Constructive features of world

Love your neighbor as yourself. But our love of ourselves involves a bias or perspective: given that we can explain almost any action in relation to someone’s character or in relation to his circumstances, that is, we can see any action either either as a sign of who someone is or as a fluke/ accident arising from other causes, we tend to explain our good actions in relation to our character and our bad actions in relation to our circumstances. Christ asks that we extend this bias/perspective to others. The tradition followed him:

You know well enough how to excuse and to color your own deeds, but you will not accept the excuses of others. It would be more just to accuse yourself and excuse your brother.

Imitation III. 2.

St. Thomas gives an ontological foundation for this:

[W]hen we judge of men, the good and evil in our judgment is considered chiefly on the part of the person about whom judgment is being formed; for he is deemed worthy of honor from the very fact that he is judged to be good, and deserving of contempt if he is judged to be evil. For this reason we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary.

ST. 2-2. 2.

That is, where opinion is the cause of good, we ought to seek to cause this good even where this is not warranted by the facts. Notice that this is more than “giving the benefit of the doubt” – it is giving a benefit within doubt or while doubting.* There’s nothing odd about refraining from judgment in a doubtful matter, but St. Thomas is arguing that we should go further and give benefits in doubtful matters.

Love takes any excuse to build up the good of the other and explain away his evils, and this seems like what one ought to do. But this will change our account of what the facts of the matter are. While the good and the evil are still seen the narrative we form of the actions of others has to shift toward encomium; what evils they do have to be seen as exceptions to their character. Since it seems to be impossible to do this, or at least o do it habitually, without believing it, then we have to believe it as well.

But all this seems more like a sermon than the point I wanted to make. What I’m more interested in is the sense in which the facts of the matter or the correct narrative of some event are not so much things to be found but things that should be constructed relative to an ideal. Something like this is going on all the time anyway – if we simply remembered every sensation, like a 360 panoramic camera that recorded all details indifferently, then the resulting data-dump would be infinite and meaningless. It’s only in light of some goal that we can carve out something significant from this infinite, and so memory is less a camera running than a narrative constructed out of infinite possible stories: it’s an editor.

The plot of Memento makes the point especially concrete since the main character has made his memory completely extrinsic and concrete. One comes to see that “plain facts” and the description of persons are always relative to some over-arching goal (say, the desire to avenge one’s wife). Such an account of things still allows for truth and lies (it turns out the the whole movie is motivated by just such a lie about John G, but it need not have been) but both truth and lie, fact and fiction, cannot be detected apart from a narrative, even while, they constitutes that narrative. One point of the movie seems to be a warning about the sort of naive realism that believes we simply read facts off the world independent of any structured moral narrative. Such a realism is hard to avoid since it’s hard to avoid concluding that the only other option is a self-refuting denial of objective fact, but in fact this sort of realism keeps us from seeing the ways in which we are lying to ourselves.

The world, in other words, is a place waiting to be made by human opinion. It is made out of the infinite and perspectiveless block-world of nature, but this making manifests or hides the reality given to it, depending on whether it is governed by truth or lies. Christianity claims that the truth of this creation is found in extending the bias/perspective we have of ourselves to others.

*True, we use the phrase “giving the benefit of the doubt when we mean we will think the best in a doubtful matter. But this seems to be a case of not saying what we mean.

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