Allow me a moment of unrestrained avuncular pride. I have a new little nephew, Jonathan – nearly a year-old, pudgy, bright-eyed, and the embodiment of the most perfect, most instinctive joy I have ever seen. He is the first child born to a sibling of mine, and so now I am slowly learning how well a grown man can content himself by crawling on the floor beside a play-mat, and making ludicrous faces in order to elicit a drool-drenched smile. He is red-haired and jovial, like his father; shows signs of great intelligence, like his mother; and is quite fond of an afternoon nap, like his hopelessly slothful uncle. But what most captivates me about this precious creature is the wonder with which he gazes on all things in his still novel world, the rapt stare with which he can consider the magnets on the refrigerator, or the maple tree in the backyard. When I hold him, it would be a difficult feat then to tell which of us two regards the other with the greater astonishment; I become amazed at his amazement, enthralled by his enthralled contemplation of all things. Watching him watch life in this way, I feel like I am standing in the presence of some elemental wisdom, intimating the shadow of an insight that resolves a thousand stubborn perplexities. I can fully understand in such moments why Wordsworth would refer to the child as the “best philosopher.” For what Jonathan possesses is that one capacity which almost all adults lack, to their general misery – the capacity to be satisfied. Being amazed with all things, he can be content with all things. He can sit all day in his little pool, happily splashing about a plastic boat or two, while those of us who sit watching him are grateful for a moment’s distraction from the anxieties of our daily lives.
Poetry lover that I am, I cannot help recalling a favorite poem of mine whenever I hold Jonathan. It is “The Salutation,” by Thomas Traherne, a poem which dramatizes the awakening of the infant mind to his own created being. It begins:
These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long!
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?
What a scrupulous observer Traherne must have been! Those are precisely the sentiments which Jonathan inarticulately expresses as he waves and gesticulates playfully in his exer-saucer. I remember watching him, when he was still but a few months old, yank his foot up and down endlessly, carried away by the wild, exuberant satisfaction of having feet. Traherne reminds us that the paradisiacal vision belongs not to the historical past, nor to mythological legend, but to the incipient unfolding of all consciousness:
Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God preparing did this glorious store,
The world, for me adorn.
Into this Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come his son and heir.
This vision of things, reflexive to the infant, grows ever more foreign to our adult minds, as experience in a blemished world wears away our native capacity for wonder, and leaves us increasingly cynical and indifferent. We must therefore make such an imaginative effort as Traherne has made, in order to perceive the world as the baby must see it, in all of its raw, startling contingency. It is only then that we will be able to consider creation against the background of nothingness out of which it emerged, and into which it is poised to collapse at every desperate moment. It is that vision of the cosmos’ “might-not-have-been-ness” that imparts to it its glory and its appeal, but it is above all the realization of our “might-not-have-been-ness” that constitutes the “beginnings of wisdom,” the source of inalienable gratitude, and the foundation of all authentic understanding. So Traherne writes in the magnificent concluding stanza:
A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear;
Strange all, and new to me.
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.
As a matter of fact, Traherne is drawing on a long tradition of theological reflection, particularly among the Scholastics, for whom a recognition of nature’s contingency served at once to ground all proper speculation about nature, and to demonstrate the infinite grace of God, who had no need to create the world and its contents, but did so (and does so) from an act of pure gratuitous charity. As Etienne Gilson writes in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy: “As soon as the sensible world is regarded as the result of a creative act, which not only gives it existence but conserves it in existence through all successive moments of its duration, it becomes so utterly dependent as to be struck through with contingency down to the very roots of its being. The universe is no longer suspended from the necessity of a thought that thinks itself, it is suspended now from the freedom of a will that wills it.” For myself, who am but a dilettantish metaphysician, this insight of the Scholastics has always appeared the most lovely, and the most fruitful, of all theological discoveries. It was with great joy and satisfaction, then, that I heard my sister tell me, in a conversation we had not long after Jonathan’s birth, how she and my brother-in-law would sit for hours at a time, observing their new child and all his motions, lost in fascination at his presence, pleasingly stunned that such a graceful being had been “brought to pass.” This is what I call wisdom, when the last effort of philosophical reflection returns to our most primal sentiments, and teaches us to understand what we only felt at first; when the man of large learning and long meditation, pronouncing the final word on what his intellectual labors have disclosed, but gives a language to that great and joyful truth which fell once upon the infant in the cradle.
To fully comprehend the contingency of life, to see ourselves and our loved ones at all times against the background of nothingness, is to be forced to admit our infinite indebtedness as creatures. It is to acknowledge that we all live under an obligation of gratitude which we can never fully discharge, whatever we may do, and yet to acknowledge that we are all bound nonetheless to strive, as best we can, to discharge it. What then do I owe to that ineffable love which brought me here, for bringing Jonathan too? What do we all owe for the inalienable goodness of our existence, both to ourselves and to all those who share that existence with us? It seems to me that we are each bound to join in the great work of creation, to try to become with all of our hearts, to bring as much of our inherent potential to actuality as we possibly can, and to assist others, particularly the children among us, to do likewise. To quote Gilson again: “As God created the world, so man builds up his life.” And so man ought to do.
What does such a task require of us? Certainly, it requires much reflection upon our nature, to distinguish the better portion of our inherent legacy from the more ignoble, so that we can understand what in us is to be nurtured and promoted, and what suppressed. This effort entails much reading, much thought, and much debate. This task requires some mode of self-discipline, whereby we come to accept the authority of certain dignifying rules, and form the intention of adhering to those rules in the face of temptation or inconvenience. It requires the establishment of those formalized and rule-governed embodiments of social relationship called institutions, and a reverence for those traditions in which the models of human excellence that have come before us stand preserved. And as none of these labors can be accomplished by the individual alone, the task of human improvement is necessarily a social one, the general effort of a community of men to make the most of themselves and of one another. The forms and tendencies of that effort constitute a community’s culture, and culture is what is required of everyone one of us as created beings. Culture is the means by which we promote – by which we cultivate – the most admirable and praiseworthy features of human nature, as we are able to understand these things. Culture is the cheerful work of civilized people, leagued together in common purpose to become all that they are capable of being, out of a profound and humble appreciation for having been at all.
I do not wish to mar this essay, which I intend as a hymn to my beautiful nephew, by an ornery disquisition on the demerits of what we refer to, quite improperly, as our “culture,” and at any rate, those demerits are too obvious to belabor. It is only too clear to any sensible person that what we call our culture is, in almost every one of its common manifestations, brutal, stupid, and ugly. And this plainly means that we are failing to do our duty – our duty to the One who made us, and our duty to the children we have made in turn. But the abnegation of our cultural duties has a far more urgent and heinous aspect to me now, now that my nephew has come into the world, for it is impossible to ignore the fact that he has been born into a society which is utterly indifferent to the fulfillment of his potential, which is far more likely to encourage the accretion of the worst elements in his nature, than to cultivate the best. This is a state of affairs I cannot bear, and will not bear, without endeavoring to make it otherwise.
What I wish for Jonathan is a culture rooted in that wonder and humility which fecundates all authentic wisdom; a culture directed by the grand human imperative of conjoining our efforts to the effort of our Creator; a culture which will enable him, and not hinder him, from realizing all of the potential which nature planted in him at his birth. And what I ask of myself is the direction of all my talents and all of my energy towards the work of bringing such a culture into existence, because I am also one “who nothing was,” but whose life has strangely come to pass. So this is what I owe. And when I hold Jonathan’s squirming little body in my arms, I make a silent resolution, and say that I will make it happen in his lifetime. And when he looks into my face with his buoyant, careless eyes, then I swear it.
Originally published in Front Porch Republic.