Beauty and – Other Things

Monday, 01-28-2019

 

In the generation of Burke and Kant, people who thought about art were fascinated by the fact that beauty does not exhaust the range of aesthetic values.  Something is beautiful, they said, if it evokes admiration because of its grace of form and color, but it is sublime if it excites awe because of the vastness or mystery of its object.  An object can be beautiful without being sublime, and sublime without being beautiful.  In fact, an object which is sublime may even include elements of the jarring or grotesque, which are opposed to beauty in themselves.  A painting of the crucifixion in which Jesus does not seem to suffer does not awe.

Already things are becoming complicated, but even beauty and sublimity together are far from exhausting the qualities that people look for in a work of art.  I am not here thinking of attractions which are separable from the work, such as how much its great expense will delight my friends or how well its color scheme blends in with the rest of my decor.  Rather I am speaking of attractions which are intrinsic to the work itself, those it would possess even if it I had picked it up cheap at a garage sale and it looked out of place in my house.

It might be neither beautiful nor sublime, but intriguing.  It might be none of these things, but faithful to its object.  It might call my attention to something I had not thought of before.  It might catch or fool the eye.  It might suggest an episode in a story, or convey a lesson.  It might symbolize a concept.  It might excite admiration because of the labor which went into its composition.  It might evoke a mood, such as boredom, a philosophy, such as nihilism, or a psychological state, such as obsession.  It might call up a whisper of memory.  It might challenge, comfort, or irritate.  It might build up, or it might inflict damage and harm.  It might signal that the maker holds one of the currently fashionable views (or, more rarely, that he doesn’t).  It might do nothing more than express his attitude toward himself, other people, God, or the viewer, in the manner of a joke, a prayer, a sob, a sin, or a curse.

Such qualities have always been present in art.  The difference is that now they are at the center of the enterprise.  Mind you, though I could do without some of them, I am not at the moment passing judgment on all of them, but only pointing them out.  I am not one of those who hate all modernist art, though much of it leaves me cold.  It is often interesting -- even though it is not often what I would call beautiful.

I used to be puzzled by those who protested, “No, it is beautiful.”  But people who speak that way are not usually speaking of beauty per se.  They are merely using the term “beauty” as a lazy label for all of the things some people look for in art.  Where I might say that a given painting is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene, but not beautiful, they would call it beautiful because it is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene.

So, I think much of the appeal of modernist art for those who do fancy it arises not from the fact that they see something beautiful (or sublime) that other ages would have missed, but that, for better or for worse, some other quality than beauty or sublimity appeals to them much, much more.

 

Difficulties

Thursday, 01-24-2019

 

Query:

Your blog site seems to be having problems.  I am missing one of my better sources of sanity.

 

Reply:

Thanks for the heads-up.  I’m afraid various pages at the website will be intermittently unavailable until the difficulties are fixed.  In the meantime, if a page you are looking for is hiding, just try again to reach it a little later in the day.

Since this problem has me pulling out my hair, I am most encouraged to learn that I still give an impression of being sane.

 

Are Souls Made of God-Stuff?

Monday, 01-21-2019

 

Query:

Having seen the "Query" posts on your blog, I was hoping you might take one from me!  I have an unshakable sense that we are all endowed with immortal souls.  However, I’m puzzled.  Our souls are immortal in a future-facing direction, but are understood to have distinct points of origin in time. From whence do they arise? Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself in some ineffable manner, or do they originate from, as it were, a void of nothingness?

I've cautiously approached two Christians about this.  Neither was able to offer a particularly cogent answer; the gist was “We are but humble humans, and that must remain a wondrous and holy mystery."  Maybe that’s fair, but it feels like a bit of a punt.  I have been influenced by the Vedic sage, Sri Aurobindo. but I'm wondering whether Thomas Aquinas might have pondered the issue.  I hope this isn’t a dumb question.

 

Reply:

Your questions aren’t at all dumb.  Taking them in turn:

 

1.  From whence do our souls arise?

The soul is the form or pattern which makes the difference between a human body and a human corpse.  Our souls are created directly by God.  They are not made from anything that already existed, but brought into being immediately, at the same time they are infused into bodies.

 

2.  Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself?

No.  You know that I am a Christian; by faith, through the grace of Jesus Christ, I am assured that God dwells in me.  However, He isn't the same as me, He isn't a part of me, and He isn't a "higher" me.  I am made in His image, but I am not Him.  I’m not the same as Him, I’m not a part of Him, and I’m not a "splinter" of Him.  Nor will I ever be, even though I hope one day to see Him face to face.  He doesn't depend on anything else, because He is what everything else depends on.  He can't be explained by anything else, because He is what everything else must be explained by.

 

3.  Or do they originate from a void of nothingness?

Depends on what you mean.  When we say that God created us ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” we don’t mean that nothing is some kind of stuff from which He fashioned us.  Rather we mean that until He created us, we were not.

By the way, this reflects another of the fundamental differences between God and us.  We produce things from pre-existent matter, as a farmer grows his crop from the seed, a sculptor molds a statuette from clay, or an engineer assembles a mechanism from parts.  God does not produce; He creates.  He does not require pre-existent matter.  Until He made matter, there wasn’t any.  It is said that Friedrich Nietzsche once hurled at God the challenge, “I too can make a man.”  God replied to Nietzsche, “God ahead and try.”  Nietzsche took a fistful of dust and began to mold it.  God said, “Disqualified.  Get your own dust.”

Thomas Aquinas writes, “To say that the soul is of the Divine substance involves a manifest improbability.”  Why so?  He explains that sometimes the human soul is actualizing its powers, but sometimes they merely lie fallow.  By contrast, in God, nothing lies fallow; everything that He can be, He always is.

In St. Thomas’s view, the error of thinking that our souls are made of God’s substance probably arises from two other errors, which have been around for a long, long time.

One is the mistake of thinking that God, and our souls, are both matter – both stuff -- so that the stuff of our souls was made from the stuff of His.  However, God is not matter.   Several reasons can be given why He couldn’t be, but the simplest is that He is the first cause of all things, the reason for their existence.  Matter – stuff -- could not be the first cause of all things, because it has whatever form it takes only because of something else, not from itself.

Some mistaken thinkers do grasp that God is not matter but spirit – so far, so good.  But they make another mistake, thinking that just as man’s soul is the form of his material body – let us say, the pattern of an embodied human life – so then God is the soul of the whole world, the form of the entire material universe.  According to St. Thomas, the main problem these thinkers have is that they fail to recognize the differences among different kinds of spirits -- in this case, human souls and God -- except in terms of their relationship to bodies.

Why is that wrong?  Because although we and God are certainly different, the difference is not that we have a different relationship to our bodies than He has to “His body.”  In His own Being, He doesn’t need a body.  The Son chose to incarnate Himself in Christ -- but that was a free act for our salvation.

This should give you a start!  If you want to read St. Thomas himself on these questions, begin with the Summa Theologiae, First Part, Question 90, Article 1, “Whether the soul was made, or was of God's substance?”  You can find the whole Summa online.

 

How to Be Full and Exact

Monday, 01-14-2019

 

Bacon, who was wrong about many things, spoke truly when he said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.  And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.”

Although I am not often asked about conference, I am often asked about reading and writing.  Here are a few of things I have learned over the years.

 

Preparation for the Act

Build quiet into your life.  Listen.

Turn off the television and social media.  Don’t monitor messages continuously, but only at fixed times.  Don’t pretend that you can multi-task.

Turn off anything that thumps, even if it is supposed to be a pleasant thump.

Spend time with friends.  Love those entrusted to you.  The strings of the mind lose their tone if their tension is never relieved, so play sometimes.

Don’t skip necessary sleep.  You will lose more time through fatigue and confusion than you think you have gained by staying awake.

Never suppose that if your subject is one of the humanities you don’t need to learn logical reasoning and mathematics – and conversely.

Learn your mind’s rhythms.  There is a time for lying fallow, and a time for sending up shoots.

Learn how your mind understands.  An example:  Some can’t teach anything until they understand it, but others can’t understand anything until they see how they could teach it. 

Fish don’t know they are wet; and not just fish.  Try to become aware of what you take for granted.

Don’t worry about the fact that everything can be doubted.  The question is whether you have good reason to believe it.

Don’t worry about finding yourself.  If you try to acquire the virtues, your self will take care of itself.

Do not be misled by those who say that seeking is an end in itself.  Seek the truth to find it; find the truth to yield to it.

 

The Act of Reading

It is better to read a few good books well than to read many books poorly.  Seek guides who can tell you what they are.  But don’t rely exclusively on them; explore.

Whenever you read something difficult, read it out loud.  Whenever you read something beautiful, do the same.  Do not shun the difficult; seek the beautiful; avoid the foul.

If a book is worth reading, it is worth reading more than once; and in order to take it in, you may have to.

Read about subjects other than the one you are studying.

Read real books, not just internet postings, and read in many styles and genres.

Avoid reading books about books until you have read the books they are about.

Read more old books than recent ones.  Get outside the little island of your own time.

Learn what an author teaches not for the sake of knowing what he teaches, but in order to find out whether it might be true.

Reach across time to ask the authors questions.  Have them reach across time to ask you questions.  Make them ask questions of each other.

Never confuse a mere rebuff with a thoughtful objection.

If you do raise an objection, give the author a chance to answer.

Don’t worry if you find yourself reading more slowly.  You will.

 

The Act of Writing

Don’t write “about” a “topic.”  Claim something; solve something; answer something.  Everything begins with asking something.

Don’t just write about theories of things.  Write about things.

No matter how much you love and cherish that unnecessary part of your book, essay, chapter, paragraph, or sentence, remove it.  This is the only meritorious form of murder.

Don’t hurry in framing your questions.  A badly framed question invites a badly reasoned answer.

Write often.  If you have no reason to write on Tuesday, think of one.  You don’t have to write all day.

If you suffer writer’s block, warm up by writing something else for twenty minutes.  A letter.  A limerick.  Anything will do.

Outline your arguments before you write them.  Eventually you will do this in your mind.  Eventually it will be second nature.

Don’t talk too much, or too soon, about what you are writing.

Don’t revise your draft until a day or two has passed since writing it, so that you can read it as if it were written by someone else.

Always remember that your reader can’t read your mind; all he has are your words.

Whatever you can’t make interesting isn’t interesting to you.

Whatever you can’t explain in simple language, you don’t understand.

 

Seduction and Consent

Monday, 01-07-2019

 

Seduction is persuading someone to commit a moral wrong which the person might not otherwise have committed by manipulating the person’s own motives.  Its particular brand of loathsomeness is that it draws the victim into the seducer’s guilt.

To be perfectly clear about which wrongs we are speaking about, please understand that I am speaking of adult persons, and I am not speaking of using force or threats.

Usually, the word “seduction” is used for seduction to sexual intercourse; this is the focal meaning of the term.  Surprisingly, the kinds of illicit persuasion we find easiest to condemn are the non-focal kinds, for example seduction to commit fraud or theft – for which we usually use different terms.  In fact, we find it so difficult to criticize seduction in the focal, sexual sense that the term “seduction” has almost dropped out of our language.  It sounds curiously old-fashioned.

Yet seduction was not always so difficult to mention or condemn.  Along with pandering, it earned an entire circuit of torment in Dante’s version of hell.  Why is it so difficult in our own times to admit that seduction is wrong?

The answer:  Because even though the object of a successful seduction may not have initially welcomed the seducer’s advances, he or she does give consent in the end – and in order to rationalize our own bad behavior, many of us have welded our minds to the view that nothing done with the consent of both parties could ever be wrong.

This is why, on those rare occasions when we do condemn seducers, we don’t condemn them for seduction itself.  To condemn them at all, we have to pretend that consent never took place, so that what they really did was something other than seduction, such as rape.  Rape also happens, and sometimes an unsuccessful seduction turns into a rape.  But seduction, as such, is not rape.

Seduction is the unmentionable sin, the sin of which we dare not speak, lest doing so undermine our pretense that everything to which we consent is all right.

 

Resolution

Tuesday, 01-01-2019

 

Query:

Just finished What We Can’t Not KnowDitto on all of it.  I’m principally a documentary filmmaker, and I include elements of natural law in my Story Workshops.  To connect with audiences, a store’s fictional characters must experience the natural law consequences of their moral decisions, else the audience will disconnect.  It’s not that the audience can explain natural law, but they just can’t not know it. 

But about the broader cultural difficulty we find ourselves in, I was disappointed that the solutions you listed at the end of the book – the three counter-measures, as you call them – weren’t more complete.  They are being implemented here and there in public media, but with little effect, it seems.  Do any of your other writings offer practical solutions in greater depth or breadth?

 

Reply:

That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.  Though they may not be much, I do have a few reflections about it/

You weren’t asking for a Grand Strategy, but a lot of people in our position do wish for one.  So the first reflection is that we aren’t going to come up with a Grand Strategy.  We’re soldiers.  The only one who sees the whole battlefield is God.

That thought gives rise to a second one.  You suggest that what we do isn’t having much effect, but because we’re only soldiers – and for other reasons, such as the way the secular media dominates reportage of just how much effect we are having, and the fact that “current trends” are not laws of nature but wills o’ the wisp – I don’t think we can say how much or how little effect we are having overall.  All that each of us can tell is whether he is doing his own present duty.  I don’t think Benedict thought he was laying out a Benedict Option.

Third, though I would love to turn around the culture, it isn’t really about the culture.  In both the long and short run, it’s really about individual persons.  C.S. Lewis used to say that cultures are short-lived, but souls last forever.  When the stars are burnt to cinders, souls will just be getting started.  Besides, the culture isn’t going to change until more people do.  It may seem that we’re caught in a loop here, because the culture influences the people who influence the culture.  Yes, but the culture isn’t all-powerful, because it can’t erase conscience, wipe out grace, or change the natural law.

The fourth reflection springs from the fact that you are obviously laboring to do all that you can with your own gifts.  The most important thing, I think, is to motivate more people to do that.

Fifth and last, a person who has one gift can’t very often tell a person with another gift how best to use it.  What we can do is encourage people to figure it out for themselves.

As the saying goes, every bone has to turn in the joint where it’s placed.  I am a teacherly sort of bone, and I am placed in a joint where I can write.  So what I can do lies mostly in helping people think more clearly and perceive what is under their noses.  That’s why I write the sort of books I do.  You make films.  I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.

On the other hand, people like you and me have to watch out for a certain bias.  Perhaps because we are men, we too easily slip into thinking that doing stuff is more important than becoming holy.  Perhaps because our own sorts of gifts put what we do in front of others, we also tend to think that doing stuff means doing things that everyone can see -- writing books (like me), making films (like you), producing television, passing laws, carving sculptures, and all that sort of thing.

We tend to overlook the fact that the most important work is often small and quiet.  For example, raising good and faithful children is a work of cosmic importance.  The Father arranged for even the Son to have human parents, who never wrote a book or made a film.
If this hasn’t been as helpful as I would like it to be, take a look at the strategies of face-to-face cultural apologetics that I discuss in the final chapter of an older book of mine, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man Perhaps those might be suggestive.

Thanks again for writing.  God bless your New Year.

 

From his response:

You’ve encouraged me.  I am ambitious -- at times to a fault.  Although I am always working productively, I am never satisfied.  Secular news depresses me.  But your response was great:  We’re soldiers.

I’ll read the book.  One further thought.  To motivate more people to labor with their own gifts is a Grand Strategy!

 

My further reply:

You’ve got me – it is!  Doing that will be my New Year’s resolution.  Thank you.

 

“Mere” Christianity – Which One?

Monday, 12-31-2018

 

The noble intention of C.S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity was to defend not this sect or that sect, but rather those teachings which had been held by almost all Christians in almost all times and places.

Though Lewis himself proceeded differently, the idea itself goes back to a criterion of orthodoxy proposed by St. Vincent of Lerins in his famous Commonitory.  Here are St. Vincent’s own words:

“I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

“But here someone perhaps will ask, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation?”  For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.  For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another.  Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

However, attempts to define a “mere” Christianity by building on that phrase “everywhere, always, by all” may go in either of two directions

One is the way intended by St. Vincent, which keeps the phrase in its ecclesiastical context.  For when St. Vincent wrote “all,” he was referring to the priests and doctors of the Catholic faith, and when he wrote “always,” he was referring to the consensus of antiquity.  Taken in this sense, plenty has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be Catholic Christianity.

The other way, Lewis’s, is ecclesiastically relativist – which is a little surprising, because in other ways Lewis was light-years from relativism.  But when Lewis wrote “all,” he meant all or almost all of those who have called themselves Christians, and when he wrote “always,” he meant all times whatsoever.

I don’t think Lewis realized that in his sense, nothing really has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be no Christianity.

If Lewis’s book is a great book – and it is -- the reason is that Lewis was better than his method.  Had he really followed it, he would have had nothing to say.  But he didn’t; and so he did.