What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Fate—and Aristotle’s Unities

«When the laws regulating human society are so formed as to come into collision with the nature of things, and in particular with the fundamental realities of human nature, they will end by producing an impossible situation which, unless the laws are altered, will issue in such catastrophes as war, pestilence and famine. Catastrophes thus caused are the execution of universal law upon arbitrary enactments which contravene the facts; they are thus properly called by theologians, judgments of God

«When there is a genuine conflict of opinion, it is necessary to go behind the moral code and appeal to the natural law—to prove, that is, at the bar of experience, that St. Francis does in fact enjoy a freer truth to essential human nature than Caligula, and that a society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans

«cf. the Virgilian concept of Destiny: cosmic logic, which men are at liberty to flout if they choose, although, by so doing, they expose themselves to an inevitable penalty.”—C. N. Cochrane: Christianity and Classical Culture

«“For He visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him, and shows mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments.” Here is a statement of fact, observed by the Jews and noted as such. From its phrasing it might appear an arbitrary expression of personal feeling. But to-day, we understand more about the mechanism of the universe, and are able to reinterpret the pronouncement by the “laws” of heredity and environment. Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come.»

«Scattered about the New Testament are other statements concerning the moral law, many of which bear a similar air of being arbitrary, harsh or paradoxical […] We may hear a saying such as these a thousand times, and find in it nothing but mystification and unreason; the thousand and first time, it falls into our recollection pat upon some vital experience, and we suddenly know it to be a statement of inexorable fact. […] Of some laws such as these, psychology has already begun to expose the mechanism; on others, the only commentary yet available is that of life and history

«Twenty centuries ago, Aristotle, in his university lectures on poetry, offered certain observations on dramatic structure, which were subsequently codified as the “Rule of the Three Unities”. These observations underwent the vicissitudes that attend all formal creeds. There was a period when they were held to be sacrosanct, not because they were a judgment of truth, but because they were the “say-so” of authority; and they were applied as tests automatically, regardless whether the actual plays in question were informed with the vital truth that was the reason behind the rule. Later, there was a reaction against them as against an arbitrary code, and critics of our own time have gone so far as to assert that Aristotle’s unities are obsolete. But this is a folly worse than the other. Audiences who have never heard of Aristotle criticise plays every day for their failure to observe the unities. “The story,” they say, “didn’t seem to hang together; I didn’t know whom to be interested in; it began as a drama and ended as a farce. … Too many scenes—the curtain was up one minute and down the next; I couldn’t keep my attention fixed—all those intervals were so distracting. … The story is spread out over the whole Thirty Years’ War; it would have been all right for a novel, but it wasn’t concentrated enough for the theatre; it just seemed to go on and on.” What is the use of saying that twentieth-century playwrights should refuse to be bound by the dictum of an ancient Greek professor? They are bound, whether they like it or not, by the fundamental realities of human nature, which have not altered between classical Athens and modern London. Aristotle never offered his “unities” as an a priori personal opinion about the abstract ideal of a play: he offered them as observations of fact about the kind of plays which were, in practice, successful. Judging by results, he put forward the observation that the action of a play should be coherent and as concentrated as possible, otherwise—human nature being what it is—the audience would become distracted and bored

«The proper question to be asked about any creed is not, “Is it pleasant?” but, “is it true?” “Christianity has compelled the mind of man not because it is the most cheering view of man’s existence but because it is truest to the facts.” (Lord David Cecil: “True and False Values”: The Fortnightly, March 1940.) It is unpleasant to be called sinners, and much nicer to think that we all have hearts of gold—but have we? It is agreeable to suppose that the more scientific knowledge we acquire the happier we shall be—but does it look like it? It is encouraging to feel that progress is making us automatically every day and in every way better and better and better—but does history support that view?»

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (1941), pp. 6–13


One thought on “What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Fate—and Aristotle’s Unities

  1. Pingback: Incest and tyranny, Trump fits a pattern | Philosophical Politics

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