to erase the notion of the soul, might make of it, let it be said that there is something, even in animals, that we have no other name for than the one that has come down to us from the past: soul.

Just what this "something" ought to be said to consist of is, of course, another problem. It may no longer be necessary to think of the soul as some special substance. Perhaps it is not even possible to continue to think of it as something with an independent existence that takes up lodging "within" the body. This view requires us to look on the body, too, as something independent, a lifeless object with an existence all its own apart from the soul. It means considering body and soul as distinct substances, and then trying to determine how they come to be joined together.

It also possible to approach the question from the opposite direction. For instance, Schopenhauer takes "the Will to Live" as the thing-in-itself and considers the body, as an organism, to be the objectification of that will, the form under which it appears to the eye of man. Bergson expresses a similar idea when he says that in its material aspect the body represents a point of relaxation for the tension inherent in life as it advances creatively. In both cases, individuals appear as individualizations of something else - be it "will" or "life" - that is at work within them. This is another possible way of viewing the soul. Along this same line, ancient peoples imagined that one soul could take on a variety of different animal bodies in succession, which belief then led to such notions as reincarnation and metempsychosis. We may wish to dismiss such ideas as extravagant fantasies, but we should still see behind them the view of soul just referred to.

Even granting that we cannot really get in touch with reality on the fields of consciousness and self-consciousness, neither can we stop short at the viewpoint of preconscious life and sympathy that we have described above. More than a few religions have in fact based themselves on a return to just such a preconscious level; but at that level, it is impossible to get deeply in touch with reality. Instead of regressing from the field of consciousness to a preconscious or subconscious one, we need rather to seek a new and more encompassing viewpoint that passes through, indeed breaks through, the field of consciousness to give us a new perspective.

Endnotes:

1. The words "reality" and "real" are ordinarily used to denote something actually in existence might make it difficult to adopt them to refer to nihility, which is the absolute negation of existence as real. But then again, there are times at which we find ourselves saying, "It all came to nothing," and at such times we may well say that nihility has made itself really present. If we use "reality" in this sense, however, it might be better to make a distinction in cases such as the existence of things, and to speak there of "real being" instead (being in contrast with nothingness). In so doing, all real being would be reality, but not all reality would necessarily be real being. When I use the terms "reality" and "real" here, I am thinking of this broader sense.

2. Fedor Destoevski, The House of the Dead (New York: Macmillan, 1915), p. 216.

Between Pessimism and Optimism: On God, Human Destiny, Tragic Optimism, and Dark Romanticism (Philosophy Homework)

Question: "Is it better to live one's live as a philosophical Optimist or a Philosophical Pessimist?" Optimism and pessimism refer not to temperament (historically called, "Sanguine" or "Melancholic") but to a reasoned philosophical outlook or worldview. Defend the advantages and even truth of the perspective of you chose.

Answer: I would neither describe myself as a traditionally defined optimist nor a pessimist. Rather, I would describe myself as a tragic optimist and a dark romantic. Optimists frequently blind themselves to the dark and tragic aspects of life, while pessimists frequently ignore life's bright and beautiful qualities. I, however, want to see life as the strange paradox it really is. In my paper addressing the question of whether life has a cosmic meaning (link), I argued that within the world there exists certain signposts of meaning that point toward God and his work of cosmic redemption. In addressing this question of optimism, I wish to expound a point of view that enables us to be optimally receptive to the signs without missing the big picture. If all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then the production is a tragi-comedy filled with beauty and strife that the director will finally resolve beyond our wildest dreams. Whatever decisions we make as relates to optimism and pessimism, our decisions must be informed by the nature of the world we live in. As it so happens, we live in a world in which Jesus has risen from the dead, leaving us surprised by hope. If we are not surprised by hope, we must ask ourselves whether we have taken the time to really see the world for what it really is, or whether we are simply using our optimism or pessimism to numb the pain. It is the most difficult thing in the world to live a life guided by the meaning of life. In the years before God saw fit to reveal himself to me, I was very good at numbing myself to my own pain and the pain of others. In the years following that fateful time, however, God proceeded to rip open the festering wounds I very carefully bandaged with filthy rags to undergo the difficult process of true healing.

Obviously, this has been a very difficult and life-defining process for which nothing said by the optimist or pessimist on the street were very relevant. Fortunately, it was in my first year of college that I really discovered the Gothic music and subculture (i.e. dark romantic aesthetics) and the works of Keiji Nishitani and N.T. Wright. Goth said that the world is full of sorrow and pain, but with the release of sorrow comes a beautiful and aesthetically pleasing sense of cathartic relief. What use was it then, to be an optimist or a pessimist to protect ourselves from pain and sorrow, when from them could also come beauty? Is it good to shield ourselves from such things if we also shield ourselves from beauty? So, to continue my story, Nishitani described a troubled world of existential struggle that ignites within us a religious quest for meaning, while N.T. Wright described a world besought with sorrow and suffering which God came to save through history rather than from history. All three influences have had a major role in guiding the direction of my mature thinking to a degree far more complex than I can even begin to outline in a paper like this, and I am greatly in their debt. Such reading also prepared me for the work of Viktor Frankl, who argues for a middle ground between optimism and pessimism he calls tragic optimism. Frankl defines tragic optimism as "saying yes to life in spite of everything,", i.e. in spite of the realities of pain, evil (although psychologists like Frankl like to substitute the symptom of "guilt' in place of evil, it's root cause), and death. If the work of God through Jesus is to say yes to life and creation in spite of everything, then so should we in our on personal lives. With these realities in mind, we become optimally empowered both to weather life's most difficult storms and to stop and appreciate the falling leaves and blooming flowers.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper's door. The first glimpse of the clergyman's figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

"But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?" cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meetinghouse. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper's pulpit.

"Are you sure it is our parson?" inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

"Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper," replied the sexton. "He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon."

The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, good Mr. Hooper walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat, and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.

"I can't really feel as if good Mr. Hooper's face was behind that piece of crape," said the sexton.

"I don't like it," muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meeting-house. "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face."

"Our parson has gone mad!" cried Goodman Gray, following him across the threshold.

A rumor of some unaccountable phenomenon had preceded Mr. Hooper into the meeting-house, and set all the congregation astir. Few could refrain from twisting their heads towards the door; many stood upright, and turned directly about; while several little boys clambered upon the seats, and came down again with a terrible racket. There was a general bustle, a rustling of the women's gowns and shuffling of the men's feet, greatly at variance with that hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister. But Mr. Hooper appeared not to notice the perturbation of his people. He entered with an almost noiseless step, bent his head mildly to the pews on each side, and bowed as he passed his oldest parishioner, a white-haired great grandsire, who occupied an arm-chair in the centre of the aisle. It was strange to observe how slowly this venerable man became conscious of something singular in the appearance of his pastor. He seemed not fully to partake of the prevailing wonder, till Mr. Hooper had ascended the stairs, and showed himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil. That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.

Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word. The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor's lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper's temperament. The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said, at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger's visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

At the close of the services, the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre; some went homeward alone, wrapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter. A few shook their sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery; while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only that Mr. Hooper's eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp, as to require a shade. After a brief interval, forth came good Mr. Hooper also, in the rear of his flock. Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the middle aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide, greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on the little children's heads to bless them. Such was always his custom on the Sabbath day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy. None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor's side. Old Squire Saunders, doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory, neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food, almost every Sunday since his settlement. He returned, therefore, to the parsonage, and, at the moment of closing the door, was observed to look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the minister. A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.

"How strange," said a lady, "that a simple black veil, such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper's face!"

"Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper's intellects," observed her husband, the physician of the village. "But the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary, even on a sober-minded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only our pastor's face, throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike from head to foot. Do you not feel it so?"

"Truly do I," replied the lady; "and I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself!"

"Men sometimes are so," said her husband.

The afternoon service was attended with similar circumstances. At its conclusion, the bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The relatives and friends were assembled in the house, and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hooper, still covered with his black veil. It was now an appropriate emblem. The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy. From the coffin Mr. Hooper passed into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with celestial hopes, that the music of a heavenly harp, swept by the fingers of the dead, seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest accents of the minister. The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces. The bearers went heavily forth, and the mourners followed, saddening all the street, with the dead before them, and Mr. Hooper in his black veil behind.

"Why do you look back?" said one in the procession to his partner.

"I had a fancy," replied she, "that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand."

"And so had I, at the same moment," said the other.

That night, the handsomest couple in Milford village were to be joined in wedlock. Though reckoned a melancholy man, Mr. Hooper had a placid cheerfulness for such occasions, which often excited a sympathetic smile where livelier merriment would have been thrown away. There was no quality of his disposition which made him more beloved than this. The company at the wedding awaited his arrival with impatience, trusting that the strange awe, which had gathered over him throughout the day, would now be dispelled. But such was not the result. When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. The bridal pair stood up before the minister. But the bride's cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her deathlike paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married. If ever another wedding were so dismal, it was that famous one where they tolled the wedding knell. After performing the ceremony, Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to the newmarried couple in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the guests, like a cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness. For the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil.

The next day, the whole village of Milford talked of little else than Parson Hooper's black veil. That, and the mystery concealed behind it, supplied a topic for discussion between acquaintances meeting in the street, and good women gossiping at their open windows. It was the first item of news that the tavern-keeper told to his guests. The children babbled of it on their way to school. One imitative little imp covered his face with an old black handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic seized himself, and he well-nigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

It was remarkable that all of the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper, wherefore he did this thing. Hitherto, whenever there appeared the slightest call for such interference, he had never lacked advisers, nor shown himself averse to be guided by their judgment. If he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust, that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action as a crime. Yet, though so well acquainted with this amiable weakness, no individual among his parishioners chose to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal. Never did an embassy so ill discharge its duties. The minister received then with friendly courtesy, but became silent, after they were seated, leaving to his visitors the whole burden of introducing their important business. The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough. There was the black veil swathed round Mr. Hooper's forehead, and concealing every feature above his placid mouth, on which, at times, they could perceive the glimmering of a melancholy smile. But that piece of crape, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then. Thus they sat a considerable time, speechless, confused, and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper's eye, which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance. Finally, the deputies returned abashed to their constituents, pronouncing the matter too weighty to be handled, except by a council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a general synod.

But there was one person in the village unappalled by the awe with which the black veil had impressed all beside herself. When the deputies returned without an explanation, or even venturing to demand one, she, with the calm energy of her character, determined to chase away the strange cloud that appeared to be settling round Mr. Hooper, every moment more darkly than before. As his plighted wife, it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed. At the minister's first visit, therefore, she entered upon the subject with a direct simplicity, which made the task easier both for him and her. After he had seated himself, she fixed her eyes steadfastly upon the veil, but could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude: it was but a double fold of crape, hanging down from his forehead to his mouth, and slightly stirring with his breath.

"No," said she aloud, and smiling, "there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape, except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon. Come, good sir, let the sun shine from behind the cloud. First lay aside your black veil: then tell me why you put it on."

Mr. Hooper's smile glimmered faintly.

"There is an hour to come," said he, "when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then."

"Your words are a mystery, too," returned the young lady. "Take away the veil from them, at least."

"Elizabeth, I will," said he, "so far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!"

"What grievous affliction hath befallen you," she earnestly inquired, "that you should thus darken your eyes forever?"

"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil."

"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Elizabeth. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office, do away this scandal!"

The color rose into her cheeks as she intimated the nature of the rumors that were already abroad in the village. But Mr. Hooper's mildness did not forsake him. He even smiled again—that same sad smile, which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light, proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil.

"If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough," he merely replied; "and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?"

And with this gentle, but unconquerable obstinacy did he resist all her entreaties. At length Elizabeth sat silent. For a few moments she appeared lost in thought, considering, probably, what new methods might be tried to withdraw her lover from so dark a fantasy, which, if it had no other meaning, was perhaps a symptom of mental disease. Though of a firmer character than his own, the tears rolled down her cheeks. But, in an instant, as it were, a new feeling took the place of sorrow: her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when, like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors fell around her. She arose, and stood trembling before him.

"And do you feel it then, at last?" said he mournfully.

She made no reply, but covered her eyes with her hand, and turned to leave the room. He rushed forward and caught her arm.

"Have patience with me, Elizabeth!" cried he, passionately. "Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil—it is not for eternity! O! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!"

"Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face," said she.

"Never! It cannot be!" replied Mr. Hooper.

"Then farewell!" said Elizabeth.

She withdrew her arm from his grasp, and slowly departed, pausing at the door, to give one long shuddering gaze, that seemed almost to penetrate the mystery of the black veil. But, even amid his grief, Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors, which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.

From that time no attempts were made to remove Mr. Hooper's black veil, or, by a direct appeal, to discover the secret which it was supposed to hide. By persons who claimed a superiority to popular prejudice, it was reckoned merely an eccentric whim, such as often mingles with the sober actions of men otherwise rational, and tinges them all with its own semblance of insanity. But with the multitude, good Mr. Hooper was irreparbly a bugbear. He could not walk the street with any peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him, and that others would make it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way. The impertinence of the latter class compelled him to give up his customary walk at sunset to the burial ground; for when he leaned pensively over the gate, there would always be faces behind the gravestones, peeping at his black veil. A fable went the rounds that the stare of the dead people drove him thence. It grieved him, to the very depth of his kind heart, to observe how the children fled from his approach, breaking up their merriest sports, while his melancholy figure was yet afar off. Their instinctive dread caused him to feel more strongly than aught else, that a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape. In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great, that he never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain, lest, in its peaceful bosom, he should be affrighted by himself. This was what gave plausibility to the whispers, that Mr. Hooper's conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed, or otherwise than so obscurely intimated. Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there. With self-shudderings and outward terrors, he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul, or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world. Even the lawless wind, it was believed, respected his dreadful secret, and never blew aside the veil. But still good Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.

Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that, before he brought them to celestial light, they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage! Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure, because it was forbidden them to behold his face. But many were made to quake ere they departed! Once, during Governor Belcher's administration, Mr. Hooper was appointed to preach the election sermon. Covered with his black veil, he stood before the chief magistrate, the council, and the representatives, and wrought so deep an impression, that the legislative measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.

In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish. As years wore on, shedding their snows above his sable veil, he acquired a name throughout the New England churches, and they called him Father Hooper. Nearly all his parishioners, who were of mature age when he was settled, had been borne away by many a funeral: he had one congregation in the church, and a more crowded one in the churchyard; and having wrought so late into the evening, and done his work so well, it was now good Father Hooper's turn to rest.

Several persons were visible by the shaded candlelight, in the death chamber of the old clergyman. Natural connections he had none. But there was the decorously grave, though unmoved physician, seeking only to mitigate the last pangs of the patient whom he could not save. There were the deacons, and other eminently pious members of his church. There, also, was the Reverend Mr. Clark, of Westbury, a young and zealous divine, who had ridden in haste to pray by the bedside of the expiring minister. There was the nurse, no hired handmaiden of death, but one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish, even at the dying hour. Who, but Elizabeth! And there lay the hoary head of good Father Hooper upon the death pillow, with the black veil still swathed about his brow, and reaching down over his face, so that each more difficult gasp of his faint breath caused it to stir. All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.

For some time previous, his mind had been confused, wavering doubtfully between the past and the present, and hovering forward, as it were, at intervals, into the indistinctness of the world to come. There had been feverish turns, which tossed him from side to side, and wore away what little strength he had. But in his most convulsive struggles, and in the wildest vagaries of his intellect, when no other thought retained its sober influence, he still showed an awful solicitude lest the black veil should slip aside. Even if his bewildered soul could have forgotten, there was a faithful woman at this pillow, who, with averted eyes, would have covered that aged face, which she had last beheld in the comeliness of manhood. At length the death-stricken old man lay quietly in the torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion, with an imperceptible pulse, and breath that grew fainter and fainter, except when a long, deep, and irregular inspiration seemed to prelude the flight of his spirit.

The minister of Westbury approached the bedside.

"Venerable Father Hooper," said he, "the moment of your release is at hand. Are you ready for the lifting of the veil that shuts in time from eternity?"

Father Hooper at first replied merely by a feeble motion of his head; then, apprehensive, perhaps, that his meaning might be doubted, he exerted himself to speak.

"Yea," said he, in faint accents, "my soul hath a patient weariness until that veil be lifted."

"And is it fitting," resumed the Reverend Mr. Clark, "that a man so given to prayer, of such a blameless example, holy in deed and thought, so far as mortal judgment may pronounce; is it fitting that a father in the church should leave a shadow on his memory, that may seem to blacken a life so pure? I pray you, my venerable brother, let not this thing be! Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted, let me cast aside this black veil from your face!"

And thus speaking, the Reverend Mr. Clark bent forward to reveal the mystery of so many years. But, exerting a sudden energy, that made all the beholders stand aghast, Father Hooper snatched both his hands from beneath the bedclothes, and pressed them strongly on the black veil, resolute to struggle, if the minister of Westbury would contend with a dying man.

"Never!" cried the veiled clergyman. "On earth, never!"

"Dark old man!" exclaimed the affrighted minister, "with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?"

Father Hooper's breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful, at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper's lips.

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"

While his auditors shrank from one another, in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven — an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke's love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example in blue — and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange — the fifth with white — the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet — a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

He had directed, in great part, the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fete; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm — much of what has been since seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these — the dreams — writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away — they have endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince's indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

"Who dares?" he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him — "who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!"

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly — for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who, at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince's person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple — through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry — and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Jesus, The Matrix, Commodified Myth, and Plato's Allegory of the Cave (Philosophy Homework)

Prelude: Enter The Matrix

Our story begins in a darkened room, with the only light emanating from a computer screen. The room is small, and is filled to the brim with articles of media. Scattered everywhere are images, books, movies, music, games, and software to such a degree that the room feels claustrophobic in comparison to the world outside its narrow walls. While this could in fact be an image of my own room in the real world (or is it?), it is in fact the room of a Mr. Anderson in the Hollywood blockbuster film The Matrix. Within the fictitious world of the Matrix, which ultimately reduces to artificial scenery and theatrics, Mr. Anderson works in claustrophobic post-industrial blight as a software engineer for a major computer firm. However, Mr. Anderson leads a double life - by night, he becomes Neo, a notorious computer hacker searching through the darkened halls and forbidden doors of cyberspace for the truth about The Matrix. As he lies there in a deathlike slumber, exhausted from many hours of fruitless searching (one shot reveals he has lately been reading about Nihilism), he is suddenly awoken from sleep by an unexpected message on his computer screen. The message warns that he lies within the grasp of the thing that he is searching for, and that, like curious Alice descending into a hidden Wonderland, he should follow the white rabbit. Following the white rabbit tattoo emblazoned on the shoulder of a 'curious Alice' of a much different sort leads to an Industrial nightclub, which is filled by an eerie neon twilight and clubgoers wrapped in bondage and shackles (the demystified images of repressive social control). There is a certain kind of negative truth in this place, but it does not contain any answers to guide one on their way.

That is to say, it wouldn't without the presence of the elegantly symmetrical Trinity, incarnate in the person of a beautiful woman who goes by that alias. Possessing the fearful symmetry of a tiger, Trinity has come with an important message: that there is an answer to the question he has been seeking after. She says she can lead Neo to the enigmatic hacker Morpheus, but advises that he is not so much seeking Morpheus as he is seeking an answer with his help. As the two meet at last, Morpheus warns that the Matrix is everywhere, even in the room they are speaking in. He says that the Matrix is control, and that it has co-opted all of the most intimate and familiar institutions for the purpose of shielding Neo, in common with the whole of humanity, from the truth. The truth the Matrix conceals is this: that he, like everyone, is a slave, existing wholly within a prison for the mind. To help Neo escape from this prison, Morpheus offers him the chance to discover the truth like Alice descending into a fascinating yet fearful Wonderland.

When Neo accepts his offer, he does indeed awaken to a brave new world - but the pitiful creatures that inhabit it are by no means beautiful or prosperous. The world Neo finds himself reborn into is a terrifying future in which human persons have been reduced with cynical rationality into so many disposable batteries to power the machines that run the world. All around him lies millions of wretched people who lie bald and naked in cybernetic cradles filled with putrid amniotic fluid (which, in time, we will learn is the liquefied remains of people who have outlived their usefulness in powering the Machine, and can now be made to feed the others). Most remain oblivious to this sinister reality as they lie dormant in their artificial wombs because the Matrix has jacked their entire sensory realm into an illusory world of its own creation. Apparently, the medium of media has managed to eclipse reality entirely. So, after a terrifying encounter with a robotic representative of the Matrix, Neo finds himself rescued aboard the Nebuchadnezzar to face a startling world of light and illumination. His eyes are deeply burdened by all light and perception, and his muscles are atrophied beyond movement, but he will learn to walk and to see the truth.

Plato and the Allegory of the Cave

Such is one of the most terrifying and influential scenes captured on celluloid, which has since filtered to our collective subconscious. From the time of its global transmission through the medium of the Hollywood machine, it has gone on to shift the terms on which we live our lives in ways that are subtle. One could even go so far as to say the Matrix has achieved mythical status among the cinematic pantheon of blockbusters. After all, in an age when electronic media forms has supplanted more traditional cultural forms transmitted by analog means (like mythological narrative or shadow puppetry), is it unreasonable to assume that mass media has taken over the task of cultural mythmaking in our own era? Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, the massive popularity of the Matrix is well known. What is not well known to the general public is the degree to which the Matrix was influenced by the writings of Plato. One particularly strong influence was Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave, which has had a strong influence on philosophers and truth seekers for more than two millenia. While Plato's vision is hardly high-tech by today's standards, in this age of media saturation it has become more relevant than ever. Likewise, we who live in the Post-Industrial era can use the Matrix as a passable bridge to understand it more fully in the more familiar terms of our own cultural context.

The original story told by Plato goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a bunch of funny people who lived in a deep, dark cave as prisoners. You could say that their lives in the cave are a lot like the human condition.The strange thing about the prisoners in the cave was that their entire bodies were chained to their seats. They couldn't even move their heads to look and see the world around them! But the prisoners hardly noticed, because before their very eyes danced and flitted shadows on a wall illuminated by firelight (very much like a modern film projector). The shadows that passed before them had the appearance of living creatures, both humans and animals, and sometimes they even spoke! Everyone thought the world of shadows that passed before their eyes was the real world.The prisoners liked to pass the time competing to see who was the best and fastest at discerning the motions of the shadows, which they thought to be a very important task indeed.

What the prisoners did not know was that the shadows on the wall were not living creatures, but were animated by puppeteers who stood behind them. What the prisoners thought was the real world was only a theater of shadow puppets manipulated by mysterious puppeteers. Things continued this way until one day, the bonds and shackles of one of the prisoners were broken. The newly freed prisoner turned around to face a startling world of light and truth. He saw the puppeteers who fabricated what he thought to be the truth. More startling still, he saw the light of the projector, and it was deeply painful. He had never seen real light before, and his eyes would have to learn to adjust to it. And so, our courageous prisoner ventures out into the bright world beyond his cave, although it brings him great pain to face the light. Finally, he is able to bask in the direct light and truth of the sun, which is the ultimate source of light. Still, as much as he would like to remain in this world of light, he is compelled by the goodness he has discovered to return to the cave to free the others to a world of light. Things don't go so well when he returns, however. His eyes that have become adjusted to the world of light prove ineffective at discerning the motions of the shadows, and everyone thinks his eyes (and hence his life) is ruined. When he perseveres in his efforts to free them from bondage, they become so angry that they would kill him if they were able to.

So what does it all mean? The central metaphors of light and darkness, bondage and freedom are fairly easy to understand. Light corresponds to truth, while darkness corresponds to the absence of truth. Bondage, meanwhile, corresponds to the inability to choose the direction of one's own life in any way that is contrary to popular opinion and the shadow puppeteers who manufacture "truth". Freedom, meanwhile, is liberation from controlling powers, which provides the opportunity to discover the real truth and live by its light. In analyzing the meaning of the shadow puppeteers, it is tempting to interpret them in terms that amount to 'the ancient embodiment of my ideological rivals'. For a person like Socrates, who was fond of rattling quite a variety of cages, it is all too easy to project one's own conflicts into him and then justify it with this or that dialogue held with this or that sort of person. It would be more fair, I think, to say that Socrates conflicted with ideas lacking sufficient rational justification as embodied by the people who adhered to them. Inevitably, this process lead to conflicts with authorities of every kind, who risked having the foundations of their leadership compromised. Here too, however, the conflict is not with the authorities per se, but with the questionable ideas their administrations embody. This is why Socrates insisted upon drinking the hemlock when his beloved home city of Athens sentenced him to death and he was given the chance to flee to another city - he thought that becoming the embodiment of a lawbreaker would bring the city great harm.

With this caution out of the way, just who are the shadow puppeteers? Well, a craftsman is known by his craft, and the craft of the shadow puppeteer is to fashion stories and images to reflect upon the wall for an audience. Stories may reflect reality or be pure fabrication, but the art of storytelling serves the function of informing and guiding the stories the audience find themselves living in. In Plato's time, the biggest stories around where the myths, which sought to explain why the world was the way it was (and, by implication, why every listener's story was the way it was). Here, however, the image is grotesque - the audience finds themselves so gripped and shackled by the tale that they are incapable of living the stories that are their own. In more modern contexts, the biggest stories around are typically packaged in the form of mass media entertainment imbued with strong mythical qualities (i.e. The Matrix, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.) and heavily fetishized consumer products (the people in television commercials, for example, are made to give off the image of attaining Olympian completeness and Elysian happiness when they consume the product). Still, telling stories to explain our lives and seeking perfect completion and happiness are perfectly natural, and should not of themselves be discouraged simply because of their capacity for misdirection. This is, I think, why Plato remained committed to producing narrative stories about Socrates and proving that perfect ideals and forms of all things exist as the most real reality (a state that an individual could eventually attain).

It is notable that in distinction to The Matrix (which was produced in the rhetorical context of cynical capitalistic commodification of mythical form to fuel and power it's machines), Plato never actually accuses the projectionists of conspiratorial intent. This is just as well. As a media producer generating stories about Socrates and his relation to the world, Plato's own role in his own allegory may be compared to that of a projectionist producing shadowy images of Socrates to convince the prisoners to escape the cave. In Plato's original story, after all, the protagonist that breaks free of bondage is Socrates, who at this point faces the vaguely looming threat of death at the hands of his errant fellow citizens (who embody the larger problem of the human condition). Their problem is ignorance and unwillingness to change and accept the truth. But ironically, it is their own restraints that prevent them from carrying out their murderous will. People who know that they are pushing the system are frequently aware that their actions may lead to their death, and so they will try to prepare their friends, allies, and loved ones for the end (however cryptically). Martin Luther King for example, is tape-recorded on the very night of his assassination as warning his supporters that, like Moses, he may not reach the promised land with them. As such, it is quite possible that either Socrates himself gave this warning of murderous potential, or that Plato added this later so that readers would get the point.

Either way, the point is that the cave and the people within it aren't very bright, and if anyone wants the truth, they'll have to leave it. Outside lies a bright world of light that is both very exciting and deeply painful to the perpetual cave dweller. Here lies the world of ideals and forms, inhabited by the perfect circle, the perfect sphere, the perfect horse, the perfect man, the perfect woman. Everything is timeless and formed with the perfection of mathematical precision that simply is never seen in the ever-disintegrating material world. The landscape is illuminated by the sun, the source of all moral good that imbues all things with their meaning and value. For Plato, this is the Good, the ultimate form and ideal from which even God draws from. The present author, of course, is inclined to believe this conception is much too convoluted and incomprehensible, for how can an unconscious entity possess the capacity to coherently define conscious life when it itself lacks the attribute it is defining? Much better and clearer is the later Christian and Neo-Platonic interpretation that equates the eternal Good with the eternal God. Either way, this eternal world is so unlike the decaying and corrupt world the protagonist has lived in, that he must look at the shadows cast by the forms just to able to conceive them. But eventually, he is able to look directly at the sun, and to live by it's Truth.

And so ends Plato's story, and it is a very lovely story. However, like all such stories before the advent of Jesus, it is fundamentally incomplete. We never learn who, if not Socrates, will proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners from darkness. We never learn what is to become of a decaying world that never reflects the ideal as well as it shout, or what hope we can find within it rather than only outside of it (i.e. in the blissful afterlife Plato argues for, which is also very important to hope for). Just as C.S. Lewis argued that the incarnation of Christ fulfilled all of the mythical archetypes we naturally and rightly longed for, so too does this allegory or myth find its fulfillment in him. Jesus himself was executed by the authorities of his people and the great empire carefully watching over them for proclaiming an inconvenient truth. But in his resurrection it was revealed that he had in fact "canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." (Colossians 2:14-15) But having disarmed the powers, he reconciles them all to himself (Col. 1:20), all the while stripping them of their absolute claim to authority.

From this, Paul counsels the Colossians that they should not let themselves be held hostage by cultural demands to attend religious festivals to link themselves with symbolic or mythical representations of important things in the past, present, or future, because "these are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." (Col. 2:17) In our own day, we should be counseled not to let ourselves become imprisoned within a world of media projected upon us by forces outside of our control, but to carefully and thoughtfully consume media that aligns us with our freedom and purpose in Christ. When we are empowered to align ourselves with our purpose without outside interference, we thereby participate in the struggle for cosmic redemption and the final defeat of every rule, authority, and power, even the reign of death itself (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). It is only then, that we too can "bring good news to the poor.... bind up the brokenhearted.... proclaim liberty to the captives, and [announce] the opening of the prison to those who are bound." (Isaiah 61:1)