Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Will One Thing

"...let us suppose a man wanted... a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. ...If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner."
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I tend to think steadfastness or single-mindedness is useless, unless it finds a proper object. There are unworthy pursuits: for example, painting the world blue. Chesterton (elsewhere in Orthodoxy) seems to suggest it is better for me to pursue a path unswervingly, even though I am not sure it is right, than to waver and swoon around the truth, unable to start out in any direction, for fear that new evidence or tesitmony may arise to inform my decision. Of course, it is better to do something than to do nothing. But is it better to do something in which you are misguided than to do nothing? Better to steadfastly paint blades of grass blue, than to waffle and back-track and re-direct, following evidence in pursuit of truth (and making a big, colorful mess, in the process)?

I guess it was two years ago that I read Soren Kierkegaard's "Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing". I thought then as I do now, that in it, there is an answer to this question:

"So let us, then...speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle James’ words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8:

"Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded." For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him...

Let us...come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition "purify your hearts ye double-minded" is condemning, namely, double-mindedness.

To will only one thing: but will this not inevitably become a long-drawn-out talk? If one should consider this matter properly must he not first consider, one by one, each goal in life that a man could conceivably set up for himself, mentioning separately all of the many things that a man might will? And not only this; since each of these considerations readily becomes too abstract in character, is he not obliged as the next step to attempt to will, one after the other, each of these goals in order to find out what is the single thing he is to will, if it is a matter of willing only one thing? Yes, if someone should begin in this fashion, then he would never come to an end. Or more accurately, how could he ever arrive at the end since at the outset he took the wrong way and then continued to go on further and further along this false way? It is only by a painful route that this way leads to the Good, namely, when the wanderer turns around and goes back. For as the Good is only a single thing, so all ways lead to the Good, even the false ones: when the repentant one follows the same way back.

...Instead of wasting many moments on naming the vast multitude of goals or squandering life’s costly years in personal experiments upon them, can the talk do as the life ought to do -- with a commendable brevity stick to the point?

In a certain sense nothing can be spoken of so briefly as the Good, when it is well described. For the Good without condition and without qualification, without preface and without compromise is, absolutely the only thing that a man may and should will, and is only one thing. ...The way this one thing is willed is not such that: one man wills one thing but that which he wills is not the Good; another wills one thing nor is what he wills the Good; a third wills one thing and what he wills is the Good. No, it is not done in that way. The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing. For in his innermost being he is, he is bound to be, double-minded. Therefore the Apostle says, "Purify your hearts ye double-minded," that is, purify your hearts of double-mindedness; in other words, let your heart in truth will only one thing, for therein is the heart’s purity.

And again it is of this same purity of heart that the Apostle is speaking when he says, "If someone lacks wisdom, then let him pray... but in faith, not like a double-minded man" (James 1:5,6, 8). For purity of heart is the very wisdom that is acquired through prayer. A man of prayer does not pore over learned books for he is the wise man "whose eyes are opened" -- when he kneels down (Numbers 24:16).

In a word, then, there is a man whose mind remains piously ignorant of the multitude of things, for the Good is one thing.

2 comments:

Louis said...

Have you read Kant? My friend told me Purity of Heart, is filled with Kantian themes.

Rachael said...

I have read very little Kant. Both men wrote about willing "the Good" (or the highest good) and willing it only for itself, without thought of compensation). They both saw the good as distinct from "happiness". In fact, they viewed desire and virtue as being often at odds, and believed that some people become good through suffering or self denial. Therefore, the ability to do one's duty (choosing the Good),in spite of a conflicting desire and without promise of reward, is the mark of a truly good (pure in heart) person.

That is as far as my synthesis of the two extends. Kierkegaard prepared "Purity of Heart" as one of a group of "Edifying Addresses", intended (according to the Translator's Introduction, in my copy of the book)for self-examination by the reader. He stresses that purity of heart is attained through prayer and repentance. I'm guessing Kant would disagree.