From Ashes 12: Metamorphosis and Sophronismos – Neuroplasticity and the Renewed Mind

Rene Descartes' illustration of the mind-body problem Wikimedia Commons
Rene Descartes’ illustration of the mind-body problem
Wikimedia Commons

As I approach my 30th birthday, which brings with it much reflection on all that God has done in my life so far, I have found myself drawn again to one of the most well-worn parts of my the Bible – Psalm 139. For many, this is their favourite psalm, and it is certainly one of mine. Perhaps its comfort derives from the fact that it is one of the clearest places where we learn of God being deeply invested in us as individuals; and, say what we might about western culture being far too individualistic for its own good, for better or worse we desire the sense that God is intimately acquainted with us. What comfort, then, it is to read:

O Lord, you have searched me

                  and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

                  you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

                  you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

                  you know it completely, O Lord.

And what comfort too to read that God has “knit us together”, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. In a world in which the church sits awkwardly somewhere between secular views on self-esteem and a desire to recognise the depths of human sinfulness, it is a powerful tonic to read that, for all our sin, the Bible declares us, as God found on first creating us, to be “very good”.

This, of course, is not the whole story. We have all learnt sinfulness from a very early age, both being corrupted from birth as affirmed by David in Psalm 51:5 and learning sin as we become more acquainted with this world of sin. Seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed something of this process in his poem, “The Retreat”, when he speaks of the time when he “understood this place”, in the sense of knowing its ways, and “taught [his] soul to fancy” sin, “dispens[ing]/A several sin to every sense”. Certainly, the contrasting view he presents of early childhood, in which he “shined in [his] angel infancy”, seems to over-idealise childhood innocence. Yet the picture Vaughan gives is nonetheless a powerful one. The word “retreat” implies “re-treading”, an act of walking back over a path which needs to be reversed. “Some men,” he writes,

            a forward motion love;

But I by backward steps would move,

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

Simplistic though Vaughan’s theology is, he reminds us of something helpful: that it is necessary for us to affirm both that we possess sin in us from birth and that we have learnt to sin more and more throughout our lives. Though no-one had to teach me to be selfish, I did have to learn to yell, to steal, to cheat, to lie, to lust. There are many sins that I know now how to commit which, at birth, I did not know. My sinful nature seized upon those sins as it encountered them, yet I did not at birth possess the same knowledge of sin that I now have.

Recognising this complexity to the nature of human sinfulness can, I think, help us make steps towards bypassing the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate which has bogged down the church at least since Rousseau, if not for longer. The book of Proverbs affirms several times that the company of sinners corrupts the company of the righteous (see Proverbs 1:8-19, 13:20 and 22:24-25), thus acknowledging that righteousness can be encouraged or discouraged by the environment we are in. Yet this is not to say that we are innately good and that only a bad environment creates bad people. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant formalisers of the doctrine of original sin, charted in his Confessions the journey from his infancy into adulthood through which he both learnt to sin and learnt to cry, motion, speak. His childhood impulse to cry when not getting what he desired indicated the innate, sinful sense that his rights were more important than those of others, yet this was still a sin which, once given birth, could grow and manifest itself in many different ways. Nature and nurture, I would suggest, need not be an “either/or” proposition; they walk together throughout our lives.

Avoiding this kind of dichotomy can be highly productive, especially in the realm of understanding mental health. If we take a reductionist view of mental health, then we may understand our impulses, both good and bad, to stem primarily from our nature. In contemporary neuropsychology, this would suggest that our neurological make-up determines the way that we think and act. In this view, our moral impulses, thoughts and feelings are nothing more than chemical signals in the highly complex organism that is the brain. The other extreme, however, is to over-spiritualise our concept of “mind” in a way that divorces it from the physical brain, or indeed the body, as was often done from antiquity into the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, in a theory now termed “Cartesian dualism”, proposed that the disembodied mind had control over the brain through the pineal gland, arguing in his Passions of the Soul that the

part of the body in which the soul directly does its work is…a certain very small gland deep inside the brain, in a position such that…the slightest movements by it can greatly alter the course of the nearby spirits passing through the brain, and conversely any little change in the course of those spirits can greatrly alter the movements of the gland.

This is a view which few would manage to take seriously today, and we may even struggle to understand how it once seemed so reasonable. Regrettably, however, too much of our thinking about mental health still swings between equally spiritualised, dualistic ideas of mind and body and the reductionist, mechanistic views of some contemporary science. Marilynne Robinson explores the weakness of each view in her essay “Freedom of Thought” in which she considers how mind and soul can be understood by Christians in light of behaviourist and neurological schools of psychology. Speaking critically of attempts to debunk faith through neuroscience, Robinson writes:

Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds.

The very fact that our brains contain much of our experience, Robinson argues, does not mean that their reality is in any way less factual than that which exists visibly, quantifiably “out there”. Even if neuroscientists were to discover the part of the brain which is responsible for religious faith, this would not need to diminish the truth of that faith. The heart of our struggle with this concept, Robinson suggests, is that we are fundamentally still dualists in matters of body and spirit:

Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation.

In other words, we either struggle to believe either that the spiritual can exist in physical reality or that, once the spiritual is given some sort of physical explanation, it can continue to have spiritual reality.

Some blame Augustine for this dualistic thinking, and certainly it can be found in his writings, though it surely precedes him by a good few millennia. Nor is he quite as dualistic as some would suggest, famously opposing Manichaeism, the most dualistic system of thought to enter the church in his day. Yet, wherever it comes from, it is hardly helpful. Indeed, if we truly take the Incarnation seriously, then we must be able to believe that body and spirit can coexist, that Christ did not cease to be God when He became man, nor that His humanity is in any way negated by His being God. Body and spirit are not separate, nor are “memory” and “mind”, contrary to what Augustine suggested in Book 10 of his Confessions. Rather, they exist together powerfully, in that complex system of transmissions and signals in the brain which we are only now beginning to understand.

When we read what the Bible has to say, then, about the “mind”, we would do well to remember that the brain as we conceive of it had little or no meaning to the ancients. The Egyptians famously removed it through the nose as a piece of liquefied rubbish; the ancient Greek word for brain essentially meant “the top part of the head”. The understanding that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of the emotions would take much time to develop; indeed, the ancient Hebrews used the word “kidneys” in that context. Yet this aside, conceptions of the mind and its ability to be corrupted or transformed are found in several places throughout scripture. When Paul writes, for instance, to the Romans instructing them to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2), he is suggesting that minds, or brains, can be changed. They can conform to the world, or they can conform to Christ. They can be corrupted or renewed. This view, expressed nearly 2000 years before the world heard of “neuroplasticity”, is remarkably similar to what practitioners of cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) now do: exercising the brain’s ability to change itself through the exertion of an external influence, a view expressed by Richard Lopez in his review of Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul. Quoting Thompson, Lopez writes:

“The way we understand and make sense of our story is reflected in the wiring of our brain. This networking (via Hebb’s axiom: neurons that fire together wire together) tends to reinforce our story’s hardwiring…and will continue to do so unless substantially acted upon by another outside relationship.” The most important outside relationship, Thompson contends, is with God Himself.

Likewise, when Christ cites Deuteronomy in His instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27), He is in some senses telling us that all our being, co-ordinated by the “mind”, can work together in an act of collective, unified love. This can be an active choice, and is part of the process of conforming the mind to Christ. We do not need to be concerned by the fact that “heart”, “soul” and “mind” are spoken of here separately, any more than we need be concerned that when we feel something deeply, it is co-ordinated by the same organ by which we think. Understanding the many different sections and layers of the brain only confirms that verbal and non-verbal thinking, for instance, are, although organised in the one brain, separate actions, and that one can be brought to bear upon the other. We can preach to ourselves, for instance, by bringing verbal reasoning to non-verbal emotions. Augustine, albeit in a somewhat dualistic manner, explores this very complexity to emotional memory when he states in his Confessions:

This same memory [which contains knowledge] also contains the feelings of my mind; not in the manner in which the mind itself experienced them, but very differently, according to a power peculiar to memory…Sometimes when I am joyous I remember my past sadness, and when sad, remember past joy.

Augustine explains this ability to feel one thing in the present and yet remember a contradictory feeling from the past by saying that the “mind is one thing and the body another”. Yet this explanation is as unnecessary as it is wrong; neuroscientists now know that the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, can store emotional memories and can bring them back to “mind” at unexpected times, as seen most significantly in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather than the memory being separate to the mind, memory is as much a part of the brain as rational thought. Yet in treatment of PTSD, for instance, psychologists will often encourage patients to verbalise their non-verbal emotions in order to move emotional memory into rational thought.

Think, then, of what it means for each of our thoughts to be known by God before they enter our heads. Think of what it means for Paul to declare to Timothy, as it is rendered in the Authorised Version, that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The word for “sound mind” here is sōphronismos, and it is often translated “self-control”, being associated with self-discipline and moderation. Yet what is suggested here is that the “spirit” and the “mind” are connected and that God has given us a sound mind. Indeed, this is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 2:16, when Paul asks, “[W]ho has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”, responding that “we have the mind of Christ”. There is in this sense of process of mental sanctification exactly like our spiritual one: we are declared saints by God, thus declared right in our standing before Him, yet must also “work out our salvation”. The same goes for our mental state. We are given the mind of Christ, yet we also need to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]”. The word Paul uses in Greek for “be transformed” has the same root as the word “metamorphosis”, a word which, thanks to Escher posters which once bestrewed the walls of my primary school classroom, I will forever associate with one species slowly turning into another. We are declared new creatures, and both our thinking and our being before God must be gradually brought into alignment with that new reality.

There need be no tension then in how we view human brokenness and the workings of the brain. If sin has corrupted all of creation, then it has corrupted our brains as much as it has anything else under the sun. And, if sin has corrupted our brains, then so can God’s redeeming grace renew them just as He renews all that is brought to Him. What that will look like this side of the new creation none of us can know for sure, yet we need not be afraid to make the most of what we can know now about the human brain in order to help exercise the benefits of grace given to us.

If neuroplasticity and CBT tell us that the brain needs new truths to be spoken into it to transform old faulty connections, what better truth to tell us than that we, wondrously, now have the mind of Christ. What better reality to bring our broken minds into; what better way of finding true mental health in a sick and fallen world.

References

Descartes, R. (2010). The Passions of the Soul, trans. Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/descartes1649.pdf

Lopez, R. (n.d.). “A Response to ‘Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Spirituality”. In The Augustine Collective. Retrieved online, 26th June 2014. http://augustinecollective.org/augustine/response-neuroscience

Outler, A.C., ed. (2004). The Confessions of St. Augustine. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Classics.

Robinson, M. (2012). “Freedom of Thought”. In When I Was a Child I Read Books. London: Virago Press, pp. 3-18.

Vaughan, H. (1650). “The Retreat”. In Silex Scintillans Part I. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/vaughan/retreat.htm

From Ashes 10: Søren Kierkegaard – Original Sin and the Fear of Possibility

450px-Royal_Library_Garden_-_Søren_Kierkegaard

“When you’re absolute beginners,” folk singer M. Ward tells us, “it’s a panoramic view, from her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you.” What he seems to suggest here is that, at any beginning point, there appears an infinite potentiality to life, stretching out like a majestic panorama before us. W.H. Auden, in his poem “Horae Canonicae”, suggests something similar, harking back to the story of Adam and Eve when describing the beginning of the day before God:

…smiling to me is this instant while

Still the day is intact, and I

The Adam sinless in our beginning,

Adam still previous to any act.

This can, of course, be a joyful moment of possibility, yet Auden recognises that the moment of potential sinlessness is an illusion. The day holds another truth as it unfolds:

I draw breath; this is of course to wish

No matter what, to be wise,

To be different, to die and the cost,

No matter how, is Paradise

Lost of course and myself owing a death.

All action as we enter our day, Auden suggests, is somehow driven by the fact that, as humans, we have desired and chosen a wisdom in ourselves, apart from God; we have desired a paradise which would have been given to us had we trusted but which we sought by our own merit and our own means and thus lost.

This moment of decision, begun – and decided – for us in the Garden of Eden yet also enacted daily in every human choice, fascinated an anxious Danish philosopher-theologian to the extent that he used it as the very basis for his seminal – although at times nearly unreadable – thesis on anxiety. The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with anxiety or, as it is sometimes translated in his work, dread. The Danish word which he used, “Angest”, has a common root to our word “angst”, which is sometimes a synonym for anxiety yet often has something of a more metaphysical or existential connotation to it. Kierkegaard, often considered the father of modern existentialism, is no doubt also partly responsible for this fact. He did not write about anxiety that had a clear foundation in circumstances, though here it is helpful and important to distinguish anxiety from stress: Kierkegaard was not concerned with what we might call anxiety which is driven by something quite clear and located in circumstances. The kind of anxiety or dread about which Kierkegaard wrote had more to do with potentiality: with the possibilities which clouded the human mind, most of them to do with what we as humans were and are capable of. For Kierkegaard, this began in the Garden of Eden, with original sin.

We need to note that, in Kierkegaard’s early life, anxiety had a more immediate meaning and significance. Accounts of his life emphasise the anxiety that his own father passed onto him, begun with his father’s terrified belief that, in cursing God as a young man, he had subsequently cursed himself and his family. Peter Bolt notes in his essay on Kierkegaard that his father “had a rather dark and grim Christianity”, which was no doubt at least in part the result of his belief that he was living under the curse of God and therefore could only fear Him, not love Him. Whether this is the primary “barb of sorrow” in his early life to which Kierkegaard refers in his journals, we cannot know for sure. However, there is another story he tells in his diary, told – in the kinds of veiled terms quite typical of Kierkegaard – as if it were hypothetical, not autobiographical, yet which has more than a ring of familiarity to it when we have read also of his relationship with his father. The story he tells concerns a father and son, “both very gifted, both witty, especially the father”. They share a relationship which is surprisingly intimate and tender, but nonetheless characterised by mutual despair:

Once in a long while the father would look at his son and would see that he was troubled; then he would stand before him and say: Poor boy, you are going about in quiet despair; (but he never questioned him more closely; alas, he couldn’t, for he too went about in a state of quiet despair). Beyond that no word was ever breathed about the matter. But within the memory of man this father and son may have been two of the most melancholy beings that ever lived.

We cannot know for sure that Kierkegaard’s own father-son relationship had any direct bearing on this story, and certainly he used his journals not only for personal disclosure but also as testing-grounds for ideas and modes of expression which would later appear in his published works. This story itself appeared in a slightly different form in his book, Stages on Life’s Way. Yet what he tells us in this chillingly simple story is that fathers and sons can so often keep one another in states of “quiet despair”. Kierkegaard would later call despair “the sickness unto death”, describing it as such because it caused the despairing subject to be altogether unable to find hope of transformation in God. In this way we see that despair and anxiety can be two ends of the same spectrum: anxiety lies when we see the potential for destructive action within us, and despair when such destructive action, occurring against or within us, has led us to a point of hopelessness. Yet both are based on the invisible and the inward: there was nothing objective to tell Kierkegaard’s father that he was cursed, any more than could be said of any other family that experienced suffering. Both anxiety and despair therefore seem to deal with the realms of possibility: either negative possibility, or the apparent absence of any possible good. Kierkegaard’s father despaired because he believed himself and his family cursed; his actions and choices seemed then to determine their future, and that future was an altogether helpless one.

Significantly, Kierkegaard notes in The Sickness Unto Death that the human ability to despair is a positive thing; yet the actuality of despair is not. If humans can despair, they are able to anticipate a negative situation and stop it before it happens:

The possibility of this sickness [despair] is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.

Yet to sink into the sickness leads to death. This moment of potentiality lies at the heart of much of what Kierkegaard writes about both anxiety and depression. Writing elsewhere on “the despair of possibility”, he says:

In possibility everything is possible. Hence in possibility one can go astray in all possible ways, but essentially in two. One is the wishful yearning form, the other is the melancholy fantastic – on the one hand hope; on the other, fear or anguished dread.

For Kierkegaard, the kind of “panoramic view” which M. Ward describes is not always positive. We can go astray when we think of possibility in too “wishful” and ungrounded a manner. Yet more importantly we can go astray when we fear possibility. The panoramic view could hold any number of things, both good and bad, much as an agoraphobic will fear an open space for the dangers or threatening crowds that might soon occupy it.

But why would we fear open possibility? Kierkegaard writes of such fear as the consequence of original sin. In a highly complex thesis, he explores how our sinful action now differs from original sin: “Adam’s sin”, he writes, “has sinfulness as its consequence”, whereas our sin “presupposes sinfulness as its condition”. That is to say, just like in Auden’s vision of waking to a new day, it has already been predetermined in humanity that sin will influence our actions and our decisions. Yet on-going human action perpetuates sin: “sinfulness is in the world only insofar as it enters through sin”’; that is, each time we sin, sin “enters the world”. It only exists in the world through sinful action, because, if it pre-existed human action, then it could only be said that Adam sinned because sin already existed, and thus he would not be culpable; nor would we.

This is a line of argument which is bound to make many people’s heads spin, and some may feel more anxious on reading Kierkegaard’s account of anxiety than before they began. Yet there seems to be a very helpful thread within his thesis onto which we can hold: just as humans have been able to take a “qualitative leap” into sin, so too can we take an equivalent, though infinitely more liberating, leap into repentance and freedom. We feel anxiety when we stand at the moment of decision, when we recognise in ourselves both the desire for goodness and the impulse towards sin. In this vein, Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s self-disclosure before itself in possibility”: anxiety stems from the possibility that something destructive may happen, and invokes fear through the possibility and the tension that it brings before it turns into reality. Kierkegaard notes that, because of our conflicted and corrupted natures as humans, we can feel anxiety both about evil and about good; neither sits comfortably within us, at the moment of decision.

If we follow this line of argument, then anxiety, much like the ability to feel despair, can be a good rather than a negative force within us: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (emphasis added). While we may not agree wholly with Kierkegaard’s polemical language here, we can hopefully still see the merit in what he says: that, when we learn to listen to what anxiety tells us – much like when we listen to pain and know that we should act to remedy our physical distress – we can use that moment of anxiety to turn towards God and away from sin.

In this sense, Kierkegaard can take the rather radical step of describing anxiety as “saving through faith”. Making the clear distinction here that he is not speaking of anxiety which “is about something external” but rather in “the sense that it is the person himself who produces the anxiety”, he goes on to note that anxiety can in fact be seen to be “freedom’s possibility”. If sin is our preconditioned nature, then the fact that we feel anxiety over sin indicates that we have the potential still to turn from sin. Sin, however ingrained it may be within our natures, still remains a choice, so long as it has the potential to cause us anxiety. The man who can kill without any dread over the act he is about to perform has, in this sense, lost “freedom’s possibility”; there is nothing in his mind which enables him to recognise the moment of choice between sin and righteousness.

There is, no doubt, a more nuanced theological discussion needed here, about the two natures of man and about the extent to which sin hardens us to the possibility of righteousness. Yet we see, for instance, in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 7 that the human heart is capable of swinging between a desire to do good and an inability to do so. This, of course, remains an impasse, so long as human strength is our only enabling force. The means by which anxiety about sin can be transformed into a positive, Kierkegaard writes, is “saving through faith”. In a powerful closing statement to The Concept of Anxiety, he declares that “the person who, in respect of guilt, is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement”. There is a firm theological message contained in this brief statement: if we are “educated by anxiety”, we learn of our potential to turn from sin, but also know that it is only Jesus’ sacrifice which can enable that turning to take place. Otherwise, we are stuck simply in the moment of anxious potential, like St. Paul without Christ, doing what we would not do and unable to do the good that we would do.

Kierkegaard, of course, knew very little about the science of the human brain. What we know now is still miniscule compared with what there is to know, yet we are still aware of facts which would, to some eyes, seem to negate Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical and theological thesis. Yet all that we say about the human brain, if we believe that we live in a fallen creation, can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. At best we can say, “Now the human brain appears to operate in this manner, and as a result we feel x in response to y.” We cannot say, “This is the way that humans were meant to be.” If sin, as Kierkegaard firmly believed, has corrupted our ability to choose between right and wrong and has left us anxious, then it seems perfectly plausible that scientists could still find evidence of this problem in a section of the brain – the amygdala, for instance, in matters of post-traumatic stress – which, broken by the cause of sin, now contains the effect. Anxiety which results from the sins of others, though different in its nature, has the same cause as the anxiety which Kierkegaard describes: we fear others, because we know what others can do to us, and our awareness of this has as much to do with our own ability to sin as it does the ability of others to do so. Bullies who become bullies themselves enact this fact daily: that the sin which occurs in another can equally occur in us, and lives on in acts of self-perpetuating, mutual culpability.

Kierkegaard’s life was, sadly, a troubled one to the end. Despite experiencing grace and forgiveness later in life in a way which seemed to transform him significantly, he nevertheless went on to attack the established church in a way which, however righteously motivated it may have been, was not especially gracious. It also remains unclear whether, in breaking off his engagement as a young man, he did a righteous and obedient act before God or made himself a needless martyr. Yet we can be thankful nevertheless that Kierkegaard helped us see a way for anxiety to be, harmful though it is, a pathway to repentance in showing us our own weakness and brokenness before God. If Kierkegaard was indeed “educated by anxiety”, then we can at least to some extent credit his experiences of anxiety with the profundity and beauty of his devotional writings and the many magnificent, God-focused prayers which, broken in himself, he penned as he turned himself and others towards God. This prayer, one of my favourites, is a perfect expression of this:

Father in Heaven! Thou hast loved us first, help us never to forget that Thou art love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom Thou hast commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

Or, in still more elegant simplicity, this perfect prayer for any anxious soul:

Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.

To that, we can only say: Amen.

 

 

References

Auden. W.H. (1972). Collected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.

Auden, W.H. (1952). The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. New York: New York Review Books.

Bolt, P. (2008). “Kierkegaard on Anxiety”. In B. Rosner, ed., The Consolations of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Kierkegaard, S. (1993). The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing.

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry B. Lefevre. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness Unto Death, trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin Books.

Kierkegaard, S. (2014). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. A. Hannay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Ward, M. (2009). “For Beginners”. In Hold Time (Album). Merge Records.

From Ashes Part 9: The Philosopher’s Wretchedness

blaise-pascal1

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know thing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then? Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

If our condition were truly happy we should not need to diver ourselves from thinking about it.

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)


 

There is little doubt that, were a teacher to have Blaise Pascal in their class today, they would be running for the gifted education co-ordinator – who may themselves have found themselves unable to help. Fortunately for the education systems of his day, the highly precocious child who was later to become one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of his day was – as we would say today – home-schooled. In her account of his childhood, Catharine Morris Cox writes that “when Blaise was 3, his father began to devote all of his time to the education of his children. The boy never attended school and had no other teacher than his parent”. His father famously refused to teach his son mathematics until he had mastered languages, a fact which perturbed young Blaise no end. Dismissing his son’s anxious requests for mathematics lessons, Pascal Senior described mathematics as merely “the means of making accurate figures and finding the relation they bear to each other”. This, the story goes, awoke in young Pascal such a desire to learn mathematics that, shut up in his own room, he developed almost all the axioms of mathematics, personally discovering Euclid’s thirty-second proposition with no assistance.

Interestingly, though Cox’s accounts of the “early mental traits of geniuses” often emphasise the melancholic tendencies of her subjects, Pascal – who, by Cox’s estimation, belongs to a group of geniuses above whom there is only one figure, John Stuart Mill, possessing an IQ between 180 and 190 – has no psychological distress in his childhood which Cox considers worth mentioning. What Cox does tell us, however, is that the child Pascal had an insatiable thirst for answers:

Pascal early showed much interest in his surroundings and ‘wanted to know a reason for everything.’ When the reason was not known or when his father could not tell him or told him theories which although generally accepted were not actually proved, he was not at all contented, for ‘he had an unusually keen eye for discerning falsity. To know the truth was the single aim of his mind.’

The thirst for knowledge at an early age drives many high-achieving children to independent enquiry or investigation. Such is certainly the case for young Blaise, seen particularly in his prodigious discovery of mathematical truth whilst shut up in his bedroom. Yet a closer look at his childhood suggests that there was more to it than a love of learning. In their psychoanalytic study of Pascal, as part of a broader psychological investigation into the connections between “high intellectual potential” and depression, Catherine Weismann-Arcache and Sylvie Tordjman note both the early trauma experienced by Pascal in losing his mother at age three and the signs of depression and anxiety in him from a young age. Of particular interest to Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman is Pascal’s two early phobias: “one concerning his parents’ expressions of love for each other” and “the other running water”. While their examination of his life seems overly interested in its potential for sexual divergence – a possibly over-affectionate relationship with his sister, for instance, or the Freudian potential in his fears of running water – they nonetheless identify what Cox does not: that young Pascal was arguably as anxious as he was intelligent. We may not entirely agree with the next step to which Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman take their speculation, but it is interesting nonetheless to wonder with them if Pascal’s thirst for intellectual certainty stemmed not only from a desire to know but also from a need for security, a fear of emptiness – expressed most powerfully in the time he spent testing Aristotle’s axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum”. They write:

We can speculate that the young Blaise had a constitutional hyperreactivity that rendered him particularly receptive [to emotional and physical stimuli], with the result that normal situations, such as the loving relationship between his parents, became wounding ones to him.

This tendency in highly intelligent children and adolescents towards “hyperreactivity” is at the heart of a number of theories about intellectual development, including the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, cited in an earlier essay. Dabrowski termed “hyperreactive” individuals “psychoneurotics”, an unfortunate name which does little to take away potential stigma. Yet Dabrowski’s prose poem, “Be greeted psychoneurotics!”, first published as Paul Cienin in a book of “existential thoughts and aphorisms”, does much more to present a sympathetic, indeed empowering, view of what it means to be “hyperreactive”:

Be greeted psychoneurotics! For you see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world, uncertainty among the world’s certainties. For you often feel others as you feel yourselves. For you feel the anxiety of the world, and its bottomless narrowness and self-assurance. For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt of the world, for your fear of the absurdity of existence, for your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations. For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them. For your awkwardness in dealing with practical things and practicalness in dealing with unknown things, for your transcendental realism and lack of everyday realism, for your exclusiveness and fear of losing close friends, for your creativity and ecstasy, for your maladjustment to that ‘which is’ and adjustment to that ‘which ought to be’, for your great but unutilized abilities. For the belated appreciation of the real value of your greatness which never allows the appreciation of the greatness of whose who will come after you. For your being treated instead of treating others, for your heavenly power being forever pushed down by brutal force; for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you. For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways. Be greeted!

We can, I think, see something of Pascal in this description: his refusal to accept that which his society took for granted, his fervent challenges to axioms, his awareness of human sinfulness and brokenness which drove him to Jansenism – a controversial, semi-Calvinist group within the Catholic church of his day. Moreover, we see in this description the potential for genius wrapped up in tendencies which the world often does not understand. It is speculation, no doubt, yet it is tempting to wonder how Pascal’s life might have been different had he attended a regular school. I think of my own experiences as a school student, and now the things that I observe as a school teacher, and am sad to recognise that our world today is not, perhaps, as willing to weep “tears of joy” as Pascal’s father was over a young boy who personally discovers most of the principles of Euclidean geometry. Perhaps Pascal would have been given new, and more rational, fears had he had to face the kinds of attitudes with which highly intelligent “psychoneurotics” are more commonly “greeted”. Yet God’s grace no doubt was found in the fact that Pascal was raised in a highly intelligent family in which knowledge and learning were valued. This, at least, helped enable him to flourish rather than be destroyed in the process of intellectual development.

Yet we also gain something of a warning from Pascal’s growth as an intellectual. What at first seems simply an insatiable desire for clear, logical reasoning could equally be seen as a need to find security in one’s own knowledge of the world. This can be a kind of obsessive or neurotic behaviour, seeking certainly almost without the possibility of genuine satisfaction. It is possible to see in Pascal’s incomplete apologetic system, published only in their note form as Pensées, a desire to make faith completely watertight – a quest which, arguably, does something to negate the very nature of faith.

This, however, is not the end of the story for Pascal, and here we learn another valuable lesson from his fascinating life of both mental illness and brilliance. It comes, unexpectedly, in statements from Pascal which seem almost to disavow the scientific discipline which he did so much to help develop. Malcolm Muggeridge notes that Pascal “reached the conclusion that what is now our great sacred cow – science – was a cul-de-sac”. Which is not to say that science is useless, rather that it has limits, and sometimes quite profound ones. For Pascal, the issue seems to lie in the limits of the human mind and the human capacity to offer its own remedy. According to Muggeridge, Pascal could only reach this conclusion through being broken in himself: “His proud, defiant mind had to be humbled before it could know anything at all.”

We are, perhaps, clutching at too many straws when we try to make sense of Pascal’s biography, the accounts being often sketchy or inconsistent, driven by competing agendas over his genius. Yet it is significant to note that a man whose life seemed driven by a desire for knowledge could also make poignant statements about the corruptions of the human mind, and it is arguably his awareness of this which makes Pascal still so significant for the world today: not solely for his scientific or logical genius, though few, if any, in the world today could be said to have surpassed him; nor is it because his arguments for Christianity cannot be faulted, because they can. Magnificent though the Pensées are, they are incomplete and flawed, and at times driven by cultural conditions and concerns which a modern reader simply cannot understand without careful further study. Yet Pascal, unlike many of his successors, had humility. We see this humility as it relates to intellectual endeavour in this passage from the Pensées:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, and have not been able to keep their promise…Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God; sensuality, which binds you to the earth; and they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they had given you God for your object, it has only been to pander to your pride; they have made you think that you were like him and resembled him by your nature.

The philosophical quest – the project of loving knowledge – had failed, in Pascal’s eyes, simply because the human heart corrupted all it took and turned it into an object of pride. True knowledge, knowledge with the power to liberate could only occur when we began with a healthy awareness of what we were before God. The wisdom writers of the Old Testament would put this quite simply: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Muggeridge notes that Pascal’s words caused French poet Paul Valery to consider them the “intimations of a sick mind”, adding in response, “If so, let me be sick!” I must agree with him. If a healthy mind is convinced of its own sufficiency and a sick mind recognises its brokenness before an all-knowing God, I think we had all rather be sick.

Scripture would make quite the opposite pronouncement, however, of sickness and health. True mental health before an all-righteous God, it would say, begins with remedying the fundamental lie of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “God knows that when you eat from [the tree of knowledge] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” No, Pascal would agree: such is not the case. At that very moment, when we posit our own intellects as the final measure of all things, we cease to know anything meaningful at all. We begin, at that moment, to die.

Positioned at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and continuing to rebuke the intellectual pride of our own age, Blaise Pascal stands: an anxious boy with a phobia of running water and a desperate desire to know all things, who reminds us as broken humans that we cannot possibly know everything but that we can trust and know a God who does.

References

Cienin, P. (1972). Existential Thoughts and Aphorisms. London: Gryff Publications.

Cox, C.M. (1926). Genetic Studies of Genius Vol.II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Muggeridge, M. (1969). “Pascal”, in Jesus Rediscovered. London: Fontana, pp.119-122.

Weismann-Arcache, C., and Tordjman, S. (2012). “Relationship between Depression and High Intellectual Potential”, in Depression Research and Treatment, Hindawi Publishing Corporation.

Pascal, B. (1966). Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books.

Catechism 14

Did God create us unable to keep his law?

No, but because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all of creation is fallen; we are all born in sin and guilt, corrupt in our nature and unable to keep God’s law.

(New City Catechism)

 

The spirit is willing but the flesh languishes,

new laws created in place of old:

first, If you eat of this fruit you surely won’t die;

now, what I would do, I cannot do.

 

In the bone, this error: entwined

with the impulse behind flights to the sky,

yet sickened, wizened, good trees in bad soil,

good stunted and cast in wrong directions,

 

engines against the Almighty which,

in His will, could be engines of manifold grace,

but legacy bred too deep in the marrow

for any earthly good to remove.