Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reflections on Simone Weil's "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" and the Question of Consciousness

Three previous posts have discussed Chris Carter's three-volume examination of the question of the relationship of consciousness and matter -- most recently in "Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience," and then previous to that in "Chris Carter's Science and the Near-Death Experience" and "Chris Carter's Science and Psychic Phenomena."

His three books present extensive evidence and compelling analysis which suggests that human existence comprises more than the strictly material: that consciousness exists beyond the merely physical, and is not bounded by the material life of the body nor "generated" by the physical organ of the brain.  

This conclusion is remarkable mainly because the overwhelming weight of modern academia and intellectual opinion argues the opposite: that there is no "soul" that is separate from the body, there is no consciousness that is independent of the brain, and that in short there is nothing beyond the material, because everything has its beginning and its end in matter.  What we call consciousness is a play of chemicals and electrical impulses coursing about in the brain, and when the cells of the brain cease to function, the consciousness generated by that particular brain ceases to exist.

It strikes me that this modern dogma of materialism reduces a person to a thing, in the formulation made famous in Simone Weil's powerful 1940 essay, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" (available in its entirety online here, translated into English from the original French by Mary McCarthy).  This connection is remarkable, and worth pondering.  

Simone Weil's essay deals with the effect of violence, both on the victim and on the perpetrator, and her examination of the Iliad in this regard is absolutely profound (and gives the reader of her essay a new appreciation for the profundity of that ancient epic).  Her definition of violence (or "force"), offered at the outset of her text, is justifiably famous, and informs her entire exploration of the subject: 
To define force -- it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.  Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.  Somebody was here, and in the next moment there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us:
. . . the horses
Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle
Longing for their noble drivers.  But they on the ground 
Lay, dearer to the vultures than to their wives.
The hero becomes a thing, dragged behind a chariot in the dust:
All around, his black hair 
Was spread; in the dust, his whole head lay,
That once-charming head; now Zeus had let his enemies
Defile it on their native soil.
The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted.  6.
In her essay, Simone Weil shows us that this bitterness -- which she notes is the pervading tone of the entire epic of the Iliad -- arises because this restriction or reduction of the person to a thing is profoundly wrong.  She says:
In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone.  From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive.  He is alive; he has a soul; and yet -- he is a thing.  An extraordinary entity this -- a thing that has a soul.  And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in!  Who can say what it costs it, moment by moment, to accommodate itself to this residence, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it?  It was not made to live inside a thing; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.  7.
Thus she conveys the dehumanizing aspect of violence, and the threat of violence, and demonstrates with numerous examples that the poet of the Iliad conveyed the same truth.

Does not the materialist dogma that the human being is nothing more than a collection of atoms, that human consciousness is nothing more than a collection of chemical and electrical impulses, attempt the same unnatural transformation "of a man into a stone"?  Does it not objectify something that is actually far more than just a physical object?  Does it not seek to deny that the human being not only has a soul but actually is a soul, and by turning that soul into a thing, distort it and contort it and twist it in the very way that Simone Weil describes so vividly and painfully in the passage above?  And does not such modern materialist objectification of people who are in reality not merely things go a long way towards inviting and condoning brutalization and violence and the use of force, which marked the twentieth century quite as much as did various manifestations of an arrogant, supremely confident materialist philosophy?  

The realization and appreciation of the supernatural (super-physical and super-material) aspect of every human being we encounter should dissuade us from the use of force and violence, if Simone Weil is correct that the supreme characteristic of force is its tendency to efface the personhood of the victim and reduce him to a thing.  Likewise, the ascendency of philosophies of absolute materialism often appear to go hand-in-hand with a willingness to reduce people to things (whether through naked violence or merely the threat of violence).

Later in her essay, Simone Weil explains that the use of force tends to work its dehumanizing effects on both the perpetrator and the victim. 
[. . .] the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature.  Possessed by war, he, like the slave, becomes a thing, though his manner of doing so is different -- over him, too, words are as powerless as over matter itself.  And both, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb.  

Such is the nature of force.  Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged.  To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.  22.
This is a subject that has tremendous implications for civilization, and -- as Simone Weil points out in her essay -- the Iliad itself treats as its subject the utter destruction of an entire city, and in fact of an entire civilization.  As such, the connection between the question of consciousness (and its existence beyond the merely physical or material) and the issues explored in Simone Weil's essay (and explored in the Iliad itself) is one we should ponder long and carefully.