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The watch that ends the night

November 10, 2014

To retread familiar ground: compared to the infinite, all finite quantities look pretty much the same. As Isaac Watts put it,

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

“Look the same” is not to say “look like nothing.” An evening can certainly look like nothing, a triviality, something we while away without even realizing it, but the night’s last watch, however short, is pregnant with meaning, and fills us with eager anticipation. And the moment in which the sun rises matters more than the aeon that precedes it. So a length of time has a meaning; yet its meaning is not in its length.


El Greco - The Opening of the Fifth Seal

El Greco – The Opening of the Fifth Seal

In one sense, Christianity poses the question: would you rather that your life be a wasted evening, or a vigil watching for the sunrise? And if this difference has nothing to do with how much of anything you have, then why, even if you must give up a thousand wasted evenings for just a chance at seeing the sun, would you hesitate? Your life matters, but how much life you live does not–only whether you live it well.

But of course, this is not the only question Christianity poses. It also demands belief in–well, in in a whole host of things, but in particular, it demands not just that we believe in, but that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead.” The resurrection of the dead–the abolishment of limitations on life–is the sun whose rising gives even the shortest night’s watch meaning because in fact it is the beginning of an endless day. Who would not spring to give up a thousand wasted evenings for just a chance at seeing the sun for endless years the same?


Francisco de Holanda's De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines

Francisco de Holanda – De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines

It’s easy to misunderstand the contribution of this second question to the argument. Pascal, entranced by the mathematics of infinity, thinks it suggested a simple calculation: if we can hang an infinite amount of happy time on one side of the scale, then nothing finite can balance it out, no matter how long we make scale’s other arm. But even apart from the incoherence of the thought experiment (since infinity is not a number–infinitum actu non datur), we have no idea how to quantify happiness, and the entire point of the first question was to show that more time is not necessarily better. So–why need hope for an eternal life play a role in in every good life?

But if we do not grant some role to quantity, to resurrection meaning more life, we’re left not with religion, but with philosophy. Plato wants to live in the truth–to see the sun, as it were–but he has no desire for his time-bound life to actually endure any longer than necessary. He thinks human life not simply benighted, but entombed; the sun can only be seen by leaving it behind altogether. Socrates drinks the hemlock with indifference, and with indifference tells his friends to dispose of his body according to the usual customs. The thought that his soul could only depart through horrific violence–that it would depart, not for Elyseum, but for Sheol–that the body left behind was still his own–that the soul might return to it–that it might rise again, and live forever, not just in truth, but in flesh–that only in this way could his life be a happy one–all this would be absolutely foreign to him.

While Plato does sometimes envision an eternal afterlife, a world outside the cave hospitable to human life, it’s only poetry, a way to gesture at the fact that only Being and Truth and Goodness are truly good. The philosopher’s heaven is pristine and lifeless. As for the Christian’s–well, as Flannery O’Connor said of another doctrine of the faith: “if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”


What, then, does the resurrection offer? The meaning of life without limit cannot be understood without knowing what limits our life. Time, does, certainly, but this is not bad in itself (not bad for the animals, for example); what subsequent limit makes it bad? The philosopher thinks it epistemic; the Christian, social. Our society is intrinsically unjust, and within such society no happy life is possible. The best we can hope for now is to live in anticipation of the rebuilding of the ruined city at the end of time.

What exactly makes society unjust is a topic for another day, but it seems important that it cannot be unjust simply because it fails to maximize happy times, or happy lives. Not only is it not clear what such maximization could consist in, but the absence of such maximization is beside the point: happy lives, in this city, are not just difficult, but impossible (sans divine intervention). And this impossibility is not why the city is bad (that would be circular), it’s a consequence of its badness. From the Christian point of view, the philosopher’s “happiness” is bad, not because it’s selfish, but because it’s false: even if the philosopher tried to help his fellows to follow in his footsteps, and he succeeded in building an entire society consisting only of such philosophers, it would be an unjust society, full of unhappy people.

Placing the emphasis thus, the night watch metaphor takes on added significance. Keeping watch, however solitary an activity, makes no sense unless we are keeping watch for someone, in the sense of agent-and-principal. (Otherwise it’s just staying up late.) We do not work on humanity (as a piece of clay), but we keep watch for it, and, when the sun comes, seek to wake it. For while the sun breaks over the horizon all of a sudden, it reveals clear signs of its impending arrival to those with eyes to see. For this reason all talk of a “blind leap” is misguided. The only leap required is that taken when the eyes are first opened. After that–well, as Wittgenstein says, “light dawns gradually over the whole.”

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.


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