“You have to start out learning to believe the little lies”

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post

This week’s quote builds on Monday’s post about the impact of the Santa Claus story on children.  Unsurprisingly, in Discworld, Christmas is a little stranger.  In Hogfather, Death must take over the duties of the Santa-analogue, after an attempt is made on his life.  In the passage below, Death explains to his mostly-mortal daughter, Susan, why the Hogfather can’t be allowed to perish.  (Note, in Discworld, Death always speaks in ALL CAPS).

‘All right,’ said Susan. ‘I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.’
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET— Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME . . . SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.

The major question here is whether Death is making an existentialist kind of statement, in which humans are constructing justice and mercy simply for the purpose of staying sane. If that is the case, they are no more true that Santa Claus, but may be useful or necessary. It turns out that moral ideals fall into the politics and sausages category. No matter how much we need them, lay people are better off not knowing too much about these ideas.

The crucial actors in the Santa story become the parents, rather than the children. The most important step in the story is not the children’s discovery of their parents’ deception, but their own decision to become complicit in that deception when they have children of their own. We must engage in a kind of doublethink to be able to construct a world we can live in.

It’s a plausible reading of this passage, but I don’t believe it. Before we accept justice and mercy as lies, we should take a harder look at the standard of truth we’re using. And Pratchett has shown us this one before.

In a different Pratchett book, the Auditors (the malevolent, abiotic force behind the Hogfather’s disappearance here) apply this same standard of inquiry to art. The Auditors carefully disassemble a painting into each component color and fail to discern Beauty in the proportions of pigment.

It’s an obviously silly moment. We know that these concepts are useful and at least semi-universal, even if we can’t use the same standard to prove them as we use in most other cases. The real question we’re trying to settle is are these concepts absolute or arbitrary. Like C.S. Lewis (and for many of the same reasons) I come down firmly on the absolute side for morality and am leaning the same way on Beauty. Both have certain universals that don’t appear to be culturally or historically contingent (an appeal to fairness for morality, using controlled instances of disorder to highlight order for art) and applications of these principles that are dependent on the cultural moment. About this, more to come.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07986833157160434927 David Wagner

    Sorry I missed the Santa Claus discussion, but you DO know my spiel on that, don't you? Real quick: Kathleen and I have taken brickbats in the blogosphere for YEARS from other Catholics for our anti-Santa position. There's so much vacuuous sentimentalism out there, gevalt!WE DON'T LIE TO OUR KIDS. We never have, and never will, impart to them information about the supernatural world that we ourselves do not believe to be true.It may be "fun," in some trivial sense, to believe (or to watch kids believe) literally in the Santa-Clause-chimney-reindeeer-presents story. But if I had told it to my kids, and then told them (or admitted to them) that it wasn't true, and then they had asked me "Well what about the Incarnation, or the Eucharist…?", I'd have been fucked, and rightly so.So, in our house, we might read "A Night Before Christmas" the way we read "A Christmas Carol," but no fuckin' around with kids belief systems. Those are sacred, and meant only for Truth, meaning, what we ourselves would die for as being true.OFF THE ELF!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02327655974517447377 Crowhill

    Imagine that the universe is what an atheist would say it is — a grand mechanism — cold and indifferent, with no "real" justice or mercy or beauty. Then imagine that a pack of creatures evolved into social animals because social behavior helped them survive. They developed a certain level of awareness of this social behavior. They weren't simply social by instict, they actually thought about it. From their perspective, they were thinking about abstract concepts like justice and mercy and beauty, but it was just the way their brains incorporated these concepts into their behavior. Because of the way they've evolved to think over the years, if they consider these concepts to be arbitrary constructs, they're far less likely to believe them. And since social behavior is beneficial, there's selective pressure to believe these concepts are not arbitary, but Real and Eternal. How would such a creature reason about the universality of these moral concepts?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03543293341085230171 Eli

    Hi, Leah -This is a very nice blog, first of all, so thanks for keeping it up.I wonder, though, if there isn't an alternative interpretation of the excerpt. It's been a long time since I read Hogfather, so you should please correct me if the context belies this interpretation, but it seems to me that there's more going on here than simple moral nihilism on Death's part.The thing that caught my eye is that Death doesn't list "good" or "evil" among his big lies, which is what I would expect from a truly nihilistic approach to the topic. Also, he claims disbelief specifically in an "IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD…BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED," which is not quite the same as what I think of when I think "morality." Rather than saying that e.g. justice doesn't exist in any sense at all, I therefore read Death as saying that justice isn't an active force in the universe; that, in other words, things aren't going to work out justly or mercifully. (Duty, admittedly, throws a bit of a wrench into this reading.) We need to have some optimism about the future, though, because otherwise we get depressed and mopey and generally give up.Anyway, I'm interested to see what you say about beauty, because I'm an avowed aesthetic subjectivist. Certainly morality is objective – that's just a result of it having a coherent definition – but I haven't really seen a plausible definition of beauty that doesn't refer back to an observer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @David Wagner, amen to that. Also, I'm just going to add that I so enjoy seeing Catholics (or any other Christians) use the word gevalt. The times at Yale when people ask me to explain Yiddish slang are the most jarring reminders that I'm not in NY. Yiddish is a mitzvah for everyone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @CrowhillIs your argument that both a creature acting in a world were morality were Real and Eternal and one acting in a world where it was evolutionarily advantageous to believe morality was Real and Eternal would speak and reason about these concepts in the same way and therefore our perceptions of these concepts are not evidence about them? I’m not sure I understand you correctly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02327655974517447377 Crowhill

    Leah — my point is that if there is some evolutionary advantage to believing that morality is Real and Eternal, we'd have to take that into account as we evaluate arguments meant to prove that morality is Real and Eternal. IOW, we'd have to consider the fact that our brains would be skewed in that direction.

  • Anonymous

    You cut out the rest of the dialog which is more important than his "My point exactly". This misrepresentation undermines whatever your argument may be. And you misrepresent Death and The Auditors of Reality of the Discworld's series. You also don't seem to understand "belief" as it is portrayed in the Discworld series or make no attempt to explain it so people reading this will be forced to make assumptions. This will lead to a misrepresentation of the entire dialog which you have cut in half. You should have posted the whole thing even if it was long. I'm certain your point would have been more powerful if you had included the final piece of the dialog: "YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN'T TRUE,HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?"

    • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar

      Leah’s decision to not include the second half is reasonable, because there are important differences between Discworld and ours. For one, Discworld has magic, which means that in Discworld, belief can affect reality in ways that it cannot here.

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