A last flourish on Homo Ludens, quoting the final paragraphs. I’ve got a few non-notes posts that are about ready to post, so tomorrow I’ll post one schizophrenic piece before moving on to briefly touch on Caillois’ Man, Play and Games.
Huizinga’s conclusions, on the human mind and spirit.
In treating of our theme so far we have tried to keep to a play-concept which starts from the positive and generally recognized characteristics of play. We took play in its immediate everyday sense and tried to avoid the philosophical short-circuit that would assert all human action to be play. Now, at the end of our argument, this point of view awaits us and demands to be taken into account.
“Child’s play was what he called all human opinions” , says late Greek tradition of Heraclitus. As a pendant to this lapidary saying let us quote at greater length the profound words of Plato which we introduced into our first chapter : “Though human affairs are not worthy of great seriousness it is yet necessary to be serious; happiness is another thing… I say that a man must be serious with the serious, and not the other way about. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games, and be of another mind from what they are at present. F or they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name, which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest”. Thus “men will live according to Nature since in most respects they are puppets, yet having a small part in truth” . To which Plato’s companion rejoins : “You make humanity wholly bad for us, friend, if you say that” . And Plato answers : “Forgive me. It was with my eyes on God and moved by Him that I spoke so. If you like, then, humanity is not wholly bad, but worthy of some consideration.”
The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate. Logical thinking does not go far enough. Surveying all the treasures of the mind and all the splendours of its achievements we shall still find, at the bottom of every serious judgement, something problematical left. In our heart of hearts we know that none of our pronouncements is absolutely conclusive. At that point, where our judgement begins to waver, the feeling that the world is serious after all wavers with it. Instead of the old saw : “All is vanity” , the more positive conclusion forces itself upon us that “all is play”. A cheap metaphor, no doubt, mere impotence of the mind; yet it is the wisdom Plato arrived at when he called man the plaything of the gods. In singular imagery the thought comes back again in the Book oj Proverbs, where Wisdom says : “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made… I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men.”
Whenever we are seized with vertigo at the ceaseless shuttlings and spinnings in our mind of the thought: What is play? What is serious? we shall find the fixed, unmoving point that logic denies us, once more in the sphere of ethics. Play, we began by saying, lies outside morals. In itself it is neither good nor bad. But if we have to decide whether an action to which our will impels us is a serious duty or is licit as play, our moral conscience will at once provide the touchstone. As soon as truth and justice, compassion and forgiveness have part in our resolve to act, our anxious question loses all meaning. One drop of pity is enough to lift our doing beyond intellectual distinctions. Springing as it does from a belief in justice and divine grace, conscience, which is moral awareness, will always whelm the question that eludes and deludes us to the end, in a lasting silence.