Got Wood?

Pascal wrote:

“For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter.

“Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.) Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble.

“We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that our soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus. [Ps. 119. 36. “Incline my heart, O Lord.”]

“The reason acts slowly, with so many examinations and on so many principles, which must be always present, that at every hour it falls asleep, or wanders, through want of having all its principles present. Feeling does not act thus; it acts in a moment, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling; otherwise it will be always vacillating.

My Response:

It seems straightforward that reason is not the guide we see it to be. Reason may be the father of our age, but custom remains our comforting mother. But we have increasingly become motherless children.

But cutting the dead weight of custom is precisely what is is to be unanchored. With nothing trustworthy to easily incline ourselves to, we are blindly seeking direction, life and society seem slow suicide peppered with laughter here and there. But what is custom but some old art with strange hidden alchemy that made our fathers see hope and heaven behind the violence, oppression, and hopelessness of history. What artists today can take the place of the familiar patterns drawn by those good lives we can trust were meaningful? It’s our party, we can do what we want, but what magic do we rely on to do it. Even the oldest and wildest of traditions are still customary. 

Nietzsche had this to say:

“How things will become ever more “artistic” in Europe.— Even today, in our time of transition when so many factors cease to compel men, the care to make a living still compels almost all male Europeans to adopt a particular role, their so-called occupation. A few retain the freedom, a merely apparent freedom, to choose this role for themselves; for most men it is chosen. The result is rather strange. As they attain a more advanced age, almost all Europeans confound themselves with their role; they become the victims of their own “good performance”; they themselves have forgotten how much accidents, moods, and caprice disposed of them when the question of their “vocation” was decided—and how many other roles they might perhaps have been able to play; for now it is too late. Considered more deeply, the role has actually become character; and art, nature.

“There have been ages when men believed with rigid confidence, even with piety, in their predestination for precisely this occupation, precisely this way of earning a living, and simply refused to acknowledge the element of accident, role, and caprice. With the help of this faith, classes, guilds, and hereditary trade privileges managed to erect those monsters of social pyramids that distinguish the Middle Ages and to whose credit one can adduce at least one thing: durability (and duration is a first-rate value on earth). But there are opposite ages, really democratic, where people give up this faith, and a certain cocky faith and opposite point of view advance more and more into the foreground—the Athenian faith that first becomes noticeable  in the Periclean age, the faith of the Americans today that is more and more becoming the European faith as well: The individual becomes convinced that he can do just about everything and can manage almost any role, and everybody experiments with himself, improvises, makes new experiments, enjoys his experiments; and all nature ceases and becomes art.

“After accepting this role faith—an artist’s faith, if you will— the Greeks, as is well known, went step for step through a rather odd metamorphosis that does not merit imitation in all respects: They really became actors. As such they enchanted and overcame all the world and finally even “the power that had overcome the world” (for the Graeculus histrio [the little Greek actor] vanquished Rome, and not, as innocents usually say, Greek culture). But what I fear, what is so palpable that today one could grasp it with one’s hands, if one felt like grasping it, is that we modern men are even now pretty far along on the same road; and whenever a human being begins to discover how he is playing a role and how he can be an actor, he becomes an actor.

“With this a new human flora and fauna emerge that could never have grown in more solid and limited ages; or at least they would be left there “below” under the ban and suspicion of lacking honor. It is thus that the maddest and most interesting ages of history always emerge, when the “actors,” all kinds of actors, become the real masters. As this happens, another human type is disadvantaged more and more and finally made impossible; above all, the great “architects”: The strength to build becomes paralyzed; the courage to make plans that encompass the distant future is discouraged; those with a genius for organization become scarce: who would still dare to undertake projects that would require thousands of years for their completion? For what is dying out is the fundamental faith that would enable us to calculate, to promise, to anticipate the future in plans of such scope, and to sacrifice the future to them—namely, the faith that man has value and meaning only insofar as he is a stone in a great edifice; and to that end he must be solid first of all, a “stone”—and above all not an actor!

“To say it briefly (for a long time people will still keep silent about it): What will not be built any more henceforth, and cannot be built any more, is—a society in the old sense of that word; to build that, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come. It is a matter of indifference to me that at present the most myopic, perhaps most honest, but at any rate noisiest human type that we have today, our good socialists, believe, hope, dream, and above all shout and write almost the opposite. Even now one reads their slogan for the future “free society” on all tables and walls. Free society? Yes, yes! But surely you know, gentlemen, what is required for building that? Wooden iron! The well-known wooden iron.” And it must not even be wooden.”


The comfort of a wooden world, with the organic patterns of its grain, is lost on us. But it seems a matter of course that we will be at the mercy of the reasoning of the new actors and artists. It’s difficult to remember that they don’t bring the comfortable peace of custom, but a sword. Indeed, today we have little more than iron to control the sorriest of those who are unmoored from custom and culture.The iron that keeps “bad actors” away from the party where the rest “do what they want.”  The iron that we call for when other people reason that their customs should rule, not ours. 

Our dilemma is fully set forth by these two solitary dreamers– Nietzsche and Pascal. We cannot live by reason, yet we have now recognized we are mad without it.  The organic, the life that grew custom into the oak forest was lost in the slashing and burning that cut it down.  Are we willing to let the forest grow back? How do we plant the seeds? 


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