Matthew 7:3 asks, ‘why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’ (KJV). Good question, says the Dhammapada:

It is easy to see the fault of others, hard to see one’s own. One sifts the faults of others like chaff, but covers up one’s own, as a crafty cheater covers up a losing throw.

In one who watches out for the faults of others, always ready to blame, compulsions increase; such a one is far from extinction of compulsion.

Dhammapada 18:18-19 (Cleary 1994, 58)

We have seen in Chapter 6 the parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 26. Also very similar to Matthew 7:3-5 is Luke 6:41-2: ‘cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.’ All of these texts (including the Greek version of Thomas, P. Oxy. 1) use διαβλέψεις (‘you will see clearly’). The word used for ‘beam,’ δοκὸν, refers to the bar of a gate or door – something solid and hard to break.

I beam

The English beam originally referred more broadly to a tree or post; use of the word in reference to a living, growing tree later dropped out of the language, and now it generally refers to a heavy timber used in construction, or a steel I-beam (named after the shape of its cross section, not after the first-person pronoun). We usually picture the biblical ‘beam in the eye’ as something like a log, in contrast to the ‘mote’ in another’s eye. But there’s another kind of eye-beam.

In a development called ‘remarkable’ by the OED, the original English sense was transferred to a sunbeam (such as the ray of light visible in the distance when it breaks through heavy clouds), and thus to any beam of light. Sometimes this light beam was turned outside in, as it were, referring to a beam that comes through one’s eye from the internal rather than the external world – a metaphor for one’s power of attention. A further metaphorical shift produced a verb for shedding light upon the world by one’s expression, i.e. beaming. Emerson, in his essay ‘Friendship’, used the term ‘eye-beams’ in this social context.

How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

Emerson also brought an eyebeam into his poem on ‘The Sphinx’ (first published in 1841). C.S. Peirce was fond of quoting lines from this poem in a variety of contexts. Here’s an example from one of his manuscripts on phaneroscopy:

… although the entire consciousness at any one instant is nothing but a feeling, yet psychology can teach us nothing of the nature of feeling, nor can we gain knowledge of any feeling by introspection, the feeling being completely veiled from introspection, for the very reason that it is our immediate consciousness. Possibly this curious truth was what Emerson was trying to grasp — but if so, pretty unsuccessfully — when he wrote the lines,

The old Sphinx bit her thick lip —
      Said, “Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow,
      Of thine eye I am eyebeam.
Thou art the unanswered question;
      Couldst see thy proper eye,
Always it asketh, asketh;
      And each answer is a lie.”

But whatever he may have meant, it is plain enough that all that is immediately present to a man is what is in his mind in the present instant. His whole life is in the present. But when he asks what is the content of the present instant, his question always comes too late. The present has gone by, and what remains of it is greatly metamorphosed.

— CP 1.310 (1906)

The point here is that our immediate awareness cannot be an object of our immediate awareness. But Peirce was already quoting Emerson’s poem to make this point 40 years earlier, in his Lowell Lectures of 1866. He incorporated the eyebeam into his argument that a person is a sign, because he means something, yet is unaware of his own meaning. Like a symbol, he both denotes and connotes, i.e. has both breadth and depth (see Chapter 10):

A man denotes whatever is the object of his attention at the moment; he connotes whatever he knows or feels of this object, and is the incarnation of this form or intelligible species; his interpretant is the future memory of this cognition, his future self, or another person he addresses, or a sentence he writes, or a child he gets. In what does the identity of man consist and where is the seat of the soul? It seems to me that these questions usually receive a very narrow answer. Why, we used to read that the soul resides in a little organ of the brain no bigger than a pin’s head. Most anthropologists now more rationally say that the soul is either spread over the whole body or is all in all and all in every part. But are we shut up in a box of flesh and blood? When I communicate my thought and my sentiments to a friend with whom I am in full sympathy, so that my feelings pass into him and I am conscious of what he feels, do I not live in his brain as well as in my own—most literally? True, my animal life is not there; but my soul, my feeling, thought, attention are. If this be not so, a man is not a word, it is true, but is something much poorer. There is a miserable material and barbarian notion according to which a man cannot be in two places at once; as though he were a thing! A word may be in several places at once, six six, because its essence is spiritual; and I believe that a man is no whit inferior to the word in this respect. Each man has an identity which far transcends the mere animal;—an essence, a meaning subtile as it may be. He cannot know his own essential significance; of his eye it is eyebeam. But that he truly has this outreaching identity—such as a word has—is the true and exact expression of the fact of sympathy, fellow feeling—together with all unselfish interests,—and all that makes us feel that he has an absolute worth.


The eyebeam also recurs in Peirce’s later works on logic, in connection with the ineffability of immediate consciousness and the inaccuracy of introspection:

… we shall have to assume that, practically speaking, there is a flow of ideas through the mind, that is, of objects, of which we have the barest glimpse while they are with us, but which are reported by memory after they have been associated together and considerably transformed; and this report, though not very accurate, is substantially acceptable as correct.

… The point to remember is, that whatever we say of ideas as they are in consciousness is said of something unknowable in its immediacy. The only thought that is really present to us is a thought we can neither think about nor talk about. “Of thine eye I am eyebeam,” says the Sphinx. We have no reason to deny the dicta of introspection; but we have to remember that they are all results of association, are all theoretical, bits of instinctive psychology. We accept them, but not as literally true; only as expressive of the impression which has naturally been made upon our understandings.

CP 7.424-5, c.1893

When we do think or talk about thoughts, we are forced to use symbols, perhaps recognizing that symbols grow by being “repurposed,” but blissfully unaware of the repurposing we are doing at the very moment when we take them to simply mean what they mean. And likewise, Peirce observes that logicians, who profess to be experts on forms and methods of reasoning, have for ages neglected the most important and commonly used forms of it.

But it should surprise nobody that the most characteristic form of demonstrative reasoning of those ages is left unnoticed in their logical treatises. The best of such works, at all epochs, though they reflect in some measure contemporary modes of thought, have always been considerably behind their times. For the methods of thinking that are living activities in men are not objects of reflective consciousness. They baffle the student, because they are a part of himself.

“Of thine eye I am eye-beam,”

says Emerson’s sphynx. The methods of thinking men consciously admire are different from, and often, in some respects, inferior to those they actually employ.…

One has to confess that writers of logic-books have been, themselves, with rare exceptions, but shambling reasoners. How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? I fear it has to be said of philosophers at large, both small and great, that their reasoning is so loose and fallacious, that the like in mathematics, in political economy, or in physical science, would be received in derision or simple scorn.

— CP 3.404-5 (1892)

This brings us round again to the eyebeams of the Gospels, Peirce applying the ethical message to his fellow philosophers. We are all attending to all sorts of objects, but never to our own attention. We are all signs, but we never know what we mean at the moment of meaning.

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