Garden as Subtweet

In this episode of Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian Gardens he travels around looking at grand, opulent gardens built by wealthy, powerful cardinals to impress (naturally) the other wealthy cardinals vying for the papacy around the turn of the 16th Century. But the garden at the Villa d’Este, says Monty, gained a number of additions each time it’s owner Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, failed to ascend to the papacy. From about 4minutes 40seconds and onwards, Monty talks about the meaning, which would have been quite plain, though still in a coded kind of way, to his contemporaries:

“Behind this beauty is a nagging pain for him because the three layers of water represent the three rivers leading to Rome, and that’s of course where d’Este most of all wanted to be. In the two decades it took to construct his garden, Cardinal d’Este made five failed bids for the papal throne. And every setback, his garden got grander and grander, and the coded messages it sent out became ever more pointed.”

The picture Monty Don paints is of a member of the wealthy aristocratic class sending messages to a member of the same class through the medium of garden. I say that it’s kind of coded (even though it’s in plain sight) because his contemporaries and rivals would only ever have been able to receive the message if they ever attending, or heard about it’s construction through rumour (or boasting). Much like a subtweet, one would have to actually go to d’Este’s actual garden to receive the full message. There are obviously important differences – a garden can’t be re-tweeted, for instance – but the similarity in terms of the dynamic of communication between sender and receiver is similar, and that’s probably important.

Does God Always Get What He Wants?

A question someone posed on Facebook today that has kind of stuck with me. The way they posed it, however, was as though it were some sort of irresolvable cosmic paradox, or perhaps a christian version of Zen philosophy’s Koan – but it seemed to me there were a couple of problems with asking such a question.

It seems intractable, because from inside contemporary Christian theology both answers are obviously wrong: if “yes” God always gets what he wants, then since we also know God loves and wants the best for his children including salvation, and yet his children do not always find salvation. This is only the most obvious contradiction within the “yes” position.

Taking the “no” position poses a near identical problem, but here we encounter problems around the structure of the “want” or the desire (and this, I think, is my point). For a truly omnipotent entity by definition obtaining anything is facile  Anything ‘wanted’ could be obtained trivially easy, with the proviso that belief in human free will complicates this picture. Most modern Christian theologians (barring calvinists, I think?), however, believe in some degree of human free will, as it is crucially essential at least in the whole effort of salvation (i.e. one must “choose” to be saved, etc – the notion of “the elect” being pre-chosen, secret knowledge known only by god is a weird complicating factor, but we’ll forget about that).

But that also leads to another incompatibility between the notion of omnipotence and unlimited availability of acquisition or the realisation of everything, all potential, and the idea of not getting what one wants. For any omnipotence, not getting what one wants must be an act of choice. And why choose not to get what one wants, particularly if this same omnipotence is the source and originator of all virtue? A “no” answer poses a problem for omnipotence itself.

But I actually think there’s a flaw in this whole train of thinking – applying the structure of “want” to an omnipotence is already an idiotic anthropomorphism. How could an omnipotence even possibly be in want? It’s a linguistic (or categorial?) mistake, more than any actual revealed insight into the nature of divinity. Likewise, our idea of omnipotence is culturally and historically informed, bearing litte-to-no meaningful relationship with anything like a divinity. One of the most intriguing and surprising parts of Meillassoux’s interview with Graham Harman was when he talked about the work of his partner, Gwenaëlle Aubry, who “[wrote] a thesis on the notion of potency in Aristotle and its transformation into omnipotence in medieval Christian theology.” (Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, p.161). Such a pity that it doesn’t seem to have been translated, I would love to read that thesis. Anyway, Meillassoux continues:

Gwenaëlle has unearthed a historical process that I already suspected in very imprecise fashion in L’Inexistence divine, but which in her work appears in all its force: Christian theology, or at least an essential portion of it, is based on the idea that it is blasphemous to say that God is good. For to say this would amount to saying that God is subordinated to an order of value that he is powerless to overturn (and above all unjustified in overturning). The essence of the Christian God, which makes him the opposite of Aristotle’s God, is the power freely to create or de-create the standards of good or evil, not being devoted to some eternal good independent of his own power. This thesis, which I am reformulating here with a brutality for which I alone am responsible, is an essential element of my own reflections on the divine. (p.161-2)

The stakes involved in this claim “God is good” for Christian theology reminds me of the intense theological battles that Reza Aslan describes taking place between the rationalists and the traditionalists in early Islam, centering on whether or not the Qur’an was “created” or “uncreated”. Since the Qu’ran is held literally to be the word of god by the traditionalists, and by implication just as coexistent, divine, unchanging as Allah, on these grounds the traditionalists instigated a fierce inquisition which persecuted the rationalists who were more open to the idea of interpretation, context and the historicity of the book. Theological questions tending to proceed (knowingly or otherwise) in reverse in an attempt to justify certain ends is something of a clear pattern, perhaps even codified in the practise of apologetics (though more understandable for it’s transparency than more covert efforts). Needless to say, I think that Meillassoux’s proposal is much more bold, and ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is also a great answer to the apparent difficulty of the “does god get what he wants” problem, since a god who does not exist (yet) clearly cannot want anything (yet).

Here’s a quick overview of that idea which Meillassoux himself gives to Harman in the same interview:

Here’s how I look at it. If I take supercontingency seriously (or super-chaos, an expression that I now prefer to hyper-chaos), then I ought to divide the possible into potentialities (which are submitted to the natural laws of our universe) and virtualities (which are not submitted to those laws). If potentialities can be probabilized, in my view virtualities cannot, by reason of the transfinite character of the number of possibles. Thus it is pointless to ask what the chances are of one virtuality arising rather than another, or to think that a par- ticular virtuality has an infinitely small chance of arising in view of the immense number of other possibilities. On the other hand, I can do two things with respect to the virtual that are able to transform my subjective relationship with the experience of this world. First of all, I can grant prominence to the most radical novelties of the past: the emergence of life understood as a set of qualitative contents by contrast with an inorganic matter that feels neither sensation nor perception; then the emergence of rational thought by contrast with a life that cannot attain the concept of the infinite or eternal truth (of the mathematical or speculative type). This having been done, I can ask what the next advent would be that is capable of just as much novelty in comparison with thought as thought compared with life, or life with matter. For if we grant that thought can attain the absolute (that is to say, contingency considered as necessary), if time is still capable of a novelty just as radical in comparison with thought as thought with life, or life with matter, this novelty can only be the emergence of egalitarian Justice for the living and the dead. (p.162-163)

As an aside: this final point is perhaps where I find a use for Meillassoux’s contingency in my own work. I’m currently thinking about what it means to think of god as a non-human with a particular agency. Of course, in realist terms I’d say I don’t believe in god (I wonder if I believe the virtual, inexistent god? Maybe I can hope at least for it, since believing in a non-existence doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, lol) but the role played by god’s supposed omnipotence (or just potency, even) in people’s lives could be an anchor or a latch for people to begin to understand and rethink the problem of non-humans. Although I guess non-human agency is more like a kind of paganism, really, in that everything gets a slice of the agency potential. The attitudes that people have, and can assume towards agency are interesting and often defined by religious beliefs and different theologies.