Chaos Theory

In the wake of 9/11 Patrick Deneen wrote an essay entitled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World made Strange,” in which he lamented the dichotomy he saw in public opinion. On the one hand, you had an entirely uncritical belief among many of the righteousness of the United States. Politicians needed to wear a small flag on their jacket lapels, (couldn’t happen now), and waved through sweeping legislation (the “Patriot Act”) that dramatically increased the surveillance powers of the government. On the other . . . you had many in academia, perhaps especially among our elite institutions, that could barely contain their smugness with pronouncements that America had gotten what it deserved for its overbearing foreign policy. Deneen published this essay in early 2002, and this split would only grow in run-up to the Iraq War. Remember “America Fries?”

Two seems to be a natural number for democracies to fall into, and perhaps somewhat natural in general for any society. We have night and day, sun and moon, major and minor keys, and so on. But “two” has always been something of a dangerous number symbolically speaking. The either/or paths “2” creates bring inevitable division among extremes. Still, if we think of myths and creation accounts as, among other things, poetic interpretations of the world, we note that “2,” while obviously prevalent in creation, does not have the final say.

Between day and night, and night and day, lies twilight and dawn, the grey area linking them both. We have Adam and Eve, but they are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” i.e., not stay just the two of them. We have six days of creation and the seventh day–a breathing space of sorts within the normal cycle of the week. In Revelation the Apostle John is told to measure the inner court of the temple of God, but to leave the outer court unmeasured (Rev. 11:1-2), i.e., we need to loosen our intellectual hold on at least parts of reality. St. John’s gives us grand cosmic visions, but the Old Testament has this need for an unmeasured, in-between space, displayed even in the most prosaic of ways. The Israelites had to leave the fringe of their fields unharvested, and to leave the edges of their garments loose (Duet. 24, Num. 15).

It is on this fringe, the in-between spaces, where fruitful interaction and new creation can happen.

Certainly Deneen’s essay has resonance with us today. But he did not seek merely to lament the situation that existed in 2002, nor do I seek only to bemoan 2020. Rather, Deneen pointed to the classical world for a possible solution to the dilemma of “2”–the Greek vocation of the “theorist.”

One form of education seeks to construct by rote a particular view of the world. In regard to our own history some proclaim that the founders were all wise and good men–and only wise and good–our wars are always just, etc. Without cultivating any possibility of error, no repentance can happen and growth a forlorn hope. Such infants can never eat meat. As Aristotle noted, the perfect citizen would rarely be a good man. He could never grow into virtue.

The other education aims only at deconstruction–our founders were all misogynists, slave owners, etc. Of course this deconstruction supposes the need to construct something else in its place. Nothing can exist based on a universal negative. But often, having despised their birthright, deconstructionists have no idea what or where to build, and can feed only on dreams, or worse–themselves, and thereby “starve for feeding”(Coriolanus, Act 4.2). We need another approach.

Enter “one who sees,” which is a translation from the Greek word “theorist.” Certain elected officials within most classical Greek city-states had the title of “theoroi.” To quote Deneen,

To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey to visit the “other,” to “see” events such as religious or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city to give an account . . . the theorist would then attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what he had seen. The encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs and practices of the theorists own city. . . . Might their be a best way of organizing the city that is not our way?

. . . The activity of “seeing” other ways of foreign life comprised half of the theorist’s duty. The other half . . . was the “giving an account” of what the theorist had seen. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, “go native” while abroad. . . . Even if a theorist were persuaded that that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the primacy of the theorist’s allegiance to his own city demanded careful and prudent explanation . . .

The “theorist” then, was not chosen only for his ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual but equally for the abiding customs of his own way of life. . . . it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to renewed devotion to those practices . . . or to subtle questioning of dubious customs . . .

Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents, pp. 18-20

It is through this lens that Deneen suggests we should see Socrates. He self-consciously went on a “sacred journey” of philosophy and saw himself as a “gadfly” to Athens, but also someone who would never consider disobedience to the laws of his city.*

Deneen examines Rene Descartes as possibly the first example of a modern “theorist.” As a French Catholic fighting other Catholics in the brutal 30 Years War, Descartes had a unique opportunity for serious soul-searching. As Deneen points out, however, he operated purely with his mind and imagination, and not with his heart. He “begins with radical suspicion of all that preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is the result of the common endeavors of a community or people” (23). Descartes prefers to think by himself in a foreign land, but cares not even for the foreign locale. Time and place matter not to him. “A thinker like Descartes would be content to think anywhere on earth” (24). Descartes loved to sit in bed and think–all well and good. But what person, or place, or custom, did he love?

The abstract method Descartes employed led him to question everything . . . except himself (“I think, therefore, I am”). The mind, powered by egotism and unfettered from the body, became a weapon to remake nations and nature itself for civilizations that followed his wake. But to be free from one’s time and place is also to be estranged from it. We tend to lash out at strangers, even if the stranger is our very selves.

Those younger than me may groan at this assertion–but a line runs straight from Descartes’ abstractions to the internet and social media-the “cloud.” The internet has perfected the art of taking you away from where you reside and placing you nowhere in particular. I suppose with very simple and direct messages, social media works well, i.e., “Look, my son graduated from high school,” or, “I love my new haircut.” But anything involving complexity requires context, and context requires “full body” communication–not just the mind. Misunderstandings become almost the norm if we ignore this, which brings chaos. Our connections to one another disappear. To compensate for the interpersonal gap (which we perhaps feel but may not be fully aware of), we use manipulation as a method to bridge the chasm. Christians are guilty of this just as others are, i.e., “Jesus is the Light of the World–If you love God you will share with all your Friends!” Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium often dictates the message.

In difficult times we face two temptations. One is to bury our vision into the dark and tangled soil. There we meet the demons of blood and earth. The early 20th century saw this nightmare made real. The other involves a flight into escapist utopian fantasy with our heads in the sky. Devils lay there as well (i.e. the “prince of the powers of the air”–Eph. 2:2**). Both soil and clouds exist for a reason, however. Both have their place. We need to see what lies below and above at the same time, with Christ in the center, holding all things together.

*We can note that in The Republic he places his ideal, or perhaps, imaginary, city outside of Athens (I tend to think of The Republic as a thought experiment and not a description of Plato’s “real” beliefs–others disagree). Deneen also notes that the great Athenian dramatists played the role of “theorists.”

**Perhaps we should think of Paul’s words in a strictly spatial manner, but I am fairly sure that we should interpret his words metaphorically (the two are not mutually exclusive). That is, the “air” shifts to and fro–it has no boundaries, no direction–its shiftiness resembles the snake, who speaks with a forked tongue, etc.