Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–“I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.

The Mimetic Square

February 21, 2011

There’s something strange going on with Plato’s divided line. It is a complicated “something strange,” as it often is with Plato, and requires some elucidation. There is an analogy going on between shadow, thing, idea, and form. If we call these S, T, I, and F, we are told, “S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F)”—that is, that not only do shadow and thing bear the same relationship to each other as idea and form, but that this is the same relationship as between the sensory and the intellectual. That “S:T::I:F” I can accept, but why must the parts of this equation be proportionate to its whole? It results in a number of odd claims, foremost, that T=I. In what sense are things and ideas the same?

Let us leave aside this question for a moment. The above equations allow us to construct another geometrical shape, not a divided line but a divided square, which will serve much the same purpose. Plato actually does this, in the Laws, when talking about things divine, images of things divine, things human, and images of things human. As examples of these, he gives mountains, shadows of mountains, houses, and pictures of houses, but it is easy to see how they could be reinterpreted to be analogous to form, idea, thing, and shadow. So let us look at this square:




We can see that S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F). Additionally, T=I, insofar as the area of the rectangle THING equals that of the rectangle IDEA. Granted, this portrayal ignores the human half of the divided line—noesis, dianoia, pistis, eikasia—for to include those would require a divided cube. But for our purposes it is enough. The geometric reason for T=I is more clear now; S:T::I:F, but also S:I::T:F. S is two steps removed from F either way. One wonders, what are the philosophical implications of this?

The concept of mimesis, seems to recur here as well—as should perhaps not surprise us, for Plato was discussing art when he described the square in the first place. Recalling earlier, when mimesis was divided into reflection and representation, it seems that we can associate each with one of the two identical elements, T and I. Reflection seems associated with T; a mirror attempts to show us things, and Plato’s complaint is that it does a poor job of it. Representation, on the other hand, can be associated with I; a representation of a separate reality, a heterocosm, can offer nothing to our understanding of reality save general laws that we infer from our comparison of the world portrayed with our own, and Plato’s complaint is that the laws inferred are false. Mimesis begins in SHADOW—in fictions—and tries to bring us into THING and IDEA; Plato says that, without the guidance of philosophy at least, it fails. But worse, it seems, is that it cannot bring us from THING or IDEA towards FORM. Even when mimesis works perfectly, reflection can only bring us from the top of the bottom, and representation from the right to the left; it is not clear that they can build on each other, that together they can bring us from SHADOW to FORM.

Because I enjoy diagrams, and because I like to play with words, I like to label the rows and columns in this divided square. I do so as follows:






But, of course, I could not defend the claim that FACT=FACT.

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