Friday, June 02, 2006

"The Battle of the Infinites"

Our kitchen used to be shaken constantly by what my grandfather significantly called "the battle of the Infinites," especially when my Uncle Bill came home from Cambridge on his vacations, fully charged with syllogisms, which he hurled like catapaults back on the syllogisms which my grandmother had drawn from the armory of her blue book [Joseph Bellamy's True Religion]

My grandmother would say, for example: "Whatever sin is committed against an infinite being is an infinite evil. Every infinite evil deserves infinite punishment; therefore every sin of man deserves an infinite punishment."

Then Uncle Bill, on the other side, would say: "No act of a finite being can be infinite. Man is a finite being; therefore no sin of man can be infinite. No finite evil deserves infinite punishment. Man's sins are finite evils; therefore man's sins do not deserve infinite punishment." When the combatants had got thus far, they generally looked at each other in silence.

As a result, my grandmother, being earnest and prayerful, and my uncle careless and worldly, the thing generally ended in her believing that he was wrong, though she could not answer him; and in his believing that she, after all, might be right, though he could answer her; for it is noticeable, in every battle of opinion, that honest, sincere, moral earnestness has a certain advantage over mere intellectual cleverness.

Oldtown Folks, chapter 29 "My Grandmother's Blue Book" (Library of America edition, pp. 1246-47)