Saturday, April 13, 2024

What a Piece of Work is Man

What a piece of work is a man, 
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, 
In form and moving how express and admirable, 
In action how like an Angel, 
In apprehension how like a god.

~William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

In the above-cited passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the titular character of Hamlet, speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, comments on the promise and peril of the human condition, contrasting man's remarkable powers with the depravity of which he is capable. 

When Hamlet says, "how infinite in faculty," Shakespeare is not being daft about man's capacity. He understands that humans, strictly speaking, are not infinite in any sense. He is using poetic hyperbole to express the inestimable value of human reason, unique among all created beings. In this context, "infinite" means something like incalculable, immeasurable, vast, utterly unique, or priceless. Hamlet is here using elevated language to express his wonder at the seemingly boundless faculties of the human mind.

Such hyperbolic language is well-suited to literary genres because of its ability to draw on a rich reservoir of associated images and implications that take us well beyond the literal level of a passage. Language itself is analogical; it works by evoking mental associations. These associations are richer to the degree that time and usage—especially in cultural or literary contexts—have imbued them with shared meaning. The great English novelist Dorothy Sayers said:

It is by this kind of process that words and phrases become charged with the power acquired by passing through the minds of successive writers. Pure scientists (who find this kind of power embarrassing to them) are always struggling in vain to rid words of their power of association; and the ugly formations which they devise for this purpose have as their excuse their comparative freedom from the artist's brand of creative power. Here is a trifling example. I was once taken to task by an arms expert for using the word "dynamite" as a symbol of explosive force. He contended, very justly, that dynamite was out of date; we now knew a great many substances that exploded more readily and with more devastating effect. My defense was that the newer words, though associated with more material power, had fewer associations of literary power. "Dynamite" carries with it the accumulated power flowing from the Greek dynamis—such concepts, for example, as belong to the words dynamo, dynamic, dynasty, and so forth, and such literary associations as Hardy's The Dynasts. Hardy's poem brings with it the thought of Napoleon's explosion of power; "dynasty" taps the power of ancient Egypt as it is interpreted in our minds...It is [therefore] interesting to rake into one's own mind and discover, if one can, what were the combined sources of power on which one, consciously or unconsciously, drew while endeavoring to express an idea in writing. [1]

Using these kinds of hyperbolic, literary phrases thus allows us to access ideas that are greater than the sum of their parts. They offer us a Gestalt view of reality, providing not only what is literally deduced from a phrase, but a whole subworld of associated images that give emotional weight to the words. This is the power of a skilled litterateur, whether of prose or poetry.

All well and good. But we have, however, been talking solely about literary forms of expression, the type of language suitable to "the artist's brand of creative power," as Sayers says. But this is not the only manner of speaking. Sayers notes that "pure scientists" are frustrated with this type of language, because whereas literature is helped by the constellation of associations pregnant in a poetic term, science is hindered. Literature thrives on phraseology that is enriched with associated meanings, whereas science thrives on reducing words to their most precise usage. Without the ability to use words univocally, the accumulation of knowledge underlying the edifice of science would be impossible. To put it simply, in literature, equivocation nurtures imagination, while for science, equivocation yields obfuscation.

Neither manner of writing is "better" than the other; both the imaginative and the univocal have their place depending on the writer's purpose. If the writer is composing a dramatical production such as Hamlet, he will want to lean deeply into the world of symbolism and poetry. If he is writing a scientific paper, like Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, he will wish to speak clearly with precision and uniformity of meaning. Ultimately, then, it depends on what form of communication one is intending and what sort of speech is proper to that mode.

And what of theology? Does theology have more in common with the creative disciplines of the literary world, or with the sciences? I do understand that in reality theology can incorporate ideas from various disciplines; art, for example, is often appealed to in order to illustrate theological concepts. Theology is capable of drawing on a rich treasury of ideas from everywhere. But that doesn't mean theology lacks an inherent structure. Theology is not a jellyfish; it is not a liquid that assumes the contours of whatever vessel one pours it into. There is a structure and a methodology to the discipline of theology that must be observed if theology is to make any sense. Theology has traditionally been considered a science that requires a precision of language in order to be comprehensible. The Fathers, for example, meant very specific things by terms like person and nature; the Scholastics had refined, precise meanings for words like substance and accident. Like any other science, there can only be true progress in theology to the degree that we have a commonly agreed upon vocabulary to work from. This has always been of immense importance; remember that time there was a universal debate over homoousion vs homoiousion? A great many of the Church’s theological disputes have occurred over differences in how words are used. Words matter immensely. 

In the wake of Pope Francis's Ad Theologiam Promovendam, which called for a "paradigm shift" towards a "popular theology" that was "fundamentally contextual" and "inductive," I wrote:

Theology is traditionally deductive; that is, we start with an objective body of truth (divine revelation, i.e., the "deposit of faith") and deduce applications from that body of truth. Theological development thus constitutes a kind of "clarification" or "deepening" of this primal deposit, such that theologians of later centuries have greater clarity on the truth, as each step of theological progress is deducted logically from the steps before it. Francis, however, wants an inductive method based on contextualization. Inductive reasoning means we construct theories based on concrete observations; in this case, Francis wants these theories contextualized based on "common sense,"  "popular theology," and "other disciplines"—in other words, the lived experience of individuals in the context of contemporary culture. This rotates the axis of theology 180 degrees, moving us from deductions derived from objective principles to theories constructed around the subjective experiences of people. It is a complete inversion of how theology has traditionally been done. ("The Last Gasp of Our Ahkenaten," USC, Nov 5, 2023)

Francis's view of theology is vastly less precise than the approach Catholics have used in the past. He does not follow the deductive method, nor does he care for precise definitions. This makes reading Francis in light of tradition inherently problematic. When Francis, for example, says that man possesses "infinite dignity," it does not good to cite discussions in Aquinas's philosophical discussions about relative infinity, nor John Paul II's use of similar phraseology, because Francis plainly states that his theology will no longer utilize the same methodological framework as earlier generations of theologians. He wants theology to be more contextual, more equivocal, more culturally determined, more replete with literary allusion. Whatever Aquinas or John Paul II meant in their writings, it cannot be assumed that Francis means the same. I've not read the document, and this is not a theological exegesis on the use of the word "infinite." Rather, it is to point out that, if Francis himself says that his theology is fundamentally contextual, then we have no justification for assuming any of his theological assertions have a precise, univocal meaning in continuity with tradition. Francis himself has said this is how he wants theology to be done now.

This is certainly not to say his words have no meaning; it is to say, however, that we can no longer simply presume the meaning bears continuity with previous theologians like Aquinas or John Paul II.

What a piece of work is Francis!

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (Harper Row: New York, NY, 1979), 117-118

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the beginning of the pontificate, I bought his encyclicals as I did prior - they struck me not as being spiritual, more a practical advice book. I observed to myself that the
style was different, yet not necessarily bad and I welcomed the tips and admonishments. One recommendation was to ask permission rather then take head of our own, in our home settings with family. It was more guidance tips with everyday living, to be more gracious. This ties in with the "common sense" approach noted above.

After the publication of A.L. I didn't purchase Any more encyclicals.