“Mere Quiet”

In a recent book review columnist Christine Rosen makes the following observation:

The colonization of silence has been going on for years. Muzak piped into elevators and shopping malls seems almost quaint, now that televisions and video screens are everywhere—in waiting rooms, restaurants and taxis—and every stroll down a store aisle is accompanied by a pop soundtrack. Even pumps at the gas station blare music and weather updates, and earphones make it possible to go through an entire day listening to podcasts, phone conversations or a playlist of tunes. Our eagerness for nonstop sound suggests that mere quiet is an uncomfortable experience for many people.

The theme of “mere quiet,” that Rosen speaks of, has featured prominently on this blog, which is perhaps testimony to the fact that it is one of the hardest disciplines to acquire. Our outward noise masks a perpetual escapism. Nor is it enough as an introvert (like myself) to protest against the extroverted clamor of postmodern society. Even sedate intellectual pursuits have their perils. As Samuel Johnson once said: “The great fault of men of learning is still, that they offend against this rule, and appear willing to study any thing rather than themselves” (The Rambler, 24). Quiet distractions, it seems, are still distractions. But admittedly outward tranquility and self-control make the “examined life” a little more attainable.

As we enter into the final weeks of Lent, I will take my usual break from writing.  I leave readers with these thoughts from Thomas à Kempis:

It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away…. No man appears in safety before the public eye unless he first relishes obscurity. No man is safe in speaking unless he loves to be silent. No man rules safely unless he is willing to be ruled. No man commands safely unless he has learned well how to obey. No man rejoices safely unless he has within him the testimony of a good conscience (Imitation of Christ, I.20, “The Love of Solitude and Silence”).

Posted in Philosophy

Arguments About God

My aim here is not to debate the existence of God. As for my own views, I refer readers to posts that treat the theocentric arguments of Maritain and Gilson. Rather I want to discuss a point raised by Frederick Copleston, S.J., (famous for his multi-volume History of Philosophy) in a lesser-known collection, Philosophers and Philosophies (1976), about the changing nature of the debate itself.

The English Jesuit begins with the view of the Spanish Baroque scholastic, Francisco Suárez, who believed that anyone who failed to be convinced by theistic arguments suffered from “a bad disposition or a bad will.”  Yet, as Copleston points out, living in a thoroughly Catholic nation like sixteenth century Spain, “the existence of God was commonly accepted as a premise. That is to say, faith preceded rational reflection….”

But what happens when a person grows up in a very different environment? The scholastic systems of Suárez and others may (rightly or wrongly) strike one as barren or irrelevant. Metaphysical proofs, Copleston suggests, often seem to move “in a void populated only by abstract concepts… having little or no connexion with human existence and man’s hopes and fears.” By the time we reach the stage of late modernism, when Copleston was writing, talk about God often seemed “a foreign language” or even an impolite subject. Against such a background it would be unreasonable to take someone’s agnosticism as a sign of mere intransigence. We cannot always comprehend others’ motives. After all, some professing Christians seem strangely unconvinced of the implications of their beliefs, taking religion for granted in the very worst sense, thereby making it seem truly superficial and impractical.

Is rejection of theism invariably based on logical difficulties or environmental factors? I have no doubt this holds true in the case of nonbelievers who espouse otherwise traditional ethical and aesthetic ideas.* But granting that arguments in favor of moral accountability are not sufficient per se to prove the existence of a higher power, materialists must ask themselves whether their outlook is the product of rationality or convenience. Depending on the person, I think you’ll get very different answers.

Despite significant changes over time in the metaphysical vocabulary, Copleston remarks that even in a theistic vacuum many intellectuals still feel compelled to find meaning amid “a plurality of objects” – e.g., the idea of an overarching universal philosophical or social principle. The appeal of “transcendence in man is not so easily stifled.” He cites the arch-skeptic Bertrand Russell who admitted that personal religion, at least in a psychological sense, is “highly desirable.” Certainly it is clear that the argument over God is unlikely to be settled anytime soon.

*See related discussion of Roger Scruton’s book The Soul of the World and comments on Theodore Dalrymple, an atheist critic of neo-atheism.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

His Past is Our Past

“Plutarch made literature of his experience of the world.”—Robert Lamberton

The Greek writer Plutarch reinterpreted the history of the ancient world, not only for contemporaries but for later generations, from its mythological beginnings to the close of republican Rome. According to Prof. Lamberton’s recent study of the famous moralist and biographer: “He is the lens through which the subsequent European tradition has most often and most consistently viewed the Greeks and Romans.”

Born (c. 50 A.D.) in the Greek city state of Chaeronea, in Boetia, Plutarch witnessed Rome’s expansion to its utmost boundaries which, with some fluctuation, would hold steady until its eventual decline in the fourth and fifth centuries. While praising the active lives of the leaders of the older republics and city states, the civilization of his day was “a place and an age without politics.” It was an administrative system devoted entirely to the empire and its maintenance. It was dull but secure, for the most part, except for the persecution of philosophers which occurred under the reign of Domitian (81-96), during which time Plutarch may have been at some risk himself.

We can infer that he spent time as a teacher in philosophy and later as a scholar who was consulted by others about the Delphic Oracle and other Greek antiquities. The famous Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans were authored toward the end of his life.

Certain qualities must endear him to any bibliophile. “For all his commitment to the active (as opposed to the contemplative) life,” says Lamberton, “Plutarch read books and wrote books, two activities that… were inseparable from libraries.” The Greek chronicler kept extensive notes. He also made use of public and private collections in addition to cultivating his own. Although authors of his day did not clutter up their works with extensive annotation, Plutarch was remarkable for citing no fewer than 275 attributions to other sources, both Greek and Latin.  Scholars have discerned the writer’s reliance on a significant, and now lost, history by Hieronymus of Cardia, who served as a diplomat in the Alexandrian Near East. His work is considered one of most detailed studies of the period (completed around 260 B.C.). We know that Plutarch drew on Hieronymus for his lives of Eumenes, Demetrius Poliorcetes and Pyrrhus, likely paraphrasing his predecessor to some extent.

Lamberton offers important insights on Plutarch’s study of philosophy in the tradition of Plato, which meant reading the dialogues and commenting on them. Nor was philosophy merely an academic exercise. In the words of Frederick Copleston: “In Neoplatonism and in Stoicism philosophy embodied a religious world-view and a way of life.” Although Plutarch was not an “original thinker,” in terms of exploring new areas of thought, he was, in Lamberton’s opinion, an original interpreter of Plato. He challenged the pantheistic materialism of Stoicism and the atheistic materialism of the Epicureans, with a very spiritually evolved Platonic metaphysics. His also wrote numerous ethical essays (the Moralia), which have been likened to “polytheistic sermons.”

Posted in History, Philosophy, Plutarch

Diderot and the Enlightenment

“In all things our real opinion is not the one in which we have never wavered, but the one to which we have most frequently returned.”—Diderot

Denis Diderot (1713-84), the French playwright, encyclopedist and pioneering art critic, may be said to embody the career of the secular intellectual (or philosophe, as such men were termed in his day). Though overshadowed by Voltaire and Rousseau, in his workmanlike way he helped set the stage for the Enlightenment and much of what followed.

Among his most (in)famous novels is The Nun, which depicts a young woman tormented by sadistic and sexually depraved fellow monastics, though in the end she is saved by a sympathetic cleric. This mixture of lascivious cynicism is typical of the writer, and it can be argued that Diderot’s outlook marks the beginning of a long trajectory of moral autonomy which has culminated in our our own age.

Diderot frequently espoused an idea of “virtue” and “natural law,” at least as he understood it.  Such was the elasticity of his moods that he could honestly admit the perils of ethical subjectivity:

It is certain that there will be no end to our disputes as long as each person takes himself as model and judge. There will be as many standards are there are individuals, and for each individual there will be as many different standards as there are periods in his life.

According to Peter France (Diderot, Oxford Past Masters, 1983), in the philosophical novel Rameau’s Nephew we see an unresolved tension between the analytical narrator and the cynical opportunism and self-indulgence of the eponymous young man. Diderot was torn between the utopian schemes of the great Encyclopédie and his empirical, realist observations of human nature.  He was also conflicted in his aesthetic visions. He enjoyed the spectacles of Catholic religious processions, if not the theology behind them. Meanwhile, in a letter to one of his mistresses Diderot delighted in the barbaric imagery of a Scandinavian poem, “Powerful effects always come from a mixture of the voluptuous and the terrible; for instance beautiful half-naked women offering us delicious potions in the bloody skulls of our enemies.” It sounds like cable television.

The eighteenth century philosophe, however, seemed shy of translating literary fantasies into visualized realities. He favored the paintings of Greuze, which espoused a very bourgeois morality, while condemning the flagrant eroticism of Boucher. While Dr. France is a largely sympathetic chronicler, he does venture some insightful comments about Diderot’s social criticism—e.g., “it is easier to undermine than to construct.” Indeed, Diderot is like many later generations of intellectuals who are both exultant and anxious in the face of the irrational forces that their own professed “rationalism” has unleashed. To give Dr. France the final word: “while one may distinguish between words and deeds, there is no getting away from the fact that words as well as deeds can undermine the established order.”

For related commentary, see The Crisis of the Intellectuals.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy

John Bull, Philosopher

“He now appeared to me Jean Bull philosophe, and he was, for the moment, not only serious but vehement.”—James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Boswell, the biographer, is describing Johnson in a fit of gourmandizing. The gargantuan writer was infamous for his devotion to the table. But he was also “John Bull” (the English partisan) in many of his utterances. Boswell, the Scotsman, patiently endured his older friend’s jibes against his fellow countryman. Discussing Johnson’s poem London (1738), he says

The truth is, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, he allowed himself to look upon all nations but his own as barbarians: not only Hibernia, and Scotland, but Spain, Italy, and France, are attacked in the same poem…. He was indeed, if I may be allowed the phrase, at bottom much of a John Bull; much of a blunt true born Englishman.

Yet thirty years later, while contemplating a tour of Italy with his friends the Thrales, Johnson spoke in a much more cosmopolitan vein:

A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see. The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.

It is right to have a sense of origins and loyalty. The person who flaunts a multicultural outlook often lacks commitment toward normal affinities. At the same time we should not let custom devolve into mere prejudice. There are higher truths which guide us and often bind us to people very different from ourselves, which is what Johnson and other great Christian humanists appreciated.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Aristotle Again

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal Julian Baggini discusses a new volume on Aristotle by Edith Hall. He begins by lamenting the decline in the Greek philosopher’s popularity over the past century:

Aristotle is one of a handful of thinkers who can credibly lay claim to being the greatest philosopher in history…. Outside academe, however, Aristotle’s brilliance is curiously dimmed. Popular books have extolled Confucius, the Stoics and even the Existentialists but not the genius who is more than their equal.

Paggini peaks my curiosity. He is apparently an atheist, yet he frequently challenges modern assumptions. In evaluating Hall’s volume he questions her “focus on happiness as the ultimate goal.” Paggini makes the point that when Aristotle spoke of eudaimonia he meant “flourishing” rather than “a subjective emotional state or a kind of positive background mood.” Hall’s shift in emphasis “may seem subtle and minor, but it detracts from what is potentially most useful about Aristotle today. In an age when we are obsessed with subjective happiness, he offers us a challenge, suggesting that we ought to concentrate instead on living virtuously.”

Reading his review prompted me to dust off my copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, the foundational work on morality written over 2,300 years ago. Granted that Aristotle’s texts, which were likely lecture notes, are not as lively as the Socratic dialogues or the pithy adages of the Stoics. That said, if one is patient, there is much to admire in his masterful discourse right from the opening lines: “It is thought that every activity, artistic or scientific, in fact every deliberate action or pursuit, has for its object the attainment of some good.”

Many of us have heard of Aristotle’s legendary intellectual integrity as illustrated by his aphorism: “I love Plato, but I love truth even more.” This is apparently a paraphrase of his critique of Plato in Book I of the Ethics:

Yet surely it is the better, or rather the unavoidable, course, above all for philosophers, to defend the truth even at the cost of our most intimate feelings, since, though both are dear, it would be wrong to put friendship before the truth.

There is another passage, however, which betrays one of the dilemmas of Aristotle’s outlook. He requires not only rationality but also material well-being and an absence of grave physical evil. Right conduct alone will not suffice since “the virtuous man may meet with the most atrocious luck or ill-treatment; and nobody… would maintain that a man with an existence of that sort was ‘happy’.” Other thinkers, from the pagan Epictetus to the Christian Samuel Johnson, have (understandably) challenged this view. For all its brilliance, Aristotelian “flourishing” in the strictest sense is within the reach of very few, and not even these fortunate beings are exempted from death, which must put an end to the noblest of purely mortal endeavors.

Posted in Philosophy

A Castaway’s Spiritual Odyssey

“Those people cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet what He has not given them. All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have.”—Robinson Crusoe

I have just finished Daniel Defoe’s famous chronicle of shipwreck and survival, which, quite unaccountably, I had not read at all during the first fifty years of my life. But it is not always to be regretted that we have kept the best wine until last. The deeply religious character of Robinson Crusoe is usually passed over in popularized retellings much as the bitter satire (and non-Lilliputian elements) are omitted in abridged versions of Gulliver’s Travels. For all the suspense and adventure – and minutiae of makeshift life on a desert island – the greatest drama of Defoe’s story is a moral one: “Redemption from sin is greater then redemption from affliction.”

There is no doubt as to the the misery and loneliness which first afflicts Crusoe.  Defoe does a wonderful job of capturing the tensions at work in the castaway’s soul, as he naturally wavers between hope and despair. Yet, in time, without foregoing his understandable desire for rescue, he achieves a degree of resignation. It is a spiritual heroism that is ultimately greater than the physical – though there is certainly plenty of the latter, which keeps the story from being merely preachy.

“All evils,” Crusoe muses, “are to be considered with the good that is in them.” Further, “in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again from the affliction we are fallen into….”

From the arrival of Friday to Crusoe’s quelling of the mutiny on board an English ship, there is a strong sense of divine providence at work in the intertwining of individual destinies that, taken in and of themselves in a short-sighted manner, would seem merely chaotic and hopeless. I would not have appreciated this point thirty years ago. Admittedly now it is much easier to discern, like Crusoe, how many things we eagerly pursue are often to our detriment while those we wish to avoid may work to our benefit.

Posted in Literature, Religion

The Gothic Mystery of Maud Ruthyn

Some books play hard to get, but they are worth the effort. It took me three or four tries to get through the entirety of Moby Dick. Another long-term investment was J. S. LeFanu’s Uncle Silas.  The mid-Victorian prose is skillfully crafted and the pace unhurried. The atmosphere is as important as the plot.

The air was still. The silvery vapour hung serenely on the far horizon, and the frosty stars blinked brightly. Everyone knows the effect of such a scene on a mind already saddened. Fancies and regrets float mistily in the dream, and the scene affects us with a strange mixture of memory and anticipation, like some sweet old air heard in the distance.

Long stretches of the story are without explicit drama, though every element is meticulously built up by the author toward the tale’s violent culmination. Another thing that raises Uncle Silas above standard melodrama is the subtlety of plot and psychology which defies facile attempts to prematurely unravel the story.

The novel takes its name from the reclusive uncle, whose guilt or innocence is at the heart of this Gothic mystery. But it is really the story of his young niece, Maud Ruthyn. By her own admission she is a mixture of irresolution and impetuosity. Maud’s upbringing at the hands of a kind, but aloof and eccentric, father leaves her unprepared for the evils that slowly coalesce around her, as symbolized by the appearance of the grotesque and menacing governess, Madame de la Rougierre. She is one of the truly despicable villains of English literature. Fortunately, Maude is aided by her elder cousin Lady Monica – whose opinionated common sense often adds a touch of humor as well as hope – and other allies whose good qualities are initially quite unsuspected by the reader.

For all its odd Swenborgian speculations, which seem to have intrigued LeFanu, it is the novel’s metaphysical aspect which gives it a depth and interest lacking in many contemporary works. “There is no dealing with great sorrow,” says Maude, “as if it were under the control of our wills. It is a terrible phenomenon, whose laws we must study, and to whose conditions we must submit, if we would mitigate it.” Yet even the worldly Lady Monica consoles her cousin over the death of her parents in these words: “We think too much of the poor remains, and too little of the spirit which lives for ever.”

Posted in Literature

Revenge of Conscience

I am borrowing the title of this post from a book by Dr. J. Budziszeswki.* This is not a review of that excellent work, though it contemplates similar themes. Recently I watched Scarlet Street, a 1945 film noir starring Edward G. Robinson, which offers an interesting cinematic exploration of vice and guilt. Whether it’s the older man, who is sucked into a life of lust, dishonesty and theft, or the sleazy couple who swindle and torment him—all pay a heavy price for their attempted ethical short-cuts.

At one point a reporter is speaking unawares to the murderer. His lines are charged with irony.  “No one escapes punishment. I figure we have a little courtroom right in here–judge, jury and executioner,” warns the journalist, while pointing to his heart. Some people, he says, think they can get away with their misdeeds, but “the problem moves right in here, where it can never get out, right here in solitary. So, you go right on punishing yourself. You can’t get away with it, never…. I’d rather have the judge give me the works than have to do it to myself.”

It’s the dilemma of self-knowledge, the one thing we can never escape. According to Dr. Budziszeswki, “conscience comes not from without but from within: though culture can trim the fringes, the core cannot be changed. But how people respond to this sense of guilt is not always the same.”

This is what happens to the murderer in Scarlet Street. In a fit of selfish outrage he kills the women who seduced him for monetary gain. He compounds his crime and permits suspicion to fall on the victim’s partner, who is eventually executed. The real culprit retreats into despair, ending his days as a vagrant tormented by his past. As St. Antony, the Egyptian hermit, said many centuries before:

The virtue that is within us only requires the human will…. A good creator must necessarily have made the soul good…. The Lord has entrusted our soul to us: let us keep what has been entrusted in the same state as we received it. No one can put forward as an excuse that what is born in him is external to him…. Our natural adornment is enough for us: you who are human must not disfigure what divine generosity has granted you. To wish to alter the works of God is to desecrate them.

*The Revenge of Conscience (Spence Publishing, 1999) is no longer in print; however, used copies are still obtainable and the second chapter of the book appeared as an essay in First Things.

Posted in Philosophy

Kant’s Categorical Imperative to the Rescue?

At the top of my reading pile is a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Prof. Paula Marantz Cohen argues for Kant’s Categorical Imperative in “easing the civility crisis.” The first imperative of the German Enlightenment philosopher “suggests that how you want to be treated should be generalized for everyone.” The problem with this rule is that right and left have their “own concept of moral righteousness and no ability to find common ground.” For this reason we’re asked to focus on the second imperative, of treating others with respect. As stated by Kant:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Prof. Cohen favors Kant’s pedagogical system, which she explains, could be utilized as easily by agnostics as by theists. Contrary to the educational assumptions of the 1960s, which focused on the freedom and autonomy of the self, “Kant’s moral theory centers on the freedom of others.” It begins with “negative” (yet necessary) proscriptions – knowing when to tell a very young child “no” without attempting to prematurely, and rather futility, reason things out. It is important for the child to know that “there is an authority beyond the self.” This is the foundation for the “positive” education of later years when people are taught to apply moral and rational analysis to real life situations.

The article summarizes the benefits of civility as a way to conduct a less vituperative dialogue over tough issues. The problem with the ideological approach is that it demonizes opponents and makes us assume the worst about others. Hence we violate Kant’s stricture of not treating people as “subjects” but merely as “objects,” or means to an end. To that way of thinking, if people can help us get what we want, great; and if they don’t, they must be silenced or pushed aside.

I think no decent person could disagree with this analysis, though perhaps left to itself the reasoning is circular. Without some higher, transcendent sanction (e.g. God), there is actually no imperative to follow Kant’s rules. Well-meaning attempts to patch up the crumbling Enlightenment cultural framework appear lacking. The post-modern debacle ultimately came about because we neglected some very important pre-modern truths. That said, unless we adopt a measure of good will, as Prof. Cohen proposes, we may never get a chance to politely discuss what those truths are.

Posted in Philosophy