Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, once allegedly claimed that, with a fixed point and a long enough lever, he could lift the world. Whether one interprets his confidence as ridiculous, haughty, or mathematically tenable, the proposal has succeeded in capturing the minds of many. In college, I had a professor constantly in search of what he termed an “Archimedic point,” that is, a place of fixity from whence a problem under consideration could be most adequately assessed.
The intuition, though simple, is profound: in an environment of seemingly constant flux, evolving principles, and passing trends, the pursuit of certainty can seem empty and nigh unto farcical. We’re in search of a stable ground that seems only as real as the cosmic fixed point for which Archimedes sought.
In an attempt to concretize what may seem to be an empty musing, perhaps an example will help. I recently saw a play entitled The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar (1910). The main plotline was something of a Chestertonian thought experiment with a tragic twist: two young actors, married six months, have begun to vex each other to no end. Still madly in love and yet fearful that his bride will leave him, the husband devises to play the most brilliant role of his career: that of his wife’s next love. Two possibilities follow: either she resists his advances, and he can rest assured of her fidelity; or she acquiesces, and, though they must separate on account of her infidelity, at least he’ll have gained from her one honest kiss.
In three scenes, the play unfolds with delightful dialogue, tortured passion, comic relief, and a crescendo of tension to the final confrontation. The wife, having ultimately welcomed the suitor’s advances, awaits him at the couple’s Budapest apartment. In her suitor’s stead, her husband returns early from his engagement out of town and nonchalantly dons the suitor’s costume in the course of an otherwise typical chat with his bride. Rather than expressing her shock, contrition, or perhaps more appropriate rage, the wife is entirely unfazed. In the face of such unnerving placidity, the husband demands an explanation, and the wife replies that she knew all along. Yet neither he nor the audience is entirely convinced, and the play ends in a beautifully staged state of suspended ambiguity.
The play purposely leaves the audience to grapple with the question of whom to believe, but the staging and character development, with clear evidence of her mendaciousness and his deceitfulness, leave the question virtually insoluble. The audience is left to sift through its memory in an attempt to overturn what may potentially serve as an Archimedic point. A decision cannot be rendered—the proverbial earth cannot be lifted—without a place of fixity: a character witness, corroborating evidence, or a dependable vantage point.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I argue that the play lacks an Archimedic point entirely. There is no objective answer to the question of the wife’s fidelity because the play has not even one truly moral character in whom the audience can place its trust. To render a judgment in such a situation is an act of faith, for it is to accept evidence of a thing unseen—namely the state of the wife’s cognition and her subsequent motivation—on the basis of someone’s testimony. To give such an assent requires that the person giving testimony is not only in contact with the reality about which he’s speaking but also that he is trustworthy. Such a character simply does not exist in The Guardsman.
In the Christian life, the things one seeks to know are of far greater import and plumb far more unsearchable depths than that of a woman’s heart. The object of the Christian faith is God Himself and His mysteries, and the knowledge thereof affords more than mere piece of mind on the Metro ride home from the theater: this knowledge affords salvation itself.
Before such a proposal, man again finds himself in search of an Archimedic point: whom can we trust to render this truth about God penetrable to our minds? As St. Thomas wrote in the Adoro Te: “Truth himself speaks truly, else there’s nothing true.” The Christian receives knowledge of the highest truth through the Person and authority of God Himself. And so, for the Christian, in a world more akin to The Guardsman than we’re willing to admit, there is hope of true fixity and rootedness in adherence to Christ: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (The cross stands while the world turns).
Image: illustration of Archimedes, Mechanic’s Magazine, London, 1824