Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sub Corde

Inset of Mercury exhorting Aeneas
Tiepolo, 1757
Of all the wisdom in antiquity which we find in science and philosophy, of all the treatises and speeches, sometimes the most potent lies in the simplest expressions. Latin in particular, with its literal and visceral expressions, seems to cut to the heart of meanings which are in English buried in metaphor and, especially today, analysis. A recent occasion brought reminiscence of Vergil.

As every man in every dispute, I sat certain of my rightness. On the throne of moral superiority–it is a crown hard won and easily ceded–I was poised to let lose a torrent of self-righteous complaint. Why should I not? One reason is that while man's desire for justice may have deep roots in indignation, a sense of righteous reaction to the undeserved has probably toppled more friendships than empires. How often, even when there is indeed injustice, is our displeasure at being aggrieved stronger than any sense of inequity? Any honest man would admit his pride is more easily wounded than his sense of social justice, else he would be up in arms all the time and not just most of it. In fact Aristotle writes that the worst evils–of injustice and folly–are the least felt since their presence causes no pain. Worse than the self-deception, though, is how quickly indignation gives way to anger, if there was any honest indignation in the first place.

Most among the emotions does anger affect man's judgment. I can feel its creeping presence like a shadow shading over my mind as my control recedes. There is to the experience of growing enraged truly a sense of encroaching otherness, as if one is being forced from one's mind. Greek and Latin have ἔκφρων, exanima, and insania, which all convey the sense of being out of oneself, out of one's wits or out of one's mind as we sometimes in English say. Yet the advancing darkness of anger is never new and alone, it seems, but bringing with it every other slight you have ever experienced, as if anger itself has a memory. Too we once had commonly in English the phrase cherish wrath, a reminder like μῆνιν and memorem iram that we cultivate our anger lest it grow soft. We don't really want to forget.

Yet when we put down our desire, the feeling is equally physical. On this one occasion of my frequent displeasure I managed silence. Something in the eyes and voice of my interlocutor brought upon me an instantaneous wave of pity and with a gulp I kept an uncharacteristic silence over my tongue. The immediate effect was a feeling deep in my chest and I thought of my Vergil: curam sub corde premebat. In Book IV of the Aeneid, Aeneas suppresses his desire to stay with Dido and pushes his care under his heart. It's so literal and clear, so Latin, and Roman. There is no obfuscating explanation or psychologizing. It is not a metaphor for overcoming one's emotion but a description of what it feels like to do it. We often think ourselves superior to the ancients, but it is no small bit of wisdom to call a thing what it is.

Of course in subsequent days I fell back to mortal stature, indulging my inclinations as do we all when uninhibited. When I do so indulge, though, there is a faint sense of defeat and a reminder of how heroic it felt to swallow my pride, however miniature was my success. We are not encouraged today to look at the ancient heroes as role models. The literature in which they reside is to be admired and their world studied and remembered, of course. Praised even. Too their deeds should, scholars admit, provoke discussions and debate, but I do not recall anyone ever suggesting their lessons should inspire action. Maybe we are reluctant to apply the lessons of their grand stories to our small lives, or perhaps heroes wait to be invoked and emulated until dark times.

Vergil's contemporary in his troubled time, Titus Livy said the purpose of his history was to furnish examples for imitation and avoidance. He added that he hoped to show
by what kind of men, and by what sort of conduct, in peace and war, the empire has been both acquired and extended: then, as discipline gradually declined, let him follow in his thoughts the structure of ancient morals, at first, as it were, leaning aside, then sinking farther and farther, then beginning to fall precipitate, until he arrives at the present times, when our vices have attained to such a height of enormity, that we can no longer endure either the burden of them, or the sharpness of the necessary remedies.
Perhaps in an age when the word self is appended with approbation to every activity, discipline, and occasion, and when the marketplace and government seem set to satisfy every whim, Aeneas of all the heroes should be welcome.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Inclinations, Judgment, and Clemency

La Clemenza di Tito
It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Ignoring fact that the statement is attributed to comedians and hails from the 20th century–which excelled beyond most in heartfelt mendacity–and putting aside the rarity of thigh-slapping hilarity during Antigone or the Oresteia, I think there is a grain of truth in the observation. I would, however, reformulate it as information plus time equals prudence. Or something like that. I distrust maxims and aphorisms, seeming as they do to dress up arguments as facts. In fact I frown on much by inclination, and wondering why is really my point. Ought we judge, how much, and how best manage judgment for those who cannot resist?

Some people are born with a favorable disposition, liberally bestowing their approbation to various things and parties and ideas. This is a socially useful trait and people so disposed are well-liked and called agreeable. They always enjoy the movie, are delectated by dinner, and think the affairs in the nation are generally going well. Now it goes without saying that my own inclination toward such people is a presumption of imbecility, and while I mean imbecile in the modern sense of foolish or simply stupid, Latin's sense of imbecillus as fragile or feeble is not off the mark, for is not there something fragile about the mind which cannot tell good from bad? There's not much of a bright side to the Latin adjective, but to me there is something beautiful about innocence–literally not knowing, in-nocens.

On one hand, yes, innocence means a lack of knowledge without which one cannot determine the truth of a thing. On the other hand, though, it implies an ignorance of the bad, a longing for the Edenic ignorance of evil and the eternal reconciliation with the good, God. Yet that reconciliation is outside time, and our temporal concerns require judgment so that we can be and do good.

Everyone grows apprehensive about judging others, though, for no one wants himself judged. By what better method, though, is one inspired to improve oneself than by the thought of being judged? It is perhaps not necessary–it is certainly not desirable–constantly to fear the judgment of others, but the concept of being judged from without seems a necessary, or useful, part of learning to judge oneself, that is, judge from within. Moreover it seems a fundamental part of discerning, of separating, one thing from another, one person from another, oneself from another.

The process of judgment, though, can prove as hazardous as ignorance or indifference, especially if we do not distinguish deliberation from other types of investigation, such as science, conjecture, and opinion. Even still, the process of judgment is far from simple. It requires a certain ignorance, not in the sense of lacking but in the sense of ignoring, ignoring what is wrong, ignoring what is true but irrelevant, ignoring what is true and relevant but insignificant, and finally what is possible but improbable. Listing only these difficulties is to put aside the difficulty of judging the reliability of the evidence on which one does base judgment.

This skill of deliberation, or as Aristotle says correctness of thinking (Ethics, 1142a) does not exist for us in a vacuum, either, but rather among our preconceptions and inclinations. One's subjective sense of life, subject to the vicissitudes of his experiences, limitations of his scientific knowledge, prior judgments, and reason, all influence a verdict. What do these variables tell us about how we should judge?

My own experience tells me that most things are junk and as such should be judged unsparingly. Junk proliferates with the increase of mechanical facility. Junk cannot be fixed or upgraded. Junk is wasteful. A world of junk–of styrofoam cups, tawdry clothing, ridiculous movies, and slight music–is inclement toward man. Being disposable, things should be judged harshly.

People, however, are not disposable. Neither are they wastes, nor are they impossible to emend. Only in an age of tremendous medical skill and a lack of political strife can we even be tempted to say, seeing the billions of the world, that it is easy to make bring about a life. If we take then as a principle that we wish to do no harm, the motto of the Gentleman, then how shall we judge? I should like to be stubbornly literal about the word judge, Latin's iudex literally meaning to say the law. By literal I mean that we should be liberal about proclaiming standards, but clement in judgment of failure.

Clement is of course the key word in this statement. First, we must distinguish it from agreeableness, a benign disposition, forgiveness, encouragement, support, sympathy, tolerance. Clemency is not identical to:
  • following another's lead (agreeableness)
  • being kindly (benign)
  • granting pardon (forgiveness)
  • approval (encouragement)
  • providing succor (support)
  • intellectual agreement (empathy)
  • emotional agreement (sympathy)
  • or permission (tolerance)
Clemency takes all variables into consideration and renders a prudent judgment and appropriate response. As such, clemency requires both practical wisdom, that is, the province of choosing action, and also right judgment, the "discrimination of the equitable." (Ethics, 1143a). Discrimination has been debased in our society, but it is a necessary tool, literally the discernment between things, the ability to observe where one thing ends and another begins. It is the opposite of equateequivocate and, by no small irony, confuse.

Confusion constantly threatens clemency, whether it is confusion between virtues and vices, or among virtues and vices. How often do we use forgive, support, sympathy, tolerate, and help, all more or less interchangeably? Clemency most among the virtues is also threatened by the elimination of virtues and vices. For one cannot practice clemency if there are no vices to forgive, nor can one practice clemency if there are no virtues which make a man good and therefore worthy to judge. Clemency along with generosity, fortitude, and magnanimity are the most difficult and last virtues to cultivate. They require a lifetime of practice and they are those virtues which distinguish a good man from a Gentleman.

Monday, July 14, 2014


There's a fine line between perspicacity and wisdom and I'm not sure on which side of the divide falls George Bernard Shaw's statement that, “A man's interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself."Taken by itself the statement seems more clever aphorism than philosophy, a cheap sophism to indulge the narcissistic. Yet taken with another quote from the very same man–that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."–there appears a wisdom to the thinking. I'll charitably assume so, at any rate.

The wisdom seems to me the realization that a great deal of man's struggle is with the fact that the world is not he. We rejoice in individuality, but we long for reconciliation. It is man's curse that the otherness of the world so essential for even recognizing his own being is simultaneously a source of antagonism. Moreover, the otherness from which we are separated is large, intractable, and worse than incomprehensible, parts of it are inscrutable. The mysterious world and the other wills in it are not wholly mysterious and the ensuing possibility for success is a source of both dynamism and despair. Yet what does success look like? Happiness and virtue, but the search for happiness conceals its origin in the ontological quandary, a need to reconcile with a multifariously different and often hostile otherness. To find this reconciliation he has three choices: remaking, rejecting, or redeeming.

Remaking is perhaps the most common path. Man can either attempt to remake the world or himself. Some men are concerned with the matter of the world and attempt to reconfigure the atoms of the world for man's good. These are the scientists and engineers who've been elevated to the preeminent ranks of society in the last two hundred years. Other men, the architects, build structures to dominate the land, and their structures reform the face of the earth. Shaw was right that without such dissatisfaction man would enjoy precious little material progress. Yet most people are incapable of such labors and passing aside their inability to remake the physical world, they attempt to remake men. There is no way persuasively to fake the ability to build bridges and make medicine, but promises of justice, liberty, and unity are too easily sold. Such are of course the goals of political liberalism and progressivism, but despite what they support on ballots, most people don't have a political bent to their actions. Instead we attempt to remake people we know, nudging them slowly but surely until they resemble us. This is usually subconscious, and frighteningly so, but do we reward those who do what we want and punish those who differ? Do we not by our actions encourage others to do the same, and are we not drawn to follow? We remake to reconcile.

Not ourselves, usually. Sometimes with great reluctance, though, we can nudge ourselves into habits more conducive to prosperity. The transformation can of course be major or minor, and stem from pragmatism or principle, but we can change with effort.

Rejecting the world is a period through which everyone passes, although it's possible to ground rejection in principled nihilism. It's no small coincidence that rejection tends to spur rejection. When we're spurned by lovers, we reject love. When we're spurned by bosses, we reject business and economics. When the political reigns are held by the opposition, we say that the system is broken. Most people come to terms with basic facts of life–you need a job, some people won't like you, not all problems can be fixed–but the paranoid reject the world as a malignant otherness.

Redemption is the release of man from the lonely quandary of being a self among others. It is instead of a change, a reunification. As we have observed this reconciliation is sought politically, socially, scientifically, and psychologically, but these means are transient and imperfect. The unification is sought aesthetically too, and perhaps this experience surpasses the others. For for what seems to unify all more than the pervading strains of music? How easy it is to imagine life, whether walking about town or pondering the cosmos, set to music. Too the aesthetic experience invites a coming together of personal impressions–those of artist and audience–with aesthetic principle. Still the experience of art is temporary and cannot fully transcend the isolation of otherness.

The only full redemption has already been paid for man, though, by the suffering of Christ, a passion which redeems man both on earth and in eternity. Man is unified to man each by their unity with Christ, and then man is unified with creator in eternal contemplation.

In his two perfect prayers, St. Thomas employs terms of redemption to describe the freedom and unification in the Eucharist. The Body is healing, enrichment, clothing, and cleaning; freedom from necessity. It is also the extinction of desires and lusts, the quieting of impulses; freedom from one's own and all wills but the divine. Finally it is a happy "consummation" and an "ineffable banquet," a fulfilling to the utmost. We are fortunate that the English translation retains the beautiful sense of consummation here: the bringing to perfect and thus ultimate completion.

It's unlikely that we can choose just one path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming. We need to make a safe place for ourselves in the world that is somewhat inhospitable. Likewise we do need if not to remake others, to restrain evil, which requires a polity of virtuous men. We need to remake ourselves, to extirpate vices, yes, but also to love, for all forms of love require a change, whether to virtue or selflessness. All loves are likewise a form of unity, as hatred and war of destruction. This polar model has been cluttered for us by cheap pop references to love and war, but the classical (and especially Epicurean) conception of love and war, Venus and Mars, as natural forces is fundamental. Lastly it is evident that the bad must be rejected.

Our goal ought not to be excluding a given path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming, but learning prudently to perceive and cultivate by kind, expecting, as Aristotle encouraged, no more or less than what each can offer. Much heartache and suffering could be avoided by not expecting perfect reconciliation now and forever through each path alone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Courage

Danger is an escapable part of life. We fear confronting it, but we like the thought of doing so. We adore our heroes, real and fictional, who confront danger and we say that they possess courage. Two recent articles on the dangers of farm life in Modern Farmer and on the dangers of sanitation work in City Journal. They both spout the boilerplate that such work should be made safer,
but more noteworthy they suggest that somehow we should "talk about" and recognize the danger, as if courage is its natural companion. Is this so? We need to recognize danger so we can recognize courage, but to recognize courage we also need to know the man.

N.B. Some of the following is paraphrase or summary of Aristotle and some my own explanation, extension, expansion, and examples. The full text of the Ethics is here for your examination in English and here in Greek.

Aristotle's discussion of the virtue Courage is one of his most nuanced in the Nichomachean Ethics and anywhere. The Philosopher writes:
is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear... and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. (1116a)
Foremost then, the brave man has to experience fear, the pain due to a mental picture of a an approaching destructive or painful evil or danger which may harm us. Likewise he must have sufficient character as to face the danger with the hope that he will succeed at his noble end, for example either in preserving his life or honor. Aristotle continues:
The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave. (1115a)
What a great number of conditions on which Aristotle predicates the first of virtues. Whom do we not call brave, then? One can fail to be brave, 1) by being unaware of danger, ignorance, 2) by giving into fear and fleeing the danger, cowardice, 3) by not fearing that which a man ought to fear (such as disgrace) out of a) recklessness (rashly meeting the danger), b) overconfidence (arrogantly meeting the danger), c) imprudence (fearing the wrong danger), or d) shameless indifference to the good, or 4) by fearing at the wrong time, such as fretting before one is in veritable danger or fearing only after it is too late to act.

Aristotle also presents us with situations in which a man may seem brave, but is not so at all or not in the purest sense.

First, Aristotle discusses those who fight by compulsion, such as citizen soldiers. The may be brave in facing danger and avoiding shame, but they may also do so out of fear of penalty, rather than out of nobility.

Second, consider also a professional with a risky job, even a professional soldier. These people have special knowledge and/or tools to deal with specific dangers, and their experience has given them special confidence with which to approach the challenge. These people are very good at their jobs, for the strongest not the bravest men fight the best, but their bravery is not the purest form.

Third, those who act from passion have something akin to courage, but not what we have called true or pure courage, for they act not from honor or nobility, but from strength of feeling. Passion may aid the noble man, but he does not act driven by feeling but from nobility.

Fourth, the confident (εὐέλπιδες) man who faces danger which he has conquered before may not exhibit pure bravery, if previous success has made him feel unconquerable. Facing risk with the expectation of success is not the same facing a danger which you think may kill you. Likewise facing a sudden danger with courage exhibits more bravery than reacting with preparation, for the former results not from preparation or expectation but a state of character.

Finally, we must say that it is the greatest of losses which is the ultimate concern of the brave man: death. As such, the courage of the noble and happy man is intensified because he at the risk of losing or in preservation of his good and finite life, risks death.

Where does this leave our discussion of people who face danger, such as farmers, police officers, sanitation workers, fire fighters, and soldiers? It would seem to leave us with an inability to call any of these entire groups brave. For the character of the individual and how he approaches danger, not the danger itself, constitutes courage.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Self-Knowledge Through Toothpaste

Some people get neater as they age, others sloppier. I was but a moderately organized youth, by my standards today, and I think my fastidiousness began as a reaction to the collegiate miasma in which I found myself. Yet one act of slobbery has always irked me: spilling toothpaste on the sink. "How does this happen?" I would wonder. Do they put too much on the brush or perhaps they miss the brush entirely? Does it ooze out of their mouths?

Furiously I would scrub away, sink after sink, year after year, finding more and more evidence of man's depravity. Gels and pastes, Colgate and Crest, spilled everywhere. Everywhere I would find the blight, besides its omnipresence at home. I never expected what has transpired this week.

On Saturday I spied some on the recently cleaned sink. Then Sunday on the floor, and then Monday on the rug. Tuesday outside the bathroom where only I had wandered. Then today on my bathrobe. I could no longer deny the truth that through all these years the toothpaste fiend was I!

Not all habits are so easy to spy, alas, but aging is a process of self-revelation. New circumstances and types of relationships teach you about yourself. You realize the types of things which bother and delight you, of course, but less obviously you see patterns in your emotions. Am I always grumpy after doing or receiving favors? Do I not like to hear of a certain person's success, complaints, or recreation? Do I get annoyed when people invite me to events, and when they don't? I really need a lot of praise, don't I? Gee I brought that up again today?

These are the sorts of questions we usually see psychiatrists ask on television and in the movies, but they really do seem of genuine self-inquiry. It's curious to me why such knowledge is so difficult to acquire.  It cannot be forcefully recognized or brought about by will or fiat, but has to evolve in the mind. It cannot be studied, but only seen. How strange and terrifying a fate that man might not know himself. If he simply could or could not, such would be easy to accept. But to possess the potential and be unable to cultivate it with any precision is surely a gift of curse. Indeed nothing may be so terrifying as the sight of someone who cannot recognize something about himself.

Finally, one wonders to what such recognition truly owes. Maturity, intellectual virtue, exertion, peace of mind, restlessness, revelation? Does one need philosophy to know oneself? Some examine themselves reflexively, others reluctantly. Some avoid it all together no matter the consequences. They're not all pleasant sights, these observations, and many are outright troubling, but one feels stronger and fuller in the examination. You look back at a former self which seems to have survived despite itself. He looks innocent and childlike. As its alternative is terrifying, it too is exciting and energizing to learn things great and small about yourself which, while not quite so literally as toothpaste, are right under your nose.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Joy of Magnanimity

The Spirit of Chivalry
One of the wellsprings of man's genius is his inclination to maximize the good for himself while minimizing the bad. In industry we seek efficiency, using all resources to maximum benefit, and in medicine we seek to isolate desirable effects from those which harm us. Today, though, spurred by the prevalence and success of this thinking in economics and science, we try to avoid the undesirable in all walks of life. We haggle, finagle, reschedule, reorder, and litigate to get as much of what we want as we can, and avoid as much of what we dislike. So has disappeared the virtue of magnanimity, which bids us act not from a spirit of self-interest, for gain is not always the ultimate arbiter of desideratum, but out of beneficence which comes from great strength.

Literally great-souledness, magnanimity contains three characteristics: generosity, clemency, and fortitude. If we can presume that virtue is a prerequisite for magnanimity I would like to focus on these three features.

First, the magnanimous man is generous. Not because he is good but because he is bountifully good, he is able to be liberal in his giving. Now by giving I don't mean from fortunes, necessarily, but rather I mean good deeds. The magnanimous man gives his time, patience, and energies to those who need them. He gives from all of his virtues because he has cultivated them to a great bounty and can afford to share them. He gives from joy and bounty and does not cultivate debts. The magnanimous man is able to give from himself without regard for his needs because he has met his needs; to his own satisfaction, we must add, for magnanimity requires besides virtue, self-knowledge.

Second, the magnanimous man is forgiving. He is able to bear slights and inequities because he has pity for those who are facing the struggles which he has already mastered or which he realizes he has avoided by prudence or fortune. Magnanimity enables man to engage with and support those who wander from the path of virtue. He is lenient with punishment and is able to forego his deserved justice, equity, or remuneration.

Finally, magnanimity consists of fortitude. The character of the magnanimous man is imperturbable and his energies indefatigable. Of course these superlatives are not absolute, but rather I mean that the magnanimous man has cultivated his strength to a degree which surpasses the necessities of his life. He is able to forego pleasantness and take up difficulty because he is strong.

As The Philosopher said, magnanimity can magnify other virtues and requires them, but great-souledness seems to result after one becomes aware of the successful practicing of the virtues. The magnanimous man appears to act out of pure magnanimity for he endures the bad not because of piety, tolerance, or obedience, but because he is able to, and does the good not out of virtue, but because he is able. He converts with apparent ease his strength into benefaction.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrifice

Written and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1986.

In some way the power of a great work of the cinema becomes part of you. Amadeus introduces you to an unforgettable character, 2001 immerses you in the vastitude of time and space, and Lawrence of Arabia sweeps you up in the sprawl of history. A simple movie like Mr. Hulot's Holiday can etch a tiny beach into your memory and a silly romp like Raiders of the Lost Ark can kindle your inner child. A satire or documentary can change the way you think, and a drama how you feel. I've never known, until The Sacrifice, a movie to change what you see. I don't mean see, though, as a metonymy for think (cogitate) or prehend (grasp) or discern (separate) but I mean literally to observe, to watch and keep. Tarkovsky's final movie, dedicated from the dying director to his son, is not about the world of calculation, but of the perfect, total sacrifice of love, and such love is not predicated on any recognition but the observation (seeing and keeping) that God is love, and the fullest love is the fullest sacrifice.

Yet modern man is closed to this sacrifice, and thus God and love, because he limits himself to the empirical, the perceptible, and the material. In faith, though, hope remains. The opening shot sets the stage of man's disillusion and promise: Alexander walks home from the shore with his son and friend. With his son he has planted a tree, and told his "Little Man" the story of a monk who on faith climbed a summit each day to water a tree which did one day blossom. To his friend Alexander confesses his feeling that he has waited his whole life for a reality which has not arrived. It's a rhapsodic unfurling of the story with Alexander walking along, Little Man loosely in tow playing with his lasso, and Otto his part-time postman friend cycling to and fro around them. When Otto dismounts, the men reflect in some frank philosophical speculation about demiurges, Nietzsche's dwarf, and the eternal return. This unbroken scene, over nine minutes, is also a microcosm of Alexander's life–ambling, interested, pale–and as such the cute prank which Little Man plays on Otto is fraught with portent: while the men talk the boy lassos the bicycle to a nearby tree, and after Otto starts to cycle away the bike halts and Otto goes flying off. A not so subtle suggestion: have we overlooked something in our search for happiness?

Alexander of course loves his Little Man and speaks volumes to the boy, himself mute after a recent surgery, about life and meaning. The father carries the son on his shoulders, walks with him, and holds him with tender arms. In the second scene, pictured on the poster above, Little Man sits on his father's lap and as a breeze blows through their shady grove Alexander tells his son how they came to find the nearby house in which Little Man was born: he saw it and fell in love. No calculation or benefit-analysis, just a sense of rightness. His son wanders off a bit, crawling around the roots of trees as Alexander wanders onto less happy topics, like the technical progress which has brought both comfort and standardization, but not satisfaction or spiritual health. Science, Alexander says, is in the service of evil, since sin that which is unnecessary. This would seem but ennui and speculation were it not for the beautiful sight of father and son under the breezy trees which persuades us that anything else is indeed unnecessary. He goes on and on until at last in disgust he says like Hamlet to Polonius, "Words, words, words." Mere words are no substitute for doing something significant.

In his preoccupation Alexander has lost track of his son, who sneaks up on him. Crashing into his father, the boy bloodies his nose and when Alexander sees what has happened, he collapses, just barely wheezing out, "Dear God what's wrong with me?" After he falls the camera cuts to a dream, black and white, of a destroyed urban square. No people, just gurgling water, and as the shot fades out we see the edge of what looks to be a spatter of blood. Whose?

The camera cuts back to Alexander thumbing through his birthday present, a book of prints depicting Christ. As we take in together with Alexander how the colorful paintings and images of Christ contrast the dream, or the reality, Alexander says, "Fantastic. What refinement." These are such choice words that we wonder, even of Tarkovsky and even in this masterpiece, whether they're wholly deliberate. A fantasia is not simply something which you see, but from Greek's φανταζω is something which appears to you as if presented to your consciousness, less cognitively than directly. Likewise in refined we find per-ficio, that is, finished, perfected.

Alexander goes on to say that the images are childlike yet meaningful and knowing yet virginal. How do these pictures seem to know and yet remain uncorrupted by the world? Alexander concludes that it's all been lost: we can no longer pray. Shortly later, he examines a map from the 14th century, reflecting how wonderful it must have been to have seen Europe like this. To him this old Europe looks like Mars, a lie if it's supposed to be Earth. Alexander longs to see with different eyes, to see the truth, but Otto cautions him with the image of a cockroach running around the plate, who runs that ritual, perhaps in vain, in the faith that "He could," but not seeking something so protean and chimerical as some "truth" which he can understand and master.

Tarkovsky would go on to write in Sculpting in Time (228), that,
Contemporary man is unable to hope for the unexpected, for anomalous events that don't correspond with 'normal' logic; still less is he prepared to allow even the thought of unprogrammed phenomena, let along believe in their supernatural significance. The spiritual emptiness that results should be enough to give him pause for thought."
The only alternative to faith and hope is the tortured pursuit of the truth without the ability to see it. All the while the two men carry the painting through the house, as if... as if what? As if they determine the truth, the choice, the path? As if they think they do?

After the roars of bombers interrupt the birthday celebration we learn that they were the attacks of a nuclear war. Slowly the family members lose their sanity and as they do Alexander sees the inevitable descent. Finishing the Lord's Prayer, Alexander asks for the deliverance not only of his family but also those who do not believe because they have not suffered, and those who have lost hope and the opportunity to surrender to God's will. Kneeling to God on the floor in his home, he promises to renounce and even destroy his earthly attachments for the sake of this petition. He will become silent, so that his son may speak. When Alexander stumbles back to the couch after his prayer, a coin falls from his pocket and rattles noisily along the floor. A symbol of his sacrifice, of its singularity or its smallness? Is it a gesture of banality after the heightened tone of the prayer?

In his subsequent dream, a pile of coins shaped like an arrow points the way to Little Man, but as the camera pans up (the opposite of the downward motion of the previous dream) we glimpse but his feet before he runs off. Then we hear the onrush of the jets whose breeze then blows open a pair of doors, revealing a path still sealed by bricks. The imagery here is vague but fruitfully so. It is vague not for the sake of speculation or nihilism–that is, endless legitimate interpretations–but for the sake of making the film an invitation to the audience to look and wonder where the sacred, where the significant, lies. Perhaps the coins are the sacrifice, Little Man the end, and the blocked door the alternative. Perhaps the coins are Alexander's life and Little Man is a path away from the inevitable blocked door of death. Perhaps coins represent calculation and point toward the door which technology reveals to be blocked anyway.

In cryptic, elliptical words Otto tells Alexander how to save his family: he must lay with the witch, who happens to be Alexander's unusual maid, Maria. We can accept this command as magical realism or we can understand the curious characters of Otto and Maria as possessing the sight which eludes Alexander and modern man. As Tarkovsky writes, "They move in a world of imagination," (Sculpting in Time, 227) not of empiricism, a world to which we see hints in Maria's eyes, deep with sensitivity, and Otto's fainting spells and secret knowledge of spiritual matters.

Trusting in Otto, Alexander sneaks out of the house to find Maria. When he finds her, though, he finds the need for more words, this time a story from his youth. The house in which he lived with his mother had a garden which was overrun with weeds. His mother would sit beside the window and look out into the garden, until she became ill and bedridden. At that time Alexander sought to cultivate the garden to his own taste and with his own hands and then show it to his mother to please her. When he was done, though, he looked upon his work and was disgusted by the ugliness he had wrought. He had done violence to the land and destroyed its natural beauty.

When he lays with Maria they rise above the bed, draped in sheets, liberated from pragmatism by the gift from God that was Maria's love.

When he awakes, the sun is for the first time bright and warming. Colors are rich and vibrant. Alexander picks up the receiver of the telephone, which had been ringing unanswered throughout the movie, and calls his editor. The boss is busy, the secretary says, but they're glad to have Alexander back. Is the boss more than just Alexander's editor?

Finding the world seemingly returned to normal, Alexander makes good on his promise to forsake his worldly belongings and attachments. In another long unbroken shot he burns down his beloved house and seems to go mad, but it is not the madness of frenzy but of elation, of the Holy Fool who has forsaken the world in sacrifice, for love, for God. As the house burns in the background Alexander runs back and forth, eluding the ambulance and paramedics who try to take him away. As he is finally driven off in the ambulance, Maria cycles away as well, pausing to see Little Man faithfully watering the tree as the monk did. The Little Man has inherited the ritual, the faith, and he may save himself and others as his father's sacrifice saved him.

The film ends with its beginning, with Bach's Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion uniting the cycle of sacrifice and redemption. There is but one sacrifice, gift, and love–the full gift of oneself–and it is the fullness of this gift which transforms our sense of that harmony which is "born only of sacrifice" and which transforms the world around it (Sculpting in Time, 217.)  In so sculpting moments and meaning into this "poetic parable," this film itself becomes the glass through which we see not so darkly, but with a hint of the special sight which sees the beauty of the sacrifice.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Therapy vs Consolation

More of man's activity–more than any would care to admit–is centered around the Sisyphean task, not the grandeur of finding meaning, but of avoiding disruption. We are weak and construct easily punctured bubbles of tales, half-truths, and useful lies which allow us to float through unperturbed. Yet life is disruptive and threatens to break our bubble, and us. The problem is not, contra Camus, that the world is unreasonable, but that the world is not entirely reasonable. With more providence and poetry Boethius asked:

Omnia certo fine gubernans
hominum solos respuis actus
merito rector cohibere modo.
Nam cur tantas lubrica uersat
Fortuna uices?
(De consolatione, Book I Metrum 5, 25-29)

So much is ordered, yet man's life is so volatile. How to reconcile? 

The first path is that of transgression, avoiding the conundrum, called absurd, by confronting instead the norms which others have established in pursuit of order. For all its sway among intellectuals, this path seems little followed. You don't have to think that the Commendatore in Don Giovanni is sent from God in order to find passion a more cruel master than Fortune. On the milder side of transgression we have vandalism against mores. Whether it's Duchamp's urinal or tattooing, vandalism finds pleasure in the barbarity of degradation and leveling.

By far the most common path is that of therapy, by which man embraces what he hopes will cure his ailing incompletion. Some embrace political and social causes which they expect to usher in new eras of peace, prosperity, liberty, and so on, or they rail against causes so they may preserve the status quo. Some lavish on themselves material comfort as distraction, whether with food or expensive accoutrements. Some devote themselves to work, a productive if only diverting task. Some few people devote themselves to others, as charity or obligation.

This therapeutic mindset of our age is easy to summarize: the pleasurable is good and everything else is work. Hence, pleasure is therapy. People of course find different things pleasurable, see above, but it's no small coincidence that in the twilight of the gods we can see a surge in activities which people refer to as their religion: art, music, truth, love. Speaking of love, we mock the arranged marriages of the past, those set to preserve family fame and fortune, but still today relationships, romantic and otherwise, seem rooted the utilitarian balancing of strengths and weaknesses. How noble or romantic is this? Expedit esse amorem.

Yet the slightest admixture of effort and adversity results in that evil object, work. To avoid such an invidious burden, relationships become transitory and skills supplanted by technology. Character languishes amidst ease. While we didn't look up to their heroes, there is something of Nietzsche's Last Man and the antithesis of Camus' Absurd Man in this sketch. A tedious life.

The third path is that of consolation, which seeks neither remedy nor transgression but rather comfort. Today comfort has a softish connotation, conjuring images of ease and safety, but it in fact hails from Latin's con-fortis, with strength. Consolation consists neither in denying meaning nor in chasing perfection, but in forbearing  difficulty through virtue. It meets the world not with passions or faculties but virtuous character. To live so, with consolation but not cure, requires more courage and prudence than to live for nothing or chasing perfection.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Contempt and Love

Moral philosophers are eager to suggest every which way we might become good people, but they seldom seem to get around to telling you what to do once you are a good person. Don't they expect anyone to try, let alone succeed? Perhaps they don't think that there is anything to worry about once you succeed at virtue, by which I of course mean act generally with approbation, since no one is perfect all of the time. Yet there seems a unique struggle attendant the adherence to virtue, and perhaps even to the attempt at virtue, and that is the development of disdain for those unsuccessful at becoming good people.

I haven't called them wicked because most often they are not. I'm not talking about disdaining dictators, murderers, and the like, which is very easy, but disdaining normal people who don't try or fail to practice virtues. Neither am I talking about intellectual virtue, for we can all comprehend that some people can't comprehend some things. How though should we feel about and react to people who harbor chronic character flaws and make no attempt to correct them, or fail at the attempt?

Let me give you an example and drop the pretense that I'm not speaking about myself. I work rigorously against a nature which is critical, finicky, easily-perturbed, controlling, conservative, proud, opinionated, stubborn, reclusive, anxious, indolent, petty, and derisive, among other faults. For eight years–yes, precisely eight, it's been a deliberate endeavor– I've tried to prune this thorny personality into a gentleman. I very much hope that I've at least made an improvement, but I'm at a point where I remember my old self and I'm not very sympathetic to him.

Moreover, though, I find myself unsympathetic toward those who haven't made the change. Freud wrote that we dislike people who remind us of ourselves, but for my part I find myself disliking people who remind me of my former self. Perhaps this is illogical, for it's certainly possible that such people have wrestled with other demons while I've tamed my less feral passions. Sometimes though you just can't shake the feeling that someone is congenitally–I was going to say congenitally bad, but I think the better word is weak. They lack the fortitude to improve.

There seem two ways to react to such people. The first is that to which I'm  immediately inclined: contempt. This is a word too strongly associated with hate, and it more correctly means to value little, from Latin's contemno. This is no power trip, though, because as much as the sight of such people inflicting their untutored personalities on the world fills me with disdain, that same low estimation is attended by feelings of great pity. We pity them because they don't deserve their burden–who can be said to deserve his character?–and because we feel that we've but narrowly avoided similar fate.

Yet pity is ultimately a feeling of pain, and it's no small coincidence that contemno can mean to avoid. Ultimately we wish to avoid such people. Aristotle's great-souled man is quite indifferent to inferiors. In contrast we take delight in seeing the good and it is the good which spurs us to imitation.

Of course ruling out erotic love, is there no affection these people may receive, no principle which may bind men to each other? How can we share φιλία or have an amicus without equality? Both Latin's caritas and diligo interweave the idea of esteem into the valuation. It seems there is no pure love, to use the overused word, for such people, but is there pure love for anyone? It seems always mitigated or predicated on estimation, eros, utility, similarity, equality, or some premise.

The only two remaining postures are humanism, a pure love for man qua man, and Christian agape. Yet humanism is still predicated on esteeming someone valuable as a human, to which one might rightly ask: so? What exactly might it be about the human which means we should love him? Consciousness? Our genetic similitude? Such are pretty cheap commodities and neither suggests, let alone demands, love.

Alone is agape lacking in estimation, for to love God does not imply that one finds Him in conformity with anything, but that one loves the beginning and end of everything. To love anyone in this regard then, is not strictly utilitarian or merely moral, but teleological, love as ultimate reconciliation. As such it is also love for being qua being, and thus the proper antithesis to hatred, the preference that something not exist, i.e. nihilism.

It is the father who makes men brothers, and it is the universality of this declaration which gives such profound weight to the finale to Beethoven's 9th, a work which has been rechristened in the 20th century as essentially humanist or at best deistic. Yet it is joy, man's pure loving reaction to love and an affirmation of life, that is the divine spark which makes brothers of men. In other words, Deus Caritas est. (Of course refining our understanding of caritas in the process.) In the encyclical of the same name, Benedict XVI wrote of that statement's, "Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny," saying that, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter [congressio] with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction [progressionem]." [Latin English]
1 John 4.16: Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει. / Deus caritas est et qui manet in caritate in Deo manet et Deus in eo. 
Love and joy, then, are not moral or principled acts, but the proper progression, or climax of life. Again fittingly, hatred and nihilism are the rejections and regressions toward nothing, from God and being.

This is a polarity we find again in the 9th Symphony from its chaotic keyless opening, itself suggesting a polarity with the hovering perfect fifth, to its ecstatic choral finale. The poem calls to song, though, not only those who partake in love by friendship or marriage, but all men who have all been given by nature a passion [Wollust] for life.

In the finale to the 9th, then, Beethoven summons all to fall in love under the lieber Vater, and combines the theme to joy with a gesture as simple as it is profound, a kiss to the world, in a fugue. The inexorable motion, rollicking rhythm, and overlapping of millionem and ganzen Welt and kuß seem to create that very joy of which it speaks. It's the fullness of this path from nothing to everything and the rightness, the properness of direction which we feel in joy which makes the 9th seem to transcend its Earthly parameters, calling us to partake in the divine spark which exclaims, Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

That Delightful Rest

The philosophy of Aristotle lacks little, but a gaping omission is a human face. There is no smart aleck Socrates with whom we may laugh and grow irate, nor can we spy a troubled soul, like Marcus Aurelius, behind the words. If there was a character, real or imagined, in the lost works of the Aristotelian corpus, the "rivers of gold" according to Cicero, then we are all the more at a loss, for Aristotle's work is decidedly not that of the mechanical, technocratic mind. His philosophy is not cold and calculating, and we'll find it warm and lived in if we peer behind the notational style. This is nowhere more evident than in the chapter of the Ethics on friendship where he defines a friend, in part, as someone before whom you might do something foolish and still not blush. Yet if this man from antiquity is largely lost to us, there as another face for the philosophy.

Cicero's own philosophical works make no boast of originality, the non plus ultra to the modern mind, but who wouldn't be content, christened "Rome's greatest Aristotelian" by Dante, of all? Unlike their Aristotelian origins, many of Cicero's works are structured not as treatises but dialogues, which give human faces to the dense and often obscure discourses which they summarize or critique. Still there are moments of genuine and unique revelation in Cicero's philosophy when he sheds a new light, filtered by years of study, personal suffering, and the struggles with nation he strove to save, on philosophy.

For me the most poignant of these moments comes toward the end of de Amicitia, written in the summer of 44 BC just before Cicero returned to Rome to launch his famous Philippics against Marc Antony. Here the statesman-philosopher re-imagines Platonism and Aristotelianism, especially the Lysis and penultimate books of Aristotle's Ethics, as a dialogue centered around Gaius Laelius the Wise, the preeminent author and orator of the generation preceding Cicero's. Laelius remembers his friend Scipio Aemilianus, i.e. Africanus the Younger:
Numquam illum ne minima quidem re offendi, quod quidem senserim, nihil audivi ex eo ipse quod nollem. [de Amicitia, 103. The Latin Library]
It seems innocuous enough, obvious even, but there's so much insight in these few words, insight only gained by personal experience. There's so much substance under that polished parallel style.

On the surface, sure, Laelius is saying the obvious that his good friend never said anything which offended him in the least, which he would have noticed, nor vice versa, but this is something we overlook today, I think. With our legal system which functions on the premise that the contest of contrary opinions will reveal truth, a pluralistic polity, and the economic necessity of competition, we perhaps let variety and rivalry get the better of us.

Of rivalry we often consider speaking our mind more than a right but a duty. How quickly do we feel that we'll be implicated if we don't speak up for, or against, something. How quickly do we offer unsolicited opinions simply because they're relevant, even if they're unnecessary. Who doesn't feel the urge to pile on when someone is being dragged through the mud? Laelius' point is of course that he and Scipio didn't offend one another, but surely some of that accord resulted from the prudential application of silence, or at least deferred judgment.

Of variety, how often do we hear platitudes about having rights to opinions, and rights to be heard, and so on. We forget, and Cicero reminds us, that the soul finds rest in the harmony of friendship.

The dialogue contains also in that euphonious and compact relative clause, quod quidem senserim, a subtle nod to the empathy implicit in friendship. Simply, we have to pay attention to how the other person feels, what hurts and delights our loved ones. We need to know that look in their eyes, they way they shuffle in their seats, the way they grow quiet, that tells us we've hurt them, and we have to care enough not to do it again. The very thought of that look, of that quiet, has to pain us so much that we need to avoid it. The dialogue of course is idealized, and it's unlikely anyone has not hurt his friend at some point, but we see the tempered wisdom of Cicero behind the ideal.

Finally, Laelius draws attention to the littlest things, minima, which always need our attention. How our friends cater to our little pet peeves, and how easily we take their considerations for granted. Maybe they let us tell the same story over and over, or they avoid a certain topic to which we are sensitive, maybe they curb their playful teasing, or perhaps they simply stopped slurping their soda for us, but the absence of these irksome bits gradually becomes an environment in which we can find ease, and ourselves, in each other. It's a rest so consoling, so powerful, that we feel it, moreover we can exist in it, even when the activity of friendship is broken off by distance, whether by travel or, as Laelius says about his lifelong friend, by death.

So in but a small sentence Cicero through the voice of Laelius reminds us what restraint, consideration, and appreciation are necessary to make, find, and keep that delightful rest we call friendship.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wanderer

The second most boring part of teaching is reviewing material, for it catches the teacher in the doldrums between summarizing and examining. Said teacher always wants to teach something new, but the students would say such is not review. True, true. So alas we must say again what was said before. And say it again and again ad infinitum. The most boring of the teacher's tasks is proctoring. Here the teacher is caught between daydreaming and that unpleasant task of policing. The other day, though, all the students had finished their tests and in the fifteen minutes before we were permitted to leave, I picked in desperation a book off the shelf to stir my stilling mind.

What I picked up was Heart of Darkness, and what I found of course and in irony was the serene stillness of Conrad's opening with its pacific water, flat sails, and seamless sky. What caught my mind, though, that is before the school bell shattered it once more, was not the quiet grandeur of the Thames or the brilliance of its description as introduction, but  Conrad's characterization of Marlow as a wanderer.

The seaman, we learn, is always at home at sea, for the sea never changes and all boats are the same. The seamen's minds are sedentary, their stories singular.  These men may move about, but on the ocean his mind is ever at home. One might say of them what the narrator says of their stories: they have a direct simplicity. They're simple, perfected, self-contained. Later, Marlow comes upon a book, reflecting again on the type:
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
There is something authentic and revealing in such simplicity. Conrad's brilliant touch, though, is adding that someone had written notes in the margins of the book, and in cipher at that. Some greater intellect had come along and contributed incomprehensible commentary, muddling the simplicity as Marlow himself muddled the luminous Thames, describing it amidst its brightness as, "one of the dark places of the earth."

Marlow, in contrast to the simple seaman, is a wanderer, not with respect to body for he sails about like his fellow seamen, but rather Marlow is a wanderer of the mind. His stories are not about a simple moral but an unfolding, enveloping meaning.

Now one could surely discuss the theme of simplicity in Heart of Darkness, but I hadn't read the book in a while and I only had fifteen minutes. What was on my mind, then, wasn't the rest of the novel but a piece of music, Schubert's Der Wanderer an den Mond.

Schubert's song of Johann Seidl's text shares Conrad's fascination with simplicity. Here, the moon is simple and perfected, at home everywhere just like the seaman, even though it ranges far and wide. Opposed is the poet or speaker, who is a stranger wherever he goes. We sense this isolation in Marlow as he recounts the life of the Thames throughout history, always an observer, and sits "like Budha."

Marlow and Seidl's speaker sit at that mediating, meditative point between simplicity and complexity which stirs, perplexes, even torments the observer. Seidl longs to be at home although he lacks the simplicity of the moon, and Marlow admires the simplicity of the simple seaman untouched by the "detestable incomprehensible."

Thinkers perhaps too often idolize intellect, insisting it is edifying and unifying and not isolating, but seeing the boundaries of the comprehensible makes, as Waugh wrote, "a tedious journey to the truth," a journey, "confused with knowledge and speculation." The faithful also too often, perhaps, pontificate about the joyful universality of the faith without emphasizing the peregrinate nature of the worldly journey. The invariable existential question–compare Seidl's moon to Camus' omnipresent, impotent sun in The Stranger–leads he who walks the path of perception or faith, to a tortuous, wandering journey through seeing and seeking the incomprehensible in the light of the simple.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Memory is a strange word for a strange concept. What does it mean to remember? Our English word memory is not helpful, conjuring images of a faculty of remembering, as if drawing water from a well. The clunky memorize has its connotation of firing synapses, but tells us how, not why is memory. Latin's tenere in memoria is an improvement, suggesting as it does the activity of holding in memory, as does its recordare, the holding of something in one's cor (stem cord-) or heart, living spirit. We retain something of this understanding in the phrase, "learn by heart," which alas seems to be ebbing away.

As we often do, though, we turn to the Greeks, and not just to their pair of λήθη and μνήμη, forgetfulness and memory, but to the famous discussion of memory which concludes Plato's Phaedrus. This passage is often quoted by proud memorizers who revel in recollections of their favorite poems, and while it's all well and good to wag a finger at the philistine who can't quote a line of any significance, it doesn't answer much to say tritely that reading print simply weakens the memory. It even elucidates little to say that the written word is not knowledge, as pretty as the thought may be.

Plato's insight, though, comes soon after the oft-quoted and there he idealizes not the tender of letters who sows words in the garden of letters for recollection, but the dialectician who plants words in souls, not perfected but alive, potent to propagate. This claim sounds incredible, for how can an idea differ simply by its location? This is surely some ploy to lay secret knowledge in the hands of the few. Our lack of imagination often fails philosophers, but especially Plato who might jest about our mental infecundity. Here, imagine a word in a book: it does nothing. If one asks it a question, as Plato said, it responds nothing. Yet the word in the mind partakes in our activities, observes them and changes them, even perchance changing itself. It is only passed on if by, or through, a memory.

There is something of this thinking, quite unexpectedly, in Aristotle's causality wherein man, the lover of understanding, seeks that "why" of things which is both question and answer, and in understanding fulfills his nature and the promise of worldly intelligibility. Understanding, then, is a reconciliation of self and other, and to remember Plato and Bach and Horace as much as mathematics and astronomy is as much to know oneself as to know them as to know the world. To hear the words of the mass not as spoken text but as an awakening of the words within you, an awakening of words shared, transferred through time and transfigured through the sacrifice, is the reconciliation of all things.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
–Little Gidding

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple

Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.

We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.

[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sum and Part

Daphnis ego in silvis hinc usque ad sidera notus
formonsi pecoris formonsior ipse.
–Vergil. Eclogue VI. 43-44

The connection between man and deed is a curious one, not nearly so obvious and finite as it seems. Philosophy asks if what we do is ethical, most often approach the question from the perspective of agency, focusing on ethics and effect. The natural sciences are concerned with cause and process. Similarly, psychology asks us why we do something and history asks who did what, when. There is between these pursuits, though, the strange phenomena of how deeds and ideas adhere to man, who exists as he fashions himself, as his deeds form him, and how he is perceived by others. None of these factors is predictable or permanent. What do we make of men, then, when each one is Proteus?

History hands down as it transforms. On the one hand, we inherit Heraclitus as the weeping philosophy and Haydn as the laughing composer. Cicero is the model republican, Pericles the model statesman. Like Cleobis and Biton, these figures are frozen in time and honor as epitomes of virtue. On the other hand, Julius Caesar varies from age to age. Is he the tyrant, the betrayed, or the commander? Why do some deeds seem to shake right off their perpetrators? Caesar doesn't take much flak for the Gallic War, Pericles for the Peloponnesian, Cicero for being pompous, Augustus or Napoleon for police states, and so on.

The famous, however, stand exceptions to the rule that it is man's fate to be forgotten by this world. Even we mortals style ourselves, though. Sometimes we identify with our profession, sometimes by our faith or ideas, sometimes by one virtue or other. We act one way with one person, and another with others. We wonder about or avoid our motivations. It is often noted that only the individual ever knows himself, but less so that there's an element of perpetual uncertainty even for that endeavor.

When I act, then, is it the intellectual, the Catholic, the teacher, the man, the friend? Do I act from principle or as some grand whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Strangely, that which escapes man attains a unique grandeur. I speak not of natural phenomena such as caverns, sunsets, and great trees, but works of man which seem not to have been authored but rather in anonymity gifted into nature's domain. Consider the nameless medieval cathedrals and the chants which echo through the ages. How different is it reading Aristotle than Plato, the latter's thoughts being bound up in the curious character of Socrates whom we come to know while Aristotle's colorless, humorless treatises seem sprung from logic itself. (All for that quirk of fate that his other writings were lost.) How different is it to read Vergil in the context of 1) Vergil's art, 2) the politics of the early Roman Empire, 3) Augustus, and 4) the influence of other authors, than it is to read Homer, who reaches out raw but pure from the darkness. There seems such a freedom in the figures on those Greek jars, created not in some academic paradigm for a museum, but for living.

Like the ambiguities about ourselves, those of nature often do not obscure but refract and reflect us in our attempts not at analysis, not at use, but at contemplation. They invite not study, but a, if not pure then primarily, aesthetic experience.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Art of Stillness

People are loud. Not just some people, although some are noisier than others, but all people are noisy. It's not so hard to understand really, people moving around and making noise, and it might seem a grouchy contention that people ought to be quiet, but as we discussed before, silence destroys because some things can exist only in silence. When we last made that point we did so in an aesthetic dimension focused on perception of phenomena. To a different end I would proceed from Romano Guardini's definition of stillness:

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
Many implications flow from these two lines, and bless the souls to whom Guardini preached that blissfully breviloquent–three page–homily, so let us look at those implications in turn.

The need for corporal stillness is perhaps the most obvious necessity for a general stillness. Corporal stillness falls into the categories of the deliberate and the incidental. The prescription for both is simple: stop what you're doing. No typing, talking, texting, or communication. No work and certainly none of the manic multitasking to which the well-intentioned, foolishly overburdened incline. Stopping is the easy part, though, and it's the ensuing void that terrifies modern man back into activity. Not only the common man but also the philosopher both seek activity, the former for entertainment and the latter in endless thinking. What of inner stillness, then?

As Josef Pieper distinguished, [Pieper, 9] since Kant all happenings in the mind have been re-classified as activity. No longer can man simply see or listen or know, but he always actively reasons about an object of inquiry. The medievals, however,

distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding. . . whereas intellectus refers to the ability of "simple looking" (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. [Pieper, 11]
So instead of pacing on an endless treadmill of ratiocination, man may both actively reason and passively receive. The two, however opposed, mutually reinforce. A man would not consider that he knows a piece of music which heard but does not understand, nor one which he understood from study but which he has not heard. Likewise most of us would not say that we know a person about whom we have read but with whom we do not live. The rational and experiential need one another.

So we have ceased our jabbering, curbed our tapping toes, and banished all thoughts from our minds. Now what? One needs a silent space, free from bustling people, blinking and booping electronics, and anything which tugs at the senses. Alas, this includes music, even our beloved relaxation playlists, for recorded music allows us to drown out noise, but it does not create silence from which something else may arise. Such is in contrast to playing, which requires focus and attention. Even physical activity must cease, for the focus is not on the body or its exercise.

So what is the focus? Not the usual subjects of beauty, truth, knowledge, and not even virtue. The goal is where we started: stillness.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
The goal is simply being in fullness. Yes, you can use stillness toward the end of knowledge, about oneself and the world, as the philosophers say. You can use stillness as preparation for an experience. In neither case though is use the proper word, for both intellectus and ἡσῠχικός (stillness) imply some superhuman faculty which simply perceives and waits.

Really it was already the end itself, the ultimate paradox of the end that's present at the beginning. [Kingsley, 186]
The knowledge we already have is useless unless we can really live it, in and through ourselves. Otherwise it becomes a burden that can weigh us down or even destroy us, like the oracle of the Phocaeans. We already have everything we need. We just need to be shown what we have. [Kingsley, 191]
Such is not, however, what Guardini cautions against, a withdrawal into the ego, for it is not a conceit, i.e. formed by the mind, rather it is in-formed. It is not rushing activity seeking completion, but the silence of the source, its distillation awaiting perfection.

Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. Matthias Grünewald Verlag. 1939.
Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. The Golden Sufi Center Publishing. 1999.
Pieper, Josef. (Malsbary, Gerald. trans.) Leisure: The  Basis of Culture. Kösel-Verlag. 1948.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hell, No

It's always telling when people pounce on a piece news and promptly declare I told you so! So it was with much amusement that I watched the stream of giddy reactions to Pope Francis' comments about salvation. The approbation flowed mostly from liberal quarters, Catholic and otherwise, rejoicing in. . . what exactly?

They interpreted Pope Francis' statement to mean that atheists can get into heaven. Now this might seem a charitable and Christian sentiment, and indeed there is a reasonable path to such a conclusion. For example, it's possible to believe God's love so vast that it simply swaddles all of his children in infinite forgiveness, irrespective of creed or deed. That's variously problematic, though not patently absurd, but it and the assumptions about Pope Francis' recent statement, especially in the context of the ambiguities Fr. Z mentions above, are potentially troublesome.

Namely, because some people are known to be quite bad, few think that everyone is going to heaven. So one naturally then wonders what's worse than what, and then because people can reform, how you can make up for sin. There is of course a simple, orthodox answer: repent in the sacrament of reconciliation. There's surprisingly little need to consider details if you're as good and grateful as possible. Of course, since this discussion revolves around atheists, repentance is not an option. The only alternative then is a calculus computing what you can do in life to make up for sin, a calculation in which all actions are fungible and the result of which is that everyone's tally neatly balances so they end up in heaven. If you do good deeds, then God won't send you to hell just for not believing in him. If you do great deeds, then God won't send you to hell for minor sins. If you do certain good deeds, then God won't send you to hell for not doing certain other good deeds. The conclusion here is that no one's in hell except Hitler and Caligula.

The origins of such expectations are not hard to imagine: it's difficult fully to imagine the joy of reunification with God, therefore our most potent experiences with love and joy are with our loved ones. As a result, we really cannot entertain the idea that our loved ones will be punished, let alone infernally, eternally damned. Can you look at your wife, or brother, or parent, and hold in your mind the knowledge that they're going to hell? If you could, you'd probably be deathly afraid. Yet we moderns don't really fear quite so much, we fret and worry and sputter about minutiae, but we don't fear. My thinking therefore, is that, just maybe, we don't entertain rosy notions about salvation because we believe in God's bountiful grace, but because we've refused to confront our fears. Fears about what kind of people we are, fears about the implications of our beliefs, fears about the unknown.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, one of the great anachronisms of the 20th century, wrote that:
The Church was able to baptize medieval society because it was a society of sinners, but her future is not promising in modern society, where everyone believes he is innocent. [1]
Guilt: what a dismal thought it seems to the modern. To him, guilt is an accident of an insufficiently liberal system of ethics, the puritanism of some obtuse positive law, rather than part of our nature, a part inextricably bound up in our salvation. And so the modern makes paeans to peace and progress and perfection, when the medieval said with humility suscipe deprecationem nostram, and with joy miserere nobis.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Word Power

There's a charming scene in J. R. R Tolkien's The Two Towers where hobbits Merry and Pippin encounter the ancient shepherd Treebeard in Fangorn Forest, surprising the prehistoric herder in more ways than one. First off, poor Treebeard has never heard of a hobbit before. "You do not seem to come in any of the old lists," he says. It's a subtle, gentle, and traditional line. Why traditional? Because in the old world and ways of Treebeard, one doesn't learn by poking one's nose around. You learn when you're young from the old lists, lists handed down and seldom added to. That's the way of things.

Second, the prehistoric herder is taken aback when the young hobbits introduce themselves by their real names. Why aren't they careful? Old Bilbo certainly didn't tell fire-breathing Smaug his real name, although he did introduce himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins to Gollum of all people, almost to the detriment of Middle Earth when his name made its way to Sauron. So what's the big deal with a name, or any word for that matter?

It is no small feat to use a word, for to use one is to name a thing and to name a thing is to decide what it is. To name something is to de-fine it, to put ontological limits around it. Naturally just because you name something doesn't mean you are correct in defining it, but for your part you have used what concepts you have to de-termine what it is. Indeed the nominative power is nothing short of the creative   and possessive powers. Regarding names, how sensitive are we about our names.

First names, middle names, last names, nicknames, patronymics, epithets, initials, diminutives, titles, ranks. . . don't ever call someone by the wrong one. All of those nominative associations between people and places, deeds, jobs, countries, and other people are definitive and quite intimate. Consider the awkwardness when someone mispronounces your name, or when a child calls an adult by his given name. Even if we're not sure what something or who someone is, we insist on discussing and speculating until we settle on a name. We just can't abide by an unknown. Accurately or not, we have to name it. Unless we want to avoid it. How deftly we avoid names when we speak ill of people, shifting to pronouns and the passive voice: I hate her and the gun went off.

Finally, consider the fine ways we insult each other, the colorful and crude turns of phrase. Why is invective so satisfying? For much the same reason that all acts of naming are significant: they give you some power, or the impression of power, over a thing. We glory in exercising it and flee from it turned against us. Whether it's disguising the name of a god in a religious text or Catullus obfuscating the details of a romance, we have often sought in anonymity a protection from the invidious.

No, we're not as superstitious today, and how much we value our names may owe more to vanity than fear. Yet without fear, reverence is hard to come by. Recall Latin's revereor for both fearing and revering. We should then, perhaps, cultivate a certain reverence for words, that is, the act of naming, for  as in Treebeard's Old Entish language, "real names tell you the story of the things they belong to." We should try to find those stories in both the words and things. Naming, then, is a thought-ful and active task of studying the essences of things and concepts behind words. Yes, the work exacting, but it might do us some good to be less hasty and more thoughtful. Let us say of our own then, what Treebeard says of his, "It's a lovely language, but it takes a long time to say."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Heretical Mind

T. S. Eliot famously observed the nature of the heretic as, "a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood." This generalization strikes me as especially perspicacious and indeed indicative of a particular mode of thinking in which one observes events and attributes them all to one, or even a few, central causes. This cause-seeking reasoning is of course useful and fundamental to understanding the natural world, yet it is a potentially myopic approach.

Dr. Jeroen Vanheste in his study of classicism similarly observed that
Theories that consider everything to be a construction or a convention or the expression of a specific ideology, are a radicalization of an intuition that in itself obviously contains some truth. [1]
We are all liable to such a preoccupation and we see the generalizations everywhere when we read the
philosophically-untrained simplifying the world for us. We read of historical slights like "the essence of Greek culture" and political drivel about "the three ways to fix. . ." We see scientists struggle with  what occurred before time and anthropologists and now neuroscientists trying to make sense of human action. The fruits of such thinking often seem to come in the form of prescriptions, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, speaking about antipathy toward the Roman liturgy, observed:
All heretics without exception start out by wishing to return to the customs of the early Church... they prune, they efface, they suppress–everything falls under their hatchet–and while we await a vision of our religion in its pristine purity, we find ourselves encumbered with new formulations, fresh off the press, and incontestably human, for the men who created them are still alive. [2]
All other values, principles, and accidentals are stripped away and replaced by those of the observer, which are usually invisible to him and those of his age. The whole has been destroyed, but what has been revealed and what has simply been lost?

It seems, perhaps, that while both are necessary, learning by observation and learning by deconstruction (all too often "murdering to dissect"), are the lesser and lower, or better, preliminary, forms of learning. The ideal, then, would be learning by creation, no longer looking or digging but learning about the nature of things by purposeful making and being.

Now the creative act surely seems the most radical for it is no small matter to change the world, let alone make one, yet all three approaches change or make, yet only the creative admits to its purpose. Too it is just as systematic, built on rules and laws, and as well fuses past, present, and future just as the overtly fact-seeking sciences seek to contribute to one true knowledge.

The heretical mind is the philosopher as hunter-gatherer. The creative mind is the philosopher as man.

[1]Vanheste, Jeroen. Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: The Classicism of T.S. Eliot's Criterion Network and Its Relevance to Our Postmodern World. Brill Academic Pub. 2007. p. 437
[2] Institutions Liturgiques 1.399