Tag Archives: Aristotle

The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life

I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.


More Barfield, This Time on Logos

This Owen Barfield quotation might strike some of you as interesting. I’m posting it just as food for thought:

“The extraordinarily intimate connection between language and thought (the Greek word λóγος combined, as we should say, both meanings) might lead one to expect that the philosophers at least would have turned their attention to the subject long ago. And so, indeed, they did, but with a curiously disproportionate amount of interest. The cause of this deficiency is, I think, to be found in the fact that Western philosophy, from Aristotle onwards, is itself a kind of offspring of Logic. To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.”

— from Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, which at least one book publisher described as “The seminal text that inspired Tolkien and C.S. Lewis”

Poetic Diction


Is C.S Lewis’s assessment of ancient wisdom out-of-date?

I’m curious if anyone thinks the following observation, made by C.S. Lewis in the 1940s, is less true today than it was when it was written:

“If we did all that Plato or Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better than we do. And so what? We never have followed the advice of the great teachers. Why are we likely to begin now?”

That’s the central issue I’m after.

However, it seems unfair not to include how Lewis continues:

“Why are we more likely to follow Christ than any of the others? Because He is the best moral teacher? But that makes it even less likely that we shall follow Him. If we cannot take the elementary lessons, is it likely we are going to take the advanced one? If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.

“But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion. They say that Christ is the Son of God (whatever that means). They say that those who give Him their confidence also become Sons of God (whatever that means). They say that His death saved us from our sins (whatever that means).”

(Quotations from Beyond Personality, which was later included in Mere Christianity.)

The problem of truth within natural selection; plus, the non-naturalistic atheist

Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, made an interesting comment in the July/August edition of Books & Culture:

“[N]atural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.”

Plantinga does not rule out evolution in his article.

In fact, the name of the article is “Evolution vs. Naturalism.”

How’s that?

Here’s a hint:

“Naturalism is the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God; we might think of it as high-octane atheism or perhaps atheism-plus. It is possible to be an atheist without rising to the lofty heights (or descending to the murky depths) of naturalism. Aristotle, the ancient Stoics, and Hegel (in at least certain stages) could properly claim to be atheists, but they couldn’t properly claim to be naturalists: each endorses something (Aristotle’s Prime Mover, the Stoics’ Nous, Hegel’s Absolute) no self-respecting naturalist could tolerate.” [emphasis added]

Check out:
Knowledge of God (Great Debates in Philosophy)
Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

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On the evolution-creationism debate: How about Aristotle’s ‘intelligent design’?

I’ve been thinking about belief in God, the theory of evolution, and a lecture by Dr. Francis Collins that I attended last year, in part due to recent articles in The New York Times and National Review.

According to The New York Times, a film producer recently stirred up the evolution-creationism war following the release of his film, which argues “freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry have been expelled from publicly-funded high schools, universities and research institutions.” The victims in the film are those who have asserted supernatural involvement in development of life on earth. The atheistic evolutionists who were interviewed for the film feel like they were caught in a bait-and-switch scheme, claiming that the original premise on which they participated in the interviews was not reflected in the final product. Read the article from The New York Times here.

Although I wish academic freedom were an absolute right, I also wish the theistic parties in this discussion wouldn’t appear so devious. I can’t help but feel frustrated by this ongoing debate. I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, at the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Summer Institute in July 2006. Collins is a convinced Christian, challenged and ultimately converted by Lewis’ work Mere Christianity.

Collins is also a convinced evolutionist, who spent a chunk of his lecture giving succinct refutations of each of the following points of view: atheism, agnosticism, creationism, and intelligent design. Certainly most people would agree that Collins has the expertise to speak on the science behind his presuppositions. His case, made in layman’s terms, was impressive.

Collins’ refutation of intelligent design involved his assertion that questions previously unanswered by science are now answerable by science. Intelligent design proponents once made much of their headway by pointing to unexplained biochemical changes in the chain of evolution. Because the changes were unexplained by science, the intelligent design proponents argued, the changes must have required God’s direct intervention for the biochemical processes to advance and for life to continue evolving. Collins said he thought new research accounts for the advancement of evolution through naturalistic processes.

However, Collins made it clear that he thought God kicked it all off in the first place. The difference between him and the intelligent design proponents was and is that Collins saw a completely naturalistic, evolutionary chain in the development of life on earth, while the intelligent design folks thought God had to intervene at certain points to keep the ball rolling. But Collins put God at the very beginning of the naturalistic, evolutionary chain.

A recent article in National Review added, at least for me, some ballast to Collins’ point of view, although it looks at the debate from a different angle than that addressed in Collins’ lecture. In the Oct. 8 edition, Jim Manzi wrote in part about some of Richard Dawkins’ presuppositions, and how those aren’t necessarily solid:

Dawkins himself, in The Blind Watchmaker, is clear about the fact that evolution requires pre-existing building blocks. He writes, “The physicist’s problem is the problem of ultimate origins and ultimate natural laws. The biologist’s problem is the problem of complexity. The biologist tries to explain the workings, and the coming into existence, of complex things, in terms of simpler things. He can regard his task as done when he has arrived at entities so simple that they can be safely handed over to the physicists.”

Dawkins, then, has punted the problem to the physicists. Specifically, he cites The Creation, a book by Oxford physics professor Peter Atkins that addresses this question. Dawkins says that Atkins claims the original units of creation do not demand anything as grand as a Creator. But Atkins has come to have second thoughts. In a speech in Edinburgh earlier this year, Atkins had this to say: “I must admit that we simply do not know how the universe can come into being without intervention.”

This “intervention” is not necessarily the same kind of “intervention” endorsed by intelligent design. Atkins refers to the universe coming into being, not to individual biochemical changes along the way to life as we know it. Atkins is saying that he cannot account for what kicked it all off. He cannot account, essentially, for what Aristotle called the “Prime Mover” behind the origins of life and the universe.

After I read what Atkins said, I recalled Carl Sagan’s statement that nothing ever existed in the universe except matter. Granted, Sagan and his works are no longer players in the ongoing debate, as new research has produced new books and ideas, but the question of where matter came from could be seen as equally baffling as the question of where God came from. No one can answer it.

But why not call Collins’ point of view “the other intelligent design,” or “the better intellgient design” – the view that says we can scientifically account for how life evolved, but we cannot scientifically account for its First Designer, for its Prime Mover?

-Colin Burch