Monday, September 15, 2014

Heard at Holy Innocents

Since the Archdiocese of New York's parish consolidation initiative spurred speculation about the closing of Holy Innocents, much has been written in praise of the parish. Least numerous and most necessary among this esteem is the appreciation for the priests who come from throughout the boroughs to say mass there in the Extraordinary Form. These are not idle priests who pop in from next door to say mass, but busy clergy who make time for the Holy Innocents community. They come with good spirit, prepared and thoughtful sermons, and full voices to offer not just a beautiful, but a consistently beautiful liturgy from week-to-week. Such praise doesn't diminish the work of the resident priests at Holy Innocents, who beside the work of their visiting brothers offer the indispensable before every EF mass, confession.

I'll pass over the uncommon grace and decorum of the altar servers to mention what is for me the most extraordinary offering of the parish, its music. From the small, dedicated schola flows week-after-week of glorious polyphony and chant. It's such a mainstay that even I began to take it for granted until, perusing the mass journal which I began a few months ago, I saw just how many pieces I'd noted in the margins.

Classical settings, renaissance polyphony, plainchant, homophony, preludes, fugues, motets, the choices are both varied and complementary, consistent and prudent. This is no small feat, finding such a wide variety of excellent music, rehearsing, and then performing it at the most appropriate mass. To praise just that is even to overlook the sung propers each week, with which I'll occasionally follow with my gradual. And they are indeed sung every week, never skipped because they're particularly florid one Sunday.

Nothing is ever skimped on or supplemented with inferior efforts. There's nothing added and there's nothing taken away, there's just the mass. Its loving, lively, traditional celebration at Holy Innocents makes it feel as it should, the most important thing in the world.

I list just a small sampling of what has been sung at Holy Innocents in the past two months. Again, this is putting aside all of the chant both ordinary and proper.

1. Vorspiel in D minor. Anton Bruckner [YouTube]
2. Missa Quarti Toni. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
3. Tantum Ergo. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
4. Ave Verum Corpus. William Byrd [YouTube]
5. Fugue in A, BWV.536. J.S. Bach [YouTube]
6. Missa de Virgine. Christobal de Morales [YouTube]
7. Panis Angelicus. Claudio Casciolini [YouTube]
8. O Crux Benedicta. Francisco Guerrero [YouTube]
9. Messa da Capella a quattro voci. Claudio Monteverdi. [YouTube]
10. Plein Jeu. Louis Marchand. [YouTube]

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Man and His Honor

If it is true that the best citizen is he who shares most fully in the honors of society, then today Americans are in quite a pickle. If it is also true that he who has no share in the government, cannot be a loyal citizen (Politics, 1268a), then we have a bona fide problem. I would talk about each in turn.

First, in a liberal democracy it is not hard to find, as Plato said we would, a variety of constitutions. There as many ways of life as there are men and it's not difficult to find someone with whom you share your esoteric ways. Yet is it satisfying or satisfying enough for a man to share those values with only a small set of people? Does he perhaps wish for some broader consensus, an accord on universal principles, however few? One the one hand external validation seems superfluous to morality. Socrates and Jesus are the most famous examples, but it's not hard to think of people who didn't get along with the majority. Surely objective morality is indifferent to the vicissitudes of popular opinion. Likewise, adhering to morality does satisfy the conscience. The good man can sleep at night and look at himself in the mirror on the morning, but how does he look at others?

It seems naive to suggest that anyone truly, deeply enjoys a plurality of opinions. Perhaps you think you are correct or you can admit your opponent is correct or you can admit you both are wrong, but it seems a fancy to think that anyone happily wallows in a muddy plurality of contradictory ideas. The variety might even be fertile, but man requires more than excitement. Chiefly, he desires to live up to a vision, an ideal of man, fulfilling his his duties and obligations and consequently receiving honors. When there is a variety of values in society and everyone is equally praised, man is left to find his own inspiration for and satisfaction in pursuing the good.

Such is possible, but not preferable in extremity. Absent a consensus on virtue, many will still adhere to the path of the good, but without recognition many will not. Moreover, without the reward of honors the virtuous man will develop resentment for his society. The man who saves his money, pays his bills, and spends within his means will learn to resent the society which excuses and rescues profligate men. The bachelor who keeps his hands off women and the husband who remains faithful will find anger in his heart for the fellow men who use women and the women who excuse them. The man who cultivates restraint will feel the fool when boors go without chastise. Whoever devotes himself to serious and genuine study bill begrudge the fame bestowed on fools and false scholars by the unstudied. And so on and on, the good man will resent his fellow citizens.

The good man in a society which does not recognize his virtue will wonder whether he is Aeneas or Don Quixote. Is he passing on the torch of virtue and tradition or is he following bygone ideals? He will question himself and his sanity, wondering whether his courage is foolishness. Denied honor he will either seek to reform society or he will retreat from it. A man with agency will turn toward reform. If he has charisma he may turn to politics, if he has artistic skill he may attempt to persuade by art, if wealth, by influence. A man with little agency in society will retreat to the sanctity of the next social circle in which he shares both duty and honor. Some men will turn to violence, against themselves or others whom they blame.

What, then, will prevent this dissolution? What will unite the plurality? Aristotle wrote (Politics, 1263b) that education would do this, but the education of Greek παιδεία is not of text books and standardized tests. It is a reconciliation of the individual to society, a stepping into society and ideals. Education then, Highet wrote (Paideia, I.xxii) is no adornment, but, "deliberately moulding human character in accordance with an ideal." To have a culture which is not merely a collection of traits or a main idea requires the nexus of its ideals in a vision of man which is fervently sought and when found, praised.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Top Ten: Advice for Young People

So I'm twenty-nine now, and while that number doesn't mean much of anything, I feel more acutely that I can look back and forward with equal clarity. Too I can say with some certainty what has worked for me and what has not, so with humility and no philosophical pretensions I'd like to share the fruits of my reflections. Subject them to your own scrutiny and common sense and shun them sooner than do anything barbarous, but I hope you will consider them. These observations are not hierarchical, alas, so you'll need to be prudent about their application, that is, which is more important when.

Finally, I've not perfected doing or avoiding what I advocate here, and that seems like a good place to start.

1. You're a Work in Progress

Plato and Aristotle argued–so much for avoiding philosophical pretensions–that the gods must be unchangeable because they are perfect. You don't tinker with perfection, right? Well, unless you've joined the Olympian ranks, you should probably be changing. Not everything, mind you, but some things. Like a shrubbery, some parts need to be trimmed and some cultivated.

Unfortunately, I can't say much more. The art of curating your character is the art of knowing what you like about yourself and what you don't. It also requires–again shrubbery-like–patience. You can't change everything at once. You should probably look at some models to discover whom you admire. Speaking of which...

2. Get to Know People

It's hard to get your head around the fact that you need to know others to know yourself. Not only will you learn by knowing them whom to emulate and whom to avoid, but you'll develop relationships which will make demands of you. They'll want things from you and also for you, and you'll have to consider who you are when deciding how to react. What will what they want you to do make you? You'll also see yourself from their perspective and be able to ask whether you like the person that they see. Do you like how you act around them, or how you make them feel?

This doesn't mean that you use people to learn about yourself, but that your fulfillment is interwoven with the lives of others.

3. Reconcile Yourself to Tradition

This is a tough one, because no one is fully progressive, contemporary, or traditional. Everyone cherry picks what they like, and that's fine up to a point. There are good traditions and bad ones, but I would make two provisions.

First, decide what traditionalism is to you. Do you actually find beauty in doing things the way your ancestors did? Is there authority in precedent? If so, those imperatives have far-reaching implications, i.e. you can't choose which traditions to follow unless you think they're immoral. Maybe tradition is for you just a love of things which happen to be out of style at the moment. Perhaps you follow tradition to pay honor to the past or your parents. In any event, what you think traditionalism is has a lot to do with how you fulfill the name.

Second, understand the traditions. Study the history of everything and don't rely on caricatures or summaries. To put it another way: know your alternatives. It's alright to like rock and roll music–sort of–but not if you don't know what you're missing in Mozart and Bach. This study also applies to your family. Study its history–and that includes getting to know its living members–and decide what it means to you. Comprehend what your actions will do to the thing called your family.

4. Honor Your Parents

Yes, there is such a thing as a collective. Liberally-minded people–libertarians, liberals, progressives, and broadly independent people–have a hard time with this one. I'm not saying the culture, ethos, zeitgeist or whatever you call it has will or authority, but it exists. You contribute to it, and most immediately you contribute to your family, and most immediately that means your actions with your parents make a special little world among you. Honor them.

I don't mean that you should let them dominate you or that you should be obsequious to their whims, but you should consider their desires for you as legitimate ones. Those desires may be illogical or wrong-headed, but ponder them with care. If they're immoral, then you have a bona fide moral dilemma between piety and some other virtue: Good luck.

Short of that, try to please them. Let them help you in ways that they like. Keep them apprised of your whereabouts and comings-and-goings. If they're not traditionalists, you're off the hook. If they are, see #3. Do well for yourself, for them. They'll worry no matter what, but be successful enough at life that they don't predominately worry. Above all, don't make them ashamed. Don't make them want to hide you, themselves, or the family. Look into the eyes of an ashamed parent and the pity you'll know will set you straight.

Their hopes for you extend ad infinitum. Of what they ask of you, you'll have to decide what's reasonable, moral, necessary, and desirable to accommodate. Not all requests are all of the above, and some will be contradictory.

5. Play Devil's Advocate

You'll need to weigh those choices, then, won't you? This means you'll need to look at all sides equally. Such requires the use of logic which, alas, requires a great deal of effort.

Unfortunately, thinking logically isn't the hardest part. What's harder than thinking clearly?

First, arguing with yourself. You need to be able to argue both sides equally, that is, be able to argue against what you think is correct. It's desirable always to argue against the best objection to your case, but you'll often need to argue your opponent's case better then they are able

Second, dealing with people who aren't logical is a distinct challenge. Disagreement usually gets somewhat heated, and it's hard for people to accept logical propositions when you've made them feel vulnerable.

Third, be humble. Remember that you can be completely logical and also completely wrong if you're missing the tiniest variable. Never lose sight of what you're trying to prove or accomplish and make sure what you're arguing both supports your premise and doesn't support anything unexpected.

Fourth, avoiding the use of reason as a weapon. Don't let the fact that you're right about something go to your head and cloud your judgment. In an abstract, academic debate that might be fine, but in life your main goal or at least a goal which you cannot ignore is getting along with people. If there is a moral imperative at stake, proceed in argument, but with caution.

Also, people like to make up their own minds, so at least give them the illusion of choice. On that note...