Reader Alert: I probably shouldn’t post this writing. It’s too long, too abstract, too scattered. Yet it’s taken me so long to draft and redraft — and then I had a week of computer problems — so I post it with a “caveat lector” warning: feel free to pass on reading or get ready for a slow, but hopefully interesting ride.
Here is my forecast for 2018. There will be much evil this coming year, and much good. I’d like to say “much more good,” but that’s a matter for faith, not philosophy. I can be even more precise: there will be many evils and many goods. I can also, using ancient categories, also predict that many fates will be realized during 2018, and that will mean, for some fates, the experience of many furies. Finally I can also confess my faith that whatever happens in 2018, God will continue to “write straight with crooked lines.”
I need to keep such pretty obvious forecasts in mind through the coming months lest fancy distract me, as it so often does, from facts.
Yet the effort to understand these forecasts led me back to “the problem of the one and the many.” (Such is the strange fate of philosophy!)
I first heard about the “problem of the one and the many” in a college course on “metaphysics.” Even by the end of the course, I didn’t have a clue about what metaphysics meant. Yet the priest-professor was a wonderfully quirky elder. Short and bald, with granny classes over sharply-focused eyes and a weirdly quizzical smile. A mix of Yoda and Merlin. On the first day he announced that the “problem of the one and the many” remains the central problem of philosophy. Then he said that the first problem with this problem is that the problem itself is hard to understand, Rather it just “has to hit you.” At which point (I said he was quirky) he slapped himself on the forehead and fell over backwards. It was, I now realize, a well-practiced routine. We were shocked and then we laughed. Yet he laughed last, knowing that none of us really “got it.” But he hoped his pedagogical comedy might help us when we finally began to “get it.”
Years later I remember the moment I began to get it. I was walking the dog after a morning of reading and writing. Perhaps under the influence of wine with lunch or a relaxing puff. Mid-walk, while the dog stopped for business next to a tree, I was suddenly stunned by a question as if from the heavens: why does “one” always seem more important than “two”? And only now, in telling this story, do I recognize a small symbol in that pee-tree with its one trunk, many branches and still more roots!
I know the question “why does one seem more important than two?” may sound very odd, but think about it. E pluribus Unum. One nation under God. And so One God. Perhaps even One Holy Catholic Church. Or for more modern tastes, “my identity” or “my one self” and then perhaps one “marriage of true minds.” And then (if you’re so inclined) think about the mathematical importance of “1,” or the philosophical centrality of “being,” or the (for some) religious importance of “resting in Thee.”
It would seem that the human heart (as well as our mind and spirit) is indeed restless until it finds forms of integration or unity or “oneness” – whether within (in soul/psyche), or in relationships (in marriage and other forms of com-unity). The “soul”, or these days the “self,” is simply one of our many ways of trying to talk about the unity or “oneness” of our personal existence. For who does not fear schizophrenia or other forms of personal disintegration. And who does not prefer some form of “com-unity” in our relationships to division and fragmentation.
Yet (and now “the many” returns) we’d have a pretty thin self and pretty empty community if our various unities did not include significant diversity. What would one’s self or one’s community be without a history of many experiences and relationships, without memories to hold that history together, and without hope for a plenty-full future?
At the time of my dog-walk moment, this newly-minted professor was swept along by strong cultural currents affirming all kinds of diversity. We wanted to break free from what seemed (and often were) the procrustean “unities” or the “conformity” imposed by “the system.” Thus the question came: why was “one” so important? What about two and three, or four and more? What about those many claims to diversity (racial and religious, ethnic and gendered) moving through the “60’s” and ever since? What about so many different people and places, causes and events; the many memories encompassing them and many hopes for their futures? We needed, we correctly felt and still feel, an awareness of significant diversity to break through forced and phony unities.
These days, in my dotage, I tend to worry more about recovering or finding real unity in the midst of so many divisions and so much fragmentation. Yet I also remain deeply concerned about superficial and phony “unities” — whether national nativism or the universalism of the global market; whether consumerism or racism or any other fundamentalism which rushes into the vacuum created by fragmentation.
Thus my mentor Lynch urges me, as I seek real forms of unity, “not to move too quickly from the many to the one.” Not to rush into “one place” of seeming security or clarity or rightness, whether that be a set of fixed ideas or some quick conclusion or absolute position. He urges me rather to move more care-fully and attentively through difference and diversity and change as the only realistic way, in any situation, of moving into a “one” or unity of understanding and conviction, of conclusion and position.
As an undergrad, even though I majored in Lit, I didn’t begin to understand the intertwining of “one and many” in good poetry and story, fiction and film. I did feel such unity as I enjoyed the writing, but did not understand how it was accomplished. Only years later, when I understood Lynch’s great book about literature, Christ and Apollo (1960), did I begin to see that good art – whether in poems or plays, fiction or film – always involves the intertwining of “one and many.” Such intertwining is what made the work humanly interesting and artistically significant. It involved the gradually growing relationship (line by line in a poem, scene by scene in script or story) between many words and images, many different characters and plot twists, and the one or unifying intuition which guided both the artist’s work and the reader/viewer’s imagination. Many parts contribute to the making of one significant whole. Yet both writer and reader only get to a realization of that whole by moving step by step, slowly and attentively, through those many parts. A plot summary or statement of “the” theme, even with details from some “CliffsNotes,” simply won’t work. Think of reading Dickens or Dostoevsky, Eliot or Frost, or viewing Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare in Love, or any really good poem or story or drama. Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains for me the clearest example of a sweepingly diverse narrative (about politics and war, and also about different individuals and families) which achieves a rich unity of vision and sensibility as the many parts contribute, each in its own way, to one artistic whole.
By contrast, what we get in the trite and sensational stuff we often read or see or hear is just more of the same constantly repeated — more and more violence (essentially all the same, just growing in explosive intensity); more good guys being strong-good or sexy-pretty again and again and again (and ditto for the bad guys); more inane lyrics repeating the same banalities and beats ad nauseam.
I recently went to see the latest Star Wars release because several critics claimed it actually involved some significant development in the unending saga. I do suspect the devout were pleased by fresh faces, cute new animals, and new robots. Yet I found it depressingly long and essentially repetitious – just deja-vu over and over again (even though I too liked the new pretty faces). It was just another sequel setting up for the next sequel, great for money making but utterly lousy art. Lots of action and noise and graphics, but nothing of substance beyond the first film I saw more than 30 years ago.
Now let me return from these notes about “one and many” to my forecast for 2018.
We do sense, each in our own way, what seems destined for predominance in the big world during 2018. And we also have a sense of our hopes and fears for the smaller stage of our lives in home and workplace, neighborhood and city.
And so we know, again each in our own way, that there will be many evils and forms of evil in 2018. And many goods and many forms of good.
Let me dwell here on the evils, since we tend to be more aware of them.
We know there will be “big stage” evils. Here’s my list to compare with yours (or to skip if you disagree): There will be increasing inequality and political oppression, abroad and at home. And there will be much intolerance and violence because of racism and gender or religious or ethnic differences. There will be continuing sexual and environmental abuse along with increasing global militarization and wars of many kinds. And all these evils will be overshadowed by the dark fate of climate change and environmental despoliation.
And we also know about the “smaller” evils we will experience daily in our streets and buildings, with both friends and foes. And, as the Bible suggests, we’ll typically be far more aware of the evils we blame on others than of the personal evils we may discuss in therapy or confess in church or at a favorite bar.
Our traditions also remind us that the evils we’ll experience in 2018 – big and small – will come in different forms. Some will be “moral evils,” caused by the sins of individuals or groups. Some will be “natural evils,” consequences of our embodied natures – the evils of hunger and thirst, sickness and diminishment and death. And such natural evils will often be compounded by the moral evil of persons and systems which place power and profit over care for fragile human persons.
Finally, we also know about (and may accept) that some of our traditions of thought find the deepest source of evil to be human failure – sin or powerlust or whatever – while other traditions find that such sin is more deeply rooted in a force like Satan or Kali or another “Dark Lord”.
If you’re still with me, you’ll notice that I have quite deliberately tried to describe the many kinds and varieties of evils we will be affected by in 2018.
I could and should write the same kind of broad description of the many goods we will experience in 2018 – on both the big and small stages of our lives, in many different forms and from different sources. But this writing is already too long. So I urge my reader to pause a bit and begin to imagine the many goods s/he foresees for 2018.
Yet, in order to make my point about “one and many,” I will for the moment stay with the many forms of evil we can easily foresee for 2018. As we suffer and resist and combat various evils this coming year, we need to understand that we are dealing with many different evils. Fortunately, that is what most of us do as we respond to the evils we experience. For we know, from habit and intelligence, that we are dealing with specific and different evils. Illness is not the same as job loss or betrayal or war, and we’ve usually learned to respond differently to each. Yet precisely because there is so much complexity in the evil realities we face, and because of the hard suffering and fear which such evils cause, we often need to blame some “one” thing or some one class or group or SOMETHING we can hate and oppose…and to find some ONE SOLUTUION for all our problems. We want, in other words, to “move quickly from the many to the one.”
To repeat: there will be real evils, real dangers and concerns, which will and should occupy our attention and resistance in 2018. Yet the fundamental problem with such attention and with its accompanying anger and condemnation is that in the face of threats we humans all tend to “rush too quickly from the many to the one.” To see “it all” through one narrow set of lenses – whether of apocalyptic fear or escapist fantasy; whether of ideological purity and absolutized polarization (“they” are to blame; not “us”) or of dread and depression and perhaps despair.
Yet what we most need is the strength to go more patiently and care-fully into 2018. To see that there are many different evils with different causes. I personally find the root of many evils in capitalist economics and pseudo-scientific mechanism. Yet if I’m not simply to rage, I need constantly to remind myself that there are many economic systems, many different capitalisms and different socialisms, many different sciences and technologies and mechanics. And above all many different people, each with their own different virtues and vices.
And, of course, there are simultaneously so many and such different goods.
Most of us, unless we’re paralyzed by rage or the need to run, or seduced by some fantasy of a “final solution,” know this when it comes to action against evil and work for good. We can’t start everyplace, only someplace. We can’t join all movements, only this or that one, in this or that place (big or small) and moment.
I watch with admiration how the “Me 2” movement begins to spread from media and politics to store and factory, and undoubtedly to neighborhoods and schools and families. Just as I see environmental activists working in so many places and at so many levels: from farms and rivers through forests and seashores; in politics and personal habits; in schools and laboratories and churches. I am also immensely grateful for those who seek restorative justice for native populations and refuge for migrant populations.
A friend recently told me of his efforts, both academic and political, to counter the anti-aboriginal “nativism” again on the rise again in Australia. Especially his participation in the effort to work for a multi-national constitution for Australia – something beyond the competing ideologies of liberal democracy (we’re all just one) and of nativism (we whites are the only ones); something which can affirm both the different Aboriginal nations and the predominant European nation as essential parts of the one nation called Australia. This challenge of competing nationalisms is today a major and often violent problem not only in Australia and in the US and Western Europe, but throughout the post-colonial world in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (think Myanmar), and in post-Soviet Eastern Europe (think the Balkans or Ukraine).
I also note with admiration the many ways that artists – through photography and film, story and stage, poem and song – call attention to all such different people and movements, causes and concerns. And even more broadly how good art of all kinds helps us understand the many different evils we face and the many different goods that sustain us.
Because, again, good artists and serious activists do not move too quickly from the many to the one. They move, even when motivated by legitimate outrage and condemnation, with the strengths of attention to detail and difference, of real care and real courage. Not with simplistic rage and the pseudo-courage of some narrowly fixed idea.
May such strengths be with most of us in 2018.