To Know As We Are Known
But paradoxically, maybe we haven’t yet looked in the mirror enough to look elsewhere. Maybe being able to look in the mirror properly is fundamental to being virtuous, and we’re missing that just as much as we are a cultural contrary. Some moderns eschew traditional notions of virtue and morality altogether for relativism, and they have one thing right: notions of virtue, of what it means to live properly, have changed over the years, and it wouldn’t have been ‘right’ for the ancient Egyptians to suddenly begin living like Renaissance men. But that’s not really that interesting of an idea, is it? Of course people have changed. Even those modern people who continue to believe in set standards of right and wrong would admit that under certain circumstances something that is right for us to do would have been wrong for someone of an earlier time to do. But what seems more interesting to me is whether people have stayed the same, and if so, how? If there is some constant underlying people’s conception of virtue in the cultures of history that have flourished, that might give people an answer to the claim of the relativists, and help us preserve and nurture our culture. What might that constant be?
Something about Narcissus’ act of looking at himself too much strikes me as Augustinian and Dante-esque in that the real sin isn’t Narcissus’ love of himself like Ovid seems to present it. Ovid writes that he was “wasted with love,” but he hasn’t done anything wrong in a certain sense: there is no problem with loving oneself or even with appreciating beauty. Those are good things. The true problem of Narcissus’ predicament is his inability to recognize himself in the reflection. Afterall, what saved Milton’s Eve from the same fate was God’s voice pointing out the obvious, that “what thou seest, / what there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself,” and then offering a path to higher awareness of herself: “But follow me, / and I will bring thee where no shadow stays / thy coming . . . and thence be called / Mother of human race.” It’s this that allowed Eve a higher function, a human function. Yet her mirror-looking wasn’t bad—it ended up informing her later evaluation of Adam (a different and more complex kind of mirror) and perhaps was the only thing that kept her from worshipping him by allowing her a realistic view of his faults and strengths. If it is plausible to compare Milton’s poem to Ovid’s in this way, I am able to draw the conclusion that, according to these poets at least, the fundamental thing that determines whether a society or individual will flourish and be the mother of future generations, or wither and kill itself off, is its ability to recognize itself when it looks in the mirror.
Abraham of the Old Testament was in some sense an Eve figure. He too had been promised a posterity, but after some 90 years was still bearing no fruit. When God spoke with Abram in chapter fifteen of Genesis, it was kind of like he held up a mirror. “And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be” (Gen. 15:5). God’s method here is similar to his method with Eve in Paradise Lost. He points out to Abraham what he really is: both something divine that can contemplate an expanse as beautiful as the stars in the heavens, and that somehow exists in those stars, is part of them and them of him; but also something that is close to nothing compared with God, that can’t even count his creations much less understand some part of how they work. That’s a hard mirror to look into. But it is at least part of what made Abraham a model of virtue for the next three or four thousand years—this was the mirror that helped Abraham believe in God and trust his time.
St. Augustine would pick up on similar ideas of virtue, or the lack thereof, in his Confessions. An important point of Confessions was for Augustine to look into the mirror and see himself, and in the episodes he recorded he seems to realize that the greatest fault of his life was rooted in an inability to do just that. He writes of his studies, “I was forced to memorize the wanderings of Aeneas—whoever he was—while forgetting my own wandering; and to weep for the death of Dido who killed herself for love, while bearing dryeyed my own pitiful state, in that among these studies I was becoming dead to You” (1008). The problem presented here isn’t that of contaminating himself with pagan literature, but that in the study of literature he was gaining no understanding of himself, his faults, and his relation to God. Having been born and raised in Carthage, having learned Latin, having sailed from Carthage for Rome, he probably read more about himself in the Aeneid than he realized, yet he returns to the idea of self-awareness in the episode of the pears.
Why did he think that the stealing of a few useless pears was such an awful act? I’m not sure even he knew why it bothered him so much, but it seems to have something to do with his adolescent self’s purposeful refusal of higher consciousness. Augustine presumably had already been taught by his Christian mother that stealing was bad, for he wrote, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me,” so he wasn’t unaware of his bad action. But then, he’s already moving past the act of stealing in that statement. Stealing isn’t a terrible thing, especially if it is stealing for the sake of something, but this was stealing for the sake of stealing, for the sake of refusing the higher consciousness offered by his mother in favor of lower consciousness offered by his friends. It was ‘joy’ in the fact that his “soul was depraved, and hurled itself down from security in You into utter destruction” (1010). Here, the foundation of virtue that Augustine is highlighting, by an example of his own lacking, is not only self-awareness but also the need for a striving to become more self-aware, a striving for higher levels of consciousness, or at least acceptance of higher ways of being when they are offered.
This is an important point that Augustine adds to the argument. Someone could’ve objected that mere self-awareness is not enough to be considered virtuous. Isn’t Satan presented by Milton as extremely self-aware? And fair enough: someone like Satan, or the youthful Augustine are conscious of their evil and relish in it all the more. So it’s not enough to be aware of yourself, you also have to look to the stars above you like Abraham and try to get there. Pico della Mirandola in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man” speaks to this, perhaps on the other extreme—lacking in self-awareness but overdone in striving to excel:
Let us disdain earthly things, despise heavenly things, and, finally, esteeming less whatever is of the world, hasten to that court which is beyond the world and nearest to the Godhead . . . let us, incapable of yielding to them [the angels and cherubs], and intolerant of a lower place, emulate their dignity and their glory. If we have willed it, we shall be second to them in nothing. (Mirandola, 227)
That sounds nice, but it ignores a lot of facts of our existence, like our inextricable earthliness. Yet, in other parts of the speech, Pico seems to speak of being like God as synonymous with being intensely aware of oneself. Towards the beginning he sets up his hierarchy of being which only humans can ascend: vegetation, beasts, heavenly beings, sons of God, and then, “if, happy in the lot of no created thing, he withdraws into the center of his own unity, his spirit, made one with God, in the solitary darkness of God, who is set above all things, shall surpass them all.” Even though Pico is somewhat unconscious of reality in many parts of his argument, his highest ideal—withdrawing into the center of one’s own unity—sounds a lot like being highly conscious of who one is, and being brought to God by that consciousness.
This is perhaps why it was a seroius sin for Augustine to enjoy stealing the pears—he was resisting higher being, an act directly against God; this also seems to be why Dante’s sinners are in hell. Over and over again they blame others for their circumstances and refuse either to recognize that they did anything wrong (unaware of themselves, like Narcissus or Eve before God’s help), or that there is any better way to live (resistant towards higher consciousness, like Satan or youthful Augustine). There’s an important moment upon Dante’s entering hell that seems to set a theme for many of the stories he will later hear from the sinners themselves: first he’s told by Charon that he can’t pass, and Virgil says he can, and then he points out in this hilarious passage the response of the damned souls surrounding them:
But all those spirits, naked and exhausted
had lost their color, and they gnashed their teeth
as soon as they heard Charon’s cruel words;
they execrated God and their own parents
and humankind, and then the place and time
of their conception’s seed and of their birth.
How often do people (including myself) in miserable circumstances, instead of asking what they have done to get there, curse not only their family members and those around them but also their own existence and the existence of eternal goodness itself? This shows that the sin of the sinners isn’t just their individual evils—although those certainly aren’t negligble either—but their refusal to acknowledge their own hand in their misery.
This pops up again and again as Dante interviews sufferers in the depths of hell. Just a couple cantos later in Canto V we read the episode of Paolo and Francesca. Towards the end, after Dante has asked for the ‘nitty-gritty’ details, Francesca seems to phrase her response intentionally so as to avoid taking any responsibility for her actions—she makes it sound like the book of Arthurian legend they were reading made them do it: “And time and time again that reading led / our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale” (132). Again in Canto XIII the soul of Pier della Vigna, guilty of violence against himself, talks in a very specific way about the circumstances of his sin:
The whore who never turned her harlot’s eyes
away from Caesar’s dwelling . . .
inflamed the minds of everyone against me;
and those inflamed, then so inflamed Augustus
that my delighted honors turned to sadness. (64-69)
He, like many others in hell, paints the picture as if there were nothing he could do but commit the sin he’s being punished for, as if he were a mere creature to be acted upon by Envy or any other thing. Pier even goes so far in the next lines as to blame his own mind, as if it were a thing separate from himself, while preserving his own righteousness: “My mind, because of its disdainful temper, / believing it could flee disdain through death, / made me unjust against my own just self” (70-72). And finally, we read Jacopo Rusticucci’s claim for the reason behind his sins, surely a more common one in hell than Dante reports: “More than all else, my savage wife destroyed me” (XVI, 45).
It seems as though for Dante, the real sin of those in hell is often, if not always, a lack of self-awareness. Dante-pilgrim himself commits a good amount of errors of this kind in his wanderings in hell, asking inappropriate questions, being a little too-delighted with certain sufferers, or a little too-sympathetic with others. But he comes to find that what separates those in Hell from those in Purgatory is the awareness of those in Purgatory of their faults and responsibility and their having learned that there is a path to higher forms of being.
There is at least one complication presented by Dante, though: Ulysses’ search for higher consciousness in Canto XXVI leads him off the deep end “as pleased an Other,” and into hell. Taken out of context, Ulysses’ injunction to his men to not deny themselves of knowledge and to “consider well that seed that gave you birth,” is something that could’ve just as well been said by Pico della Mirandola a few centuries later, yes, but also by Dante himself, since his whole poem is about exploring the world that is unpeopled, or by Paul or Abraham or any number of people in the Judeo-Christian tradition, not to mention the Greeks and the Romans. Yet, something about the context of Ulysses sentiment makes it wrong, and seems to not completely go against my idea of the virtue, even for Dante, of seeking higher being. For one, it was explicitly despite his familial duties, despite “my fondness for my son [or] pity for my father [or] the love I owed Penelope,” despite “the seed that gave [him] birth” that Ulysses set out on the open sea. It seems that in part what Dante is trying to communicate is that any time a quest for higher knowledge or consciousness interferes with one’s duty to father, spouse, or child, it becomes a vice. Additionally, three important lines come right at the middle of the episode, and they feel heavy to me: “We approached the narrows / where Hercules set up his boundary stones / that men might heed and never reach beyond” (107-109). Dante could’ve referred to this place as any number of things, but he refers to it as a boundary set up by a demigod, for the purpose of not letting men go beyond it. Herein perhaps lies the second half of Ulysses sin, the betrayal that landed him with the fraudulents: to go against your own faith, your own ideal, your own conception of the highest good in pursuit of ‘higher consciousness.’ It doesn’t matter what you’re persuing, if you’re betraying your ideal, here represented by Hercules and the mythological tradition behind him, your sin is akin to Judas’. But then, what does that say about Eve’s later actions, Eve’s pursuing higher consciousness in direct disobedience to God’s commandment?
Conceiving of virtue as high self-awareness coupled with a desire to expand that consciousness is not without its problems, but it does seem to be the way many past civilizations have cast things. It even offers an explanation as to why Machiavelli could conceive of a leader “who determines to act in all circumstances the part of a good man” as not good, while seeing a leader who “learn[s] how to be not good, and to use that ability or not as is required” as good—the former leader is not being honestly conscious of himself because he believes that he can actually be good, and that he is a pure man, while the latter is properly looking in the mirror and using to his advantage the good, the bad, and the ugly he sees there (1712). So no, it’s not enough to combine one’s own culture with those that have come before or that oppose, just like it wouldn’t have been enough for Eve to procreate with Adam if she hadn’t first gotten a decent sense of herself in the mirror, or like it wasn’t enough for Ulysses to have gone off searching for the limits of knowledge without having first taken into account who he was and where he needed to stand with regards to his family and his gods. At the same time, one can’t merely be aware of who they are, but as they gain that self-awareness must aspire to the stars as their faith permits. There’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s one that might go for any human, anywhere, anytime.