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A Bizarre but Interesting Parallel

Consider the following two quotations:


And suddenly all was changed. I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking upon it. And on the table there were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet representative of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimicry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in this world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.


Consider for an Example the Game and Play of the Chess, which is a Pastime of Man, and worthy to exercise him in Thought, yet by no means necessary to his Life, so that he sweepeth away Board and Pieces at the least Summons of that which is truly dear to him. Thus unto him this Game is as it were an Illusion. But insofar as he entereth into the Game he abideth by the Rules thereof, though they be artificial and in no wise proper to his Nature; for in this Restriction is all this Pleasure. Therefore, though he hath All-Power to move the Pieces at his own Will, he doth it not, enduring Loss, Indignity, and Defeat rather than destroy that Artifice of Illusion. Think then that thou hast thyself created this Shadow-world the Universe, and that it pleasureth thee to watch or to actuate its Play according to the Law that thou hast made, which yet bindeth thee not save only by Virtue of thine own Will to do thine own Pleasure therein.

The similarities are striking.  Both are written in pseudo-Biblical English and both compare human life to the game of chess.  The similarity is deeper, though.  Both see the true nature of human souls as transcendent, existing beyond time and space.  The chess pieces are humans as they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.  In reality, though, the pieces are mere reflections or puppets of humans as they really are.  To put it another way, life as we experience it is “real” only insofar as we have forgotten our true nature.  Our actions express that nature to a degree, but only imperfectly.  For the most part, we’ve forgotten that it’s “just a game”, and take our worldly successes and failures more seriously than we otherwise might.

This is not unlike the Hindu concept of līlā, which is generally translated as “play”.  Līlā is not any play, however, but the play of Brahman, that is, God.  The cosmos is seen as the arena created by God in which He can express Himself through manifestation.  There is no “reason” that He creates the world beyond Divine play.  All of us are tiny facets of God, the great Ātman (soul or self) of which our own minuscule ātmans are as drops in the sea.  We’ve forgotten who we are, and liberation comes from the insight that there is no ultimate separation between ourselves and the Absolute.  This is expressed in the classic aphorism “Tat tvam asi,” that is, “Thou art That,” the “That” being Brahman.

Not to drag out the suspense, but neither of the authors of the above passages was Hindu.  They were both British and rough contemporaries, both producing most of their best-known work in the mid-20th Century; but aside from that, not only did they have little in common, but they would be perceived by most as almost polar opposites.  The first quotation is by C. S. Lewis, from last chapter of his book The Great Divorce.  The second is by Aleister Crowley, from Liber Aleph vel CXI:  The Book of Wisdom or Folly, Chapter Beta-eta.  Lewis was an Anglican and an apologist for Christianity in general.  Crowley was an occultist and founder of the magickal (his spelling) and occult religion known as Thelema.  One can hardly imagine two less similar men; and yet their thinking was clearly and strikingly convergent, at least in this instance.

What to make of this?  I have no particularly profound insights.  What I would say is that certain notions tend to crop up repeatedly in philosophy, theology, psychology, and mythology.  It is said that “great minds think alike”; but even great minds can agree and still be wrong.  At one time, the greatest minds all believed in a geocentric cosmos, after all.  Still, convergence, especially between thinkers with very different beliefs and perspectives and who were unlikely to have influenced each other (Crowley might just possibly have read Lewis, but I can hardly imagine the opposite!), often indicates ideas worth pursuing.  Here, both men are saying that in one sense, this world and our perceptions of it and ourselves are not fully real, at least not in the deepest sense.  Not only are Lewis and Crowley aligned on this, but as I noted, they align also with Hindu thought.  For that matter, the idea that the cosmos as constituted is unreal or hides a deeper reality is very much a Gnostic notion, as well.

Make of all this what you will.  I think there’s something to it, though I’m not at a point where I’m willing–or able–to write a detailed treatise on the matter (though I may in the future).  Still, it’s interesting, and definitely food for thought.

Update 18 August 2021: I did a bit of research on the timeline of publication of the books containing these two quotes.  Crowley wrote Liber Aleph in 1918, at which time Lewis was a young man serving at the front in World War I.  Thus, Crowley was certainly not influenced by Lewis.  It was originally published in Equinox, the magazine of Crowley’s occult order, the A∴A∴ (Argentum Astrum), and not in book form until 1962.  Equinox would not have been publicly available until after Crowley’s death in 1947; and the reprints were likely not widely circulated even then.  The book form of Liber Aleph came out the year before Lewis’s death, so he could hypothetically have read it.  However, The Great Divorce was written in 1945, at which time Lewis would have had no access to Equinox, and at which time the book format was yet to be published; thus, Crowley could not have been an influence on Lewis in this passage.  There was enough overlap in their lives that they could possibly have read some of each other’s books (though that seems unlikely); but any such reading could not account for the parallel here.  It therefore is a coincidence, or perhaps convergence, and a striking one at that.

Stories Like Ours

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters —whether historical or entirely imaginary— are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.

–St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter II; courtesy of here; my emphasis.

Does anyone else pray for fictional characters?

Or perhaps we’re fictional characters?

Last time we established that we’re at least like fictional characters, whether we actually are or not.  We are, as it were, characters in God’s novel.  Thus, the relationship of a human author to fictional characters in his writings is at least a useful (if imperfect) metaphor for God’s relationship to us.  We don’t want to take it too far, but it’s a useful heuristic.

Well, using this heuristic, the world can look an awful lot like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  I think it is possible to make an argument justifying the evil and nastiness in the word, as I’ve summed up here.  That’s not quite what I’m interested in looking at right now.  Rather I’m interested in this question:  What obligations (if any) does an author have to his (or His) characters?

One simple answer is given in Jeremiah 18:1-10 and in several other passages referencing it:  God is the potter, we are the pots, and He can do any damn thing He wants to the pots, who have no right to complain, period.  In our analogy, He owes the characters in the story nothing, and can write them as He pleases, and they have no right to complain.  I have to be honest here and say that I have a deep loathing for these passages, but they tend to be the go-to quotes used to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it.  In the strict sense, this is true–God is omnipotent and sovereign–but I reject this in the crudely literal and simplistic sense in which it’s generally used, that is, that we should accept whatever God dishes out passively and not even think about getting upset about it or questioning God’s goodness.  The problem I have with this is that I like happy endings.

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