I admit it: I’m a Manichaean.
Not actually, in any religious or philosophical sense (in fact, my patron saint is Thomas Aquinas, who abhorred the Manichaeans and did more to combat them than anyone other than perhaps Augustine). But many of my actions make a lot of sense when seen through the lens of “Túrin is a Manichaean”.
Now, the Manichaeans were dualists who believed in a spiritual God and a material, demonic “demiurge”. The spiritual is supposedly struggling to rise above the material world, which doesn’t really exist anyway, and be unified with God. The material world is an obstacle to holiness, and must be overcome. So, a Manichaean person would: look at the world in terms of ideas (though more as in Plato’s forms than in spiritual beings); see the material world as rather irrelevant; and see ideas as above people (this isn’t an explicit Manichaean idea, but does seem to me implicit in their beliefs).
I’ll use this lens to view my social actions of the past week. I went to prom because my Form Master insisted I had to go. It was… well, it was acceptable, about as good as those things normally are. But while I was there I started thinking that, I’m essentially never going to interact with these people after I graduate in May. (Especially the girls I know, since I won’t see them at class reunions or anything.)
So, all these interactions with people I am forced to undergo are rather meaningless. Why am I doing this? In fact, even if I was going to have to continue interacting with these people, who should I bother putting any effort into it at all? People don’t matter (claims the Manichaean). And you have better things to spend your time on (which is true, actually).
Which is why (claims the Manichaean) I didn’t go to Anti-Prom. I sort of regret that, because it probably wouldn’t have been sort of fun; the thing, is, why does it matter if I have fun? ‘Fun’ is fleeting. All that matters are the ideas – specifically, whatever ideas you can create. (Since ideas are the only things that last, the act of creative thought – writing, especially – is extremely important. And the aesthetics of the writing matter more than anything else.) Having fun distracts you from thought.
The problems with Manichaeism are, I believe, obvious. It makes little to no philosophical sense. However, as something believed in that determines ones course of action, it is very powerful, because it can order a person’s life such that they accomplish great things, and it can provide comfort to them when they confront the fact that they haven’t really enjoyed themselves as they do so. It is a temptation particular, I suspect, to intellectuals, especially those who aren’t particularly social in nature.
I’m thinking particularly here of Flannery O’Connor, who we’re studying in English now. Her short stories deal expressly with Manichaeism, and she quite clearly was tempted by it, though she was also quite clearly not taken in by it.