Friday, August 12, 2011

The Absurd and Christian Knowledge

In the course of a discussion on humanity's attempt to find clarity in the world, Camus wrote:

Whatever may be the plays on words and the acrobatics of logic, to understand is, above all, to unify.

It is intriguing how closely this idea parallels the hesychast understanding of what it was to know. For Camus, the act of trying to know was an attempt to impress a distinctly human character onto a decidedly inhuman world. Understanding was at its heart the human superimposition of its nature onto the nature of everything. This is his recognition of the human character of constructed meaning: because understanding is the effort to compose meaning and because meaning has the human intellect as its composer, to understand is ultimately to give an artificial human quality to reality.

This behavior is born from a desire for clarity and unity which is absurd insofar as real clarity and unity is impossible. This despair in the effort to know and the total inaccessibility the object to be known is echoed (or perhaps prefigured) in the hesycahst thought of the fourteenth century. Like Camus, the hesychasts recognized that the effort to know was an effort for unity (though they understood this unity metaphysically rather than in terms of mere logical clarity) but that the foreign nature of the world which was to be known made this ultimately impossible.

Unlike Camus, who stressed the flaw in humanity's expectation of unity, the hesychasts stressed the flaw in humanity's perception of ultimate disunity in the world. Relying instead on the knowledge the unity must be there (in part because of an existential predisposition to assume a unified, comprehensible universe) they translated the desire to find unity from a natural human yearning to an ethical imperative. Unity existed in the world and to know that unity was to have transcended the human predicament. This, incidentally, was achieved through union with the one object, unlike the perceived world, with which that union was possible: God. In union with the divine, the hesychasts expected to achieve a unified understanding of all reality. In an eschatological vision of perfect knowledge, Gregory Palamas writes of a time when humanity will know everything as it is because, through God, humanity has become a participator in the unifying principle of everything that is: light.

For it is in light that the light is seen, and that which sees operates in a similar light, since this faculty has no other way in which to work. Having separated itself from all other beings, it becomes itself all light and is assimilated to what it sees, or rather, it is united to it without mingling, being itself light and seeing light through light. If it sees itself, it sees light; if it behold the object of its vision, that too is light; and if it looks at the means by which it sees, again it is light. For such is the character of the union, that all is one, so that he who sees can distinguish neither the means nor the object nor its nature, but simply has the awareness of being light and of seeing a light distinct from every creature.

This is by no means an attempt to collapse Christian eschatology (or even epistemology) with absurdism. Camus and Gregory could hardly have arrived at more divergent conclusions about the possibility of knowledge. They begin, however, with a similar observation that when humanity attempts to understand the world the behavior is essentially unitive, born out of an innate human desire to collapse everything into a single system or schema. They both recognize the natural human despair when, by our own efforts, the desired and expected unity cannot be achieved. What is left, then, is to decide what to do with those observations.

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