All about Nothing

The point of Confession is not to mortify one’s pride, but to disable it. Of this I am reminded by an old philosophical friend, on the second anniversary of whose death I happened to be born. Pride can be mortified easily enough — you don’t need any religion for that. In fact, it tends to be self-mortifying, as one might notice in looking around, or in reviewing one’s own case. But that would require a little reflection.

Today, we are dealing with the Problem of Evil. Or at least, I am. To my perhaps over-Miltonic understanding (a danger in becoming an English-speaking person), it begins in Pride, and specifically in the proud rebellion of the first Angel who got it in his head that he could go to Heaven in his own way. And wouldn’t go there on any other terms. (In fact, Milton was fairly Catholic on this.)

It was, from the start, a contradictory sort of thing to be doing, with its strange corollary — “if I can’t have it nobody will” — but there, if you will, you have it. At the very bottom of the wishing well, when we have fallen into it, we realize an act of incredible stupidity: the conscious choice of Nothing. (With a capital N.) For the truth is, being is somethingness, at least. And the bad news is also the good news, if one happens to be a little devil. It is the discovery that “Nothing” isn’t available. That becoming a None was the wrong move. Unfortunately for the devil in question, making this final discovery, the bad news is for him and the good news is for others.

But there are people — or more precisely little devils in human flesh — who just won’t get this, no matter how patiently it is explained. A rose may be a rose to them, but they miss the next proposition: that it will always be a rose (or, always will have been); and that, a nothing is a nothing is a nothing.

In that sense, I think one goes to Confession to confess … Nothing. One goes to fess up to this, and get it corrected. One’s pride may provide considerable resistance, hence the need to get it disabled — to rebel, as it were, against one’s own personal rebellion.

The same holds for the other Deadly Sins. They are all nothings, so sadly pointless. We can try to rebel against God; but we aren’t going to win. It is worse than that: we won’t even be able to explain to ourselves, plausibly, why we have been so stupid. For in the end, like Iago, we’ll have nothing to say — nothing to say about Nothing; and nothing that could be said in favour of Nothing, given the existence, even in Hell, of the eternal, conspicuous, somethingness. The inmates may desire Nothing — to become nothing, to somehow escape the oppressive somethingness of things. They could pray for it, but that would be absurd. (How do you ask Something for Nothing?)

Any way you look at it, they can never have the Nothing they want. And this because it cannot be had, now or eternally ever.

Or perhaps, cancel the last few rebellions, in the time since one was last there, and set out once again on the path of loyalty, obedience, and decent behaviour, towards the boundless citadel of Love.

Which takes me to my other point about Confession. It is a Sacrament. That is to say, it is not only a something, but a font of somethingness. It is, one might say, the thereness in There. It is life restored: one should go to it sometimes.

For you see, Sartre had it all backwards.


(BTW, the answer to that opening quiz was, “Wittgenstein.”)