The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
– William Wordsworth
“An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.” – C. S. Lewis
I have often reflected on the meaning of these verses, taken from Book Three of The Prelude by William Wordsworth and how they relate to this quote from C.S. Lewis.
We live in a world of ideas, symbols and signs. All around us, reality is pulled and stretched, tweaked and polished through words, images and narratives designed by influencers. It’s easy to lose track of reality in the midst of this vast and shifting sea. We are pulled by currents that feel so strong, it feels impossible to resist simply giving in and “going with the flow.”
The problem is that there is nothing but flow and trends. There is no floor, no ground in this world of information. There is only influence and fitting in. The problem is that this means that the only principle in this world is power. The power of the influencer and the persuader. The power of the crowd.
The flow of meaning in the sea of culture and social life is something that we each can only glimpse a piece of, from a limited perspective. Actually, we are only ever seeing a “thin slice” of reality, and our understanding of it is coloured by our perspective. This is what makes reason and principle so important.
Let’s unpack this idea a little.
If we are swimming – perhaps treading water is a better way of thinking about it – in a sea of ideas, ideas that feel linked together and organized, we feel grounded. We wake up one morning and see something on the television, say, a fashionable new pair of shoes. We see somebody famous being interviewed in a friendly way on a morning show and, without too much make-up, wearing jeans, the person looks remarkably like us. Then the celebrity tells a personal story of how they came across these shoes and how they fit in to being modern, hip, cool and avant-garde.
It’s an alluring prospect. Someone famous who looks quite a bit like people I know, who look and sound and feel like me. It makes it easy to think of those shoes as a part of being trendy, or – more likely – “fitting in.” And this way, it is so easy to begin to behave in an inhuman way. To lose yourself in the fantasies and visions of other people. People who would have power and control over your imagination.
Why does this work?
It’s because, as I said earlier, we can only know a thin slice of what there is to know about anything, whether it is shoes, or fashion, or politics or even the identities of our friends. The rest of what we feel we “know” about these things and people is really just smudgy background, but we assume that the smudgy background, if we looked at it closely enough, would become as crisp as the image of the shoes or the celebrity.
The thing is, it doesn’t. It’s a game of smoke and mirrors, where the only clear image is the one in the foreground.
The fact is – the smudgy background doesn’t exist. In fact, the smudgy background is the vague totality of our feelings, our self-concept, our interpretation of our experiences in the current context. It is built of a series of assumptions that we take for granted. But the shocking thing is that the background isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It is a projection of our subconscious mind. And that is what persuaders depend upon.
That is what takes me back to Wordsworth and Lewis.
A mind forever voyaging seeks to understand – Newton was a scientist and a mystic, trying throughout his life to reconcile faith and rationality. The problem with depending on rationality is that it is easy to be limited to the sharp foreground – the sharp, high definition image of the shoes and the celebrity in the foreground of our perception. It is less good at casting light on the background. It is easy, when you are being purely rational, to focus on the most obvious, rather than to seek what’s true. To peer into the smudgy background.
That is the trap of living in a symbolic culture. We can end up trying to piece together the two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of symbols and narratives that swirl around us. We may even be able to establish causal relationships between things: “I saw those shoes, thought that they would look good on me, and bought them.”
But this superficial causality doesn’t necessarily capture the truth or the reason behind our actions. It just floats at the surface. Reason asks us to peer into the smudgy background of our perceptions in an attempt to transcend the limitations placed upon us by our individual perspectives. Our individual perspectives which are but the sharp, blade’s edge of our experience: the knife’s edge of our experiences, raw and thin. Our perspectives in any moment, our impulses, aren’t reasoned, but they are causal. Pure rationality, without caring and love, is but a funhouse mirror image of reality. It isn’t human. It is hard and brittle. It is driven by power. Power is ugly.
The trick is to not confuse the superficially causal with the reasoned way. Human reason requires a dimension beyond pure rationality. It demands faith and love. It demands faith in love.
So back to the mind forever voyaging.
The poet, the scholar, when he or she is motivated by love, applies loving reason to his or her experiences. S/he voyages back and forth through the slipstream of experiences, and lovingly examines them. Understanding of self is born of this. Depth and caring are born of this. Agape – the brotherly love – is born of this.
So I feel that to get to the reasoned life, we have to put aside superficial causality and attempt to illuminate the smudgy background that supports it. We must ask: Why? Who benefits? How does this make sense? How does it serve the good?
When you ask yourself these questions, you start to realize what I mean by the fact that there is no ground underneath the flow. There are no trends. There is nothing to “fit into”. In the world of images, there are only influences, patterns and power. It isn’t human. Only love is human.
So what to do?
Know your heart. Seek to be loving and open and generous. Always ask what “Good” comes of the things you see. If there is no Good, then what you are seeing isn’t constructive. Rather, it is destructive. The good is generative – it builds us up, it builds our relationships. It builds communities. It builds trust.
Seek to understand what the good means in what you see and hear in your life. Then make the good your perspective on the world.
You will be amazed at how different the world of media, fashion, images, sound and narratives and relationships will look to you. How brittle. How faded. How inhuman.
Demand the good. Free yourself from the power of illusion.