There’s a famous story in the Fourth book of the Republic. Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the soul and its vagaries, with the aim of trying to anatomize it. Socrates suggests that the soul is composed of a rational part and an irrational part. The irrational part, characteristically, desires – Socrates uses the example of the desire to drink. Thirst might not be irrational in itself, but it gains its power from the irrational part of the soul. However, that desires are not enacted immediately is, for Socrates, evidence that something - and Socrates tries to show that it is the other part of the soul, reason - impinges on the irrational part:
“S: And the forbidding principle is derived from reason, and that which bids and attracts proceeds from passion and disease?
S: Then we may fairly assume that they are two, and that they differ from one another; the one with which man reasons, we may call the rational principle of the soul, the other, with which he loves and hungers and thirsts and feels the flutterings of any other desire, may be termed the irrational or appetitive, the ally of sundry pleasures and satisfactions?
G: Yes, he said, we may fairly assume them to be different.
S: Then let us finally determine that there are two principles existing in the soul. And what of passion, or spirit? Is it a third, or akin to one of the preceding?
G: I should be inclined to say--akin to desire.
S: Well, I said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.
G: I have heard the story myself, he said.
S:The moral of the tale is, that anger at times goes to war with desire, as though they were two distinct things.”
In the ancient world, the instruments of the senses were sometimes given character, as if they existed as persons in their own right. That famous saying of Jesus – “if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out” – comes out of this background. There is a deeper background in the Upanishads – as Paul Deussen writes:
In the beginning, Atman alone existed. He resolved to create the worlds and created as such the four spheres [the flood of the heavenly ocean; the light atom of space; earth as death; and the ur-water]… Further the Atman creates eight 'world-guardians', when he out of the ur-water brings forth the Parusa (ur-man the primeval man) and first creates out of mouth nose eyes ears skin heart navel and the generative organ the corresponding psychical organs (speech, in-breathing, sight, hearinghair, Manas, out-breath, semen) and out of these Agni, Vaya, Aditya, quarters of directions, plants, moon, death and water as world-guardians. But immediately, weakness overcomes these world-guardian gods.”
We pretend that we have escaped from this mythology, and we talk of the senses being “personified” – as though, on one side, there is the myth, the eye god, and on the other side there is rationality, the person. But the person will never lose the mythic caul with which he came into the world.
And so it is in the herky-jerky of that merger of media and murder yesterday. Depressingly but inevitably, the thing will be called a tragedy – for we have never devised another category for these outlier acts of beserker violence. And we want – for understandable reasons – to instill some dignity into the bloody spasm that ended so many lives that no aesthetic form can catch. The phrase from the Vietnam war – fragging – is much more appropriate. However, like a peculiarly fascinating film, LI can’t turn away his eyes. We all know Leontius’ peculiar discovery about himself, and what can we do? Well, we will turn the whole thing into the site of an argument of some kind – already Glenn Reynolds, with the boldfaced and thuggish stupidity that is his trademark, has suggested that if more students had been packing, the shooter would have shot fewer. Rather overlooking the fact that … oops, sorry. LI was about to address Reynolds as though he were making an argument.
It is the advantage of religion that it is prepared for these cases. The religious can say, (and do, all the time) my prayers are with you. As if praying were an activity, a form of work, a rolling up of the sleeves. If people said what they meant: I am going to say some words out loud, or think them, that relate to what I saw on tv – we would have a fairer sense of why the promise of ‘prayer’ is so infuriating to a non-believer. Myself, I am not such a non-believer – prayers, trances, spells, poems, equations, diagnosis, they are what we have.