Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Nicomachean Ethics, Prolegomena

I have begun a study of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It will be the first time I have really turned to it since my college years, and maybe since spring of freshman year. My friend D, whom I speak with most of all about things like this, likened studying Aristotle to cutting through a jungle of falsehoods, but said that at least with Aristotle we get arguments, rather than cryptograms which lead to arguments (i.e. Plato). Having suffered through the Philebus (a book which bore the tantalizing subject of the relationship between the good and the pleasant, but which was so difficult I understood nothing), I am strongly inclined to agree. Right where you want clarity, Plato is needlessly, horribly obscure, and the obscurity is entirely artificial; purely a function of his manner of writing. Aristotle's difficulty is the interweaving of true and false arguments and a thoroughly dialectical structure; which means he's an entire level closer to speaking his mind with you than is Plato.

So I'm going through the first book of the Ethics slower and more thoroughly than I've ever gone through a book in my life, and I can't say it's unpleasant. Whether the good is pleasure, honor, or contemplation (or as is more likely, something else Aristotle does not explicitly mention), what happiness is, and what the causes for happiness are - these are difficult and urgent questions for me. And when I take the trouble to read and reread, as Daniel did the Talmud and Freud, some measure of understanding does arise, and the pleasure that accompanies such understanding must be perceived in order to be understood.

The trouble, of course, is the same trouble that accompanies the study of most philosophers, and particularly ancient philosophers: the contradictions, the terrible arguments, the unhelpful rhetoric, and almost total lack of good teaching. It makes discovering the philosopher's genuine teaching and distinguishing it from their opinions exceedingly difficult, to say nothing of the difficulty of deciding if these teachings are actually true.

And Book One is a labyrinth. A labyrinthine jungle. Circular, organic structure, hidden false arguments, open contradictions, subtle contradictions, pandering to the prejudices of his day, and I could go on. Every chapter must be read on its own and then compared with every other chapter in that book. The amount of work required is daunting, even discouraging. For one with little confidence in his own powers, the temptation to give up and rely upon the opinions of others is strong, very strong.

I am resolved not to do that. Granted, D has helped me very much, but I have to do my own work as well. My foray into Book One has revealed some of the main thrusts of the argument: the importance of the good, what the good is, the definition of happiness, how the arguments for happiness contrast with those of the good, and how the three ways of life (pleasure-seeking, honor/power loving, contemplative) stack up against human desire. The ranking of goods and virtues is also critical, so naturally Aristotle does almost none of that.

The most important sections in Book One are probably chapters six and seven. Six is hard, so I basically skipped it as a freshman - I read its pages, but I read them with zero understanding. They will form the crux of a paper I want to have written by Advent on the good and happiness in Book One. They will also be read with the following questions in mind (as will, to a similar extent, mutatis mutandi, all of Book One): What is the good? What is happiness? Are Aristotle's arguments for them sufficient or not? He rejects a universal idea of the good - can the same objection be leveled against the universal idea of happiness? Why is the artistic/poetic life absent in his schema? What is the role of pleasure in happiness and the human good (the question for me right now)? Goods and virtues ought to be explicitly compared and contrasted: are they?  If they are, are they compared satisfactorily? Is Aristotle a mathematician, a rhetorician, a geometer, or a carpenter?

I have a sinking feeling that I will be spilling a lot of digital ink on Book One. But if I want to genuinely understand, it's probably the quickest way. This means yet another commentary. And the trouble with commentaries on esoteric writings of philosophy is that they get exponentially more complicated the further they get. The advantage is that I will be able to see the contours of the work's structure much more easily having gone through work like that, so the largely mediocre writing I'm about to produce won't be entirely without fruit. I will begin with Book One of course, but I will try and follow the dialectical contours of the argument and pause at each major change or development as I see them. I will try to keep my writing simple, direct, and strive to always speak from my own experience. I will place as few barriers as possible in the way of understanding. So in a way, I will be the anti-Plato, the anti-Aristotle.

Let us begin. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Interlude: The High and Low in Liberal Education

Liberal education is the study of how to flourish as a human being; how man flourishes as man. For me it has primarily become cultivating a desire for what is beautiful, good, and life-affirming. And, I even dare to hope - for what is true. And for educating me in hungering for that desire, of seeking to stretch myself out towards knowledge, I am grateful first of all to Plato and the wise teacher I once had who awoke in me the awareness of my own ignorance. Ever since, I have been guided by those books often considered 'great' by Western Civilization. Homer to Heidegger, as it were.

Part and parcel of that education was the refining of my taste. I used to abhor the very sound of operatic singing. Now it is one of my fondest pleasures. I could not stand languid, leisurely storytelling in film. Now one of my favorite works onscreen is one in which almost nothing happens. Similarly, I used to hate mushrooms and beans. All of which is to say: taste changes.

So far, that says almost nothing. But for awhile, I looked askance at pop music, television, movies, video games, etc - really, anything popular - as being a waste of time at best and intellectually corrupt at worst. If it weren't established in the canon of the greats, I didn't want it.

An early sign of change from this established opinion was reading The Catcher in the Rye, and loathing it. It was reputed to be among the best American novels, and I absolutely despised it. Tastes change, however, and Shinji drove me absolutely wild the first few times I saw Eva too. After thinking about it more I've decided to at least give Salinger another chance.

A stronger sign was discovering that an alleged low form - anime serials - was rising to great art, and what was allegedly great art - McCarthy's Blood Meridian, for example - was really not that great. I don't mean unartfully crafted, because it was very carefully written, but the delight in rubbing readers in despairing violence for its own sake, for no purpose, seemed absolutely suspect. Genesis has the shocking, horrific violence as well, but its understanding of humanity is much, much greater.

Anime was the tipping point. Shinsekai Yori is one of the finest stories ever told, better than most Shakespeare or the vast majority of good novels; easily the equal of Austen or Dostoevsky, and much better than Tolstoy. The education of a leader, a hero, has never been treated finer - at least, I rack my brains trying to think of a better hero than Saki, but I can't. Compassion, courage, and understanding cultivate themselves within her so organically, so naturally, it was like watching the growth of a magnificent cedar. Seldom has a story in any medium - novel, film, television - explain better or show more beautifully what makes for a good leader of a people. Watership Down comes close, and the growth of Jon Snow is a close third, but neither of them remotely equal Saki. Honestly, the closest runner-up comes from another suspect medium, science fiction: Colonel Jack O'Neill of Stargate SG1.

In the same way, Oregairu is better - much better, I'd argue - than Catcher in the Rye. Just to make sure I'll read it again, but I bet my opinion won't change. It's not anime's Catcher in the Rye, it's better at every turn in showing alienation, isolated youth, and the difficulty in reaching out for genuine human connection in a world almost entirely lacking in role models, i.e. authentic teachers. It is more socially astute in showing the ways we lie to ourselves and other people and defensively retreat or look away from the less pleasant parts of our souls. I could go on.

Both of these examples demonstrated an astonishing clarity of insight into humanity and turned my expectations upside down and inside out. Anime is considered juvenile at best, unworthy of serious reflection or consideration. Blood Meridian is alleged to be the exact opposite. But honestly, my time would have been better spent thinking about Oregairu and Shinsekai Yori than spending hours poring over a novel I didn't enjoy at all, one that didn't help me understand myself or humanity any better, and all the while trying to convince myself that I was enjoying it because reputable authorities told me it was more than well worth my time. What a waste.

What is beautiful and illuminating, what reveals the nature of things, can be found outside my expectations. What a stupidly obvious, mundane conclusion. I wish something more eloquent came to mind. The upshot is that I've discovered anime that rivals, if not surpasses, Shakespeare. And honestly? That still might be underselling Shinsekai Yori

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Sound and the Fury II

It took me a long time to gain any semblance of meaning behind Faulkner. It's one of the best novels I've read in a long, long time, and undoubtedly the most difficult. Benjy does not experience the world the same way we do, and understanding that proved a challenge.

I was sad for days when I finished the book enough times to understand most of it. I've never met anyone who can rip a family apart the way Faulkner can, and reveal the vice, the cruelty, and the isolation you only find within a family. There's no way out of it, either, no solution; just incest, murder, and suicide. Benjy is no answer; his image as a Christ figure is simply to show that Christianity is impotent (and to emphasize that, Faulkner castrates Benjy); the only people who cling to that primitive faith are old slave-servants (the younger generation, even the black generation, has no interest in Christianity at all). Whatever plagues the family, Christ has nothing to offer. All Benjy can do is cry.

There's more aspects in Sound and Fury than just Jesus and the family, naturally, but to my mind those are the most important. It's a deeply despairing book, a haunting one. Faulkner has now joined Nietzsche and (probably, assuming I ever get around to understanding him) Heidegger as the finest of the antichrists, mostly because (in Nietzsche's case, at least) they can't suffer refutation, only contradiction. At his best, Nietzsche is excoriating a corruption of Christianity - one that uses feigned humility and weakness as weapons, since otherwise the strong can't be overcome. It can't be denied that this form of Christianity has been prevalent, especially in our decadent age. It isn't the Gospel, it's not the Fathers, it's not Christian Tradition, but the roots of Christendom haven't been watered in centuries. Instead, there's been a woodening, hardening, ossifying process, reducing that beautiful tradition to a dead, recorded letter, in which case it is no longer life affirming.

Hence a Christian's response to the brutal challenge of Faulkner and those like him is simply to live beautifully according to the Truth Himself, to rediscover again and again the purifying fire of divine, merciful love, to look again at the very heart of what the Way of Life truly is. Only from that perspective, with that preparation, can a convincing counterargument - and even better, a counter-enfleshment in life and literature - be achieved. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Interlude.The Sound and the Fury I

Perseverance has never been my strong suit. I generally prefer the (quite damning, actually) adjective 'small-souled' to 'effeminate', because it requires less explanation (the transfer of physical traits to the soul, or perhaps tendencies more blameworthy in one sex than the other? at any rate, it is a powerful aversion to discomfort and an irresistible draw to pleasures, but the latter term could be interpreted to mean such things are characteristic of femininity, and the witness of the Saints -Teresa, Joan, and Therese among a thousand others - not to mention personal experience, belie this).

Further, I am absorbing the Second Vatican Council (i.e. studying the documents carefully and spilling what will become a lot of ink on them), and that will take up a lot of time elsewhere instead of writing here. But they're both on blogs, so at least I'm still writing something here. I begin to wonder if separate blogs were a dumb idea.

Also, Faulkner is hard. Never have I ever read more difficult literature. In terms of intelligibility, Aristotle, Heidegger, and Hegel are his equals. I read the first sentence of The Sound and the Fury at least a dozen times, and the first chapter at least seven times, before I had the barest hint about what the blasted thing meant. PTSD flashbacks of Hegel seminars ensued, where we read a sentence of the Phenomenology and literally asked ourselves, 'What does this mean?"

This is easing, but I will have to read the novel at least three times before I have anything intelligent to say about it. It is easy to lose myself in lighter literature (parts of Kristin Lavransdatter, not to mention all of Father Elijah, Father Elijah in Jerusalem, and Voyage to Alpha Centauri have all been devoured since I 'started' Faulkner!), but it's back to the South now, and even the merest taste of the rewards is enough to keep going. This book is rich. I will not think about time, experience, and how they relate the same way again. Never have I ever been brought into the life of another man as I have Benjy (who, incidentally, is thirty-three and whose story begins during the Easter Triduum. I doubt this is coincidence).

He always snags on the nail. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Plato, Phaedo

Few dialogues are as deeply disturbing and perplexing as the Phaedo, and though all the dialogues concern themselves with what it is to be human, and what the human life looks like, no dialogue explores the consequences of these questions like the Phaedo. For the Phaedo is about dying, being dead, and the preparation for death; since man is mortal, and if he is to live in the truth, he must confront his mortality. And since philosophy claims to be the best life, she must justify herself in the face of death. Given the fact of our imminent doom, why should we spend our days in philosophy? Does not the fact of death make such speculation, especially on such abstract, abstruse subjects like metaphysics, vain? In the words of the Philosopher-King, "he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. This too is vanity."

Socrates rejects this line of thought, the fears that characterize his young companions' questioning into the soul. For since, reason they, philosophy might not even prolong one's life but might (as the case of Socrates suggests) on the contrary prematurely shorten it, is not a live dog better than a dead lion? But Socrates reassures his friends: the soul is immortal, and after death we shall continue to be what we are now. This knowledge, for which ample proofs are given, reassures his friends and provides Socrates with the courage to face death and show his young friends that he is the "wisest and justest of all men." In the face of a constantly changing, hostile world, the soul persists always, giving the philosopher hope in the most hopeless of circumstances. This has some fairly significant implications: since we are, properly speaking, our soul, we should neglect the passions of the body and care only for the soul; the soul is, in reality, 'imprisoned' by the body, and since knowledge is of spiritual things, the body is of no help in the search for wisdom. The philosopher therefore is a hater of bodily things.

Such a view of the Phaedo is hardly original. This is the standard, conventional interpretation of the Phaedo, and one encounters it everywhere - encyclopedias, articles, and introductory philosophy courses at the university. But - if one rereads the Phaedo with sufficient care, one begins to see the extraordinarily conflicted nature of the dialogue. Socrates claims the philosopher is a hater of bodily things, but he has children in his very old age, presumably enjoying the prior, accompanying pleasures; he spends not a little time rubbing his leg prior to his attack on bodily pleasures; and he idly plays with Phaedo's beautiful hair (as, we learn, he was in the habit of doing). Further, we know from the Symposium that he drank more wine than anyone else, never got drunk, and enjoyed himself more than anyone present. Such actions are not the actions of a man convinced that the body is vain. Socrates is neither a Christian ascetic, sacrificing good things as penance for the kingdom of heaven, nor a Buddhist monk, convinced of the vanity of all desire.

Far more disturbing, however, is the treatment of the soul. To be sure, Socrates lays out four arguments for the immortality of the soul. Unfortunately, all of them fail, containing patent logical errors. A great thinker is apt to err in first principles, but not usually in minor steps of logic; Spinoza's Ethics might not be absolutely true, but few would deny it is internally consistent. But even more grievous; the arguments Socrates advances strip the soul of everything personal, which ignores our primal fear of death and longing to live forever: we want ourselves, what makes us us, to persist, not some abstract Form or Intellect, which has no knowledge of individual things nor memory of our life. In short, we long for what Christ promises; for our perfected person, body and soul, our self, to rise again and have life everlasting. Whether such a thing be possible - that is the leap of faith. That the Christian message has proved so powerful is in part because it addresses man's most primal, urgent longings; precisely the longings Socrates betrays in his Four Arguments (consider the opening of the Second Argument and how it moves from the particular to the universal until nothing of the particular is left).

Though Socrates teaches falsehood for the sake of comforting his companions and inspiring them to seek out philosophy, there is no indication that he himself is convinced by his sophisms - rather, the contrary. It seems therefore that he did not think what these arguments proved had been sufficiently demonstrated, and from this two conclusions might be drawn: one, that Socrates did not think the personal immortality of the soul could be known through reason. Two, that Socrates positively affirmed the personal mortality of the soul. I myself prefer the first option, for it is more in line with his gentle skepticism (he does not say, "I shall not believe it till you prove it to my satisfaction," but "How can that be? Let us investigate it together"), more confident the possibility of future inquiry, and it preserves the fundamental difficulty resulting from the failure of his earlier arguments: why philosophize if you cannot know, but can only hope (and scarcely have a reasonable hope, at that), that the soul is immortal? Is not everything vain again?

Unfortunately, the Phaedo does not provide sure, open answers to these questions. Matters thus look very bleak, a cause for the deepest despair. But some consolation might be present in the Allegory of the Cave and reflecting upon courage. For there is no question that for those who have truly tasted it, the philosophic life is superior to that of all others (the challenge of revelation is for the time being set aside). Once one has seen knowledge, to live in ignorance is intolerable, at least for those few souls who love wisdom, but even men living in ignorance wish to think their ignorance the truth (Cipher's decision to re-enter the Matrix is the clearest modern example of this). And courage is the perseverance in a judgment which reason knows to be true - in this case, that philosophy is the best life. For even if death is the end, philosophy remains the best life, and one should take even more care over one's soul, because it is the most precious of all things. Abandoning this for a life of hedonistic despair and nihilism would be weak and shameful, the willing enslavement to the bodily passions which is so fatal to philosophy (Socrates, remember, was famous for his temperance). Still, this is far less reassuring than it might have been, for Socrates seems to suggest that only courage separates us from despair.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Willa Cather, Death Comes For The Archbishop

I often think that if I had read Death Comes For The Archbishop back in 2007, when it was first recommended to me, I should have discerned my vocation to the priesthood much, much sooner. I should have read it many, many times and written much about it, in my journal and elsewhere. As it stands, I have read it at last and am extraordinarily impressed. For it is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read - I have only seen Melville paint such beauties with words in American literature. Short phrases like, "his diocese lay within the icy arms of the Great Lakes" fill me with wonder each time I return to them, and her evocative descriptions of New Mexico are something truly wonderful to behold. I could scarcely believe it to be the work of a Protestant (Cather was Episcopalian, I think), for it is so reverent in its portrayal of the Church and her practices (especially the veneration of the Blessed Mother) that I might have thought it the work of a devout Catholic.

Death is about the reign of New Mexico's first bishop, Jean Marie Latour, a French missionary, and his decades-long tenure. He upholds the true faith of the Fathers through political intrigue, dissolute, rebellious priests (some of which live in open concubinage), and his own loneliness. It is a portrait of a man who left what was comfortable and familiar in order to follow God's call no matter where it led. Bishop Latour is gentle as dove, subtle as a serpent, and courageous as a lion as he spreads and protects, as a True Shepherd ought, the apostolic faith of the Catholic Church.  As such, Latour is an inspiring figure, one whom I very much wish to emulate (I had a similar reaction to Dostoevsky's Alyosha), but one who already reflected much of my soul, which I cannot yet say of the third Karamazov. Sometimes I think that these two men from literature, Raistlen and Father Latour, though from drastically different novels, when taken together, illuminate my soul with startling, even frightening accuracy. For Raistlen is often what I am, but Father Latour is what I am beginning to be and hope most of all to become. Perhaps I ought instead to wish to emulate his lifelong friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, but I have less the simple, honest love that a man of the people possesses and more the courteous, earnest soul of a lonely aristocrat. For its illustration of such a man that is as profound as it is stirring, I owe Willa Cather a great deal.

"What will your new bishop drink in the country of bison? And what will he eat?"
"He will eat dried buffalo meat and frijoles with chili, and he will be glad to drink water when he can get it. He will have no easy life, your Eminence. That country will drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain. He will be called upon for every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom. That is how things stand in New Mexico."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity

Introduction to Christianity is another 'installment' in the series of books I have read over the years concerning what Lewis calls 'mere Christianity' and Chesterton 'orthodoxy': the elements of Christian faith, elucidated perhaps most famously in the Christian West by the Apostles' Creed. Cardinal Ratzinger (now our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI) contributes an impressive, if rather densely written (he is German, after all), exposition on the Creed, with the specific purpose of making the spirit of faith intelligible to modernity. Through long essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation-Passion-Resurrection, he illuminates through natural reason what the Church has professed, and how her fundamental doctrines may be understood so as to be accessible to the modern mind. It is a book that begins from what is most evident to us, and proceeds step by step to the faithful orthodoxy of the Church, interpreted in a thoughtful way. This orthodoxy is the ancient, apostolic faith in Christ as revealed through his Church, and it is this which Ratzinger endlessly elucidates as from the outside.

But faith in Christ as revealed through his Church, is today, as Ratzinger rightly notes, rather problematic. Even if the stumbling blocks of Jesus himself (born of a Virgin, true God and yet also true man, suffered death for the sake of redeeming man, raised from the dead, etc.) can be overcome, the stumbling blocks of the Church Herself are even greater, in a certain way. For the Church is, as the Creed proclaims, Holy and Catholic. To say that the Church is holy seems to mean that her members are holy; for is not the Church her members? And yet nothing could be more obvious than the sin, even grave, grievous sin, of her members. Even when one ignores the popular, false decries against her (the Crusades, the trial of Galileo, etc.) and moves into real transgression (parts of the Inquisition, the 15th century simony and corruption, the curent sexual abuse scandals, etc.), it is clear that the Church is grievously sinful, and that her members are most certainly not holy - at least not yet. The so-called Catholicity of the Church is another occasion for scandal, for even more obvious than her sin is that the Church is not visibly one; after every major council (the Seven Ecumenical Councils, for example), a schism results. The 16th century schisms have resulted, four hundred years later, in many tens of thousands of churches, all claiming to be the One True Church. It seems as if the Church has become as rent as our Lord's garment at the Crucifixion, and that when the nonbeliever sees the Church, he sees men doing naught but sinning, often grievously, and concerned with the human lusts of power and control; most manifestly not practicing what they so earnestly preach.

Ratzinger does address these questions, and addresses them very well. The Church is not holy because her members are holy - how obviously false this is - but because she has received the gift of sanctifying grace through Christ, which operates despite her sinfulness. God is holy, and he is making his Church holy. Again, the elements of the Church are forgiveness, conversion, penance, eucharistic communion; in sum, the one Word and the one Bread. The episcopal organization of the Church exists as a means to this end, the union of the faithful with our Lord and his mysteries. The Church is one because Christ is one, and thus the Church is invisibly one with those who profess our Lord in the manner of the Creed stated above, in addition to being visibly one with those churches which are part of her episcopal organization.

It seems today that for many, the life of the mind (or science, as we might begin to say) and the life of faith are increasingly seen as contraries, even polemically engaged adversaries. I might be inclined to suspect this is a result of the Protestant schisms (for Luther declared that reason was a whore, and his position was by no means condemned among his compatriots), and that a greater friendship between the two might be possible. I shall write later of the relation between faith and science, for those who hold these two to be incompatible are far more ignorant than those who hold reason (i.e. philosophy) and revelation (faith in what the divine has shown to man) are incompatible, and this objection is quite minor and secondary. Ratzinger ambiguously treats both in Introduction, but that is, I suspect, because modern man erroneously conflates 'reason' with 'modern empirical science'.

In the first pages of his book, Ratzinger hits on a profound truth that Leo Strauss also illuminates; the fundamental question of how to live, and the two contrary ways of answering that question: belief in divine revelation and belief in the sufficiency of reason. But as Strauss also notes, the one cannot refute the other: reason cannot demonstrate that revelation is impossible simply, and revelation cannot establish itself as the truth beyond any doubt on purely rational grounds. Ratzinger concludes from this that "there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man" and thus offers his reflections on the Creed to stimulate and provoke discussion about the merits and plausibility of a life lived in accordance with revelation, even in an age so seemingly distant from such a possibility as our own.

"Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not live a sealed-off, self-sufficient life either...just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole."