The Physics of Newtonian Charity

Like many, both pro and contra Auburn, I have been caught up in the Cam Newton saga.  It is hard not to be.  Whatever else may be true of Newton, he plays football with a radiant joy and an access of talent that makes it impossible to ignore him on the field.  That fact by itself, coupled with either a fan’s elation at having him on your team, or a rivals dejection at having him on another team, makes ignoring the whole off-the-field saga nearly impossible.

But we should all stop for a moment:  what are we doing, following all this?  Are we turning the turmoil in a young man’s life and a young man’s family into entertainment?  Or are we doing something even more wicked—and yes, I use the word advisedly—namely, wishing for the downfall of a young man and his family?  I suspect few Auburn fans are doing either; the stakes are too high to treat this as entertainment, and few Auburn fans, qua Auburn fans, could be wishing for Newton’s or his family’s downfall.  Instead, Auburn fans are watching while wringing their hands.

With all this in my mind, I ran across a quotation today by philosopher Gabriel Marcel.  In his journal, on November 12th 1932, he wrote:

I was talking…yesterday about Theresa Neumann.  This morning I was thinking with exasperation of the rationalist’s attitude to such facts.  They refuse to give them a hearing.  Reflecting next upon my own exasperation, I thought it was surely to be traced to some residue of doubt in myself.  If I were absolutely sure, I should only experience a feeling of pure charity and pity for doubters.  I think this discovery is far-reaching.  It seems to me that charity is bound up with being sure…

I am not interested in what Marcel was about Neumann.  I am interested in what he says about his exasperation and, especially, in what he says about charity and surety.  What Marcel says is indeed far-reaching.  Think about both of the sides in this saga, the side of the Auburn fan and of the fan of a rival.

First the fan.

Although perhaps someone (at Auburn, say, someone in the compliance office, or someone with the NCAA) knows whether or not Newton has been, is and will remain eligible, no fan knows.  No fan is sure.  Because no fan is sure, no fan has been able really to experience a feeling of pure charity or pity for those who doubt Newton’s eligibility.  If you think I am wrong, go troll a message board or two.  No one can leave the thing alone:  every expression of doubt in Newton’s eligibility must be refuted, responded to, squashed.  Because the fans are not sure, they cannot be charitable to anyone else, especially to fans of rivals.  Any fan who tells you he is sure, but who is spending time on message boards or surfing the ‘Net is lying—at least to you and probably to himself, too.

But this cuts both ways.  Consider next rival fans, fans that claim to be sure Newton is ineligible (or, even more, are sure Auburn is guilty of something).  These fans are lying as well—and least to Auburn fan and probably to themselves, too.  If they were sure, they would feel pure charity and pity for the Auburn fans who doubt Newton is ineligible.  At the very least they would feel no exasperation.  But they do not feel that way.  They, too, are on the message boards and surfing the ‘Net.

Let’s just face it.  No fan is sure.  No reporter or blogger is sure.  Surety simply is not to be had.  And neither, unsurprisingly, is charity toward other fans.  Everyone is exasperated.  No fan is willing to give rival fans a hearing.

But if we could all manage for a moment to just confess that we are unsure, then maybe the exasperation would decrease, and everyone could breathe a bit – freely – for a while.  After all, the only ones profiting from the exasperation are ESPN and their ilk.  (And now that I think about it, maybe that is what ESPN stands for, really:  Exasperation.)

I confess.  I am unsure.  I am unsure whether Newton was, is or has been eligible.  So I cannot dispense charity or pity.  But I can try to quiet some of the exasperation.

Dr. Jolley is a philosophy professor at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th-century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He was recently profiled by The New York Times. He also likes football. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007.  His column Leisure with Dignity runs bi-monthly to monthly to whenever. Write to him at [email protected].

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