Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Logic is human: Literature is angelic

There is a sense in which literature transcends logic. Logic is limited in its access to truth by the Law of Noncontradiction: Both A and not A cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect. Napoleon was the emperor of France or he was not; water is made of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule or it is not; It is either a fine day or it is not--in each case, both things cannot be true in the same way.

But poetry (and by that word I mean what it has always traditionally meant--namely, literature in the broad sense) is not limited in this way. Poetry transcends the laws of logic. In a story, something can be something and not be something at the same time. This is the whole power of symbolism and metaphor: one word, or one idea, or one character can be something that it is not--at the same time and in the same respect.

Lewis' Aslan is not Christ, but he is; Tolkien's Galadriel is not Mary (or Eve), but she is; Fitzgerald's Gatsby is not the American dream, yet he is; Melville's Moby Dick is not nature itself, but he is; Steinbeck's Pearl of the World, is not mammon, but it is.

Literature is angelic while logic is human. I had someone challenge me one time about my use in my logic textbook of the Porhyrian Tree, a medieval division of all substance: Everything that exists is a substance; a substance is either immaterial (like an angel) or material. A material substance is either not living (like a rock) or living; a living material substance is either non-sentient (like a plant) or sentient; a sentient, living, material substance is either non-rational (like a beast) or it is rational. Man is the only rational, sentient, living material substance.

But, I was asked, if this classification is correct, then angels are not rational, but we know they are. Therefore, this classification cannot be correct. I pointed out that angels are not, in fact, rational beings. To be "rational" is to have to go through the several step process of deductive reasoning. We are composite (or complex) beings and so we have to go to all the trouble of attaching the minor and major terms together (which constitute a conclusion) by way of a middle term which takes two premises to spell out. This is a lot of trouble, of course, and if you think it's easy, just look at my comboxes on this blog to see how few people are able to do it correctly :).

Angels, however, are not composite beings. They are simple beings. The only beings that can possibly be complex are material beings, matter being necessary for complexity. But angels are immaterial. They are constituted exclusively of form. They are therefore simple. They do not have to go through steps in the process of apprehending truth: it is immediately accessible to them without the necessity of reason. Angels are "intelligent" beings, but they are not "rational" beings, and to call an angel "rational" would therefore be, not a compliment, but an insult.

The person who challenged me on this was a Catholic, and I pointed out that my analysis here was taken directly from St. Thomas Aquinas, the "Doctor" of his own Church.

Logic is human because it requires us to go through a complex set of steps in order for us to find truth, but literature is angelic in the sense that it is simple: it is a direct avenue to the truth. It requires no steps. It makes truth immediately accessible analogically through the literary object which is the thing it symbolizes.

Even though it's not.


The Formans said...

Excellent writing & thinking.

Lee said...

In computer-speak, all knowledge is data. Poetry is possible because human language is data that is not what we geeks call strongly typed. (I'm not even sure that a programming language is a language in the same sense as a spoken language, but it certainly is a compelling analog to one if it isn't.)

Certainly, it does seem that computers are closer to the 'rational' model than the 'poetic' one. Multiple meanings for the same datum? Dangerous. Data must have a very strong and specific context in order to mean anything; a large percentage of "broken code" is actually broken data -- that is, out-of-context data that was fat-fingered into the database and not anticipated by the programmers. E.g., someone shoved an ASCII string ("twenty-one") into a variable of a numeric data type. The computer is forced figuratively to throw up its hands and say, "I don't know how to deal with this!"

But multiple meanings in poetry and literature? The logician's amphiboly is the poet's imagery.

Human language is so complex that subjects like English, Latin, history, and perhaps the social sciences ought to be the hardest subjects in school. Yet the reputation for being tough is more often accorded to the more rationally-based, so-called "hard sciences" (math, physics, engineering, ...philosophy?). Is this an irony? Or just a measure of just how complex language is? Few people know language well enough to nail down all the ambiguities and follow all the possible permutations, whereas the hard sciences have a concept known as the "wrong answer." Build a bad bridge and it kills people. But write a bad book? It might kill people too, but it's much harder to prove cause and effect.