To light a candle
Last updated: 12.12.2023
Published: 11.01.2020

To light a candle

In my last post, I wrote about an ethos expressed in A Wizard of Earthsea — an ethos that I find deeply resonant, but that I also think worth some scrutiny. This post attempts some of that scrutiny.

Here is an effort to summarize some part of this ethos: turn outwards to the world — in receptivity, humility, and attention; listen to the great word the world speaks; from this flows clarity about what must be done. The listening, here, is not purely epistemic — this is not, I think, a poeticized injunction to have accurate beliefs. Nor does practical clarity flow from consulting one’s preferences about what to do in light of those beliefs. Rather, the listening is some sort of fuller communion, and the normative guidance comes from the world itself.

Whether this sort of ethos — and in particular, the meta-ethics it presumes — makes sense is a further question; but it strikes me as a resonant portrayal of something phenomenologically familiar, and which I treat, in my own life, as important.

The book also, though, has views about what such attention to the world reveals, and the type of practical stance that follows:

“To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow….”

This part snagged for me. Clearly, actions that could prompt suitably fundamental changes in the world warrant extreme caution (though knowing what good and evil will follow, especially over the long term, seems an unrealistic standard). But not all equilibria are good, and appeals to balance can fail to treat with adequate seriousness the basic badness of many features of the status quo (see the Sword of the Good for some complaints towards wizards in this vein).

The book’s emphasis on the interdependence of seemingly good things and seemingly bad things prompts similar resistance for me. From the epigraph:

“Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

The Creation of Éa

Here, I take it that the book is partly hoping to help us avoid a type of tight, shallow, and myopic relationship to the darkness of the world — one in which we say too quickly and fearfully “X is bad/evil/wrong, we should change/control/kill it,” without having actually faced it, listened to it, understood it. Indeed, the book’s central arc focuses on facing and accepting our shadows, and in doing so, becoming whole.

There is something deep and real here: where we have the strength and time, we should face, listen to, understand — perhaps even forgive — the darkness of the world. But this sort of attention does not, I think, always reveal a necessity that must be accepted, or a harmonious balance that should be maintained or returned to. Sometimes, having understood something deeply, we should still change it — and not always back to some “natural” state previously disrupted.

I expect this will seem very obvious to many. There are, after all, a great many things — disease, poverty, mental illness — that basically everyone agrees we should try to change about the world (not to mention many much more mundane changes that we are making all the time). My sense is that those sympathetic to a Le Guinian ethos will acknowledge this, but that they will nevertheless be inclined to look for ways in which these problems of humanity’s own making — the result of our hubris, greed, etc — and to avoid finding fault with nature itself. But there are empirical limits to the plausibility of this sort of move, and our best candidates for “natural states,” free from the disruptions of modern humanity’s folly, involve their own share of horrors.

(I expect that Le Guinians will also be generally more cautious about particular flavors of proposed solutions to these problems. E.g., vaccines yes, gene drives no? Talk therapy yes, psychopharmacology no?)

Indeed, I’m not sure exactly which, if any, of the explicit claims I’m making here Le Guin would disagree with. After all, she allows her wizards to use Changing and Summoning, if it “follows knowledge and serves need.” And more generally, I don’t think I’ve fully captured her book’s ethos in this sketch.

Still, it’s in discussion of particular cases that subtle differences in ethos become significant. For example, in her essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” Le Guin offers the following vision of the society she hopes for:

“a society predominantly concerned with preserving its existence; a society with a modest standard of living, conservative of natural resources, with a low constant fertility rate and a political life based upon consent; a society that has made a successful adaptation to its environment and has learned to live without destroying itself or the people next door.”

I have different (and what seem to me higher) hopes for the future of humanity than this: and I expect my disagreement with Le Guin on this point is related to different views about the ethos in question. What’s more, I think something in the vicinity of Le Guin’s ethos is quite common — another example I recently encountered is the movie Moana. So even if it plays a relatively small role in our relationship to e.g. the Covid vaccine, I think it plays a more prominent role in cultural attitudes to more “morally abstract” topics like e.g. death, wild animal suffering, and our long-term ambitions as a civilization. Disagreements about it therefore seem important to me.