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Motherhood

Dan Sportiello | Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I am not certain that what follows is orthodox, but … well, it may be.

In the beginning, we were animals like any others — taller and swifter than many, true, but animals nonetheless — living like the others according to first impressions, moving like the others according to desire and fear. And so, in the beginning, our world was a garden — a place ordered according to physical, chemical and biological laws of the greatest beauty — one in which we, like the others, played our part. Or so it seemed.

But one day we realized that, unlike the others, we could look upon ourselves as though from the outside — could, that is, somehow stand at a distance from ourselves — and thus, unlike the others, reflect upon ourselves, upon our interactions with the world. And so we realized that we could rule ourselves — could, that is, overcome whatever first impressions, whatever desires and fears, we happened to have — and thus, unlike the others, pass from opinion to knowledge, from emotion to volition.

For knowledge is impression purified — is impression taken not as it first comes but rather as it stands after it is checked against other impressions received before and after it. To think is to live in the world not from moment to moment but rather at a distance from time. To think, in other words, is to become eternal: It is to see in the world not the arbitrariness of particular things but rather the beauty of the unchanging physical, chemical and biological laws behind them. And volition is emotion purified — is emotion taken not as it first comes, but rather as it stands after it is checked against other emotions felt before and after. To act is to move in the world not from moment to moment but rather at a distance from time. To act, in other words, is to become eternal: It is to construct in the world not the arbitrariness of particular movements, but rather the beauty of the unchanging soul behind them.

In standing at a reflective distance from ourselves, we could, for the first time, see ourselves as selves — could look upon ourselves, that is, as animals with inner depths, with souls. We became something more than the other animals, something divine. But with the capacity to reflect upon and thus rule ourselves — with, that is, our divinity — came the potential to rule wrongly, to think and act in ways that undermined themselves — that is, the potential for error and sin. And in seeing ourselves as selves — not only as particulars, each instantiating the same immortal species, but also as individuals, each unique and thus doomed to die, we became something less than the other animals, something fallen.

Our capacity to reflect upon ourselves — that is, our rationality — rendered inevitable error, sin and death. No longer could we live and move by first impressions, by desire and fear. We found ourselves expelled from the garden that we had shared with the other animals, expelled into a world superficially identical to the garden but nonetheless fundamentally hostile, fundamentally other — one in which every aspect of our lives, including ourselves, was at a distance from us. We alone had the capacity to name the other animals, and so we could no longer walk among them. There are two responses to this, the inevitability of error, sin and death — that is, to our fall.

The first response is, perhaps, the more obvious: We can use our rationality to learn the physical, chemical and biological laws that govern the world and then use our knowledge of those laws to make not just our species, but even ourselves immortal. To do so would be to take heaven by force — that is, to conquer death. And this we have tried to do since we fell. We no longer hunt, but rather herd. We no longer gather, but rather plant. We have built towers that reach almost unto heaven. There is nobility in this — but also madness. Immortality — a duration of time without limit — will always be at a limitless distance from us, no matter how far toward it we walk. Human history is punctuated by the forgetting of this — by the insane attempt to rebuild the garden. We know well the results.

The second response is harder: We can meet death with life. The other animals could not name themselves, and so none were fit to be our companion. Instead, each of us was given a companion like himself and yet, somehow, very much other — one with whom he could, somehow, do what only God could do. Create.

This is a mystery. But it is surely not coincidence that only after their fall did the Man, for the first time, call his companion the Mother of All Living.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.