Why was Christ put to death? Because Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, had told the Sanhedrin, “Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people.” Literally, Caiaphas was inviting the Pharisees to reason through—logizesthe is the Greek word—to calculate, or to assess, the benefit of a rational decision. But how could they assess it if they did not have all the facts, if they, by his own admission, knew next to nothing compared with what they needed to know in order to assess it? One never has all the facts. How in hell could they have all the facts if St. Peter’s in Rome had not been built, Sienkiewicz had not written the best-selling Quo Vadis, and the Gideon Bible had not made it into the night table of every motel room west of Detroit?
You are not thinking rationally. If Caiaphas were a Hollywood villain, a good hour into the film with the police closing in on him, he could not get a more vivid line. Is the gambler ever that villain? Does he ever labor under the delusion that he knows something, and that thinking rationally on the basis of what one knows is the solution to the Pharisee’s dilemma? No, like John, who tells the story in the Gospel, if the gambler knows anything at all, it is that when approached rationally the dilemma has no solution.
These men of little faith, oligopistoi, they tell him he lives by numbers. But surely it is the life of Caiaphas, and of his fellow priests of reason, that is life by numbers. Painting by numbers, embroidery by numbers, education by numbers, kissing by numbers, killing by numbers, praying by numbers—why am I so fond of my old pair of corduroy trousers, O sage Caiaphas? “Because of Cause 32,” answers the high priest, “in The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud.” And why do grown men blink like schoolboys whenever they look at you? “On account of Cause 24 in The Universal Reader of Charles Darwin.” And why does my left knee so vex me once the weather takes a turn for the worse? “Refer to Cause 11 in The Housewife’s Handbook of Vexatious Limbs. That’ll be twenty-two dollars and fifty cents—$20 if it’s cash.”
What of love? If, like all degenerative diseases, the pandemic scotoma of reason is evolutionary, too sluggish for a neat break with anterior models of the world, it must tolerate love. In the marginalia of intellectual extremes—where, brandishing a scalpel like a veterinary surgeon out of a provincial town’s police chronicle, analysis clad only in a waterproof and a pair of galoshes is apprehended by burly burghers in the act of slashing at the image of the Mother and Child—one can easily detect the homicidal hostility that underlies the placid bonhomie of the cultural mainstream. Yet, deep down, is the mainstream any less turbid?
“Hydrogen, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane were subjected to the sun’s ultraviolet rays . . . ” All right, I’m listening, says the gambler. “Their interaction over unlimited time produced organic molecules . . . ” And? Go on, then! “Over time, limited by nothing save time itself, these molecules evolved . . . ” He doubles over with laughter. Come four in the morning, come the three final spins, who better than he knows the value of time limited by nothing save time itself? Why, if you have unlimited time, and the supervisor’s dozed off and the dealers aren’t being changed on you every half-hour, of course you can break the bank at Monte Carlo!
Without these, you need luck. Not nobody’s and everybody’s kind of luck—a Darwinist’s luck, the luck of the intellectual mainstream, the fairy kind that works over diachronic aeons and manages to save the rationalist’s face in time for the Victorian tale of the blind watchmaker to wind down—but such individual chance as is only known to the man who takes it with his eyes open. A man like Darwin, for instance, who is honest enough to see that time without beginning or end is not even a particularly novel way of describing the indescribable. How is the mass man to understand this? He is but a grain of mankind’s luxury lumpfish caviar in a vacuum jar. He inhabits a world of speculation, where small risks are the fodder of large numbers.
“The whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” Darwin wrote in a private letter, confounding the mass man, who is a confirmed Darwinist in much the same way he is a believing Christian, a Marxist and a Freudian, a fan of Man United and a stockholder in General Motors. Nevertheless,
I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God. But whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.
Ah, shouts the mass man in a silvery voice from his glass jar of lumpfish caviar, but we have. We have loosened the suffocating grip of Victorian morality which kept a progressive man of science from thinking the matter through to our own favorite conclusion. Because nowadays we can think anything we want, and the really good news is that we can all think it together. Chance is probability, and that is precisely how we think this grand and wondrous universe of ours has arisen. Carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane . . .