Journeys, Feasts, and Predicaments

We all use metaphors to describe our lives, things like: “Love is a battlefield.” “Life is a highway.” “All the world is a stage.” It turns out, though, that political philosophers get really dark about it. Here’s political philosopher Michael Oakeshott on why that is:

… it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a sombre view of the human situation: they deal in darkness. Human life in their writings appears, generally, not as a feast or even as a journey, but as a predicament; and the link between politics and eternity is the contribution the political order is conceived as making to the deliverance of mankind. Even those whose thought is most remote from violent contrasts of dark and light (Aristotle, for example) do not altogether avoid this disposition of mind. And some political philosophers may even be suspected of spreading darkness in order to make their light more acceptable. Man, so the varied formula runs, is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both … and the civil order appears as the whole or a part of the scheme of his salvation.

The precise manner in which the predicament is conceived, the qualities of mind and imagination and the kinds of activity man can bring to the achievement of his own salvation, the exact nature and power of civil arrangements and institutions, the urgency, the method and the comprehensiveness of the deliverance — these are the singularities of each political philosophy. In them are reflected the intellectual achievements of the epoch or society, and the great and slowly mediated changes in intellectual habit and horizon that have overtaken our civilization. Every masterpiece of political philosophy springs from a new vision of the predicament; each is the glimpse of a deliverance or the suggestion of a remedy.

Michael Oakeshott on thomas hobbes

After re-reading this a few times (it’s a hefty statement), it seems that Oakeshott is making a few points:

  • To some, human life is not a feast or a journey, but a predicament
  • Political philosophy is the study of the predicament, and how to find a way out
  • Different philosophies pose the predicament in different ways: man “is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both…”
  • How this predicament is described, and how the solution is achieved, is what distinguishes each great work of political philosophy

Now, let’s be clear: I’m no political philosopher. Nor will I ever be one. But I find these ideas incredibly interesting, especially the first point about the metaphors we use to describe our existence. Why? Because it matters so much. Think about it:

Is life a feast or a journey? A war or a test? Are we soldiers or students or pilgrims?

If it’s a feast, what are we feasting on? If we’re students, what is the lesson we’re supposed to learn? If we’re pilgrims, what is our journey–our starting point, our waystation, and our final destination? If life is a war, what are we fighting against, and who is on our side, and who is on theirs?

If it is a predicament, what is the predicament? Are we ancient humans stuck in a modern world, waylaid by our biological drives and evolved habits of mind? Are we sinners saddled with depraved souls, with grace as the only way out? Are we, as the Hebrew Bible envisions it, the creation of God inclined toward idolatry–to the worship of anything but God? Are we students in a classroom, sent here to learn? Are we, as Socrates taught, rational creatures beset by ignorance? Are we, as Terryl Givens like to point out, children of God wounded by the world and by each other, requiring the grace and healing that comes in the arms of Christ? Or are some kind of all of these?

Or is all of these an exercise in climbing the wrong ladder? If we are not, in fact, in a “predicament,” is some other framing device better?

Journeys, feasts, predicaments–these are the metaphors we use, and I think they matter a lot because they shape our approach to the world. But I wonder why we all use different metaphors? And I wonder if one metaphor is objectively more right than another? Or if all of these metaphors get at some aspect of life?

A few thoughts.

First, Oakeshott suggests that political philosophers think in terms of predicaments. This requires they take a “sombre view” of the human situation. Are we, as Latter-day Saints, required to take a “sombre view” of the human situation? I’m inclined to say… yeah. Yes we are.

As Latter-day Saints, we’re generally sunny in our outlook. We believe everyone will get a shot at heaven. (I’m thinking of the book title, “Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exalted.”) But we also have a pretty dark and tragic book at the heart of the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, which for all its optimism, ends with the godless Nephites being wiped out by the godless Lamanites.

I’m reminded of Bible scholar Gordon Wenham’s statement: when talking about the first part of Genesis, he said that the book “declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic…” Why? Because, in short, God has made covenants to Abraham to save the human race. This could describe the Book of Moses equally well. (Think of the scene where Enoch sees the wickedness and suffering of mankind, and weeps with God–but then leads a whole city into God’s rest and loving arms. He sees mankind without God; and works to turn mankind to God.)

Second, journeys and predicaments both suggest a storyline, a narrative. All of these narratives invite us to act, to move, to launch ourselves forward. And perhaps that’s enough? Without a conflict requiring resolution; without a journey needing completing; without a “what-is” requiring a “should-be”; we would be static, frozen in place.

Third, Adam Miller has talked about the questions being asked today, while both Terryl Givens and Nathan Oman have talked about finding new language to celebrate the restoration–new ways to answer today’s new questions. Perhaps to find the “right” metaphor and image, we need to know–what questions are being asked? What metaphors best make sense to this generation, and to the questions they’re asking, and draw from the Restoration?

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