Man Being a Creature Who Compares

Suffering from insomnia and looking for a hefty tome that I can studiously devote myself to (and distract myself from sublunary realities), I came across Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. The first chapter begins with this observation:

It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

I was reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s phrase about “man being a creature who compares” in his study in cultural contrasts between modern Britain and the English society of his youth. When not reading Dalyrmple’s columns in back issues of City Journal and New Criterion (passed on to me by my father during a recent trip to Texas), I have been glancing at Pascal’s Pensees. It’s an acquaintance long overdue. While many of the passages are abrupt and sketchy, there are some gems that invite further reflection:

Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical (381).

It’s the sort of remark that would serve as a witty preface to an essay on intellectual life. I may return to that theme at some point. For now random commentary must suffice. And needless to say, one could devote an entire book to Pascal’s paradox about atheism: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true” (187).

Posted in Cardinal Newman, Literature, Philosophy, Theodore Dalrymple

Sunbeams from Cucumbers? An Epicurean Experiment

It is interesting to find philosophical parallels between widely different sources. Some comparisons are more successful than others. (Attempts to elicit traditional insights, other than negative ones, from entertainment like Game of Thrones or Fleabag remain for me fairly unconvincing.) Although, in Thomistic terms, there is some degree of good to be found in everything, people often miss the importance of proportion. I am reminded of the quack scientists of the Island of Balnibarbi, from Gulliver’s Travels, who unsuccessfully try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. Whether it’s philosophy or fiction, you have to ask: what is the return on your investment?

Earlier this year I commented on the refined hedonism of Epicurus. I am studying him again as part of a course on Aristotelian and Hellenistic philosophy. The point is not that one can reconcile Epicurus’ views on ethical fundamentals with the outlook of Plato, Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. But, like the Stoic Seneca, one does sense a healthy challenge by the Epicureans on practical methods of achieving nobler outcomes.

Epicureanism presents itself as a “therapeutic” philosophy. It claims to promote ataraxia (serenity) and prevent chronic emotional distress. Since “what is good is easy to obtain” it follows that much of our disappointment in life is due to unrealistic expectations. Although we can rightfully enjoy exceptional pleasures (i.e., the weekend beach house), we should not assume we will always have them.

We set realistic expectations by separating natural desires (e.g. eating food) from acquired desires (e.g. eating Shawarma). Epicurus even takes it a step further by allowing us to endure deprivation or pain, seeing them in the context of what we have enjoyed overall in life, weighing more important pleasures (like friendship) against lesser inconveniences. Finally, he encourages a sense of gratitude and warns us to forget past evils. This permits us to look at things in a far more positive light.

Without stretching the point too much there are occasional points of overlap between the materialist philosopher and someone like Thomas à Kempis. At any rate, I like to tell myself that if the worldly adages of Epicurus are, with a little effort, within our grasp, then perhaps in time we can advance to loftier goals.

But, you may say, [people] enjoy many pleasures, and follow their own desires; in this way they make light of any troubles. Yet, even if they enjoy whatever they desire, how long will this last? (The Imitation of Christ, III.12).

Posted in Philosophy

Villains, Victorians, and Westerns

In a recent essay for The New Criterion, Henrik Bering refers to his youthful initiation into nineteenth century English literature: “I was all set to become the perfect Victorian, ready to take on the duties of [British] empire, were it not for two minor obstacles: I was born in the wrong country and in the wrong century. One might laugh at all this today, but my reading did produce a certain robust outlook on the world and a sense of right and wrong. I did not always abide by it but at least I had a compass.” He appropriately references Oliver Twist and other Dickens novels.

My upbringing was less bookish than Bering’s (literature came later for me), but these cultural assumptions were mirrored in the world of pre-cable television that I was just old enough to experience. The same “Victorian” morality held good whether it was an adaption of Dickens or a classic western. It is no coincidence that legendary cowboy heroics developed around the same time that Conan Doyle and Kipling were writing. These values carried over into mid-20th century story telling, like the novels of Louis L’Amour.

One of L’Amour’s stories, Dark Canyon, is instructive. A particularly villainous figure has ignoble designs on a female character. The point repeatedly made in the story is that whatever violence a gunslinger might commit against other armed men, any violation of a woman was beyond the pale, even in the harsh but essentially chivalrous code of the frontier. It is perhaps a romanticized view of the West, though one that I’ve come across many times. The point is not that society may fall short of its own standards, but that it has standards at all.

Posted in Art and Culture, Fiction, Literature

Time Out with Plotinus

Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) is considered the founder of neo-Platonism, or the “high” Platonism of the late Roman Empire. Born in Hellenistic Egypt, he studied philosophy, took part in an ill-fated expedition to Persia under Emperor Gordion III and eventually settled in Rome, where he founded a school which attracted a number of prominent students. His notes and lectures, known as the Enneads, were posthumously compiled by Porphyry. A concise and accessible selection of this imposing opus, The Essential Plotinus, (ed. Elmer O’Brien, S.J.) is available from Hackett Publishing.

Recently Plotinus has become my preferred reading at the end of day. He offers more than learned discourses. The philosopher was also something of a mystic, devoted to the moral and ascetic, as well intellectual, way of life. It is not surprising that many later Christian thinkers found his ideas amenable to their own.

In the first treatise in O’Brien’s volume, that on aesthetics, Plotinus explains that all sensible beauty is a reflection of a higher, immaterial, beauty found in The Intelligence (his understanding of divinity). He says that this realm of understanding is attained as a kind of vision acquired through stages of reflection and purification. Elsewhere he says that this spiritual discipline cleanses “our being, our desires, and all our other affections, our griefs, and the like.” Further, “likeness to God is likeness to the model [of wisdom] itself.”

“Like anyone just awakened,” he explains, “the soul cannot look at bright objects. It must be persuaded to look first at beautiful habits,” namely “the virtue of men known for their goodness….. So ascending, the soul will come first to The Intelligence and will survey all the beautiful Ideas therein and will avow their beauty….” Again: “Only the mind’s eye can contemplate this mighty beauty. But if it comes to contemplation purblind with vice, impure, weak, without the strength to look upon brilliant objects, it then sees nothing even if it is placed in the presence of an object that can be seen.” This says a lot about human psychology and how we must become attuned to interior beauty and goodness to appreciate their external manifestations as well.

Reading Plotinus has inspired me to resume some formal philosophical studies online, and so I will be taking a break from blogging during the coming weeks.

Posted in Philosophy

Shades of Right and Wrong

“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.”—Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

At the tail-end of the summer doldrums I picked up my copy of Oliver Twist. Though displaying the usual Dickensian sentimentality, it is a psychologically shrewd and gritty story beneath the nineteenth-century euphemisms. The reader is struck by the sordidness of the London slums; most of all, there is the outrage the author conjures up against injustice and cruelty, especially toward children.

One of the subplots that stands out to me is the plight of Nancy, a member of Fagin’s gang. Abandoned by her parents, her thieving colleagues are the only family she knows. She turns to the vicious Bill Sikes as a father/husband figure. In this respect the novel was an early exploration of the motivations behind abusive relationships. But if Nancy’s situation belies that of the stereotypical heroine, neither is it completely ambiguous. In the end she decides to do the right thing by Oliver even at the risk of her own life.

The same cannot be said of Sikes. His fate is pathetic, though deserved. Dickens conjures up further ethical complexities in the closing scenes as the mob trails the murderer to his hideout along the Thames. It is clear that some of these people enjoy the chase as a form of brutal entertainment like cock-fighting or public executions more than they appreciate the moral drama. It should give us pause. Yet the “real hues,” as Dickens calls them, are never blurred into meaningless greys.

Dickens prefers justice, even in a highly imperfect world, to a complete lack of accountability. I found this same outlook vindicated in the Louis L’Amour western, The Quick and the Dead. Duncan, the greenhorn homesteader, is a refined and educated man. He regrets the violent death of an outlaw. His wife Susanna does not relish the prospect either, but replies: “When a man takes a gun in his hand against other men he must expect to be killed. He becomes the enemy of all men when he breaks the laws of society.” Were that tough but equitable creed absent in Dickens’ universe, Oliver Twist would never have escaped the villainy of Bumble, Sikes, Monks and Fagin.

Posted in Charles Dickens, Fiction, Literature

Assessing Marx’s Culpability

Referring to the obsessive personality of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Albert Camus points out that he “would kill everybody on earth in order to posses Cathy, but it would never occur to him to say that murder is reasonable or theoretically defensible.” That, it seems, is the task of certain forms of political idealism. Or as Camus put it, “philosophy… can be used for any purpose—even for transforming murderers into judges.”

In a similar vein Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him…. The imagination and the spiritual strength of  Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”

Yet this is a point that French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel seemed unwilling to concede. Though for much of his life he wrote extensively on behalf of classical liberalism, he was more focused on the mechanics of totalitarian power than the ideas which seek to justify and inspire it. It is understandable insofar as many apparatchiks of tyranny are sheer opportunists. Even the “true believers” can be ruthlessly pragmatic when their aims are threatened. But in the words of biographer Daniel Mahoney, “Jouvenel’s discussion of political violence is marred by a failure to adequately account for the interaction of utopian ideologies with the perverted aesthetic sensibility that made violence attractive to many thinkers and actors in the first place.”

Later in life, as Mahoney explains—whether out of vanity or polemical fatigue—Jouvenel reverted to the leftist aspirations of his youth. One of his final books was on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Though not an entirely uncritical appraisal, its conclusions were ambivalent. It is clear that Jouvenel retained an affection for Marx the idealist even if he distanced himself from the Communist regimes that claimed him as their founder. He wrote that Marx’s “thought opens the road to despotic regimes, involuntarily but logically.” Would Marx have embraced or repudiated Stalin? It is hard to say. Intellectuals and visionaries are by no means immune to murderous fantasies.

Toward the end of his life Eric Hobsbawm infamously stated that the murder of fifteen or twenty million people would be justified if it resulted in a Communist paradise. In reviewing a recent laudatory biography of the Marxist scholar, David Pryce-Jones (an acquaintance of Hobsbawm) arrives at the following conclusion: “The man who puts a bullet into the back of his victim’s head is just a mindless thug who knows no better.” Yet one can easily imagine Hobsbawm as “the commissar ordering the crimes the mindless thugs are committing. It was their good fortune that the British did not have to discover whether or not he would sign their death warrants.”

Related commentary: Idealism and Exploitation

Posted in Philosophy, Politics

Benevolent to Man, Reverent to God

In a letter written in 1777 to the bookseller Edward Dilly, the biographer Samuel Johnson said of the somewhat obscure poet Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “I would not willingly be reduced to tell of him only that he was born and died. Yet of his life I know very little, and therefore must pass him in a manner very unworthy of his character, unless some of his friends will favour me with the necessary information….”

As it turns out, Dr. Thomas Gibbons, an acquaintance of Johnson, was able to supply some of the details included in his study of Watts. Johnson was himself a High Church Anglican, and so he notes with gently qualified praise of the Congregationalist poet, “happy will be that reader whose mind is disposed by [Watt’s] verses, or his prose, to imitate him in all but his nonconformity, to copy his benevolence to man, and his reverence to God.” Along those same lines he says:

He was one of the first authors that taught the Dissenters to court attention by the graces of language. Whatever they had among them before, whether of learning or acuteness, was commonly obscured and blunted by coarseness and inelegance of style. He shewed them that zeal and purity might be expressed and enforced by polished diction.

One of the more touching episodes in the life of this literary-minded minister was his retirement due to prolonged illness. Some people are made worse by being an invalid. The illustrious Alexander Pope (also chronicled by Johnson) became so demanding and peevish in old age that his caretaker was openly relieved at his passing. By contrast, Watts was graciously taken in by a married couple for over thirty years, and it seems that all parties benefited from the situation.

By his natural temper he was quick of resentment, but by his established and habitual practice he was gentle, modest, and inoffensive. His tenderness appeared in his attention to children and to the poor. To the poor, while he lived in the family of his friend, he allowed the third part of his annual revenue…. and for children he condescended to lay aside the scholar, the philosopher, and the wit, to write little poems of devotion and systems of instruction, adapted to their wants and capacities….

As a side note, the last unabridged edition of Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets was published by Everyman’s Library. Unfortunately it has long been out of print. Oxford Classics has recently issued an affordable paperback selection; however, it omits many of the shorter studies of lesser-known poets.

Posted in Literature, Religion, Samuel Johnson

The Ambivalence of History

“We all work together to one end, some of us with conscious understanding, others without knowing it…”–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI.42

There are happy coincidences when the things we read all seem to be making the same point. Or perhaps we become more aware of patterns previously present, but overlooked. A case in point is Jacques Maritain’s On the Philosophy of History (1957)* which I read not long after Malcolm Muggeridge’s Christian assessment of human events.

I find some of Maritain’s analysis to be overly optimistic, as regards the trajectory of postwar democratic culture. That said, there are insights worth rediscovering: specifically, what he refers to as the “ambivalence of history” and the “law of the double movement.”

[W]e may say that at each moment human history offers to us two faces. One of these faces gives grounds to the pessimist, who would like to condemn this period of history. And the other gives grounds to the optimist, who would like to see the same period as merely glorious….

It is a point of subtlety. Social development, like human experience on the individual level, is seldom unilinear. Both good and bad trends exist side by side. Religiously speaking, Maritain draws inspiration for his interpretation from the parable of the wheat and the cockle (Mt. 13:24-30).

Along with the possibility of misunderstanding history in radical or reactionary ways, life’s contradictions may perhaps incline us to apathy. But that’s not what the French philosopher is recommending. Truth does exist; there are moral gains in society. Nevertheless, these advances don’t occur all at once, nor are they imperishable.

An error in spiritual principle bears its inevitable fruit: we must expose the error and avow the loss. During the same period, however, there is an advance in human affairs, there are new human conquests. There are, joined to certain evils, gains and achievements that have an almost sacred value since they are produced in the order of divine Providence: we must acknowledge these achievements and these gains.

It is a point very much in line with Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine or Belloc’s adage that “truth comes by conflict.”

A more explicitly theological interpretation of this view is provided by Maritain’s contemporary, Msgr. Ronald Knox. He wrote that while “the action of human wills” often appears to thwart God’s purpose, “we know by faith that it is not so; the action of human wills, even of sinful human wills, does but in fact subserve his ends; he used the treachery of Judas as the lever of a world’s redemption” (The Pastoral Sermons).

* A free online version of this work is available through the Jacques Maritain Center.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Religion

The End of Philosophizing

That the end of life is also the end of philosophizing can be seen in two ways: first, that philosophy finds its culmination in, and prepares us for, death (as famously expressed by Cicero); second, that rational inquiry comes to an end, not in the sense of failure but that death necessarily takes us beyond it.

In Death and Immortality, the German Thomist Josef Pieper (1904-1997) explores the destiny of human consciousness in light of the major schools of thought. At the heart of his analysis is an unraveling of popular conceptions about the “immorality of the soul.” Many of these views had their origin in pre-Christian ethical systems and culminated in the works of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant. The oft-expressed idea is that the body is a “tool” (or, at worst, a “prison”) from which the purely intellectual soul is liberated at death.

But for the Christian the doctrine of the Resurrection teaches that the person is both soul and body; the two are ultimately inseparable, although at the moment of death they are temporarily rendered asunder. In this respect, the author explains, traditional Christian theology is somewhat in agreement with modern views that insist on how much our psychology is tied up with our physicality. Hence the more accurate description of “immorality” is the indestructibility of the soul along with its eventual reuniting with the body.

The big question—the “why” of death—is undoubtedly the most difficult to answer, and is the one that Pieper spends the most time discussing. Many pagans sensed that mortality was the result of some primal fault. For Jews and Christians, it was punishment for the transgression of our First Parents. But there is also an individual aspect to this idea of  guilt. The author notes that “there is no human experience which possesses more purifying force than the experience of impending death.” And interestingly it was Plato who (says Pieper) believed that “no form of existence in the beyond is conceivable which would not be a disposition granted after divine judgment.” It is a mystery that certainly should not be treated flippantly. Death and Immorality handles it with grace and insight.

Although post-Christian thinkers have often invoked “Platonism” as the basis for their views on “immortality,” Pieper argues that this is a superficial understanding of what Plato actually wrote. In his dialogue Phaedo the Greek thinker makes it clear that Socrates, in confronting death, drew upon mystical rather than rationalistic accounts of the afterlife.  Rather tantalizingly, Plato refers in another dialogue (Phaedrus), to the person as “a living being, spiritual and physical at once… soul and body united for all time.”

For more about the book, see my earlier post. Further background on the author can be found in my essay in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

Posted in Josef Pieper, Philosophy, Religion

Aristotle and Others

I am selectively browsing Aristotle’s Politics. In Book II he critiques the views of his own teacher, Plato, author of the utopian Republic. Aristotle challenges the assertion, in reference to communal ownership, that it is preferable that “the whole state should be as much of a unity as possible.”

But obviously a state which becomes progressively more and more of a unity will cease to be a state at all. Plurality of numbers is natural in a state; and the farther it moves way from plurality to unity, the less a state it becomes and the more a household, and the household in turn an individual…. So, even if it were possible to make such a unification, it ought not to be done; it will destroy the state. The state consists not merely of a plurality of men, but of different kinds of men; you cannot make a state out of men who are all alike.

The parallels with totalitarianism come to mind, as does the insincere conformism surrounding postmodern “diversity.” In a similar vein, Roger Scruton has noted that “unreal toleration means not discriminating at all against any rival views… accepting all views as equally valid.” But in fact toleration means just the opposite: “accepting what you don’t approve,” as a form of forbearance to mitigate overt conflict. There is no virtue in accommodating a view one already agrees with. Unfortunately, what is popularly promoted as tolerance today is the sort of suffocating compulsory “unity” that Aristotle warns against.

In “Hayek’s Tragic Capitalism” (Claremont Review of Books) Dr. Edward Feser offers a perceptive take on the free market that is guardedly sympathetic. In particular, he examines the paradoxes of capitalism, as understood by the famous Austrian economist:

[Capitalist society] must operate on the principle that what is good or bad for its citizens is whatever they take to be good or bad for them. And the problem is that this subjectivist principle is a universal acid that inevitably eats away at all morality—including the moral principles Hayek thinks essential to the preservation of capitalist society.

It has long been my contention that political and economic models work best when we treat them as means to an end, not ends in themselves.

Essayist Theodore Dalrymple, in recalling a humanitarian visit to the Asian country of East Timor, mentions staying at a hotel frequented by drunken Indonesian soldiers who (during the 1975-1999 occupation) had a propensity for committing atrocities against the local population. It seems that after a hard day’s oppression they liked to regale the bar patrons with renditions of popular tunes. According to Dalrymple, “they favored songs of the most saccharine sentimentality. Ever since, I have associated such sentimentality with the worst kind of brutality and bad conscience.” I am reminded of stories about how Stalin, the butcher of millions, would get misty-eyed during Moscow concerts, or of Nazi guards who could on occasion be sentimental about their Jewish victims, especially children. But they gassed them just the same.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple