I usually do not put much stock in the message that falls to the table when I crack open my Chinese fortune cookie. I fully expect it to be positive, reassuring, and designed not to interfere with my digestion. Nonetheless, my most recent experience with an Oriental confectionary was a deviation from the norm and much more philosophical than usual. It read: “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”
This was not only my fortune, but an encapsulation of my career as a philosopher. I have always been fond of the concept of irony, of saying the opposite of what I mean in order to give the absurd the nakedness it deserves. Straightforward philosophy can quickly become boring. A twist of irony, however, like a drink with a twist of lemon, can give it the required tang that prevents mental inertia.
My fortune is a review of the history of philosophy from Plato to the present, acknowledging along the way a variety of different streams of thought from objective realism to insular subjectivism, from lofty idealism to crass opportunism, from stark absolutism to convenient relativism. The curled, narrow strip of paper got my mind spinning.
Socrates spent a great deal of time and energy trying to convince his adversary who played the eponymous role in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, that we love something because it is good, and that the opposite, that something is good because we love it, is false. Socrates fails in his heroic attempt and hopes that he and Euthyphro will continue their discussion at a later date. That late date never materialized. Socrates had a date with destiny.
Destiny is target writ large. It is, if one appreciates anagrams, based on our “density.” Because we are constituted in a special way, our constitution inclines us toward our end. Our destiny, therefore, like targets, precedes our actions. It is out there waiting for our directed action. Destiny is our magnetic north, not the tavern where we stop along the way.
Dean Martin was impersonating Euthyphro when he sang, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.” Julie Andrews was impersonating Socrates when she sang, “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” Martin is crooning about the power of his own charm; Miss Andrews is paying homage to the person she loves.
Human love does not turn nothing into something. It is a strange response to the good which was there to begin with not to see it. Robin Hood hit the target at which he aimed. The target was fixed; it was not a free-floating afterthought that coincided with wherever the arrow landed. If that latter were the case, we could all be infallible marksmen and Robin of Locksley would become indistinguishable from anyone who ever bent a bow and launched an arrow. The relativist would replace the marksman.
Relativism, which Pope Benedict XVI regards as “The most profound difficulty of our day,” is based on people’s unwillingness to recognize that goodness precedes love. It would be an extraordinarily misguided archer who believed that the shot preceded the target. Relativism, however, does not hold sway in sports, only in the more important areas of human life.
G. K. Chesterton remarked, using the same twist of irony reflected in my fortune cookie, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide.” Why not do away with all goals – targets, destinies, goods, ends – so that we can call everything we do a success? Even if the victory is hollow and tasteless, we can still baptize it a “victory.” Yet, no empty word ever filled a person’s heart.
We have separated choice from good and yet continue to call any choice whatsoever “good.” In this instance, something is good simply because it is chosen. No self-respecting archer would agree. Good, the target, must come first. A choice is good when it chooses something good. It is possession of the good that gives us reason to rejoice, not merely the act of choosing.
The descendants of Socrates continue to labor heroically, trying to convince people that the target comes before the shot. Surprisingly, it is an enterprise that can span a career and leave behind a long, lingering legacy of failure. Human beings can be slow learners. In Socrates’s words, “The gods love what is holy because it is holy.” Thus, goodness precedes love, animates it, justifies it, gives it direction. Human love is powerless to create the good; at best, it can only serve it.
Come to think of it, and for the first time in my life, a Chinese fortune cookie actually did interfere with my digestion.
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bio-ethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.