Thursday, March 18, 2010

Update on Veyne: "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast"


Rereading my post of 3/15, I see that I shd have added one important point of Veyne's: his exploration, early on, of the phenomenon that people can (and usually do) believe in contradictory things. I wish that he had made more of this, because I thought this point was the best thing about his book, but he lets it drift into the periphery of his discussion and never really comes back to make it front and center as I think it shd have been.

Examples he cd have used abound -- for example, the Egyptians believed that the sun was Ra riding across the sky. And that it was the eye of Horus. And that it a ball rolled by a celestial dung beetle. And that it was something inerrantly predictable in its movements. And so forth. In short, they had no problem believing what we wd think of as six impossible things before breakfast.*

Not that we're any different. There are plenty of people who believe the world is five billion years old when thinking geologically and five or six thousand years old when thinking Biblically. C. S. Lewis suggested that Adam & Eve might have been the first hominids to cross over the line into what we wd call "human", a way of thinking that combines Biblical literalism ('there really was an Adam & Eve') with scientific discoveries (Lucy lived a long time before the Genesis story can account for). And we pretty much all think of the sun as rising and setting when we know it does no such thing (Shaw has a character in ST. JOAN dismiss Copernicus' theory that the earth goes around the sun with a phrase something along the lines of "the fool. why doesn't he use his eyes"). Basically Veyne is on to something Lovecraft once called "uncorrelated contents": we none of us put the things we think and believe and know together into a single coherent pattern: that's just not how the human mind works. Hence people adopt contradictory positions, like anti-abortion and anti-euthenasia (because all life is sacred) but pro-death penalty and pro-war (because it turns out the sanctity of life is apparently conditional and can be revoked). And so on.

--John R.


1 comment:

Robert Hagedorn said...

Flogging my blog is oh so wrong.
But what else can I do?
I haven't a whole lot of time left.
So I do what I have to do.

It's all about Adam and Eve, you see.
It's not about lyrics that stink.
So focus a little on substance.
And forget about lyrics that stink.