Hamlet: Let me question more in particular: what have you my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she send you to prison hither?
Guildenstern: Prison, my lord!
Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one?
Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons. Denmark being one o’ the worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
To see a decent portrayal of this scene, skip forward in the youtube video below to 53:30, or just watch the whole thing. Excellent film.
Powerful lines, as only Shakespeare could write (and yes, W.S. of Stratford upon Avon did write them). How often do we hear this today? “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It’s everywhere! Every choice has been reduced to this post-modern asphyxiation; from the muddled distinction between entertainment and excrement, artistic transcendence and pornographic filth, effective communication and garbled nonsense.
The modern version of the statement sounds like this; “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” Essentially, truth has been reduced to a personal preference, or even worse, has been subjected to the violent winds of democracy and autonomy. The statement is actually self-referentially incoherent, which is a long-winded way of saying it’s hogwash, it’s absurd! For all truth to be relative requires that at least this truth be held as absolute.
Give it some thought; if the statement is taken at face value, can we accept that absolute truth absolutely does not exist? Can we accept that absolute truth exists but not absolutely? Is this not a contradiction in terms? If nothing is either right or wrong, but thinking makes it so, what are we to think of the statement that nothing is either right or wrong? Is it right and wrong? If nothing is truly right or truly wrong, then so too that statement cannot also be correct, because it may as frequently be incorrect. Therefore in those moments, truth becomes absolute, the very thing meant to be undermined in the first place!
We are forced to amend this absurdity into seemingly-valid territory with the caveat that it is human thought which generates rightness and wrongness. Can the rightness and wrongness of all things really depend upon our own independent consideration of them? What about the statement itself? Does it not demand for itself exclusion from being subject to the dictatorship of human thought which ingrains morality into whatever is desirable?
One fascinating point that this makes though, is that morality seems dependent upon an independent mind. I would argue that logic demands morality to be founded upon an independent, personal mind which is also objective; since truth being absolute and particular morality being truthful (not merely a vestige of the evolutionary process), then the universality of that moral truth must come from a non-human mind which transcends material existence and maintains absolute sovereignty over the universe. (See: The Moral Argument for the Existence of God and also Wiki’s page.)
I’m not here trying to propound the argument for the existence of God, though I believe it quite a powerful method to offer reasonable atheists good evidence for God’s reality. My purpose for this post is to dwell primarily on that relativity which seems not relative and inescapable, if we grant the lines Shakespeare put into his character’s mouth.
Hamlet didn’t believe what he was saying. He was trying to buy time, and so was pretending to be a madman, insanely incapable of seeing right from wrong. He was hiding in use of reason to destroy all reasonable foundations. If you can find an argument of logic which invalidates logic itself, you are mistaken. You cannot build a secure house but for the security of its foundation. Shakespeare understood that. G.K. Chesterton also wrote in his great work Orthodoxy, that madness is not creativity seizing control, but logic running wild. It is not that a man may imagine himself as a cabbage, but that he may devise a sweeping logic to convince himself of it.
Friedrich Nietzsche decided that God was dead, slain as the myth of imagination by the sword of reason. And after all his efforts to divine a source for right and wrong apart from that myth, Nietzsche went insane, spending more than a decade of his life in an asylum, incapable of caring for himself unto his death. He simply could not reckon his atheism with the natural inclinations of the human heart. Not only does the heart insist upon real, objective moral truth; it insists upon each individual’s frequent inability to abide by those boundaries.
C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity expands upon this as well. There is this pesky ought which eternally stalks our souls. We do and we desire, and yet there is also this thing that we know we ought to do, which is frequently neither our preference nor our behavior.
Where Hamlet pretended to be insane by thinking all truth relative, Nietzsche actually drove himself into the chains of madness by insisting upon it, at least so far as morality is concerned. “[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is a statement which tempts every mind, because it sounds so reasonable at first glimpse, and yet a second glance shatters it as a statement defeated by itself.
René Descartes said, “Cogito ergo sum,” translating to, “I think, therefore I am.” He messed this up a little. You can be sure you exist because you think, but your existence is not contingent on your thinking. Your thinking does not bring about your existence; thinking can only reassure you of it. The same is absolutely the case with morality. Your ability to think about moral truth does not bring it into its existence. Rather, the independent, pre-existence of moral truth is evidenced in our frequent, sometimes-involuntary consideration of it.
In some ways, this post is a preparation for an upcoming post (one of these days) regarding the second movie of the Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight. That film is loaded with post-modernist nothing-is-true bilge on the one side, pitted against Batman and absolute moral truth on the other. It’s fantastic really, and the whole trilogy presents numerous depictions of conflicts in modern culture which are relevant and worth discussing. Hopefully, I’ll have a series on that soon. My chicken scratch file about those films is pretty packed, so…
Two more quick points: Hamlet was free to regard Denmark a prison if he really wanted to. There’s a difference between something being what it actually is and what we choose to feel it is. In many ways, all human experience is threaded through that distinction perhaps precariously. Yet, reality is not shaped merely by our consideration of it. We must be careful.
And secondly, Ophelia does actually go insane in Hamlet, and the debates rage on why, with the feminists and university types insisting that it’s patriarchy, gender role pressure, abuse, and so forth.
I figure if you’re getting a dozen mixed signals from someone you love (Hamlet), your father is killed, your only other consolation (Laertes, her brother) is out of country, and to top it off, you’ve had a weak psychological constitution your whole life, you’re very likely to sink into a depressed confusion.