Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wisdom from…

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DENIS THE CARTHUSIAN (1408–1471): Inner peace flows from love

The way to attain the perfection of divine love is thus stated: Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? In other words: Do not imagine that I have come to offer people a sensual, worldly, and unruly peace that will enable them to be united in their vices and achieve earthly prosperity. No, I tell you, I have not come to offer that kind of peace, but rather division––a good, healthy kind of division, physical as well as spiritual. Love for God and desire for inner peace will set those who believe in me at odds with wicked men and women, and make them part company with those who would turn them from their course of spiritual progress and from the purity of divine love, or who attempt to hinder them.

Good, interior, spiritual peace consists in the repose of the mind in God, and in a rightly ordered harmony. To bestow this peace was the chief reason for Christ's coming. This inner peace flows from love. It is an unassailable joy of the mind in God, and it is called peace of heart. It is the beginning and a kind of foretaste of the peace of the saints in heaven––the peace of eternity.
(On Luke: Opera Omnia 12, 72-74.)

"…at odds with wicked men and women…." And who says 'antithesis' began with or belongs to the Reformed!

"…a sensual, worldly, and unruly peace…[to] achieve earthly prosperity." The human infatuation with this pseudo-peace is some of what I was getting in my cynical post earlier about bullshit.

Denis was greatly influenced by the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and wrote precious biblical commentaries.

ST. AUGUSTINE: Legitimate Human Longing

Even though I grieve that I do not see you, I take some comfort in my pain. I have no patience with that spurious "strength of character" that puts up patiently with the absence of good things. Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? I cannot refrain from this longing; I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control. And in this sweet yearning I seek some small consolation.
-- Letter 27, 1

Prayer. Lord, show me the way I must travel that I may see you.
-- Soliloquies 1, 1


Are not the crosses of God sweet and full of consolation? I say yes. If Providence should so desire, we should be willing even to die, in imitation of the Savior. Indeed, if need be, let us die on the cross! Then the storms and tempests which assail our hearts and often destroy our calm will not influence us. Let us mortify ourselves in the inmost part of our being, so that our spirit of faith remains steadfast. No matter what happens to us, we will live in peace; even if we lost everything, what does it matter when there is still God?
(Letters 402; O. XIII, pp. 294-295)


SURELY the vilest point of human vanity is exactly that; to ask to be admired for admiring what your admirers do not admire.
(Introduction to 'Bleak House.')


Don't read this… 

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I repeat: Don't read this.

Proposition: Eminem is the Chuck Norris of rap.

Proposition: A meme is just a fancy new, scientistically gilded word for "idea". Get over it.

Proposition: It is commonly claimed, by both Asians and non-Asians, that Asian men can't and don't really grow facial hair; and yet, even a cursory review of the most notable portaits in Chinese history reveals bearded face after bearded face. This is very odd.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Peircing insights…

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[Another bad philosophy pun, I know.]

"…the two distinct meanings of the intertwined concepts that Peirce variously called 'abduction' and 'retroduction.' One meaning refers to a distinct form of logical inference; the other, to the form of a deliberate and overarching logical method which incorporates abduction, deduction, and induction for its full performance."

-- "Abduction as an aspect of retroduction" by Phyllis Chiasson

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wisdom from…

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ST. JOHN EUDES (1601–1680)*: Relying on the goodness of God

Our beloved Savior assures us in various places in his holy scriptures that he never ceases to watch over and care for us, and that he carries us and will always carry us in his own bosom, in his heart, and in his soul. Even if there were a mother who came to forget the child she bore in her womb, he would never forget us; he has written us on his hands, so as to have us always before his eyes; whoever touches us touches the apple of his eye; we should never be anxious about what we need to live on and to wear, for he knows very well that we need these things and takes care to provide them for us.

Let us beware of ever relying on the influence or favor of our friends, on our possessions, intelligence, knowledge, strength, good desires, and resolutions; on our prayers, or even on the confidence we are aware of having in God; on human resources or on any created thing, but solely on the mercy of God. It is not that we should make no use of the things I have mentioned, and bring to our aid everything we can to help us overcome our faults, practice virtue, manage and carry out the work God has put into our hands, and fulfill the duties of our station in life. But we must give up all idea of expecting support from these things, and all the confidence we might have in them, and rely entirely on the goodness of our Lord.
(The Kingdom of Jesus, Oeuvres I, 238-239.)

John joined the secular clergy and then the Oratory. He was a great preacher and also founded a religious congregation for the running of seminaries. Father Eudes, during his long life, preached not less than one hundred and ten missions, three at Paris, one at Versailles, one at St-Germaine-en-Laye, and the others in different parts of France. Normandy was the principal theatre of his apostolic labours.

* The website from which I got this quotation had written 1601–1860 for Eudes's dates! I saw fit to adjust it to a postdiluvian age.

ST. AUGUSTINE: The Providence of God

God is the unchanging conductor as well as the unchanged creator of all things that change. When he adds, abolishes, curtails, increases, or diminishes the rites of any age, he is ordering all events according to his providence. This will hold good until the beauty of the completed course of time––whose parts are the dispensations suitable to each different period––shall have played itself out, like the great melody of some ineffable composer.
-- Letter 138, 1

Prayer. Instruct me, Lord, and command what you will. But first heal me and open my ears that I may hear your words.
-- Soliloquies 1, 1


God undoubtedly prepared paradise only for such as He foresaw would be His. Therefore let us be His both by faith and by works, and He will be ours by glory. It is in our power to be His, for although to belong to God is a gift from God, yet it is a gift that God denies to no one. God offers it to all and gives it to those who sincerely consent to receive it. Note well, I beg of you, how ardently God desires us to be His, since to this end He has made Himself entirely ours. He gives us both His death and His life: His life, so that we may be freed from eternal death; His death, so that we can enjoy eternal life. Let us live in peace, then, and serve God so as to be His in this mortal life and still more so in life eternal.
(T.L.G. Book 3, Ch. 5; O. IV, pp. 186-187)


IN a hollow of the grey-green hills of rainy Ireland lived an old, old woman, whose uncle was always Cambridge at the Boat Race. But in her grey-green hollows, she knew nothing of this; she didn't know that there was a Boat Race. Also she did not know that she had an uncle. She had heard of nobody at all, except of George the First, of whom she had heard (I know not why), and in whose historical memory she put her simple trust. And by and by, in God's good time, it was discovered that this uncle of hers was really not her uncle, and they came and told her so. She smiled through her tears, and said only, 'Virtue is its own reward.'
('The Napoleon of Notting Hill.')

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's true…

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I love this:

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Monday, August 25, 2008

This is so moving…

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[Do they make digital produce for you to toss at me now?]

Dubai plans 'moving' skyscraper, BBC News, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 09:53 UK

Wisdom from…

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[Although these posts are, arguably, "the most awesome thing in the universe", I have chosen not to post them every day so that, perhaps, their impact may be greater, or last longer. The point of these quotes is to illuminate, stimulate, and convict readers at their depths in Christ (and even, hopefully, to enlighten, convict, and attract those outside Him), not merely to satisfy their sense of literary "mileage" online. It's probably worthwhile reading the same 'Wisdom from…' over two or three days. But without further ado…!]

JULIAN OF NORWICH (1342–1423): Our will wants God

Our lover is eternity, and has made us for himself alone, has restored us by his blessed passion, and keeps us in his blessed love. And all because he is goodness. Our lover desires indeed that our soul should cleave to him with all its might, and ever hold on to his goodness. Beyond our power to imagine does this most please God, and speed the soul on its course.

The love of God Most High for our soul is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness of the love that our Maker has for us. By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us. Then we can ask reverently of our lover whatever we will. For by nature our will wants God, and the good will of God wants us. We shall never cease wanting and longing until we possess him in fullness and joy. Then we shall have no further wants. Meanwhile his will is that we go on knowing and loving until we are perfected in heaven.
(Revelations of Divine Love, 68-71.)

In God, our 'want' truly coincides with our 'need', and vice versa. Outside of Him, our 'need' only falsely coincides with 'want', on a verbal level, in order to justify the latter with the former. Need, as I have said more than once, is the most overused word in any language. "It's only natural in this world to…. I need to…." No. It's only natural in this world to be supernatural in Christ.

Julian was an anchoress who lived in solitude in Norwich, England, where she received the sixteen "showings" or revelations of God's love in a series of experience-visions.

ST AUGUSTINE: Perseverance into Old Age

Please forgive me if I have spoken too much. I am a long-winded old man, and ill health has made me anxious. As you see, I have grown old with the passing years. But for a long time now, this ill health has made an old man of me. However, if God is pleased with what I have just said, he will give me strength. I will not desert you.
-- Sermon 355, 7

Prayer. Lord, with your help we have done what you commanded. Reward us, now, as you promised.
-- Sermon 31, 6


Raise your eyes to Heaven and you will see that no one arrives there without hard work and continual afflictions. When things go wrong, say to yourself, "This is the road to Heaven. I see the harbor and I am sure that the tempests will not stop me from reaching it."
(Letters 1281; O. XVII, p. 347)


ALL I have to urge is that I dislike the big Whiteley shop, and that I dislike Socialism because it will (according to Socialists) be so like that shop. It is its fulfilment, not its reversal. I do not object to Socialism, because it will revolutionize our commerce, but because it will leave it so horribly the same.
('What's Wrong with the World.')


Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to achieve success…

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[As with so much on FCA, this is a first draft. I want to let it stand right now as is, even though I realize it needs some reordering and alterations. Oh, and I am impishly aware of the irony involved in posting this essay on a blog, an irony which I think you will appreciate once you read it.]

I have often struggled with maintaining my focus in my studies and writings. I have polymath tendencies, if not polymath abilities. The same goes for my spiritual life, of course, but that is not as difficult to "manage" sometimes as my academic efforts, if only because my life in Christ, no matter how poorly and hypocritically I may live it, is fundamental to every other "project" in my life. So let me confine myself in this post to those "first-place secondary" concerns of mine, reading and writing. It is my hope that you can find merit in this post even if those activities occupy you much less than they do me.

How have I learned to ignore the temptation to read every latest book on every topic that "interests" me? How have I learned to know when one project or line of thought demands more attention and other projects must be sacrificed? How do I know which questions should occupy me more than others? How have I learned to prioritize my reading from amongst the heaps and heaps of unread books lurking in every corner? How have I learned to toss out the chaff of personal ambition and hold onto the grain of true success and value?

The truth is, I have not completely learned how to do any of these things. But I have gradually learned ways towards learning such skills. I believe the key to sorting through success and pseudo-success––that is, discerning away from a vague feeling of narcissistic, look-what-I-did! "accomplishment" and towards a clear sense of sacrificial fruitfulness––is knowing those whom you want to see your success. You have to know your audience, as the writing gurus say. The fact is, not every one will like, or even be interested in, most of what you value, believe, produce, say, or effect in this life. So why do we have this hyper-democratic sense of being "important" in the eyes of "the world", when those enormous eyes for the most part don't even look our way?

To be more concrete, I will say that one of the greatest aids to my efforts as a writer is having an increasingly clear sense of whom I actually hope reads and enjoys my "stuff". Instead of wanting "people" to read my "stuff", I find it tremendously motivating and sobering to consider one particular essay, even one small aphorism, as written on behalf of one particular person, perhaps in light of one conversation we had or in order to address one passing question he posed. Creativity can be no more general, I would say, than love. It is a truism, because true, that he who loves "people" very often ends up hating this person or that as messy, concrete obstacles to the all-consuming vision of a beloved but faceless human family in the sky. It is just as nonsensical to say I love my family when I actually hate Uncle Fester or don't even bother to keep in touch with Auntie Em. Because my creativity is, or should be, an act of love––an ongoing process of offering my vision of the world as beloved in each particular by God––I cannot be as vague about it as those who love "everybody" or write for "the people". The problem with loving everybody is that nobody is 'everybody'; only somebody is a somebody and, once you grasp that, nobody is a nobody. The same problem extends to writing, which is a form of communicating. Talking to everybody amounts to talking to nobody. Only by consciously desiring to talk with somebody can I hope to succeed in genuine communication qua communion. If I penned every essay from now on in the hope of keeping a family member in the Church, or of bringing an old classmate into Her life, without even reflecting on how "relevant" my works are to "contemporary society" or how heavily decorated they are with the reigning baubles of academia, it would be a mental provincialism best called holy love. It would be success on a human scale.

This perspective is valuable in my studies as well, although it can be reversed, since I, as the reader, am often the one being spoken to. When I shuffle through my books, trying to decide which is next, I must ignore the intellectually hedonistic temptation to read "everything", since, to read everything is very much a good way to read nothing. Information overload is not only a cognitive, but also an aesthetic, problem. By giving greater value to the volume of books and words you read than to the content and quality of those words, you end up trivializing everything in a haze of "data". The painting becomes the canvas. Only by valuing certain books and authors more than others, and, let it be plainly stated, only by rejecting, ignoring, marginalizing, and even, in a certain way, loathing certain books and authors, can we ever really build an inner world of knowledge from the information we imbibe. When we consider buying and reading a book, we need to ask ourselves frankly, bluntly, do we even care what this person has to say? Do we genuinely believe adding some book's contents to our inner world will be of any use to our larger concerns, and, more important, to our endeavor to pass something along to those whom we love? These questions, and others like them, are stud-finders in the walls of information in which we live. By tapping along those walls with parsimonious hand, we can find solid objects beneath the welter of noise, which indicate a hidden inner structure of the world; we can, as it were, hear the world by reflecting on whether what we see immediately is any real value for us and for the few concrete persons we are privileged to know in this life.

We need questions like this simply because the modern world is designed, to an almost diabolically astute degree, to trigger our inborn biological impulses and to smother our own values in such a way that every somebody becomes one indiscernible piece of everybody. And as any ad-man knows, everybody is the best customer in the world. (This is why the enormity of cloning has just as much to do with the way it makes fetuses into useful bullshit as it has to do with the way it will make each person a replaceable "person model" for the demands of the bullshit market.) We need to ask ourselves questions like this at every turn––what am I really doing in this coffee shop? why am I flipping through this arcane, academic manual on hairsplitting? why am I really belaboring the conversation with my "opinion"?––because they are spades with which we can stay above the immense waves of bullshit spewed forth every moment from every mouth and mind on the planet, including our own. And, as I think some readers here will recall, I mean bullshit in a very technical sense, taking my lead from Harry Frankfurt (cf. this post).[1] Bullshit is the mortar we use to build our houses of straw. No wonder so many lives stink and crumble. Bullshit is the mortar we use to build up our ego-castle higher than the next guy's. Bullshit is everything we think should be true, since it fits in so nicely with our apathy and agenda. There is a long tradition of taking religion as bullshit in this sense, but that tradition is its own kind of bullshit parade, too. We are covered in bullshit, and we enjoy it for the most part, because it allows us to blend in so well with everything else and "everybody". The more bullshit you have, the greater seems your success. It seems, however, that true success means going naked.

With those words, naked and everybody, in mind, let me cite Friedrich Nietzsche at some length:

A traveller who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. … But what is it that compels the individual human being to fear his neighbour, to think and act herd-fashion, and not to be glad of himself? … In the vast majority it is the desire for comfort, inertia––in short, that inclination to laziness of which the traveller spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are timorous, and what they fear most is the troubles with which any unconditional honesty and nudity would burden them. Only artists hate this slovenly life in borrowed manners and loosely fitting opinions and unveil the secret, everybody's bad conscience, the principle that every human being is a unique wonder; they dare to show us the human being as he is, down to the last muscle, himself and himself alone…, that in this rigorous consistency of his uniqueness he is beautiful and worth contemplating, as novel and incredible as every work of nature, and by no means dull. When a great thinker despises men, it is their laziness that he despises: for it is on account of this that they have the appearance of factory products and seem indifferent and unworthy of companionship or instruction. The human being who does not wish to belong to the mass must merely cease being comfortable with himself; let him follow his conscience which shouts at him: "Be yourself! What you are at present doing, opining, and desiring, that is not really you."

––as cited here in W. Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre.

Only by being naked among your fellow man will you make any true contact with them. Caked in a cloak of comforting bullshit––the emperor's real new clothes––we are unable to feel and touch, much less see, any-one in the monochromatic foulness of most of what passes for life. Escaping bullshit very often means saying you couldn't give a shit about the latest gizmos and fads, and realizing others don't really either. I may sound like a foul curmudgeon, but I am only trying to be a cynic in the best sense of the word. A cynic––Greek for 'dog'––barks warnings and rejects most of the world he sees around him, only because, being so much lower than everyone else, he can see up under the bullshit cloaks people wear, and wants to let everyone know things would be a lot better naked. Having cited Nietzsche at such length, it may seem an inescapable conclusion that I am secretly a Nietzschean in Catholic garb. But no. Even Balaam's ass could prophesy, so I think it is no small wonder Nietzsche did too from time to time (cf. the work of Merold Westphal if you don't believe me!). Nietzsche execrated the herd-like customs of his age, as I do in many ways (is anything more herd-like and au courant these days than the snappy "new atheism", which is really just the old atheism having a midlife crisis?). The difference between Christian cynic like myself and Nietzsche, is that he eventually succumbed to his freewheeling nihilism (the words cited above were penned in 1874 and Nietzsche died in 1900) and came to see life as bullshit through and through, whereas I believe glory lies beneath the dung, while I am constantly learning to succumb to hope and see the world as better the bullshit it wallows in. Another key difference is that Nietzsche claims the best way to navigate through life's bottomless bullshit, is to make clubs out of whatever bullshit you prefer and knock others down beneath you, that you might ascend the ladder of bullshit in a way that blinds you to anything but your own über-bullshit (at which point it would no longer smell), while I claim the best way to get free, is to be strung up on the Cross and cleansed in the Blood. I am not a Nietzschean, but I am a pessimist, at least in light of the difference I read that exists between an optimist and a pessimist: the optimist thinks the world couldn't be any better, and the pessimist fears he might be right. By barking, cynicking, at the world's bullshit, as I find myself doing in this post, I am being pessimistic in a gloriously optimistic way: there is life, indeed, there really only is life, after bullshit! Be cleansed, be naked!

What has all this bullshit to do with my earlier comments on value-based, person-oriented reading and writing? By asking yourself how much of your desire to write X, Y, or Z is motivated by a desire to sound smart, or make a point, or settle the issue, etc., you may find yourself wondering just how much bullshit is motivating you. And by asking yourself not only how much bullshit a certain book seems to hold in its pages, but also how much your "interest" in it or "need" for the book's "input" is powered by a subconscious geyser of bullshit bubbling within you, you may find the freedom to put the book back on the shelf and listen instead to the person at your side. Be ruthless in ejecting the bullshit from your life (as if "your" life meant much at all when divorced from the people that occupy it or the Person who provides it). And do this by ruthlessly valuing a handful of people you respect enough to listen to, love enough to argue with, and believe really need to hear what you are trying to say. Find the few people about whom you can really say, "I hope she reads THIS! I really want to share THIS BOOK with him! I want to mention THIS idea to her! I want to ask THIS question of him! THIS is a person I want to learn from!" Not only will those outside this (surprisingly small) circle not care what you have to say or ask, but also you yourself probably don't really care what others have to say to, or ask of, you.

While I have drawn from my own experiences as a scribbler bookworm, I believe my cynical, humiliatingly personalized, anti-bullshit program of success applies to most, if not all, other pursuits (just alter the verbs appropriately, from, say, reading to formatting a spreadsheet, or from writing to replacing lightbulbs in the kitchen). Success among a band of irreplaceable hobbits, wizards, elves, and dwarves, or mere succession in the great stinking chain of Everybodyism? It is your choice. My only method is this: Do not love the world; be clannish and love those few, feeble figures you find around your life's campfire. Do not love people; love people with faces.

[1] Frankfurt puts it this way:

"It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—–this indifference to how things really are—–that I regard as the essence of bullshit. … Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

My point, and Frankfurt's, I think, is that bullshit can be pedaled for gains in power, influence, or sheer magnetism. Bullshit is okay as long as it works and as long as nobody has a great enough interest in the truth to see how much is bullshit. A liar knows he is wrong, whereas a bullshitter doesn't know and doesn't even care. This book, Bullshit and Philosophy will tell you more.

To learn thoroughly…

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"To learn thoroughly is a vast undertaking that calls for relentless perseverance. To strike out on a new line and become more than a week-end celebrity calls for years in which one's living is more or less constantly absorbed in the effort to understand..."
–– Bernard Lonergan, SJ, Insight, p. 210

"Learn voraciously to teach veraciously in order to live virtuously, and, in Christ, to die virtually."
–– E. Fakespeare

Thursday, August 21, 2008

On the unhumanness of humannness…

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[I am happy with the themes in this post, but the arrangement and logical flow seems a bit wonky, so I may shuffle, expand, or disembowel things in it over the next few days.]

Behind every question lies an assertion. This is not the case for rhetorical questions only. Any question, precisely by being raised, carries with it a host of premises, or tacit assertions, such as the mutual coherence of spoken language (á la the gavagai problem), the existence and proper function of other minds outside one's own mind, the persistence of audible meaning through changing spacetime, the benefit of gaining such knowledge, the reliability and authority of the person being queried, the intelligibility of the world as something that can be understood in the first place, and so forth. Some questions are asked to narrow the rang of implicit goals––"Where are my keys?"––, while others are designed to broaden the scope of possible answers––"Was yours a happy childhood?" I want to consider one question in the following that I think implies a great deal about the scope of morality and truth.

Question: Are humans anthropocentric?

Prima facie, the question seems to answer itself: Of course they are! Of course it seems rational to call anthropoids anthropocentric, a case when the prima facie reading is res ipsa loquitur. But this reflex is wrong. The question is not asking whether humans are anthropic, but anthropocentric.

Consider two similar questions: 1) Are cars automotive? 2) Are cars 'automotocentric'? The difference between these questions should be clear, and when applied to humans, very illuminating. Are humans anthropocentric? No more than cars are automotocentric.

Indeed, to be an automobile is to 'be there' for something outside of and greater than the car itself. To be 'automotive', then, is to be non-automotocentric, precisely because being automotive means being anthropocentric. Because a car is radically open to its 'being there'[1] for the benefit of others, we drivers, it becomes difficult to see a car as even a fully automotive entity. Its automotocentricity, in other words, compromises even its more basic automotiveness. Some of the ways in which a car loses its automotcentricity negate certain of its automotive features. If a car were just sitting in a parking lot, it would be fully automotive; it would be "doing" what a car does in and of itself. But once its apparent automotocentricity were dispelled by the entry of a human driver, the car's structure would radically change. What were formally mere car parts welded together, suddenly become anthropic tools. The human agency behind the wheel not only explodes the illusion of a car 'being there' for itself (viz., automotocentricity), but also denatures, as it were, the car's otherwise intact automotiveness. Its many parts cease to be automotive and become anthropocentrized. Despite the fact that a car is needed for all of them, it is foolish to see actions like signaling, honking, braking, accelerating, turning, idling, and parking as automotive operations. All such actions are only materially automotive; formally, they are human actions performed by way of a car.[2] The fact that we can perform the same actions, albeit in non-automotive ways, without a car, indicates their fundamentally human, and only derivatively automotive, nature.

So it is with humans. To be a human is to 'be there' for something actually there, something which we do not create from within ourselves, but whose existence, or, dynamic presence, actually forms the field in which we exist as ourselves. There is no 'I' without a 'Thou', and, as Levinas has expressed so well, there is no 'I-Thou' without a surrounding 'We'. By extension, to climb that infamous ladder of Being, to be human is to exist by virtue of the grace of God, whose dynamic presence in every nook and cranny of existence keeps us floating along, as it were, on the river of space and time. We can only exist by going out from ourselves, or, by being 'anthropoperimetric' or 'anthropocircumferential' (the perimeter/circumference being the opposite of the center). If humans are strictly anthropocentric, humans are not. I am convinced the same stricture against strict anthropocentrism holds for humanity as a whole. The entire point of there being a human nature is that humanity is present, somehow both in fieri and in whole, in each human person. As has been said (cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)), to kill one life is to kill the human race, and to save one life is to save the whole human race.

What I have said to up this point may seem too grand, or too jesuitical, since it may seem obvious that the thrust of the question––Are humans anthropocentric?––is not asking about the existential and phenomenological bases of human experience, but rather is asking a basic question about human life at large. The question is asking whether the whole tumbling human adventure is simply humanistic, or if there is "more to it" than that. Is morality, for example, a strictly human matter, as Einstein held, or is it something more than human? Is man the measure of all things? So far from my comments about I-Thou, etc. cutting against anthropocentrism, a humanist would be wise to agree that our consciousness and cognition requires other human beings––and count it as proof of the inescapably human, anthropocentric nature of the world as we know it.

I demur, however, that the issues of intersubjectivity, openness to objective reality, and the like can be so easily subverted to humanist ends. I am not a humanist because I believe everything about human existence points beyond its strictly humanoid dimensions, just as a car in use, fulfilling its "purpose" points beyond its sheer automotiveness. Human life, in other words, is a vehicle for something greater that not only explodes the illusion of anthropocentricity, but also sublimates our very humanness from within based on a higher agency. The many actions each of us performs every day, are, like those of a car, not intrinsically individual (just as a car's actions are not intrinsically automotive). Our very openness to others, both mortal and immortal, renders even our simplest actions into egoperimetric, otherward, Godward performances. By extension, the many actions humanity performs, and the values it pursues, are not intrinsically anthropocentric; their very openness to reality at large (inorganic, organic, and divine) renders them anthropoperimetric, both subhuman-ward and superhuman-ward, as it were. The life of humanity, like the life of a car in traffic, is not only not anthropocentric (otherwise it is inert and useless, like an empty car in a parking lot), but also not even properly anthropic. Just as the actions of a driven car are formally, really, human actions by means of a car, so human actions at large are formally divine actions which bring humanity closer to its destination. Is a car the measure of all things for the life of cars? Not at all. A good measure of what cars can do, and all of what they pursue, is derived from the dimensions and goals of the driver.

The reason humans can operate cars as well as we do (or perhaps not!), is because they were designed around our bodies and faculties. To put it differently, the reason cars seem so 'docile' (i.e., teachable) when we are in them, is because they are designed to transcend their sheer automotiveness and be sublimated into human quasi-agents.[3] Likewise, humanity's ability to serve as a vessel for divinity is based on the fact that the blueprints of our nature are, mysteriously, built around the theandric phenomenon of Jesus Christ as a free, existence-ratifying event. Christ, the God-Man, is the ideal coupling that links the superior agency of God with the inferior responsiveness of human nature. Man is ineradicably religious in the same way a car is magically and ineradicably drivable: we are designed to fit and function around a superior agency within. All our values, therefore, are no more a strictly human affair than the features of a fully loaded car are strictly the concerns of the car. To say otherwise, to say that human concerns are purely human, wold be as foolish as saying that my concerns are purely my own. The impossibility of having values, ethics, and knowledge apart from your social peers and larger tradition, is just an analogy for the nonsense of proposing purely human values, ethics, and knowledge apart from the triune immanence of God and the tradition of Divine Revelation.

This is not merely a social matter, either. Humans by nature reach out sensibly to experience and influence the world. It has been said the smallness of humankind can be seen by the fact that we can imagine the world without us in it. So it is. As a Catholic I am all for demolishing the insular illusions of human autonomy. What is at issue, however, is not the smallness of humans, but the literal 'eccentricity' of human nature. We are irresistibly drawn outward, and it is this that guarantees we are voracious knowers. We may be able to imagine the world without us in it, but, crucially, we cannot imagine ourselves without the world. Our givenness, as if it were some kind of ethical or philosophical license for autonomy, is thus dependent on that to which we are given. This is all tied in with the classical view of man as a microcosmic mediator between the subhuman and the superhuman, mindless matter and Mind. Mankind, then, is no more coherently construed as the measure of all things than a man is taken to be the measure of himself when he says, "I know how tall I am," and places his hand atop his head to prove it, a tautology in action.[4] Of course a man is as tall as he is; but we still must ask, how tall is he? The point of the analogy is that a measure, a standard, must be separate from the thing being measured. Quite so. Which is why the standards by which a man, and all people, are assessed must be separate, though not removed, from the nature of man himself. Humanism insists people are the measure of all things––and pats itself on the head to prove it, now a collective tautology in action. It is a tautology to say that everything humans discuss and value is everything humans discuss and value, but this tautology is all that humanism amounts to: an illusion that because we are oriented toward this and that end (e.g., beauty, God), or because we feel this or that sensation (e.g., hot, cold), then there is nothing more to this and that.

At every point a car is doing what the car is doing, but this tautology on wheels in no way means a car is doing only and entirely what a car does, or can do. A car can do more than a car can do by nature (in the parking lot), even though it does that "more" naturally in a carlike way. In fact, the car-ness of a car's human behavior only reinforces the magical link between the car's 'being there' for its driver and its yet unviolated nature as a car in the service of the driver. A car being driven can be more than a car, yet without ever being forced to less than a car. Likewise, we humans can still be human by 'being there' for God, and do so naturally without being any less than human, but we can't sensibly say the only things there are what we find ourselves doing.

Luther was fond of calling fallen man homo incurvatus in se ('man curved in on himself'), and I think the same depravity extends to our cognitive careers. If each human were cognitively curved inward (a problem known technically as omphaloskepsis!), he would never know anything but himself, and since the very concepts of self, body, motion, change, etc. are derived from a dynamic interaction with the world, knowing himself would mean knowing virtually nothing at all. By extension, if the body human confined its cognitive interests and certainty to its own collective navel, we would be just as ignorant to the larger, normative field of reality that is the basis for our coherence as one species among species. Humans, again, are not anthropocentric, but cosmocentric. If we were anthropocentric by nature, we would be drawn to things anthropic; but, strangely, we are drawn to a vast, unblinking, barren, voiceless cosmos. Because I believe the world, in turn, is not cosmocentric, but theocentric, on account of its radical contingency, I believe our cosmocentricity is just a prolegomenon to our properly theo-, nay, Christocentric existence. We are, individually, contingent upon others and our little worlds in the same way humankind, collectively, is contingent on the Ultimate Other and the eternal World of His Truth. We find our-selves in others, others in the world, and the world in the Mind of God. Humanism––methodical anthropocentrism––is, to put it bluntly, is a case of collective egocentrism. We find our center in the Mass, in the living convergence of two cross beams, in the pure act of giving and being-given, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

[1] I place this word in inverted commas to indicate its Heideggerian vintage. For Heidegger, Dasein is the complete mode of active human existence in the world, literally, There-Being.

[2] A related consideration is the Scholastic distinction between actus humanus and actus hominis. An actus humanus is an 'act of a man', an action motivated by conscious free will. See here for much more detail [PDF]. An actus hominis, by contrast, is an 'act of man', a general action generated by natural reflexes and non-rational behavior. A man honking and swerving off the road to avoid a child comprise an actus humanus, whereas that same man rolling down the hill, screaming, and then dying, comprises an actus hominis. For the purposes of this essay it might be well to differentiate [if only my Latin were any good!] between an actus vehiculus (a vehicular action) and an actus per facultatem (an action by means of…).

[3] Notice how we speak of cars "acting up" and "giving us trouble", almost as if mechanical problems were personal problems. An unused car never "acts up", for the simple reason that, stuck in sheer automotiveness, the car cannot act.

[4] I borrow this analogy from Wittgenstein, even if I employ for purposes he might not recognize or respect.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wisdom from…

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THOMAS OF VILLANOVA (1529–1582): Listen to the Lord

This, God says, is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; listen to him. For this Son, being Truth itself, can neither deceive nor be deceived. Therefore if you listen to him, you shall not be deceived, for he is the Truth; if you follow him, you shall not go astray, for he is the Way; if you embrace him, you shall not walk in darkness, for he is the Light. Listen to him, therefore, and follow him; embrace him and imitate him.

He is the Teacher of justice who was sent into the world to give instruction to all flesh: To enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace. He came to teach knowledge and justice to the upright of heart, as the prophet had foretold: Rejoice, O sons of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God for he has given you the Teacher of justice and has made the morning and evening rain descend upon you as in the beginning. Listen to him, then, all who love life and truth, all who seek the way of salvation and peace, all who desire to win everlasting happiness.
(Second Sunday of Lent, sermon 1, 10: Opera Omnia I, 463.)

Thomas of Jesus was an Augustinian friar, who, while in prision in Africa and ministering to his fellow prisoners, wrote the book The Sufferings of Jesus, a work which has guided many people on the path to holiness, particularly Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton of the United States who was greatly influenced by the work.

ST AUGUSTINE: The Force of Habit

Undeniably, we have the free power to do or not to do anything, before we are caught up in any habit. When we have used this freedom to do something, the sweetness and pleasure of the act holds our soul, and it is caught up in the sort of habit that it cannot break––by its own act of sin. If you want to see what I mean, start trying not to swear: then you will see how the force of habit goes its own way.
-- Contra Fortunatus 22

We are free, in other words, to forfeit our freedom.

Prayer. Lord, you are never needy, yet you are pleased with gain. You are never covetous, yet you exact interest on all you give us.
-- Confessions 1, 4


While we must resist great temptation with unconquerable courage, and while the victory we gain over them is in the highest degree helpful to us, it may be that we will profit more by resisting small temptations. Although great temptations exceed in quality, small ones immeasurably exceed in number, so that victory over them may be comparable to that gained over greater temptations. Therefore we must carefully prepare ourselves for such combat.
(INT. Part IV, Ch. 8, O. III, p. 307)


ONCE men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.


Formal exhaustion…

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…can only be achieved by a formally adequate means, and since a material and/or imagistic means of description can always be appended, revised, or rejected, no physical account of formal truths (such as mathematical and logical operations) can be produced. This is the thrust of James F. Ross's essay, "Immaterial Aspects of Thought". This anti-physicalist claim, based on the inexhaustibility of formal operations, bears on Wittgenstein's picture-theory of meaning, in the words of Kelley L. Ross (no relation?), thus:

"…it is not by means of a "picture" (a theory carried over from the Tractatus) that anything is understood. Only the very crudest Empiricism would have it so. This gives Wittgenstein's demonstration no more force that [sic] Locke's refutation of "innate ideas" by way of his own definition of "ideas" as images. A "triangular prism" may be the projection of a cube, but then every "drawing of a cube" is a projection of a cube. In fact, nothing drawn on a flat surface can be a cube, which is a three dimensional object. We tend to identify a drawing like the one at right as a cube because we in fact see things by means of two dimensional projections, onto the retina. No such drawing or projection has anything to do with the meaning of "cube," which is not and cannot be defined by means of drawings. Wittgenstein's argument only demonstrates that meanings are not pictures."

Definition is a formal operation, not a bestowing of graphic 'definition'. Hence, truth is a formal, materially inexhaustible source of knowledge that cannot be represented, much less produced, by sheerly material means.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Which is it?

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Are you getting better or just getting older? Getting wiser or just getting wizened?
–– E. Fakespeare

Two things…

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No, three.

First, thank you for leaving comments to understand why people do or do not leave comments. Blog commenting is still a mystery to me. Onward.

Second, for the first time that I can recall in my reading career (which really began when I was 13 or so), I have consciously and decisively given up on a book. This is almost as startling a development for me as if I had said I have eaten a book.

In college, it took me a solid two years to finish The Heart is a Lonely Hunter /the working title might have been "This Book is a Lonely Plodder"). I just could not "get into" it… but I would not let myself get out of it. Every few weeks or months I would pick it up, read a few of its densely printed, tightly curled words and paragraphs, find myself yawning or twitching in my chair, and putting it back into cold storage. Eventually I did finish it.

But now, perhaps, with age, I am more aware of the fact that "life is too short". Struggling through a book really isn't worth it.

My rule of thumb is to read the first 10% of a book, and, if by that point, I am not into it, I toss it aside. This does not count as giving up on a book, since, unless I am already deadset on reading it, I spend the first 10% of the book quasi-skimming in order to ascertain how seriously I might take the latter 90%. Most books that I read are between 150 and 400 pages, so reading 15–40 pages as recon is not a major loss. Plus, I have normally done so much research on a book before I buy it, or am so taken with its relevance to my interests, that I am basically "deadset" on finishing any book I buy.

But now, I have found a book, of no small repute, of which I have read a full 1/3 (over 100 pages), and simply have no desire or will to complete: Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club!

Here's a sentence I thought I would never produce: Dan Brown is leagues ahead of Pearl in terms of pacing and character depiction (if not development). I actually enjoyed some of Dan Brown's books! But Pearl, sadly, is that treasure which I would sell off to buy a field of weeds.

Pearl has an eye for telling details, all right, but they are so flagrantly literary that they seem to float over the surface of the text looking for any character, anything, on whom they will stick. He seems like the kind of writer, in this first book, at least, that becomes so attached to certain details and metaphors and images, that he will do everything he can to "make them fit". What a clever metaphor! What a pleasant use of assonance and alliteration! What an intimate detail! It all has to go in!

Pearl seems to think it is not enough for a character's soberly stated, because soebrly lived, normalcy to speak for itself. He seems unable or unwilling to treat details and metaphors derivatively as mere parts of the person as a whole character. Instead, he seems to impose upon each person a "clever" poetical leitmotif to make him "come alive". Inner drives are smothered by outer accoutrements. Character, in other words, succumbs to costume. The details of Longfellow's "sad" life, to cite one example of this imbalance, stagger pathetically, almost parenthetically, in the comparison to the lavish references Pearl makes to his quintessentially Longfellowan Beardedness.

I am surprised at myself for rejecting the book, since, first, I really love things Dantean, and, second, I enjoy "smart" books generally. But The Dante Club has got me wondering. Sometimes maybe I just want a mystery to be a mystery. I don't need all the heavy-handed metaphorical descriptions and painfully intentional character development. The fact is, the major "hook" for The Dante Club was the idea of seeing the pains of Dante's Inferno in real life. That's what people more or less bought the book for. Alas, aside from a very strong, grim opening, the book has dragged on for a century of pages with only two murders. If your hook is gory depictions of infernal murder, then bring the pain! The Dante Club is just too "rich" and "layered"––fusing the theoretically exciting elements of Dante, post-Civil War America, Harvard as a symbol of changes in education, the trope about scholarly dandies put to an unusual test of wits and wickedness, etc. blah blah blah––it is all just so baroque. It just tries too hard.

Am I bitter? A little. It's a point of personal pride that I finish the books I begin. So, to come across a book (a book of just over 300 pages, at that!), which rebuffs my voracious literacy, is almost to feel, like Tolstoy's Vronsky, a painful looseness in one's jaw and wonder at one's own mortality. I hate books and movies that are hyped up, and The Dante Club, I have to say, is woefully overrated. (I have a feeling Oprah is somehow to blame.)

I admit defeat; I have been Dante Clubbed.

Third, this is funny:

Wisdom from…

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ST AELRED OF RIVEAUX (1109–1167): Friendship

In human life nothing holier can be desired, nothing more useful sought after, nothing is harder to find, nothing sweeter to experience, nothing more fruitful to possess than friendship. For it bears fruit both in this life and the next, showing forth all virtues in its sweetness and in its strength destroying vice. It softens the blows of adversity and moderates elation in prosperity. Without friendship there can be hardly any happiness among humans; they may well be compared to animals if they have no one to rejoice with them in good fortune or sympathize with them in sorrow, no one to whom they can unburden themselves in time of trouble, or with whom they can share some especially uplifting or inspiring insight.

Alas for anyone who is alone and has no one to lift him up when he falls. Without a friend one is indeed alone. But what joy it is, what security, what a delight to have someone to whom you dare to speak as to another self; to whom you are not afraid to admit that you have done something wrong, or shy of revealing some spiritual progress you have made; someone to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and with whom you can share your plans.
(Spiritual Friendship: PL 195, 669-672.)

'The Christian religion is antithetical to every form of natural human kindness and goodness… ' oh… wait… what? … Never mind.

Aelred was a member of the Cistercian Order who later became abbot of Rievaulx and was noted for his theological and spiritual writings.

ST AUGUSTINE: The Beauty of Singing

Indeed, Lord, the days were not long enough as I found wonderful delight in meditating upon the depth of your design for the salvation of the human race. I wept at the beauty of your hymns, and I was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of your Church's singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart. My feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.
-- Confessions 9, 6

Prayer. O Lord, my God, let my soul praise you that it may love you. Let it recount to you your mercies that it may praise you for them all.
-- Confessions 5, 1


Soon we shall be in eternity, and then we shall see how very petty are the things of this earth and how inconsequential it is whether we are involved in them or not. Now we get all worked up as if they were terribly important! When we were small children, how carefully we collected pieces of wood, stone and such to build huts, and if someone knocked them down we cried; then we were all put out, but now we understand how unimportant these things were. We will feel the same way one day in Heaven, when we see that all our preoccupations in this world were nothing but childish concerns. Be faithful to your duties, but be convinced that there is nothing more worthy or more important than eternal salvation and the perfection of your soul.
(Letters 455; O. XIX, p. 22)


I AM not prepared to admit that there is, or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so.
('Robert Browning.')


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ubi crucis, ibi vita

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Where death comes to die.

Where life comes alive.

[I want to make this into a T-shirt, Cross on the front, Resurrection on the back.]

Monday, August 11, 2008

A little housekeeping…

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Or would it be called blousekeeping? Isn't a blog pun… a blun?… a necessity these bays […yes, I know]?

In the past few days I have posted well over 10,000 words here.


10,000 words.

And they are not always small words.

They are not always pretty words.

Indeed, they are mostly big, ugly words about, I think, very abstruse, abstract, arcane (but still arsome!) topics like free will, the soul, human nature, and the like.

I have some other things I'd like to post, but I realize I need to let what is on the front page stand for a while, maybe a couple of weeks, to allow the few ghosts that get trapped here while passing from one plane to the next digest the big, ugly, hard words I am responsible for.

So, please, be not afraid. I really do want you to read what I have posted.

It means so much to me to imagine (and then sometimes discover!) not only that real human beings read my 'stuff' but also that they can find it edifying and interesting. (Mom, Dad, sorry, but your support doesn't count.)

In the meanwhile, I would like to pull back the curtain from which my voice booms and ask a personal (or should I say, blersponal?) question.

It is about a topic that I have addressed at FCA once or twice before.

Why do my readers––whoever or whatever they may or may not be––leave pretty much NO COMMENTS on the things they read here?

I don't really mind the silence.

After all, why else have a blog if not to wallow in the sound of your own voice? (Whoa, not so far with the curtain!)

I am simply perplexed. Baffled. Dumbfounded. Confused. At a loss.

Now, I have heard different reasons proposed before as to why my hypothetical readers are so mute.

I have been told that, when I write, I assume a tremendous amount of knowledge on the part of my readers, so it may be prohibitively difficult to interject something into the torrent of intellectual jibberjabber emitted by FCA. By analogy, it's hard to "make a comment" during the annual "Polymath Sufferers of Tourette Syndrome" convention. Better to just let it happen and politely go about your business. (Well, my friend said that in different words, mind you.)

I have also heard it suggested that the topics I normally address turn off about 99% of typical human beings. (I did once receive a call from "Mr. Charlie" about whether my material could be used for some kind of, what was it?, waterboarding festival in Cuba, I believe it was. But that was just weird.)

So I'a big nerdy turnoff, eh? (Hmmm, know your audience… know your audience….)

Again, it's hard to "comment" on seeing a combination quilting demo/medieval-tax-law-lecture by Ben Stein, so I can sympathize with this explanation.

I have also heard it said, more optimistically, that by the end of my more substantive posts, I have either said well enough what others might say, so that comments are superfluous, or I have presented such a great amount of challenging material that the would-be commenter is just not sure where to begin.

And then there is the plain old intimidation theory. That is, a commenter who might like to contribute something is blocked by a fear, conscious or unconscious, that she will be wrong or heretical, and will thus trigger a torrent––uh, from my keyboard––of ideas and facts to set the record straight.

And who really wants to get into most of these issues with a guy who "likes to touch books" (yes, I wrote that as a personal description of myself for some application years back)?

Well, so much for proposed theories; I want to hear the vox populi.

I'm asking––no, just about BEGGING you to leave some kind of comment here about, paradoxically, why you don't leave comments here.

I'd REALLY like to know who you are. I honestly have no idea who the people are behind my reader statistics.

Obviously, you don't have to explain anything; but my curiosity has reached a tipping point. This post is not going anywhere for a while; this plea is my new header.

Read the stuff I have below at your, ahem, leisure, and then see what you can do about enlightening me as to why FCA is such a seemingly comment-unworthy blog.


Wisdom from…

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Mater Dei, Salus Populi Romani

St. Francis d'Assisi was our Lady's juggler, a holy clown, whereas as I am just a clown, yet one whom God has mysteriously granted a place at the table of eternal life known as the Catholic Church. I seem, however, intent on falling out of my chair. What else can a clown do with such infirm legs as I have? Though it is offered with weak, oversized, fumbling hands, like those worn by Mickey Mouse, but soiled and tattered by contrast, this post is made in honor of our Lady, glorified in the heavens with her dear Son who took on the form of a clown, in the eyes of the world, but who is determined to deliver me from my sinful folly––my abominable clownishness––by reforming me in His own image.

GERMANUS OF CONSTANTINOPLE (640–733): The Assumption of Mary

Most truly and with grateful heart I say: You, O Mother of God, are not cut off from us even though you have been removed from our midst. You are not far from this perishable world, you who now live in imperishable life; but on the contrary you draw near to those who call on you, you are found by those who seek you in faith.

Indeed you left the earth to prove that the mystery of the awe-inspiring incarnation did in fact take place. Through your awaiting the natural end of human life, God who was born of you would be believed to have come from you also as perfect man, son of a true mother who was herself subject to the constraints of nature, the decrees of God [as when Jesus was circumcised, was baptized by John the Baptizer, honored the priestly sanctions around his healings, etc.––EBB], and the limitations of an earthly lifetime. For because you had a body like the rest of us, you could not escape death, the lot of all humankind.

And so, having undergone death to finite things, you have moved to God's dwelling in the imperishable mansions of eternity. You are his companion, O Mother of God: your communion with him will never end.
(In dormitionum B. Mariae I: PG 98, 345-348.)

Germanus was the patriarch of Constantinople; his writings witness to the developing doctrine about our Lady.

ST AUGUSTINE: Mary and the Church

Mary gave birth to your Head, and the Church gave birth to you. For the Church also is both mother and virgin. She is mother by her entrails of charity, and virgin by the integrity of faith and piety. She gives birth to many, but they are all members of one whose Body and spouse she herself is. In this she is like Mary, because in many she is the mother of unity.
-- Sermon 192, 2

Prayer. Come let us adore him whom the Virgin conceived without concupiscence, to whom she gave birth as a virgin and remained thereafter a virgin.
-- Sermon 231, 2


In the presence of our queen assumed into Heaven, we profoundly vow our heart that she may flood it with the "dew of Hermon," distilled from the holy fullness of grace. How sublime is the perfection of this love in comparison to all of us! Oh, how I have desired that amid the immensity of our miseries she will find and bring the olive branch of holy love. In purity, in gentleness and in prayer, may she carry it as a sign of peace to our dear Jesus! Long live Jesus, long live Mary!
(Letters 1230; O. XVII, p. 271)


ONE instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady, then
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly,
But she was a queen of men.

And over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art
And seven swords were in her heart,
But one was in her hand.
('Ballad of Alfred.')

Wisdom from…

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THOMAS OF VILLANOVA (1529–1582): God likens himself to a mother

Take the example of a mother who loves her child very much, and she takes care of him with the greatest concern when she sees that he is sick. She does not leave the house, she makes food for him with her own hands, and she administers medicines, although they are bitter. Tell me, does this mother love her child, or does she wish to punish him, when she causes him sorrow with medicines? Who can doubt that it is love and not harshness? She is helping, not punishing. But, O good God, who is a better mother of her children than you?

Behold how much God loves you, O soul. He not only likens himself to a mother, but since it can happen that some mother may forget her child, he adds that he is unable to forget us, whom he loves more than a mother. Therefore if you fall into the sickness of sin, he looks down from heaven in mercy; he is with us, and that we might recover our health, he gives us hunger, persecution, and disgrace to drink as suitable medicine. Thus what you believe to be a whip in your ignorance, is only something like a whip and is actually a sign of his genuine love.
(Monday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Sermon 1, 2: Opera Omnia II, 87-88.)

Thomas of Jesus, an Augustinian friar, while in prison in Africa and ministering to his fellow prisoners, wrote the book The Sufferings of Jesus, a work which has guided many people on the path to holiness, particularly Saint Elizabeth Ann Seaton of the United States who was greatly influenced by the work.

ST AUGUSTINE: Death Starts with Life

Rest assured that the possibility of death starts with the beginning of life. In this world of ours, only those who are not yet born can claim not to be as yet due to die. That is why the uncertain day of death becomes a daily contingence for you and me alike.
-- Sermon 9, 2

Prayer. Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Trinity--all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and by day.
-- Confessions 7, 10


After the soul of the blessed virgin had left its most pure body, her body was laid in the tomb and restored to the earth. The same thing happened to the body of her Son. It was reasonable and just that the mother should not enjoy more privileges than the Son, but as Our Lord rose after three days, so she was restored to life, but in a different manner. The Savior rose by His own power, the Virgin Mary rose by the power of her Son, Who commanded her soul to be reunited with her body. It was right that her most holy body should not be subject to corruption. From that body Our Lord Jesus Christ has taken His bodily existence, remaining in her most chaste womb for the space of nine months.
(Sermons 21; O. IX, p. 184)
In this light, I think a very helpful, and perhaps revolutionary, way to "make sense of" the Assumption, is to see Mary as a relic of the Incarnation. Literally, her entire body is a relic of the power and life which she bore. Of course, this analogy will only help those already comfortable with the Church's theology of material sanctification and relics.


IT cannot be too often repeated that all real democracy is an attempt (like that of a jolly hostess) to bring shy people out. For every practical purpose of a political state, for every practical purpose of a tea-party, he that abaseth himself must be exalted. At a tea-party it is equally obvious that he that exalteth himself must be abased, if possible without bodily violence.
('Tremendous Trifles.')

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ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA (185–253): Victory is sought by the darts of prayer

Shall I remind you of Judith, that high-minded lady, that noblest of women? When the cause was almost lost she did not hesitate to go alone to its defense and alone to risk herself and her life in order to slay cruel Holofernes; she went to war not in armor or on steeds of battle or weighed down with the weapons on which soldiers rely, but with strength of soul and the confidence of faith, and she destroyed the enemy by resolution and courage. A woman restored the freedom of her country, which men had lost.

But I need not invoke the example of those far distant from us in the past. With our own eyes we have often seen women and still youthful maidens endure the torments of tyrants in witness to their faith. What is needed in those who do battle for the truth and for God is courage not of body but of spirit. For victory is to be sought by the darts of prayer not by iron javelins, and it is faith that enables one to endure the combat. Thus armed, take up the standard of Christ's cross and follow him.
(In lib. Judicum, hom. VII: PG 12, 986-988.)

Origen became head of the catechetical school of Alexandria and devoted his life to the study of scripture.

ST AUGUSTINE: Rich and Poor--Equal Births

Carefully examine yourself and see how you stand in relation to the poor. Look at yourself, not at what you possess. Why do you scorn your brother or sister? In your mother's wombs both of you were naked. In truth, even when you have departed this life, and your bodies have rotted, when your souls have been sent forth, can the bones of the rich and poor people be told apart? I am speaking of the condition of humankind in which all are born. For both things are true: a person becomes rich here and a poor person will not be here forever.
-- Commentary on Psalm 103, 7

Prayer. God examines rich and poor, not according to their lands and houses, but according to the riches of their hearts.
-- Commentary on Psalm 48, 3


It is a common saying that as one lives, so shall he die. What kind of death do you think the blessed virgin had, if not a death filled with love? In her life we do not read of raptures or ecstasies, because her whole life was a continual rapture of burning love. Now, when the moment comes to leave this miserable earth, love separates the soul from the body. As nothing was found in her that prevented her from the possession of glory, since her whole being was pervaded by purity and beauty, she immediately flew to Heaven after her death.
(Sermons 21; O. IX. pp. 182-183)


YOU complain of Catholicism for setting up an ideal of virginity; it did nothing of the kind. The whole human race set up an ideal of virginity; the Greeks in Athene, the Romans in the Vestal fire, set up an ideal of virginity. What then is your real quarrel with Catholicism? Your quarrel can only be, your quarrel really only is, that Catholicism has achieved an ideal of virginity; that it is no longer a mere piece of floating poetry. But if you, and a few feverish men, in top hats, running about in a street in London, choose to differ as to the ideal itself, not only from the Church, but from the Parthenon whose name means virginity, from the Roman Empire which went outwards from the virgin flame, from the whole legend and tradition of Europe, from the lion who will not touch virgins, from the unicorn who respects them, and who make up together the bearers of your own national shield, from the most living and lawless of your own poets, from Massinger, who wrote the 'Virgin Martyr,' from Shakespeare, who wrote 'Measure for Measure ' -- if you in Fleet Street differ from all this human experience, does it never strike you that it may be Fleet Street that is wrong?
('The Ball and the Cross.')

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ST AUGUSTINE: When I love my God!

Heaven and earth and all that is in them tell me wherever I look that I should love you, Lord, and they cease not to tell it to all, so that there is no excuse for them. But what is it that I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any bodily thing, nor the order of seasons, not the brightness of light that rejoices the eye, nor the sweet melodies of all songs, nor the sweet fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices: not manna nor honey, not the limbs that carnal love embraces. None of these things do I love in loving my God. Yet in a sense I do love light and melody and fragrance and food and embrace when I love my God — the light and the voice and the fragrance and the food and embrace in the soul, when that light shines upon my soul which no place can contain, that voice sounds which no time can take from me, I breathe that fragrance which no wind scatters, I eat the food which is not lessened by eating, and I lie in the embrace which satiety never comes to sunder. This it is that I love, when I love my God.
(Confessions X, 5, 8.)

ST AUGUSTINE: You Loved Me First

Look down upon me and have mercy on me according to the judgment of those who love your Name. For you first loved me, so that I might love you. By loving you, I love myself, and thus I am wisely able also to love my neighbor as myself. Lord, teach me how to act; teach me how to do your will. For though I hear, and bear in mind what I hear, I am by no means supposed to have learned if I do not act.
-- Commentary on Psalm 118 (27), 5-8

Prayer. Lord, you first loved me, so that I might love you.
-- Commentary on Psalm 118 (27), 15


The Christian must love his or her own body as a living image of the incarnate Savior, as a shoot from the same trunk, and, as a consequence, bound to Him by blood relationship. In a special manner we must love our body after having received the divine body of the Redeemer in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. In Communion we renew our alliance with Christ's body, having been dedicated and consecrated to the Divine Goodness by means of baptism, confirmation and the other sacraments.
(TLG, Book 3, Ch. 8; O. IV, p. 193)


SELF is the Gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.

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No need to say thanks every time, Brad. I get it now.

ST GREGORY OF NYSSA (330–395): The river of grace

Receive the garment of incorruption which Christ unfolds and holds out to you. Do not refuse the gift or you will insult him who offers it. You have wallowed in the mud long enough; hasten now to the Jordan, in answer not to the call of John but to invitation of Christ. For the river of grace flows everywhere; its source is not in Palestine, nor does it flow into the sea there, but encircles the whole earth and empties itself into paradise. It flows in the opposite direction to the four rivers which flow out of paradise, and the things it carries in are far more precious than those they carry out. For the rivers that flow away carry spices and agricultural produce and the fruits of the earth. But the river of grace brings with it men and women, the offspring of the Spirit.

You must follow the example of Joshua, the son of Nun, and carry the gospel as he carried the ark. Leave the desert, leave sin behind you to cross the river Jordan. Hurry to follow the way of Christ, to enter the land fertile with gladdening fruits and flowing with the promised milk and honey. All those things are symbols for us, all are prefigurations of realities now made visible.
(Treastise on Baptism: PL 46, 417-421.)

Gregory was the younger brother of Basil the Great, bishop of Nyssa, and was the greatest speculative theologian of the three great Cappadocian Fathers (i.e., Basil, himself, and Gregory Nazianzus).

ST AUGUSTINE: Two Types of Fear

Shall I say something about the two types of fear? There is a servile fear and there is a chaste fear. The first fears that it may suffer punishment; the other fears that it may lose justice. The chaste fear endures forever. Love does not destroy it or drive it out of us, but rather embraces it and holds on to it as its companion. We come to the Lord in order to see him face to face. Then a chaste fear preserves us.
-- Sermon on John 43, 7

This chaste fear of which the Doctor Gratiae writes is, I think, something akin to the choking sensation we sometimes experience in the midst of great joy. Our glee is so visceral and (literally) incredible that a surge of happy panic wells up within us, as a sort of shock that something so good could find its way into our lives, and as a sobering shadow that it might just as easily leave us. We are insecure about grace, even when we properly understand it as pure gift, not because it is too weak for the world nor because God is unreliable. Rather, grace unnerves like a mountain: it is so exceptionally stable as to threaten smothering everything else if it were to grow any larger or look any grander. Far from grace appearing as a wobbling pole, or cross, on the allegedly stable earth, grace seems precarious and frightening because its vastness over the earth seems to threaten plunging down upon it. A turtle upheld the world of the ancients, but a gigantic cross uplifts and suspends the world of Christians.

Prayer. I implore you, God, you to whom faith calls us, hope leads us, and love unites us. Come to me in your mercy.
-- Soliloquies 1, 3


If we want to enjoy interior peace, it is necessary to have one will and one desire: to love Jesus crucified, employing all our faculties and energies for this purpose. Different indeed is the peace resulting from this love––a peace that the world does not give. The worldly boast of their peace, but certainly it is a false peace that eventually will be destroyed.
(Sermons 30; O. IX, p. 301)


TOM JONES is still alive, with all his good and all his evil; he is walking about the streets; we meet him every day. We meet with him, we drink with him, we smoke with him, we talk with him, we talk about him. The only difference is that we have no longer the intellectual courage to write about him. We split up the supreme and central human being, Tom Jones, into a number of separate aspects. We let Mr. J. M. Barrie write about him in his good moments, and make him out better than he is. We let Zola write about him in his bad moments, and make him out much worse than he is. We let Maeterlinck celebrate those moments of spiritual panic which he knows to be cowardly; we let Mr. Rudyard Kipling celebrate those moments of brutality which he knows to be far more cowardly. We let obscene writers write about the obscenities of this ordinary man. We let puritan writers write about the purities of this ordinary man. We look through one peephole that makes men out as devils, and we call it the New Art. We look through another peephole that makes men out as angels, and we call it the New Theology. But if we pull down some dusty old books from the bookshelf, if we turn over some old mildewed leaves, and if in that obscurity and decay we find some faint traces of a tale about a complete man––such a man as is walking on the pavement outside––we suddenly pull a long face, and we call it the coarse morals of a bygone age.
('All Things Considered.')

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I am the river in the river…

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A few days ago, I wrote about what I call 'caput absentum', which is what I call the philosophical fallout of Dandy-Walker syndrome, which is a neurological disease that fills the skull with so much cerebrospinal fluid as to greatly reduce the size––but sometimes not the function––of the brain. I would like to add something to those thoughts, specifically about my writing this (emphasis added):

The soul of the person––the living identity of the person as such––is that dynamic fixture created in us by God which allows us to heal, grow, communicate, know, and, if the need arises, reshape our brains in stunning ways. Because we will to think and live and love, thus our various bits and pieces fall in line with the larger current of our rational agency.

This claim gets at something that I have been pondering for quite a while (relatively speaking). Regular readers here will know I have blogged at some length before about ArisThomistic hylomorphic anthropology. As in:

Something that keeps popping into my mind is how, in C.S. Lewis's book, Miracles, he offhandedly mentioned how the materialist claim that mind cannot influence matter is refuted by the sheer fact that we can raise our hand. This passing comment has stayed with me vividly for the past several years. What it showed me is how we take 'immediate' personal causation for granted, contrasting it unfairly with the mysterious 'mediate' causation upon things outside our somatic limits. I have a deep intuition that the raising of our hand is, in principle, no different from the raising of a hammer or, in turn, the raising of the Titanic. I'm not a sheer idealist, since I do believe in material reality, but it was only until I was exposed to Aristhomistic hylomorphism that I was able to make theoretical, metaphysical sense of my intuition. Many of my posts dealing with Aristhomistic (or Thomistotelian) anthropology are trying to illuminate my intuition about the bounds of human (and generally embodied) causation, and, ultimately, causation as such.* So here I go again.

We are not so much clumps of matter animated by an anima, but rather hylomorphic fields of rational agency. It is not 'up to' matter (hyle) as to how it is to be shaped (or, in-formed), but is up to the world's many forms (morphei [?]) to instantiate (or, dematerialize) various actual entities. In a similar fashion, it is the electromagnetic field that shapes the inert iron fillings on a sheet of paper in a science class. The hylomorphic field of a person's rational agency is what allows us to almost literally 'incorporate' tools, persons, mementos, etc. into our person. Our bodies are, in principle, just as much 'incorporated' by us as the samurai's sword and the Marine's rifle are incorporated into their identities. The dynamic expansiveness of our personal form (or, soul) also accounts for two phenomena that are construed as a major challenge to traditional anthropology.

The first challenge has to do with the endurantism vs. perdurantism debate. If you don't know, to put it very simply, this is about whether a thing is the same 3D-thing continuously and wholly as it passes 'through' time, or whether things are actually 4D-objects made up of 'time slices' that co-exist contiguously as the 'sections' of that object in time. Again, loosely, endurantists claim that objects exist in the 'atmosphere' of time, as it were, while perdurantists claim that objects exist in the 'atmosphere' of perception. Some months ago I read an essay [PDF!] by Hales and Johnson, titled "Endurantism, Perdurantism, and Special Relativity", about this debate in support of perdurantism based on Einsteinian relativity. It was an enjoyable work, but even though I did not reject it on logical grounds (as A. Pruss does in "Special Relativity and Endurantism"), I rejected it on the grounds that it did not seem to impinge upon endurantism as properly understood in a hylomorphic metaphysics.** Hylomorphism does not mean an object or thing is wholly and completely present in each part of itself, but only that each part of a thing is wholly and conjointly present to that thing's form as the integral substance of its material divisibility. The front of a train may exist in a different time-frame from the back of the train, as special relativity indicates, but this does not mean the train is only partly present in different time-frames. All it means, hylomorphically, is that the essence of a train formally unites the different sections of the train in different time-frames. All the parts, in every time-frame, are still under the formal power of the train as a substantial entity.

This has to do with Aristhomistic anthropology by virtue of the fact that we can not only dematerialize things (by giving them formal structure, such as by naming them, pondering them, reshaping them, etc.), but also can 'deformalize' (and thus rematerialize) things by virtue of our own formal agency over them. This 'deformalization' happens every time we consume and digest food. At some point, the dynamic formal integrity of our selves rematerializes the food into something closer and closer to sheer matter, at which point its potentiality (as, say, a bolus) can be formalized in the 'service' of our bodies. Once you consume a carrot, it loses its form as a carrot and becomes something else, namely, YOU. Certainly nothing can become sheer matter (hyle), since then it would have no formal structure at all allowing it to interact with us, but its deformalization from being a carrot allows its molecules and minerals (with their own tiny formal structure) to be formally integrated into the, as I say, larger 'current' of our dynamic personal agency. This is what I mean by the title: we are dynamic flowing current of agency in the larger flowing stream of material changes, yet we maintain a kind of enduring identity by riding the waves, as it were, created by the stream around us. We are, if you like, hydraulics––living water structures––in the Heraclitean flux.

All of this talk about de- and reformalization works toward explaining a phenomenon to which V.S. Ramachandran draws attention in his Phantoms in the Brain. He notes how certain tactile illusions can make us feel as if a detached object were part of our body, or as if our nose, for instance, were a number of feet removed from its normal location and yet still part of us. He notes how we even tend to treat our cars as an extension of our bodies, which is why we get so sad or enraged when people endanger or damage it. Reckless driving is not simply a form of uncorteousness and possible endangerment, but actually, Ramachandran suggests, a form of physical intimidation and assault against our very selves, albeit directed at the 'car' part of our body. The ability to rearrange, extend, relocate, and even lose parts of our body, as well as the ability to 'absorb' non-somatic elements into it, is all rooted in our nature as hylomorphic fields of rational agency. I admit, it's a bit Borg-like, but metaphysics has to have some elements of adventure to keep us eggheads chugging through it.

* (I won't go into it here, but the whole tradition of being bewildered and outraged by the, ostensibly Cartesian, idea of immaterial entities causally interacting with material entities, is built on a lot of unclarity about causation as such. I think even our concept of material-material causation gets way too much slack from a tradition allegedly committed to critical inquiry. I guess I have a little too much Hume in me to see material causation as just 'obvious' or uncontroversial. Certainly, a number of studies have been written on causation, so there's no doubt I'm speaking from great ignorance. But I stand by my intuitions until I dig deeper.)

** (A further problem I have with perdurantism, which I saw in Hales' and Johnson's essay, is that exactly by referring to 'this' or 'that' object, we are eo ipso recognizing it as one whole object for at least the duration of the speech utterance. If there is nothing of which the time slices can be predicated, then they cannot be predicates of anything. Time slices are slices of what, if not of some-one-thing, which is what endurantism provides?)