Lewis Carroll and the Search for Non-Being

In which Humpty Dumpty, a true Heraclitean, asserts that there must exist an opposite to a birthday which is an un-birthday.

By Pinhas Ben-Zvi. From: The Philosopher – The Journal of the Philosophical Society of England, Volume LXXXX No. 1 (Spring 2002 Issue) (source of this article)
This text is reproduced on this site with permission from the author

Humpty Dumpty informs Alice that ‘there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents’. It is obvious to him that un-birthdays are real Beings and not mere utterances. His statement is another augmentation to one of the oldest and rudimentary philosophical controversies: whether Non-Being, like Being, exists.

Footprints of this controversy, which was initially conceived by Greek philosophy, can be tracked all over the two books of Alice. Carroll conveys, through Alice’s discourses with the various figures she meets on her way, his belief that Non-Being does indeed exist. This stand can be inferred not just from Humpty Dumpty’s statement but from other passages in Alice as well.

The beginning of the 6th Century B.C. was a defining moment in the history of mankind intellectual thought. From this time on, for a period that lasted around 150 years, some Greeks, in later years called the ‘pre-Socratics’, began to ask new questions and propound new answers about the nature of the universe. (Most of the pre-Socratics flourished not in Athens, nor even on mainland Greece, but in Asia Minor, Lower Italy and Sicily. ‘Greek’, in this context, is a cultural expression rather than a geographical one.)

The pre-Socratics were the first to formulate tenets that were based on reasonable arguments rather than on theological doctrines, and they set the foundation on which the future intellectual revolution in philosophy would be created by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

But before we follow Alice into Wonderland, we should recall the roots of the controversy, in Elea in Lower Italy, in the early 5th Century BC. There, Parmenides, asserted in a poem that he had composed, that only the ‘Is’ is, whilst to speak of the ‘Is not’ is to take a ‘. . . wholly incredible course, since you cannot recognise Not Being (for this is impossible), nor could you speak of it, for thought and Being are the same thing.’

The grammar used by Parmenides in his poetic assertion gave rise to different interpretations. Did he mean ‘is’ as a predicate, as for instance in a sentence like: ‘Parmenides is Greek’, or is it the ‘is’ of Existence ?
It seems most likely that the ‘IS’ means Existence since, later on in the poem, he characterise the ‘IS’ as a well-rounded ball, namely having material properties. Accordingly, to Parmenides, Non-Being was analogous to Non-existence.

Parmenides’ concept, embraced by his disciples (the Eleatics) is considered to be a refutation of the teachings of his predecessor, Pythagoras, who claimed that a kind of Non-Being does indeed exist. Other pre-Socratics, such as Democritus of Abdera, the most prominent of the atomist scholars, and one who wrote and taught some decades after Parmenides, also insisted, like Pythagoras, that Non-Being must in fact exist, in spite of Parmenides’ rigorous logic.

Certainly, the pre-Socratic philosophers conceived Being as (being) made of matter. Democritus for instance, and other Atomists, viewed Being as comprised of an infinite number of small particles- the word ‘atoms’ literally meaning ‘indivisible’. Atoms combine to form all the objects in the universe. They are solid, microscopic, move in space and join one another to form more complex objects. Movement of atoms is possible since imbetween each one of them there is a void.

The void is not nothing at all – it is Non-Being. A   Non-being that, however, exists. But Greek philosophy had to pass through another thinking revolution in order to postulate the existence of non material Beings; The leading figure in this revolution was Plato who conceived the tenet of the Forms (Ideai). The Forms are the ultimate real Beings, having no spatial nor material properties.

In the Sophist dialogue, Plato argues that what ‘is not’ in some sense also ‘is’, refuting Parmenides’ concept of the impossibility of the Non-Being to exist. Non-Being is just a being characterised only by its difference from ‘another’ being. He asserted that the antinomy between Being and Non-Being is false. The only real antinomy is that of a single object of consciousness and all other things from which it is distinguished.
Carroll was no stranger to Greek philosophy, which was one of the subjects he studied as part of the Classics curriculum at Christ Church. It seems that he embraced Platonic Ideational thought by asseverating the existence of un-birthdays – un-birthdays are non-material beings.
Nor are they the only ones to be found in Carroll’s realm of non-material beings. There also is the dog’s temper. The Red Queen urges Alice :

‘Try another Subtraction sum.  Take a bone from a dog: what remains?
Alice considered. ‘The bone wouldn’t remain, of course, if I took it -and the dog wouldn’t remain; it would come to bite me — and I’m sure I shouldn’t remain!’
‘Then you think nothing would remain?’ said the Red Queen.
‘I think that’s the answer.’
‘Wrong, as usual,’ said the Red Queen: ‘the dog’s temper would remain.’
‘But I don’t see how -‘
‘Why, look here!’ the Red Queen cried. ‘The dog would lose its temper, wouldn’t it?’
‘Perhaps it would,’ Alice replied cautiously.
‘Then if the dog went away, its temper would remain!’ the Queen exclaimed triumphantly.’

Carroll is over and over again seen to be fascinated by the idea that Nothingness is more than what meets the eye:

Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’
‘You mean you can’t take LESS,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’ 

The Cheshire cat’s grin too is a non-material being. The cat appears from the void and slowly vanishes back into it leaving behind him just a grin. Can a cat’s grin exist without its master? Carroll does not hesitate, he is certain that it does. For it is clear that to Carroll a grin is just a Platonic Form – a nonmaterial being which has real existence. He is not at a loss to see the phenomena of the cat’s head without its body, the possibility of which brings about a heated disputation between the king and the executioner.

The executioner’s argues that: ‘You couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut off from’, but the king is not at all convinced. To him, like to Carroll: ”anything that had a head could be beheaded.’ and the executioner’s philosophical observations are just ‘talking nonsense’.
However, there is a philosophical hurdle for un-birthdays. Birthdays and Un- birthdays are of course also expressions of time. Plato did not consider time as a form. He held that: ‘The moving images of eternity we call time, days and nights, are the parts of time’ (Timaeus). One must therefore question whether Birthdays or Un-birthdays are indeed Platonic Forms.

Humpty Dumpty is not in the least troubled by this philosophical hurdle. He remembers well that the Hatter told Alice that he ‘knew Time’ and that one cannot ‘talk about wasting it’ because Time is ‘him’. Time, says the Hatter, is someone that if you only ‘knew how to keep on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock’, for instance ‘you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked’.

To Humpty Dumpty, as well as to the Hatter, Time is a real entity. Once we become aware of this reality, Plato’s concept presents no hindrance to the existence of either birthdays or un-birthdays. As with Time, Numbers too are portrayed by Carroll as real entities. Upon entering the garden Alice comes up to three card gardeners presented by Carroll as Two, Five and Seven. To Carroll, the Christ Church mathematician, Numbers, like Time, are more than just abstract figures – they are real Beings. Carroll venerates here Pythagoras’ concept about Numbers. Aristotle records that the Pythagoreans held that Numbers were: the first things in the whole of nature’ and that ‘the elements of numbers are the elements of all things’
Numbers also play an important role in Plato’s philosophy. It is commonly construed that he inclined to interpret his theory of the Forms in terms of mathematics as in the Timaeus dialogue; Mathematical entities have real existence; they are nonmaterial entities that exist in the realm of the Forms.

Aristotle however held (in the Metaphysics) that Plato thought of the Number as an intermediate substance between the Forms and the world of appearances. The Neo-Platonics, who flourished after Aristotle, believed, contrariwise, that numbers were identified by Plato with Forms. Whatever is the right meaning that Plato intended for the numbers, it is widely agreed that the Pythagorean number theory is the direct ancestor of the Platonic theory of Forms.

Numbers afford Carroll creative freedom. The gardeners’ numbers are equivalent to their identities, so it is only natural for the Queen, coming upon the gardeners, to ask: ‘And who are these?’ Since the gardeners ‘were lying on their faces’, ‘she could not tell whether they were gardeners or soldiers, or courtiers, or three of her own children’.

Plato, as part of the cave allegory, asserts that the identity of a human being is not derived from their body but from the character of the their soul. Carroll, in pure Platonic reasoning, professed that a Number like the soul, is a nonmaterial entity that harbours the true identity of its subject. The gardeners’ bodies are visible but, alas, their numbers are out of sight, hence their identity vanished and their very existence is in doubt.

Another issue that Carroll coped with was the question raised by Greek philosophy about the true nature of the Being. Ever since the pre-Socratics, Greek philosophers have disagreed with each other about the very nature of Being. Is it one or is it many? Can it move or is it immovable?

This controversy is interwoven in the two Alice books. In order to follow Carroll’s adaptations in this respect, one must go back to the pre-Socratics’ tenets and ‘Begin at the beginning’.

At the beginning, Parmenides taught that the IS, namely Being, or sole existence, is characterised as being one and not many, as neither generated nor capable of being  extinguished, and as complete, not divisible into parts and immovable. Being is immovable- due to its being one and as such filling the whole universe with nowhere further to extend.
Alice, it seems, is aware of this concept. After drinking from the ‘DRINK ME’ bottle and growing in size to such an extent that her whole Being fills the room completely leaving no space for anything else, she observes : ‘Oh, you foolish Alice!’ she answered herself. ‘How can you learn lessons in here? Why, there’s hardly room for YOU, and no room at all for any lesson-books!’

Parmenides’ disciple, Zeno of Elea, formulated a few paradoxes to demonstrate his masters’ teachings that Being is one and motionless. The most famous of his paradoxes is Achilles and the tortoise. If, in the race, the tortoise has a start on Achilles, then Achilles can never reach the tortoise for, while Achilles traverses the distance from his starting point to that of the tortoise, the tortoise will have gone a certain distance and, while Achilles traverses this distance, the tortoise goes still further, ad infinitum. Consequently, Achilles may run indefinitely without overtaking the tortoise.

The Achilles paradox purported to force upon the listener the truism that motion is impossible and what we see as motion is an illusion. Pursuant to Zeno’s paradox Carroll wrote a lovely short piece which he called What the tortoise said to Achilles. Achilles, trying to follow the tortoise’s reasoning, is left by the end mentally near despair failing to understand Carroll’s adaptation of Zeno’s paradox which leads to infinity.

Parmenides further portrayed the IS as: ‘perfect from every direction, like the mass of a well-rounded ball, in equipoise every way from the middle’. This portrayal raised a question – if that is so then the IS extends only as far as the periphery of the ball. What exists beyond?

Parmenides’ pupil, Melissus, was aware of this seeming inconsistency and added his own refinement. He negated every form of void: to him, Being is infinite in space as well as in time. Any other possibility will be inherently contradictory since it will imply a presence of some Non-Being beyond the edge.

Another pre-Socratic who conceived a tenet about the nature of Being was Heraclitus of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, a predecessor of Parmenides, who lived about 500 B.C. Unlike Parmenides’ ‘oneness’ concept, Heraclitus taught that existence is dualistic – both ‘oneness’ and plurality. He further asserted that the nature of all things is governed by one universal principle- that of the logos, the ultimate reality, which is manifested by the interdependence of the opposites and by the process of flux (Panta Rhei) and change. His teaching is defined as the unity of the opposites.

The opposites may appear different but at the same time they are held together in unity as, for instance, health and disease, or hot and cold. They in fact define each other. As Heraclitus put it: ‘Justice, which is a good, would be unknown were it not for injustice, which is an evil’.

The existence of the opposites depends only on the difference of the motion on ‘the way upwards’ from that on ‘the way downwards’; all things, therefore, are at once identical and not identical.

Humpty Dumpty, a true Heraclitean, asserts that there must exist an opposite to a birthday which is an un-birthday. Alice enters the world where Humpty Dumpty lives through the looking glass, and, as is common in mirror worlds, every image has its opposite. The mirror images are different, right appears as left and vice versa, but at same time they are identical, since after all they are images of the same object.
Lewis Carroll rejects Parmenides’ concept of oneness and the impossibility of movement; Equally Heraclitean he embraces the view that everything is in an everlasting process of flux, change and transformation, while its essence remains the same. This is evidenced by Alice’s encounter with the Caterpillar: Who are you’, asks the Caterpillar and Alice answers:

‘I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present I know – at least I know who I was when I got up in this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then’. Alice is uncertain: ‘I can’t understand my self, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

The caterpillar, unlike Alice, is ‘not at bit’ confused and does not ‘feel queer’ at his transformation ‘into a chrysalis, some day, and then after that into a butterfly’. And why should he? As an Heraclitean thinker he knows that the process of his transformation does not change his essence and identity.

Carroll submits more evidence that sameness is not lost due to change. In one instance Alice refers to her previous height changes when she briefly suffers an identity crisis:

‘I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think; was I the same when I got up this morning?’ 

And the unavoidable question: ‘But if I am not the same, who in the world am I ?’ She ponders whether she ‘could have been changed for any one’ of the children she knew – Ada or Mabel. For a moment she believes that ‘I must be Mabel and shall have to go and live in that poky little house and ever so many lessons to learn!’ To avoid such a grim prospect, Alice, still deeply doubtful about her identity, expresses her preference to stay down in words that immediately call to mind Heraclitus’ ‘up and down’ language:

‘I’ll stay down here! It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ‘come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say ‘who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up; if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.’

After another short cycle of height transformations Alice gains self- confidence and, with indisputable Heraclitean conviction she is ‘very glad to find herself still in existence’. Alice still experienced another alarming transformation. After tasting the mushroom she found that ‘all she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck’. Luckily she was delighted to find that her ‘neck would bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent’.And indeed a Pigeon, protecting his hatched eggs, insists that Alice is a serpent, not just by her snakelike shape but also in accordance with Aristotelian Categorical syllogism, which the pigeon applies in an upside down manner:

All Serpents eat eggs
Alice eats eggs
Alice is ‘a kind of serpent’

Carroll, the author of several books on logic, is paying here tribute to Aristotle, the founder of logic as a branch of philosophy, and to Aristotelian syllogistic propositions of two premises and a conclusion like :

All Greeks are mortal
Socrates is Greek
Socrates is mortal.

The right Aristotelian syllogism, the Pigeon should have used, is of course:

Serpents eat eggs
A is a serpent
A eats eggs

One must excuse a Pigeon in distress for such a fallacy when many people, in more relaxed circumstances, reach similar false conclusions. Carroll suggests that in spite of all the changes that have transpired, Alice’s existence has not been affected.
After the great Greeks, nearly all eminent philosophers, through the ages, have taken part in the disputation about the existence and nature of the Non-Being.

This issue is still debatable and open on the philosophical scene.