Sunday, November 21, 2004

Celebrating our Uselessness

Celebrating our Uselessness
How's that for an odd subject? Read this bit from Plato's Laws:

May we not conceive each of us living beings to be a puppet of the Gods, either their plaything only, or created with a purpose-which of the two we cannot certainly know? But we do know, that these affections in us are like cords and strings, which pull us different and opposite ways, and to opposite actions; and herein lies the difference between virtue and vice.

Man, says the Athenian stranger, is not necessary, a plaything or a puppet for some purpose, a tool. Knee-jerk secularism, rampant in much of Western society, finds these ideas anathema -- man as a mere puppet? Noble man? To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet,

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

This is the part of the play where Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, forcing the two of them to admit that they came to visit because they were summoned by Hamlet's murderous Uncle and not out of pure friendship. Hamlet cannot decide if man is noble or evil, but in his depressed confusion there is the truth of that tension: perhaps man is noble insofar as he is a 'quintessence' of dust; that is to say, to the extent man is unnecesary, he is valuable.

Nonsense? Oxymoron? Not really. It all depends on what the beholder we contemplate is -- man is necessary to whom, good in whose eyes? Certainly men cannot judge for themselves whether or not man is good. Shakespeare's Hamlet is all about our inability to do just that. But what about man's goodness in the eyes of a perfect and all-knowing being, the Gods, God? Think of we humans -- what do we prize more, a tool or a keepsake? The pleasure we derive from a tool is only secondary -- when it performs its function, it allows something else to operate and we derive pleasure from that. A keepsake acts directly on our pleasure. We only keep it for its own sake, and for no other reason. Nostalgia and other emotions are triggered directly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have been more valuable to Hamlet had they come on their own volition, and not as the tool of someone else, whether that someone else be good or evil. Their visit would have been more meaningful, more valuable, were the visit, in a sense, unnecessary. So Hamlet's inability to decide the question of whether man is good or evil stems from his nature as a man and our difficulty in understanding the fuller extent of the reality that surrounds and more importantly transcends us. When he forces Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to admit they are a tool of the King, he reveals unwittingly the answer to his confusion: that our nobility is in our uselessness.

This is precisely what Plato is saying: our greatest joy is our being a plaything of the Gods. We should celebrate that we are not tools for our fellow man but a toy for our Creator.

Imagine that we men and women are, for our God, like music, which has no value other than its cathartic value, its ability to replicate our emotions, evince them. Music is beautiful. It is aesthetic. Insofar as beauty and aesthetics are 'useless', they too are more valuable, for earthly beauty, whether it be music or a woman or a landscape, is a partaking in the pure beauty that is God.

The love between a man and a woman is beauty as well, and the sense of wholeness we derive (or yearn for) from a well-matched relationship is really just a fuller sense of being -- separated from our Creator, we find the beauty of Him in each other. And in finding beauty in each other, in enjoying each others' human uselessness, we become more human, we live fuller, less secularly meaningful but more transcendentally meaningful lives. We search for a lifemate with whom to 'grow old' -- and that is because we unconcsciously know that when we inevitably become old and useless, we will still be able to enjoy the wholeness that comes from that pairing of souls precisely because what we derive from relationships transcends usefulness.

So as we approach Thanksgiving, try being thankful for all things useless. And celebrate your own uselessness.


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