Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Into the pool


Let's start this morning with a bit of late-Victorian soft porn, Hylas and the Nymphs, painted in 1896 by the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse. (Click to enlarge.) Hylas is one of the Argonauts, sailing with Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece. While the ship is stopped at an island, he goes in search of fresh water. As he stoops to fill his jug at a woodland spring he encounters a bevy of naiads, who fall madly in love with the heartbreakingly handsome youth. They invite him into the pool -- and he is never heard from again.

Did he find with those immortal beauties every young man's idea of bliss? Or, mortal that he was, did his lungs fill with water and...? I'll come back to the question. But first, it is Hylas in another appearance that I want to consider: as participant in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, written in 1713 by George Berkeley, Irish philosopher, later Bishop of Cloyne.

Berkeley, as every philosophy student learns, was an arch antimaterialist. The material world out there is an illusion. The only reality is in our minds. It is an old idea, going back to Plato at least. And, it must be admitted, the question of how ideas of things are related to a presumed external reality is central to philosophy. Berkeley's solution is simple: deny the existence of a physical world out there. Matter does not exist.

He had a not-so-hidden agenda. By denying materialism, he meant to clear the way for belief in God and the immortality of the soul.

In the dialogues, Philonous takes Berkeley's role; his name means "lover of mind." Hylas begins the exchange as a materialist, convinced that ideas are reflections of a knowable external reality; his name means "wood" in ancient Greek, or more simply "matter." You can guess who wins the debate.

You will also remember Samuel Johnson's reaction to Boswell's report of Berkeley's antimaterialism. He kicked his foot forcibly against a stone. "I refute it thus!" said the inimitable Johnson. Today's naturalists are more impressed by Johnson's sore toe than by Philonous' long-winded philosophizing. We are the heirs of Hylas, the erstwhile materialist, confident that consensus scientific knowledge of the world reflects in some meaningful way a reality that exists independently of ourselves. We are content to let Berkeley's God and immortal souls remain phantoms of Berkeley's mind.

Which brings us back to the other Hylas, the one in the painting. He is not a philosopher. Merely mortal. Attracted to the importunings of the comely spirits of the pool, ready to plunge or be pulled into the world of nature, hoping perhaps to find there some measure of material bliss, fated for oblivion.