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On Value and Significance
Alfred Noyes, The Unknown God
I recently finished reading The Unknown God (1934) by Alfred Noyes, which I shared a quote from previously. The book is his story of conversion from agnosticism to Catholicism, though I found it largely to be a masterful critique of 19th-century agnostics and, fundamentally, a dive into reality itself.
Every short chapter left me more impressed than the next, and I now have a 6,000-word document of quotes I pulled so I could go back over them later. But the one that really stood out, and the longest one at that, was chapter 17, where Noyes discusses issues of value and significance in light of the incredible facts humanity was learning about the universe.
Today, we know even more, but his words ring perhaps even more strongly than ever, starting with:
All those arguments which diminish the stature of man by pointing to the insignificance of his midget planet among the “fifteen hundred universes” which passed in review before the mind of Herschel; all those questions as to whether human beings can possibly have the importance which religion attaches to them, and whether, therefore, anything in human life really matters in the least; all those arguments addressed to the humility of man are the illegitimate off-spring of the perfectly true theory of Copernicus. By their emotional appeal to the modesty of individuals, they unconsciously endeavour to inhibit a reply. Much of the modem spiritual depression, much of the modern bitterness and “defeatism” in literature is unconsciously born of it. Yet no argumentum ad hominem ever concealed a greater multitude of fallacies. In the first place, it is the intellectual wings of man himself that dwarf his own world to nothingness beneath him.
We are constantly being taken up to a great physical height in order that, sharing the satisfaction of some great literary observer, we may see the rest of mankind crawling like ants over the plains below. In other words, we play tricks with the physical focus in order to destroy values that are not physical. We ought not to lose sight of the fact that the outward littleness of the lives of men is only demonstrated in such cases by the magnitude of man’s own intellectual vision. Never was there a more blundering self-contradiction in the realm of values. It is like trying to know your friend better by looking at his face through the wrong end of the telescope.
How poignant these words are nearly 90 years later, highlighting the nihilistic malaise of a materialistic and deterministic universe that has lost sight of non-physical value. I am reminded of William James asking who knows Jill better—Jack, who loves her and sees her particular charms and perfections, or dispassionate onlookers? In other words, do you know someone better by understanding the matter that constitutes them or by learning their likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, and dreams?
Curiously, though you would think mistaking our physical littleness with insignificant value would crush the ego, it seems to have had the opposite effect:
Nothing is more characteristic of our time than the inverted arrogance with which men have thus abdicated their true kingdom and insisted upon dwarfing their own stature.
Why is it in “inverted arrogance”? Because:
It is a curious and significant fact that, when man thought himself of some value in the eyes of his Maker, he was acquainted with true humility; while today, when he is never tired of pointing out the ultimate insignificance of human life, he has almost lost the meaning of reverence and become almost entirely ego-centric.
The opposite of such an ego-centric disposition would be a healthy self-reverence due to the fact that our seemingly insignificant intelligence in a universe so vast is nonetheless able to understand so much beyond our little earth.
At present, throughout the whole range of modern thought, we see an amazing illustration of the truth enunciated by Philo: “He who tries to flee from God takes refuge in himself.” If man discovers that the Eternal is there also, he may still recover that centre of his universe which is not affected by Copernicus, and recover also the true ground of his own self-reverence. The insignificance of our midget planet among the “fifteen hundred universes” of Herschel is not so striking as the fact that a mere speck upon our midget planet was able thus to survey and co-ordinate the whole in an intelligible scheme.
Noyes then describes his experience of the night which he was “privileged to spend in the hundred-inch observatory on the Californian mountains”:
There were men counting their suns by thousands of millions; calculating the speed of constellations that had perhaps vanished centuries ago, though their light was still reaching us. They could look into those boundless spaces from their own little centre, and estimate by spectroscopic photographs the proportions of the elements in suns that were no more; and, as one looked out at those glittering points in an abyss which, however vast, could do nothing of the kind, it was impossible not to feel that out there was the emptiness, while here in the minds of those who observed it all, was the real significance. To let the gaze travel from one to the other, from those distant glittering points to the dark earnest faces of the human watchers, with the intelligence in their eyes, was like returning from a blank desert to a metropolis, from the Sahara to the centre of the world.
Though such distances that were observed from the mountaintops were imaginably vast, he stacks the wonder and value of all that space up against a simple thought:
A thought, the wonder of wonders, occupies no space at all, and is not measurable by any physical standard. We may, therefore, feel it doubly irrational to depreciate human values by comparison with mere physical vastness; and we must look, with a far deeper sense of awe, for the true ground of our humility elsewhere.
And continues in what may be my favorite passage of the entire book:
All the spiral nebulae rolled into one cannot equal the wonder of a single conscious mind. They cannot reduce to insignificance the least touch of kindness between one human being and another, or the intelligible light of the first faint smile of recognition in a child’s eyes.
Then sums up the whole chapter and, in my opinion, the whole book in two beautiful lines:
There is no more coincidence between physical and spiritual centres than between physical quantities and spiritual values. A child is of greater value and nearer to God than all the fiery vapours of all the suns.
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