Why We Need To Be Care-Full…

I recently came across this passage in an essay by Colin McGinn. It explains the enslavement of human beings in the film The Matrix from the perspective of their robotic masters:

The Matrix naturally adopts the perspective of the humans: they are the victims, the slaves — cruelly exploited by the machines. But there is another perspective, that of the machines themselves. So let’s look at it from the point of view of the machines. As Morpheus explains to Neo, there was a catastrophic war between the humans and the machines, after the humans had produced AI, a sentient robot that spawned a race of its own. It isn’t known now who started the war, but it did follow a long period of machine exploitation by humans. What is known is that it was the humans who “scorched the sky”, blocking out the sun’s rays, in an attempt at machine genocide—since the machines needed solar power to survive. In response and retaliation the machines subdued the humans and made them into sources of energy—batteries, in effect. Each human now floats in his or her own personal vat, a warm and womblike environment, while the machines feed in essential nutrients, in exchange for the energy they need. But this is no wretched slave camp, a grotesque gulag of torment and suffering; it is idyllic, in its way. The humans are given exactly the life they had before. Things are no different for them, subjectively speaking. Indeed, at an earlier stage the Matrix offered them a vastly improved life, but the humans rejected this in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted. But if it had been left up to the machines, the Matrix would have been a virtual paradise for humans—and all for a little bit of battery power.

Why do human beings reject an edenic paradise “…in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted…”? This is the subject of the opening chapter of Robert Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.

Harrison finds in Odysseus an ideal case study of the human condition. Why can’t he rest content with the Goddess Kalypso on her island paradise? Why is he restless? Because he cannot be carefree:

What Odysseus longs for on Kalypso’s island—what keeps him ina state of exile there—is a life of care. More precisely, he longs for the world in which human care finds its fulfillment; in his case, that is the world of family, homeland, and genealogy. Care, which is bound to worldliness, does not know what to do with itself in a worldless garden in the middle of the ocean. It is the alienated core of care in his human heart that sends Odysseus to the shore every morning and keeps him out of place in the unreal environment of Kalypso’s island. “If you only knew in your own heart how many hardships / you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, / you would stay here with me and be lord of this household and be an immortal” (5.206–9). But Kalypso is a goddess—a “shining goddess” at that—and she scarcely can understand the extent to which Odysseus, insofar as he is human, is held fast by care, despite or perhaps even because of the burdens that care imposes on him.

Human beings reject Edenic paradise because of our longing for the active life, which Harrison defines with the help of Hannah Arendt, who sees at its core three things: labor, work, and action.

Labor is the endless and inglorious toil by which we secure our biological survival, symbolized by the sweat of Adam’s brow as he renders the earth fruitful, contending against blight, drought, and disaster. But biological survival alone does not make us human. What distinguishes us in our humanity is the fact that we inhabit relatively permanent worlds that precede our birth and outlast our death, binding the generations together in a historical continuum. These worlds, with their transgenerational things, houses, cities, institutions, and artworks, are brought into being by work. While labor secures our survival, work builds the worlds that make us historical. The historical world, in turn, serves as the stage for human action, the deeds and speech through which human beings realize their potential for freedom and affirm their dignity in the radiance of the public sphere. Without action, human work is meaningless and labor is fruitless. Action is the self-affirmation of the human before the witness of the gods and the judgment of one’s fellow humans.

Sanctified Imagination

In the introduction to Heroes of The City of Man Peter Leithart defends his approach to reading ancient epics with typological lenses against the criticisms of Margaret Boerner. If Leithart is anything he’s bold, which makes for terrifically fun reading.

Following medieval sensibilities, Leithart sees the Bible as the epitome of all books, “containing a key to all other books and stories.” In tragedies we see Fall stories that parallel Genesis 3 or 1st Samuel 13-15. Comedies are redemption stories which often roughly follow the grand redemptive narrative arc of Holy Scripture. All heroes may be compared to the true Hero, Jesus Christ. Likewise, damsels in distress can be compared to Christ’s bride, rescues to acts of salvation, weddings to anticipations of the feast of the Lamb, and slithering villains to the ancient serpent.

Leithart offers theological and historical reasons for his approach to literature. First and foremost, the works of Homer and Shakespeare are part of the “all things” of Colossians 1:16-17. But less theologically driven scholars like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, as well as committed Christians thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Northrop Frye, explore the odd recurrence of plots, patterns, imagery and characters in narratives that originate in vastly different times and places. For example, “the world over, stories with happy endings end with weddings.” “They lived happily ever after” is almost always a follow up to a wedding. Why is this? That weddings are happy occasions doesn’t suffice. There are many such occasions in life. “Explaining this phenomenon in terms of the dynamics of marriage-the union of ‘opposites’, the beginning of a new home, and so on- gets us closer to a real explanation, but we still want to ask why our imaginative search for harmony and new life is so often symbolized in this manner rather than another.” Leithart challenges his readers to imagine a better happy ending than a wedding. He thinks that the reason our imagination finds wedding stories synonymous with happy endings is that we live in a history that will conclude with a wedding feast.

The narrative structure of the story of the redemption of the cosmos is hard wired into our imagination whether we like it or not. This is at least in part because the creativity of the creature is different than that of the Creator. Unlike God, we are incapable of producing something that is “absolutely unprecedented”. This doesn’t so much limit our creativity. If we’re offended by this notion, it’s because we’re uncomfortable with being creatures, with all the ensuing limitations. There’s an ancient narrative about that too, a tragic one.