Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Why God Likes Bugs

I confess one of the things that most annoyed me about Bennett's paraphrase of Malebranche (which, to be fair, is potentially OK for very particular purposes, as any paraphrase might) is his dismissal of Dialogue XI.xii-xv as not of any philosophical interest. I hate it when people say, "Such and such is not of any philosophical interest"; partly because it is always wrong. One of the things that really annoys me about the Jolley-Scott (which is the best English translation of the Dialogues on Metaphysics, put out by Cambridge) is the excuse they gave for not including the 1696 Preface:

The present translation is based almost exclusively on the text of teh fourth edition of 1711 (as it appears in vol. 12 of OC), and the Preface and the Dialogues on Death, which are of minor philosophical interest, have not been included in this edition. (JS xlii)

Now, it is manifestly untrue that the Preface is of minor philosophical interest, since in that Preface Malebranche:

(1) Identifies explicitly the philosophical tradition in which he sees himself;
(2) Gives a fairly precise characterization of how he thinks his vision-in-God account of ideas -- which is the Malebranchean topic that is most discussed -- relates to the discussions of divine ideas by Augustine and Aquinas;
(3) In so doing lists some of the important characteristics of ideas;
(4) Gives some clarification about the nature of intelligible extension, in response to some criticisms.

Now, I see no reason why any of this should be consigned to the category of 'minor philosophical interest'. What they should have just said was, "We didn't really feel like taking the trouble to translate the Preface and the Dialogues on Death." I'd respect that excuse much more.

To get back to Bennett, saying that something is not of any philosophical interest is actually a very strong claim, and is usually implausible. One can, of course, say, "Such-and-such is not of any interest for the philosophical work I'm doing" or "Such-and-such doesn't touch on philosophical issues that interest me." But, seriously, in a profession where people talk about Twin Earths and Brains in Vats and Mad Neuroscientists -- and this is sometimes treated within the profession as belonging to the most respectable part of the profession -- in such a profession, I say, can anyone really have the right to say, "This is of no philosophical interest."

In any case, whether XI.xii-xv is of philosophical interest, it's of interest in a more general way, because Malebranche tackles the ever-puzzling question of why God created so many bugs, and does so with the aplomb and suave certainty that characterizes all of the most fun rationalists in philosophical history. What follows is my very rough paraphrase-translation of the French (it is only paraphrastic, although a fairly close one; for a closer translation, see Jolley-Scott 210ff.). To understand what is going on, you need to know that the general topic being discussed is the reasons why God created things the way He did. Theodore, who is Malebranche's representative in the discussion, argues that God created "cruel beasts and an infinity of very bothersome animals" because he foresaw that we would sin, and would therefore need to be taught a clear lesson about the distinction between rational and non-rational beings. After this discussion, we open with Aristes, Theodore's inquisitive interlocutor:


XII. Ariste: I understand exactly what you are saying. God had good reasons to create big animals that could punish us. But why are there so many little insects that do us neither good nor ill? They are perhaps more wonderfully designed than the big animals, but with a design hidden from our eyes that therefore can't acquaint us with the Creator's wisdom.

Theodore: Without stopping to prove to you that there isn't any animal, however small, without some sort of relation to us, my response is that God's principal idea in forming these little insects was not to harm us or help us, but to adorn the universe with works worthy of his wisdom and other attributes. Common men despise insects, but you can find people who study them. Apparently even angels admire them. But even if they were completely ignored, all that is needed for God to create them is for these little works to express divine perfections and make the universe more perfect in itself; supposing, of course, that He can preserve them without multiplying His ways, since God certainly made the most perfect work by acting in the most general and simple ways. He foresaw that the laws of motion were enough to preserve any kind of insect you could want. He wanted to put the laws to all the uses they could in order to make the work most complete. So he first formed the whole insect species by a wonderful division of a bit of matter. For we must always be mindful that it is by motion that everything happens in bodies, and that in the beginning of the universe's motion it didn't matter whether God moved things one way or another, since there were no general laws governing the communication of motion before things started hitting each other.

Ariste: I can conceive of that, Theodore. A world full of an endless number of big animals and little animals is more beautiful and distinctive of intelligence than one without insects. And such a world doesn't cost God any more, nor does it require that He be more particular and precise in His providence; so it fits with His attribute of immutability. So we needn't be shocked that God made so many insects.

XIII. Theodore: What you are saying here, Ariste, is very general, and doesn't exclude an infinite number of reasons for God to make the world as He did.

Ariste: Theodore, I have to tell you of a thought that came to mind when you were talking about the apparent transformation of the insects. Worms [i.e., caterpillars and other larvae] crawl on the ground. They lead a sad and humiliating life. But they make a tomb for themselves in which they gloriously depart. I imagined to myself that by this God wanted to symbolize the life, death, and resurrection, of his Son and even of all Christians.

Theodore: Ariste, I'm pleased that this thought came to mind, because although it seems to me quite right, I wouldn't have dared propose it to you.

Ariste: Why not?

Theodore: Because there's something ignoble about it that displeases the imagination. Besides, even the word 'worm' or 'insect' joined to the grand idea we have of our Savior can excite mockery. (For I think you know that ridicule consists in the conjunction of the small and the great.)

Ariste: Yes, but what seems ridiculous to the imagination is often quite reasonable and accurate, because we often despise what we don't know.

Theodore: That is true, Ariste. The lily of the field that we ignore is more magnificently clothed than Solomon in all his glory. Jesus Christ wasn't afraid of mockery when He proposed that paradox. The imagination is as content as reason in comparing the magnificence of King Solomon to the glory of Christ resurrected; but it isn't very satisfied when trying to find a symbol of the Savior in the beauty of a lily. Nonetheless, the magnificence of Solomon was the work of human hands, whereas it is God who gave the flowers their ornaments.

Ariste: So, Theodore, you believe that God symbolized Jesus Christ in plants as well as insects?

Theodore: Ariste, I believe that God related everything to Christ in a thousand different ways, and that not only do creatures express divine perfections, but they are also, as much as possible, emblems of His beloved Son. The seed we sow must, as it were, die, in order to be resurrected and to give fruit. I find this a natural symbol of Christ, who died in order to be gloriously resurrected: Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground to die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. [John 12:24]

Theotime: [Theotime is another participant in the conversation.] One can make anything serve as a comparison. But it doesn't follow that God wanted to symbolize Christ by everything that has some arbitrary relation to Him.

Theodore: Theotime, If I did not know (1) that the principal purpose of God [in creation] is Jesus Christ and His Church; (2) that nothing pleases God except through Christ; (3) that the universe subsists in Christ and through Christ, because only He sanctifies it, raises it from its sordid state, and makes it divine; then I would consider these natural symbols to be all arbitrary and ignoble comparisons. Theotime, I believe that God had Christ so much in view in forming the universe that the thing that's perhaps most wonderful about providence is that it is always relating the natural and the supernatural, what happens in the world, and what comes from the Church of Jesus Christ.

XIV. Ariste: Surely, Theotime, it is obvious that God wanted to symbolize Jesus by the changes insects go through. A worm is despicable and powerless: behold the despised Christ: But I am a worm, and not a man, the reproach of men and an outcast from the people. [Psalm 21:7] See Him charged with our infirmities and weaknesses: Surely he has born our infirmities. [Isaiah 53:4] A worm encloses itself in its tomb and is resurrected later without being corrupted. Christ dies and is resurrected without his body being subject to corruption. Neither did his flesh see corruption. [Acts 2:21] The worm resurrects to a body that is, so to speak, wholly spiritual. It does not crawl. It flies. It no longer feeds on putrefaction, it drinks from the flowers. It is no longer despicable: nothing could be more magnificently clothed. Likewise, the resurrected Christ is full of glory. He is raised to the heavens. He no longer crawls, so to speak, from village to village in Judea. He is no longer subject to the weariness and other infirmities of life. He governs all nations, and can break them like a clay pot [Ps. 2:9]. Sovereign power in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. Can we say this parallel is arbitrary? Surely it is natural.

XV. Theodore: Ariste, you are forgetting parallels too exact to be ignored.

Ariste: What are they?

Theodore: These worms are always growing before their transformation. But flies, butterflies, and (in general) everything that has been transformed into a flying thing after having been a worm, always remains in the same state.

Ariste: This is because on earth, we are always able to merit, while in heaven we remain as we are.

Theodore: I have noticed that insects do not reproduce unless they have been resurrected and (so to speak) glorified.

Ariste: You are right. This is because Christ only sent the Holy Spirit to His Church, making it fruitful, after His resurrection and entrance into glory. For the Spirit was not yet given, John says, because Jesus was not yet glorified. [John 7:39] And Christ himself says, It is good that I go, for if I do not, the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you. [John 16:7] I am no longer surprised that God made so many insects.

Theodore: Theotime, if God is pleased by His work, it is because He sees His beloved Son everywhere. We ourselves are only agreeable to God insofar as we are expressions of Christ. Matter, by the modalities of which it is capable, cannot exactly express the inner dispositions of the holy soul of Christ -- His charity, His humility, His patience; but it can imitate quite well the different states in which we find His adorable body. And I think that the arrangement of matter, which symbolizes Christ and His Church, honors the Father's love for the Son better than any other arrangement that honors His wisdom and attributes. [The 'arrangements of matter' Theodore has in mind here are things like the body of the caterpillar as it undergoes its physical transformations.]

Ariste: Perhaps there is more skill and intelligence in these dispositions of matter that symbolize Christ. When a living animal makes a tomb for itself and encloses itself in it so it can be resurrected in glory, can we conceive of a mechanism more admirable than the one by which it does so?

Theotime: I agree entirely with your opinions. Further, I believe, Theodore, that God has used the dispositions of bodies to symbolize even the dispositions Jesus' holy soul, especially the abundance of His love for His Church. For St. Paul teaches us [in Ephesians 5] that the violent passion of love that causes a man to leave his parents for his wife is a symbol of the abundance of His love for His spouse. Although animals, strictly speaking, aren't capable of love, they express this great passion by their movemetns and preserve their species a little like men do. They therefore naturally symbolize that violent love of Jesus Christ, which led Him to shed His blood for His Church. In effect, a blind and foolish and (as it were) unlimited passion was needed in order to express strongly and vividly the folly of the cross, the self-emptying of the Son of God, the abundance of His love for men.

Ariste: Let us therefore admire the incomprehensible wisdom of the Creator in making these wonderful correspondences, and let us not consider creatures useless because they don't do us any harm or good. They make god's work more perfect. They express divine perfections. They symbolize Jesus Christ. That's their excellence and their beauty.

Theodore: Let us admire them, Ariste. But since God only loves His creatures in the degree they are related to His perfections, i.e., insofar as they express His Son, let us be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and model ourselves on His Son. It isn't enough for Christians to symbolize Jesus Christ like animals and material beings do, nor even as Solomon does in all his glory. We must imitate the virtues He practiced in His humble and difficult life; these suit us as long as we crawl on the earth. And we know that a new life is reserved for us in heaven, where we will await our glorious transformation. But our conversation is in heaven, says St. Paul, whence we also look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our humiliation to be made like the body of His glory. [Philippians 3:20-21]

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