Aurelius Augustinus to J. W. Worthy
Peace in our dear Lord Jesus Christ
In the interest of right thinking, I attempted to call your attention to Church doctrine, hoping to point you toward elements of sincere thought. When you then promptly accused me of Manichaeism, I was pleased to think that you were at least making some progress. As to this particular heresy, incidentally, your heathen friend Goethe might better use your good offices. Do not his animadversions upon "consciousness" (his term) posit the same intrinsic malice in "Nature" as did the Manichees?
Manichaeism commits, so I believe, the most pernicious of human errors. Our travails here below invariably lead us through so many losses and disappointments along our way to fragility, dementia, and death, that we are continually tempted to raise an accusing fist against "the world" and its Maker, who seem on every hand to conspire against us. Rationally, indeed, one is often drawn to think in that way, but experience tells us that in the direction of unaided reason lie only madness and, perhaps worse, selfishness, egoism, greed, and all the rest. I love to quote my pupil Martinus: "I despaired," he said after thinking things through, "and cast myself upon Christ." The basis of faith, as of science, is acceptance of a world which, if not benign, caring and supportive, is at its worst merely capricious--not malicious or deceptive. So much for Manichaeism.
Speaking of my pupils, I recommend to you Sir Carl Popper as a most excellent tutor in the basics of sincere thought. Actually, Sir Carl is himself an accomplished Classicist. He offers a principle of thinking which easily disposes of the whole concept of "consciousness" as somehow distinct from our soul. I have in mind Popper's reformulation of what Cicero rightly advances as a simple axiom. Sir Carl having omitted to credit his source, permit me to repeat the charming passage. It is from the Tusculans I,14. An interlocutor insists that the unfortunate dead no longer have any existence at all. Cicero demands to know how, then, one can claim they are unfortunate.
A. Quoniam me verbo premis, posthac non ita dicam, miseros esse, sed tantum miseros ob id ipsum, quia non sint.
M. Non dicis igitur: miser est M. Crassus, sed tantum: miser M. Crassus.
A. Ita plane.
M. Quasi non necesse sit, quicquid isto modo pronunties, id aut esse aut non esse! an tu dialecticis ne imbutus quidem es? in primis enim hoc traditur: omne pronuntiatum--sic enim mihi in præsentia occurrit ut appellarem axioma, utar post alio, si invenero melius--id ergo est pronuntiatum, quod est verum aut falsum. cum igitur dicis: miser M. Crassus, aut hoc dicis: miser est Crassus, ut possit iudicari verum id falsumne sit, aut nihil dicis omnino.
A. Since you are being strict about words I will not say they are unfortunate then, but merely call them unfortunate on account of the fact they are dead.
M. So you do not say, unhappy is Marcus Crassus, but only, unhappy Marcus Crassus?
A. That's right.
M. As if it were not necessary for the things you say either to exist or not exist! Have you never heard of dialectics? The first thing you learn--it occurs to me at the moment to call it an axioma, but if I find a better word I will use it--is that an utterance is something which is either true or false. When you utter, "Unfortunate Marcus Crassus," then you either are saying that Crassus is unfortunate, or you are not saying anything at all.
Sir Carl dubs this his principle of falsification, which states that until we formulate our argument in a way that admits of refutation, we have not said anything at all. Certainly this "axiom" must also apply to the heathen speculations about consciousness. What clear, affirmative statement can one make on this head which allows of refutation?
Other such axioms, guiding thought at the elemental level, are so few that I might almost hope to enumerate them. Certainly the rule of parsimony, attributed to William of Occam as his "razor," is axiomatic both to art and to science--and I must confess that this very rule has been invoked to defend the primacy of consciousness. Erwin Schrödinger, in developing his wave mechanics, calls this science an investigation into the researcher's own states of consciousness. Thus Schrödinger suggests that, since consciousness is our apprehension of things in the first place, we certainly violate Occam's razor when we turn around and posit their pre-existence. The Romantics, with their argument that the Self creates the world, do seem to have the rule of parsimony on their side.
Goethe rightly points to a historical root of the problem by singling out Baconian emphasis on palpable experience. Some read Bacon as prejudicial against objective treatment of intangibles. Here Sir Carl is again helpful by reducing venerable intuitive wisdom to a handy formula. He sets Bacon's tangibles off in "World I," his realm of material and force. Sir Carl then consigns individual psychic experiences, whether representations of World I or independent of it, to a "World II." But the objective institutions passed down by humanity over the ages Popper reserves for "World III." Here are to be found both the written and the unwritten rules of civilization and its monuments, Cicero's studia humanitatis, Erasmus's bonae litterae, and what you there at John Tarleton referred to as the college of arts and sciences.
Whatever we call it, it is that realm of ultimate reality where both the quick and the dead, my dear Professor, find our permanent home. It is dependent on living humanity, of course, but so is even World I, as Popper takes pains to point out. If some people grant to the things of the world, because they are things, some more substantial existence than to thoughts, tradition, and faith--well, this only makes the rest of us more sensible of our human obligation to the higher ground. Perhaps that is why I have most happily corresponded with you out there in the Dustbowl, whither sends his blessings,
from the See of Hippo,
or see the correspondence with Augustine.