04 July 2015

Experiments in New Evangelization: Martyrdom at the July 4th BBQ

SCENE AND CHARACTERS
Bea and Nestorius are loose acquaintances.  Bea has a passionate love of velcro (evidenced by her shoes, baseball cap, and several bracelets), and Nestorius prides himself on his ability to recite from memory all of Dana Scully's monologues from the first seven seasons of The X-Files.  They are gathered in the backyard of a friend on the Fourth of July for a barbecue.  Both of them being what we might call "exotic social commodities", they appeal to a rather narrow consumer base, and have, as a result, settled near a bowl of chips, so as to stay occupied as long as their unique insights are not demanded by the group at large.  They fall to talking.





Martyrdom at the July 4th Barbecue


NESTORIUS
Wavy Lay's are clearly just a crappy answer to the awesomeness of Ruffles.

BEA
You think so?

NESTORIUS
Yeah, I mean, it's like the way 1989 is Taylor Swift's approximation of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream album.  Lay's are probably the more fundamental potato chip brand, but Ruffles did it first, and now Wavy Lay's are sort of a half-hearted imitation.

BEA
Well, the problem with that is that Ruffles and Lay's are both part of Frito-Lay, so I don't really see the point of competing with your own company.

NESTORIUS
Well, despite the strangeness of what I've seen, I'm sure that it can all be explained through the power of science.

BEA
What?

NESTORIUS
Nothing.  So, I'm glad the weather is good today.

BEA
Haha, weather.  Yes.  

NESTORIUS
Although to be honest, there's something about the inconvenience caused by a little sprinkling, on a sunny day, in the middle of a cookout, that just seems right to me.

BEA
Right, because ... you like everything getting soggy and uncomfortable?

NESTORIUS
No.  Because something about the aesthetics of it fits the nature of summer barbecues.  Sounds weird, maybe, but think about it.  The mild drama gives everyone reason to work together at something; there's a little bit of a thrill; the improvisation provides in most people's minds an excuse for any disappointments.  It's basically the perfect ice-breaker.

BEA
So.  Textiles.

NESTORIUS
What?

BEA
Nothing.  Yeah I get what you're saying.


[moment of awkward silence]


NESTORIUS
So, if we were the last people alive on earth, would you fight me to the death for this bowl of Wavy Lay's?

BEA
No.  I'd probably dig a hole.

NESTORIUS
Why?

BEA
There's a great line in Kierkegaard.  Either/Or, Part I.

NESTORIUS
Oh of course.  "Who will be the last of the living to throw the last three spadefuls of earth on the last of the dead?"

BEA
Yeah that one. I love that you know it! You know, it reminds me of martyrdom.

NESTORIUS
Martyrdom?  You mean, like, Catholic jihad?

BEA
Ha ha ha.  No, I think you're thinking of the crusades.

NESTORIUS
I know what martyrdom is. So gruesome.  But then, I guess that's why we celebrate today, isn't it.  To remember those who died for the country they believe in.

BEA
In a way, but the Catholic understanding of martyrdom is somewhat more particular. . .

NESTORIUS
And has something to do with fighting someone to death over a bowl of potato chips. . . or with aesthetic nihilism or . . .?

BEA
You know. . . I love Kierkegaard.

NESTORIUS
I love Kierkegaard too.

BEA
Remember that chapter in Either/Or about the most sorrowful one?

NESTORIUS
Will you marry me?

BEA
Har har.  The most sorrowful one... why is he the most sorrowful?

NESTORIUS
No idea.  That part of the book was totally forgettable.

BEA
Was it?  The idea of the symparanekromenoi was pretty striking.

NESTORIUS
Oh I love that! The morbid solemnity of it all.

BEA
My gosh, yes.

NESTORIUS
But you said this all has something to do with martyrdom?

BEA
Yes.  The word has something to do with bearing witness.

NESTORIUS
OK.  But it's death.  Devotion to an idea, to the point of death.

BEA
Yeah but is it really about an idea?  Isn't it about love?

NESTORIUS
I don't know.  Maybe a kind of obsessive fanatical love.

BEA
What is love?

NESTORIUS
"The love of friendship is to will the good of another."

BEA
Yes.  But what is this "other"?  Could be a person, or a community, a group, a city...

NESTORIUS
It could be a society of morbid Danish people obsessed with the inevitability of death.

BEA
Death.  What is death?

NESTORIUS
The cessation of life.  The inevitable.

BEA
Right, so what does it mean to choose one's death?

NESTORIUS
Well it seems kind of nuts, because you're choosing the negation of everything good that makes up life.

BEA
But what if you're choosing something you know to be good, but the means by which you choose it is your own death?

NESTORIUS
Suicide for a good purpose?  Doesn't sound good to me.

BEA
Right that's a problem.

NESTORIUS
Ok.  So guide me.

BEA
What is death?

NESTORIUS
It's the cessation of life.  It's when you stop doing whatever constitutes being alive.

BEA
So what are you?

NESTORIUS
I am a person, body and soul.

BEA
And as a person, you have a definite nature?

NESTORIUS
I do.  A human nature.  Ecce homo.

BEA
And that human nature is what, exactly?

NESTORIUS
It's my essence, it's what I am, most simply.  It determines and limits my tendencies and potential to become whatever I become, it says what I am for, it says what I am made of, it puts me in a natural relationship with all the other things that have my same nature, et cetera.

BEA
Right but what is a human nature

NESTORIUS
It's what makes me human.  It's to be a certain kind of animal with a certain kind of body (organs, DNA, cellular configuration), and a certain kind of soul.

BEA
What kind of soul?

NESTORIUS
A rational soul.  A soul that can know and love.

BEA
And what is knowledge?

NESTORIUS
To know is to possess what another is, in the mind, by way of intention.

BEA
So you have what something else is in your mind.  That's what makes you know?

NESTORIUS
Yes.  And to love follows from knowledge, because in love you recognize what something is and you will what is good for it.

BEA
Right right.  So what's the perfection of these faculties?

NESTORIUS
Well, the perfection of anything is the point at which it becomes whatever it can become and tends to become by its natural tendencies.

BEA
And what are the natural tendencies of a human being?

NESTORIUS
Well we have a bunch of natural tendencies.  To grow up, to associate with others, etc.  But because we're able to know and desire things, we're more in touch with our natural tendencies because of our desires.

BEA
But not everything we desire is a natural desire.

NESTORIUS
Yes and no.

BEA
What I mean is—granted, every desire in some way proceeds from nature, because to want things is an act of the human person, and therefore an act which proceeds from the natural abilities and tendencies of that person as human.  But at the same time not every desire possible for us (based on what we are) is going to lead us where we're headed overall (based on what we are).

NESTORIUS
Right.  OK.  

BEA
I'm thinking of it kind of like driving a train.  Everything a train can do is based on its movement along the tracks.  But it's possible to move along the tracks in such a way that you end up either running into a dead end (if you go off on a branch line that stops) or you drive yourself off the tracks altogether.

NESTORIUS
Sounds like you're thinking about suicide again.

BEA
Well, clearly suicide would actually be an example of a naturally possible desire that is contrary to the natural tendencies of the human person.

NESTORIUS
Right.  There's a motivation or a desire there that's natural, but the particular way that desire is formed is contrary to nature.  It's like the desire prevents you from getting the thing it was naturally supposed to take you to.

BEA
That's an awesome way of putting it.

[Nestorius performs a mock bow.]

NESTORIUS
Why thank you.

BEA
But all we've been saying presupposes that there is a target set for human nature based on what it is.

NESTORIUS
And you're wondering, what if Sartre is right, and the nature of man is to determine his own nature?

BEA
Well I don't think that Sartre is right, but how would you answer him?

NESTORIUS
I'd tell him that if he's right, then desire stops making any sense.

BEA
Why?

NESTORIUS
Because we desire things based on what we find good in them.  And that means that in some way every choice is determined by the nature of the thing chosen.  If Sartre is right, then humans, by choosing, make whatever they choose good.  But that's patently ridiculous.

BEA
Is it ridiculous?  Isn't there some way that it's true?  Like, most people are really hard to get along with, but in some cases you choose to get along with someone and that choice magnifies your appreciation of what is good in them, and sort of minimizes or makes you able not to fixate on all the other stuff about them that would drive you nuts.

NESTORIUS
Yeah but what you're describing isn't Humanity by its Radical Freedom making something which has no intrinsic value good.  It's not what Sartre has in mind.  For Sartre the goodness of what is loved comes from the one who loves completely.  What you described is preferring a discovered good to known faults concomitantly present in the same thing, and choosing for the sake of the discovered good to avoid consideration of those faults.

BEA
Fair enough.  But let me pose another objection.

NESTORIUS
Mmmhmmm?

BEA
Suppose each particular good is discovered, and therefore somehow naturally available to us as humans, but the overall way we look for goods, and the kinds of good things we choose to acknowledge—that stuff is up to us.

NESTORIUS
So, like, I'm naturally going to be able to see this thing or that thing as good if I look at it and consent to thinking about it, but because I can choose not to think about certain things, or habituate myself to thinking about them only under this or that aspect, I get to choose, in the end, where I'm headed as a person and what the overall ultimate good for my life is.

BEA
Exactly.

NESTORIUS
Exactly! Hahaha, so cool.

BEA
Hahahaha.

NESTORIUS
OK so given that sketch, your question is going to be whether the ability to determine our overall trajectory in life doesn't mean that we are the ones who determine what we're living for.  Right?

BEA
Right.  And I think I see a solution.  Because like you said, nature means that the tendencies and abilities of the human being are determined, and that includes the overall possibilities—like the possibility of orienting your life toward this or that thing.  So...  hmm... I lost it.

NESTORIUS
Haha, well I think we've been ignoring something kind of important here.

BEA
Which is?

NESTORIUS
The fact that our desires aren't all desires for the good of something outside of ourselves.  Obviously the most basic desires we have are pretty much all about adding something to me, or fulfilling something within myself.

BEA
Ah! Right that makes it easier to see the way forward.  So, for desires that are desires for oneself as human, the object desired is always going to have some relationship to the development of your possibilities as a human being.  Making you a certain kind of thing.  Changing what you are, or making you a better instance of the kind of thing you are.

NESTORIUS
And so... if there is such a thing as human nature...

BEA
…There's got to be a most comprehensive good we're naturally capable of desiring for ourselves.

NESTORIUS
Yeah.

BEA
But what if that greatest good could take on a bunch of different forms for different people?

NESTORIUS
Sure, I think we can leave that possibility open.  The question is what the generic form of that greatest good we naturally desire for ourselves would have to be.

BEA
I think they call it "happiness"

NESTORIUS
Right right, Aristotle and all that.  Let's cut to the chase.  Happiness, whatever particular forms it might take, has to consist of the satisfaction of the fullest desire human beings naturally tend to have for themselves.

BEA
But what do you mean by "fullest desire"?

NESTORIUS
Glug.

BEA
Well, let's take our cue from other natural things.  A tree can grow into all sorts of shapes, but it's natural potential is fulfilled when it's healthy and has good foliage and produces seeds, right?  These are all the features of a "happy" tree.

NESTORIUS
Yes.

BEA
So the satisfaction of the fullest desire of a human being would be the satisfaction of the desire we have to be everything we can be.

NESTORIUS
Well yeah, that's obvious.  Didn't we already establish that?

BEA
I think we did.  And so the question is, what exactly can humans become?

NESTORIUS
We're stuck in a loop.  Humans become what they desire, but their highest desire is for what they can become.

BEA
Yeah let's break the loop.  What is it about things that makes us desire them?

NESTORIUS
I guess it's what they make us capable of doing beyond themselves, or whether they please us or put us at rest, or remove some pain, or give us joy, or understanding, or...

BEA
Seems like most people would agree that joy and peace are somehow characteristic of happiness.

NESTORIUS
Right ok.

BEA
And when do you experience joy or peace?

NESTORIUS
When you're beholding something which you recognize to be good in itself, without demanding anything beyond it to perfect it.  Or maybe sometimes it comes when you recognize in whatever you're doing or experiencing or knowing a direct arrow to what requires no further perfection, or admits no further perfection, so that you experience that absolute perfection by proxy or analogy in the imperfect peace at present.

BEA
I have experienced what you describe in some art.  The harmony of what is set before you directs you to a higher harmony and a more perfect beauty.

NESTORIUS
Yes.  I think of Mahler's 9th.  The 4th movement.  The way all of that energy coalesces into this tremendous expression of sadness.

BEA
Well but that's just an emotional thing.

NESTORIUS
Yeah, sure, it's just emotional, but in the perfection of the musical expression there's something . . . it's like your mind suddenly lights on the words of another person and you say, "Yes! That! More than anything I have ever thought to say, that expresses what I wanted to say, even though I wasn't fully capable of knowing that I wanted to say it."  So, even if what's being said is just something that captures the experience of desolation—by saying it so well, by showing you what it was you only saw in part, the experience gives you an intimation of a higher understanding or a more perfect wisdom than you are capable of right now, or could even know by your own abilities to be possible.

BEA
It's like the experience of being taught, you mean?  And really taught.

NESTORIUS
Forgive the corniness, but—yeah, I'm thinking of an image.  There's a scene in A Beautiful Mind where Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe are looking at the stars, and he takes her arm and traces out various constellations, and the night sky lights up for her.  She sees an order in the sky which she had never thought of before.

BEA
So your description of joy, is an experience—and I think it's interesting that you jumped to an experience of sadness, first—in which you are being led into an intuition of order or harmony— 

NESTORIUS
Or truth, even.

BEA
Or truth, which transcends what you knew or were even capable of knowing.  

NESTORIUS
Right.  And this obviously isn't such an odd thing.  People talk about "enlightenment" all the time.  But it seems clear that in real enlightenment the experience is a passive experience.  You're docile, and therefore subject to illumination by someone who has grasped things better than you ever could have.

BEA
And so perfect joy would be a kind of absolute experience of enlightenment or tranquility in the recognition of the goodness of what is.  A tranquility which finds no limits either to its recognition, because what is seen is absolute and infinite, or to its experience of being illuminated, because the source of this illumination is infinite.  To be illuminated by God as teacher, so that one sees God by an immediate and perfect vision.

NESTORIUS
Yes.  That.  That.

BEA
So, what is life?

NESTORIUS
Once we've come this far, it seems like nothing is really deserving of the name but what you just described.

BEA
But the word has several meanings.  And basically, life is the first act of a thing, the actuality that makes it capable of doing all the other things in accord with it's nature.

NESTORIUS
Yes.  So what you described just now would be the absolute fullness of life, because in that act of pure illumination and beholding, one would be capable in a radical way of knowing and loving the good that exists, as you were never capable of so doing before.

BEA
Right, and obviously there's the intuitive meaning of the world "life" as well: bodily life, the activity and disposition of the body that makes it capable of doing all the bodily stuff that bodies are naturally capable of doing.

NESTORIUS
Yes.

BEA
But shouldn't there be an intermediate kind of life?

NESTORIUS
How?

BEA
Well we talked before about how people can basically frame their habits of desire in all sorts of different ways, and because of that, they can more or less decide what they want to act for as their own "happiness".

NESTORIUS
Right, and obviously, it seems like they can frame them in better or worse ways.

BEA
Yes, so given the fact that most people don't seem to act, or don't automatically think to act for the sort of absolute happiness we just described, wouldn't there be an intermediate kind of "life", that's below the fullness of life in perfect happiness, but above normal biological "my heart is still beating" life, by which people were capable of recognizing and acting for that perfect happiness?

NESTORIUS
Sure, of course.  But how is this different from saying that "alive" can also mean "capable of going out and breathing the fresh air" because this is a good capacity that enriches human life?

BEA
It's different because if human happiness, the real ultimate tendency of human nature, is to find the absolute happiness described, and yet our natural abilities aren't sufficient for us to just know that that's what we're inclined toward, or to lead us to desire the things necessary for us to get there—

NESTORIUS
Assuming we can even get there, which isn't something you can just "know" anyway.

BEA
—Right.  Well, given all that, it seems like you'd have to be set on course by a kind of inclination of the will or illumination of the mind to know that that's where you're going, and to desire what you need to desire to get there.  And this is a higher kind of life than biological life, and involves a set of capacities and new actions which aren't guaranteed to humans ordinarily, so it would seem fitting to call it its own kind of "life".  A second life added to the natural life.  A super-natural life, if you like.

NESTORIUS
Oho, hold on.  I think I see where this is going.

BEA
Haha, so if this supernatural life, this intimation of that ultimate act of receiving and beholding, really transcends the ordinary knowledge and commonplace desires of this life, then wouldn't it be possible for someone to act for their real, absolute happiness in such a way that, by the lights of a normal person, they're being really self-destructive or foolish?  Isn't it actually logical to assume that the acts most characteristic of this second life would seem insane to people who lacked it?

NESTORIUS
And this brings us, I assume, to martyrdom.

BEA
Yes.  Do you see how? It brings us back to what you said about love earlier.

NESTORIUS
Love, the love of friendship, is to will the good of another person.  So. . . what if by this supernatural life, you became aware that your own perfect happiness involved a certain friendship, and you became able to really have that friendship, and to act out of that love. . . and you knew . . . that more than anything else, remaining true to that love was what your happiness depended on.

BEA
Then wouldn't the reasonable action be, if you were forced into such a situation, to die, in order to have that friendship?

NESTORIUS
To die, because only by dying (naturally speaking) would you be able to stay alive (supernaturally speaking).

BEA
To die, because by surrendering the natural desires unnecessary for your ultimate perfection in happiness, you would be proving the strength of the supernatural desire capable of bringing you there.

NESTORIUS
Hmmmmmm.  Supposing this configuration of happinesses is right, wouldn't martyrdom of a kind be necessary no matter what?

BEA
Why?

NESTORIUS
Because it seems like the way people live is kind of automatically opposed to having a single purpose, and especially one that transcends the ordinary stuff we see and desire.  If you're really going to live out of the desire to be happy, you're going to have to experience a kind of "death" all the time, by refusing to accept or pursue goods that occur to you as desirable and within your grasp.  And that would be tough, because you'd be saying "no" to things that are visible and present and obviously good for the sake of something that is not visible or present or immediately intelligible as being good.  And it would be kind of like dying every time you had to do that.

BEA
Yes, I think you are right.

NESTORIUS
And so, for anyone who really knew what life was really about and really had any sense of genuine happiness, death wouldn't be something distant hovering at the end of the story, but a daily, lived reality, something constant and, paradoxically, only ultimately removed when biological death finally arrived.

BEA
So it is.  So it is.  And this daily dying would be—and is, it is—the true path to life.  And that people would choose it . . . wouldn't that be the greatest testimony to the reality of a life beyond?