The emergent longing for wholeness

I have long been interested in the emergent effect of complexity, particularly in human affairs. It seems that any coordinated relation of parts tends to summon some whole which becomes an actor in its own right independent of any particular decision. All of us adapt ourselves to wholes without realizing what we are doing. Think of how each group that stays together develops a specific character, almost a personality, and this quasi-independence of the emergent whole often seems resistant to any of the actor’s attempts to change it: a corporate culture or the ethos of family, tribe or nation. Some of these emergent effects can seem bad, whether on Wall Street or unhappy workplaces or dysfunctional athletic teams, but I wonder if the integrity that each emergent whole makes present is not at heart a good thing that only becomes perverted by resisting the full summons of the encompassing whole’s drive toward a greater integrity. Wholeness is normative and the source of all that is truly desirable. Human beings long for community/koinonia, a longing that has as its engine the encompassing whole that is transcendent to each participant but immanent within the larger body of participants.

Here are two citations from Plato that point to what I am groping to convey:

Parmenides 157c-e (Perseus project translation): “But the whole must be one composed of many and of this the parts are parts. For each of the parts must be a part, not of many, but of a whole.” “How is that?” “If anything is a part of many, and is itself one of the many, it will be a part of itself, which is impossible, and of each one of the others, if it is a part of all. For if it is not a part of some particular one, it will be a part of the rest, with the exception of that one, and thus it will not be a part of each one, and not being a part of each one, it will not be a part of any one of the many. But that which belongs to none cannot belong, whether as a part or as anything else, to all those things to none of which it belongs.” “That is clear.” “Then the part is a part, not of the many nor of all, but of a single form and a single concept which we call a whole, a perfect unity created out of all this it is of which the part is a part.”

 

Symposium (Jowett translation): “[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Eros.”

The part must relate to the whole to be what it is. The part has no life as the part it is without subsuming itself to its whole. Every part, to the extent it is a part, essentially desires to be integrated into its defining whole. This relation to the whole is ontologically prior to every other relationship. The part’s participation in the whole cannot be achieved without the co-participation of the other parts. Human beings long to be themselves and yet this longing unsettles any presumed independence. The deficiency out of which human eros springs is a lack of wholeness. (Partial) participation in the whole excites a part toward full participation. One can only fully participate by coming into relationship with other parts of the same ordering whole. One part cannot fully relate to the whole without cooperating with the other parts in achieving their relation to the whole. I cannot be what I ultimately want to be unless the other has also achieved his/her proper fulfillment. Our longing for wholeness is thus necessarily a mutuality of aspiration. I cannot enter the human whole, the koinonia of the one, without loving the others enfolded within the same whole as me. Any interest of mine that interferes with the neighbor’s own true interest must be self-deluded.

The whole must agree with all its parts; the parts must agree with each other; each part must agree with the whole. This trinity of agreements is the basis of all true integrity, community and desire.

The examining life

It is not the nature of human beings to let thing that interest us go unthought about. “What is it?” and “Why?” are not just modes of speaking and thinking: they are living ways of standing in and toward the world. In the face of our most powerful experiences, those questions may not get fully answered, but it is intolerable for them to go entirely unanswered either, and impossible for them to go unasked. For good or ill, to be greatly and noticeably affected by anything, and not to seek the cause, is no part of life as we live it. If that were not so, if we refrained from all reflection, important things could happen to us without becoming part of our experience at all. Life would pass through us without being lived by us.

                                                                 –Joe Sachs, “Introduction,” Aristotle: Poetics (Focus 2006), p. 1

 

On specific ignorance

Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat.
[“He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere.”  — Martial, vii]

General ignorance is a bad thing, perhaps the worst thing. Let us never accept our ignorance placidly. Just as life is greater than death — infinitely greater — so too is knowledge greater than ignorance. We should strive for knowledge as we strive for life, for both types grow toward the same source.

But I want to argue that specific ignorance is a good thing. What do I mean by “specific ignorance”? Specific ignorance is not mere absence but absence of something definite. The form of general ignorance is “I don’t know anything,” whereas specific ignorance is “I don’t know this thing”. Such ignorance is essentially dynamic and oriented toward the reality of the specific. Perhaps the first rule of good teaching is to transform a general ignorance into a specific ignorance, so that the striving that ought to accompany ignorance can flower into actuality. Here are a few leftover thoughts to get you thinking:

1. The vehicle of specific ignorance is the questionable opinion, not the blank page.

2. Try replacing periods with question marks.

3. There is no consummation without a prior animation.

4. Real knowledge is the fruit of specific ignorance; no plant, no fruit.