Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Need for Socrates

That's what I do. I drink and I know things.
- Tyrion Lannister

There is always a need for Socrates. But at some times he is needed more than others.

Now is one of those times.

How can you tell? Because there is very little of a true philosophical spirit about.

The philosopher is a lover of wisdom. As Socrates teaches us, this doesn't mean the philosopher is a wise man. The philosopher is a pursuer of wisdom, and you don't pursue what you already have. So the philosopher is a man not wise who is driven in the attempt to become wise.

The man who is already wise is not a philosopher because he is not driven to pursue wisdom - he's got it already. The man not interested in wisdom is also not a philosopher - he is not wise but doesn't care to become so, and so he does not pursue it.

Both of these latter types are prevalent today. And both hate the philosopher, whom they (ironically) condemn as arrogant and useless.

It is part of received "wisdom" today that the great philosophical questions cannot be definitively answered. Does God exist? If so, what is His nature? What is the nature and content of true morality? What is justice? Is there life after death? Is man really free or just a slave of nature and its laws? What is the best way to organize society? And many others. The futility of philosophy.

The philosopher, allegedly, is the man who thinks he has answers to some or all of these questions. And if he has those answers, then those who disagree with him are wrong. And that is the substance of the charge of arrogance. How can he be so sure he's right and everyone else is wrong? What makes him so special? Shouldn't he be a little more humble? The arrogance of the philosopher.

And while he is out pretending to know what others don't, he could be doing something useful to actually contribute to society. Instead he whiles away his time contemplating questions that can never be really answered, and never producing anything of value. The uselessness of philosophy.

Anyone concerned that these charges might be leveled at him may be consoled that they were the same charges leveled at Socrates. They are the perennial charges against philosophers, and will always be leveled against him as long as man persists. And yet philosophers persist.

The philosophical spirit never quite dies out. For there is always someone, when the received wisdom  concerning the futility of philosophy is proclaimed, who asks the question - how do you know that? How do you know that the great questions cannot be answered? Isn't the dogma that they cannot be answered itself a Great Answer, an arrogant assertion that unjustifiably claims to know that every great thinker throughout history failed? Isn't it possible that someone, somewhere along the way, found at least some answers? How can I dismiss a great philosopher, a Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas, without ever understanding anything of what he thought?

It's rather the philosopher who is humble, isn't it? For he proclaims himself to be ignorant, but doesn't have the gall to assert that everyone else - including everyone throughout history - must have been ignorant as well. How can one possibly come to this latter conclusion?

The one feeble argument made on its behalf is that philosophers still argue about the same questions they always have, and haven't produced any "results" the way science has, or any definitive answers settled once and for all. This is often thought to be a distinctively modern argument, but of course it was made in Socrates's day against him as well. One might call it the Argument from Disagreement, and it has a peculiar nature.

For one thing, it is self-fulfilling. Merely by disagreeing with a philosophical result, for whatever reason good or bad, I create disagreement and therefore evidence against the result. That certain philosophical results are still debated may only mean that some people are incapable of understanding them or be unwilling to accept them. And that incapacity and/or unwillingness surely can't prove itself merely by existing. It's not enough merely to note disagreement; it is necessary to show that any particular disagreement has a reasonable basis, and that means doing the work of actually understanding the arguments.  But then the whole point of the Argument from Disagreement is to dismiss philosophers without having to go through the work of actually understanding them.

For another thing, there hasn't always been disagreement among philosophers, and there are answers that have received general and enduring agreement. For instance, that harm to another may only be done in self-defense or through civil processes (i.e. a trial) is not something seriously questioned anymore (whereas one of the questions Socrates debated was whether morality consists in doing good to ones friends and evil to ones enemies, a live question at the time. It doesn't, Socrates answered, and his answers form the basis of much of what we take for granted with respect to morality, whether we know it or not).

Instead of the manifestly unsupportable conclusion that everyone in history must have been ignorant concerning the great questions, the philosopher only knows that he himself is ignorant. Whether others are ignorant as well is an open question, and he eagerly learns all he can from the greatest thinkers in the hope that maybe they actually did know something. (Spoiler: They did.)

Something Aristotle taught is that the truth is generally found between two extreme and opposing errors. And when the truth is lost, both the opposing errors become manifest. One of the errors, it seems, is thinking that the truth cannot ever really be found (and if we think about it, we could never reasonably believe this, because then it would constitute the truth we said we couldn't find.) The other extreme is thinking that the truth is found easily and without effort.

These extremes seem opposed, and they are, but they circle around and meet each other. For if we think the truth can never really be found, then all particular attempts to do so are necessarily futile, and we arrive at modern cultural relativism. I don't need to understand Confucius or Lao Tzu, Avicenna or the Bhagavad Vita because they must ultimately be as futile as Socrates and Aristotle. Justice and peace result from an acknowledgement of the relativity of culture, which masquerades as respect for all cultures, but is really a universal disrespect. If everyone would acknowledge that they can't know the truth, and that their way of knowing it is not and cannot be any more successful or legitimate than others, then the source of conflict would disappear. This degenerate form of humanitarian universalism is now culturally dominant, and it's easy to see it's appeal: It's a ready excuse to get out of the hard work of learning. The old Socratic way offered nothing but a lifetime of learning with no promise of result; the new degenerate universalism lets you do what you want without a guilty conscience.

But not really. Ultimately, that guilty conscience is why the philosopher is hated and why he is necessary. For man is a rational animal, meaning his nature is to know. The philosopher, merely by existing, reminds man of that basic fact of his nature and embarrasses him. The philosopher would not embarrass men if they did not already know, in a deep and hidden place, that they are meant to know yet they do not know. And he is hated because he exposes the easy answers that men have constructed to console themselves rather than face the truly terrifying fact that they don't have any idea who they are or what they are doing.

The modern existential philosopher might leave it at that, but he's a degenerate form. The best philosophers - starting with Socrates - offer hope that you might come to know what you are doing.

Let us, then, in the first place, he [Socrates] said, be careful of admitting
into our souls the notion that there is no truth or health or soundness
in any arguments at all; but let us rather say that there is as yet
no health in us, and that we must quit ourselves like men and do our
best to gain health-you and all other men with a view to the whole
of your future life, and I myself with a view to death.
 - Plato, Phaedo


Friday, December 25, 2015

Aristotle on Christmas

Wonderful use of Aristotle to understand the meaning of Christmas. Through Front Porch Republic:

Aristotle on Christmas.

On Twice A Year Catholics

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."

But does that mean I cannot think? I find it impossible not to think of twice a year Catholics when I am at Christmas Mass, and it is obvious that many of the congregants are unfamiliar with the Mass; and that many of them obviously have no respect for the Mass. Standing with their hands in their pockets, surreptitiously checking their iPhones, chatting with each other like they are at a pub. And of  course everyone goes to Communion, during which it is best to keep one's head down in prayer so as at least to avoid seeing how they take Communion.

Do not judge. I think that does not mean I must pretend I do not approve of such behavior. It means that it is not my place to condemn anyone for their behavior. That is the prerogative of God.

We are all sinners. Discovering the reality and nature of our own particular sins is a necessary process on the way to becoming closer to God. Although we are not to condemn others for their sins, it is generally easier to see sins in others rather than ourselves. But in seeing those sins, perhaps we can recognize the same sins in ourselves.

Consider a man, a father, who is divorced and sees his daughter at Christmas. At that time he gives her gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her. He tells her how much he loves her. But after Christmas and into the New Year, the daughter calls and emails her father but gets no response. In fact this continues throughout the rest of the year; she regularly calls, leaves messages and gets no answer. Then at Christmastime the next year, her father again shows up with gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her and tells her he loves her. He says he is sorry he didn't return her messages but he was very busy. But he is here now. Surely she understands. And this goes on year after year.

What is the daughter to make of this? Might she think her father is simply a liar and is using and cheating her, showing up once a year to get good feelings about pretending to be the father he is not? Might she not demand that he at least show her enough respect to be honest about their relationship? Instead he forces her to be complicit in the lies he tells himself. This is worse than indifference, for were he indifferent they would at least understand each other in their lack of a relationship. Her dignity would not suffer annual humiliation at his contrived intimacy.

What is Communion but a particular and deep form of intimacy that God has granted us? To take Communion indifferently or by rote or merely as just another part of the Christmas season, is to hug your daughter once a year at Christmas. Traditionally the Church has demanded of us that we make ourselves worthy of the Sacrament of the Mass through prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Like all the Church's rules, this is for our own benefit so we don't find ourselves taking hugs from God without the prior respect for God that makes such intimacy true rather than a lie.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:27)
It is not for me to condemn once or twice a year Catholics. But I can learn from them the danger of taking Communion lightly, and renew my resolve to prepare myself properly for Mass.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Chesterton, the Internet and Community

What would G.K. Chesterton have thought of the Internet?

We can get an idea from his essay On Certain Modern Writers originally published in Heretics and recently republished in the excellent collection In Defense of Sanity. Chesterton discusses Christianity, the family and community in this essay, and makes the point that small communities like the family force different types of people to know and get along with each other. Ironically, it is the small community that is truly more broad than the large one:
In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy; and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. 
That last sentence contains a typical Chesterton surprise. We might tend to think of "spiritual coherence and contentment" as something good, or at least not positively bad;  and Chesterton plays on that conceit, leading us along in the sentence until shocking us at the end with his view that it is actually hellacious. What is hell like? It is a place where everyone has the same kind of soul, and far from being a place of discord and conflict, in fact there is "coherence" and "contentment." It is place where everyone is content in his sins. It is not a happy place, however, and so we can conclude that Chesterton sees a distinction between contentment and happiness. I am picturing Chesterton's hell as one of drabness and dullness, where everyone is "content" with his situation only because he doesn't have the energy to do anything about it. All the souls are the same because they are all worn down to the nub. Heaven, then, must be a place of glorious diversity (in the real sense, not the PC sense, of that word) where the souls are very different, and express the energy of their difference yet in the unity of God.

Back to the theme of this post, it seems clear Chesterton would have some problems with the Internet - the chief being that it is an ideal clique-forming ground, beyond anything Chesterton might have imagined. Now one doesn't need to be in physical proximity to spend all his time with the like-minded. A few clicks of the mouse and you can find somewhere online where everyone thinks exactly like you do. The everyday encounters that bring us into contact with a variety of people - like shopping, taking the bus, going to the library - may also be minimized via online shopping. "Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations" Chesterton tells us. On the internet, as soon as you experience any discomfort or any degree of renunciation, there is always another more comfortable page to repair to.

There is no neighbor on the Internet in any real sense, and thus no place for the second great commandment. "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour." God commands us to love the man who is given to us in our circumstances; but what if our circumstances (e.g. online existence) are such that no one is given to us?

We have, in Chesterton's words, "a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge."

Of course I can't leave off here without discussing the irony of making this point on the Internet itself.  The Internet itself is neither good nor evil - Chesterton would certainly agree with that - it is our use of it that makes it turn for good or ill. And so it is when internet "communities" begin to displace real communities that we begin to have a problem, and especially when people begin to think of online "communities" as real communities.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Original Sin, Paradise and Irish Music

In a comment to my recent post concerning Chesterton and Original Sin, M asked the pertinent question: If this is our true home but we don't know how to live here, how do we learn?

The short answer is we can't, at least on our own. That's the problem with the Fall - we fell in our entire nature right down to our core, so there is no place we can fall back on from which to pull ourselves up. Any attempt we make is doomed to fail because the attempt can only come from fallen nature, and so is already affected by the problem it is trying to cure. That's why our attempts to find a way to live always have a ring of artificiality to them. They must, because we are trying to construct a way to live from degraded blueprints and with degraded carpenters.

The only answer is for someone to save us - which, of course, God has accomplished in the Incarnation. Christ shows us what it really means to live naturally, in our home, and gives us the grace to do it, if we will but accept it. Just how far we have fallen is indicated by the shock with which we apprehend the crucifix:


Christ is the perfectly natural man, but the way He lives is not something that comes naturally to us (anymore).  And it never quite will, as long as redemption is not complete. The best we can do is imitate him, ask for His grace, and hope we can through Him learn to live again in a truly natural manner. In the meantime, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that the strangeness we feel, the feeling of never quite fitting in or knowing quite what to do, is a consequence of the Fall, and will be with us to some degree for the rest of this life - but it is not the end of the story, and we can look forward to truly being home when history is finished.

And we can even in this life get a taste of what paradise - another word for living in our true home - is like. We know that in paradise we will live in the presence of God and no longer feel the longing that we do in this life, that something isn't there that should be but we can't quite say what. God will fill us and we will rest satisfied in Him. It's difficult for us to imagine how this would be possible, how we could rest in God without becoming bored (another indication of our fallen nature). For me, I imagine paradise as a "dynamic restfulness",  active yet not going anywhere or feeling the need to go anywhere. One way I get an idea for this is playing Irish music; when you get the rhythm right in a reel, it feels effortless and as though you could ride the rhythm all day without trying but without getting bored. It's that "dynamic restfulness" I strive for in my playing and when I approach it, I feel I am getting a little taste of heaven. This is the Irish reel Lucky In Love:


Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Living Together

I am old-fashioned enough to still be surprised at the matter-of-fact way couples allow it to be known that they are living together without benefit of clergy. It now seems to be the conventional wisdom that couples live together for months or even years before getting married, if they ever do. A young man at work has been living with his girlfriend for four years. He has even gone on cruises with his parents and her; apparently the parents see nothing amiss in this relationship. This is all related matter of factly over the lunch table.

The idea seems to be that you should get to know each other in a living-together arrangement before getting married. That way, the thinking goes, there won't be surprises when (if) you eventually do get married. Supposedly this will put the marriage on a firmer basis. The statistics say otherwise.

So does common sense and, frankly, simple decency. I thank God that I had the sense not to go down this path when I was 23 and foolish in many ways - but not that way. Instead I married the woman I loved - without ever having lived with her - and have stayed married for 29 years.

Jan. 3, 1987

I instinctively sensed at the time that to ask her to live with me would be disrespectful. It was to ask her to upset the basic arrangements of her life - where she lived and how, the independence of her own apartment - and restructure her life according to mine, presumably for some extended period of time. It meant a raft of simple things like letting everyone know the new telephone number at which you can be reached, and changing your mailing address. There was an "overhead" investment that would act to discourage her from ending the arrangements should she so desire; not to mention the embarrassment of admitting failure after, say, two years of living with someone.

Yet with no commitment from me that this fundamental restructuring would lead anywhere. This is to put the woman you supposedly love at a disadvantage. It is to take her out for a test drive like she is a used car.  To really love someone is to wish the best for her, and to presume to take several of the best years of someone's life, years when she is young and single and looking for the right man, as exclusively your own yet with the explicit proviso that you may discard her at any time - how can a man do this to the woman he loves?

It doesn't matter if she "agrees" with it. Simply because someone shows no respect for himself or herself does not give one license to disrespect him or her as well. At bottom, such a relationship is one that mimics the appearance of genuine self-giving marriage, but is at heart really a relationship of two people using each other rather than giving themselves to each other. That is the whole point of avoiding marriage, isn't it? I'll see how you work for me for a time and decide then if it's been worth it.

And then, if such a couple finally does get married, the character of their relationship has already been formed. They have been living together for all appearances as man and wife. Now that they really are man and wife, will their relationship suddenly change from the one of mutual use it has been, to the mutual self-giving of genuine marriage? I doubt it very much. In fact, I suspect they would have difficulty even conceiving the self-giving involved in genuine marriage. Instead, while the formality of marriage would add more "overhead" to the relationship in the sense of making it more difficult to break up, it wouldn't change the fundamental possibility of that breakup, which has been foundational in their relationship since the beginning.

Consider also that everyone shows the best sides of themselves when getting to know someone. From the first instance of meeting, we try to put our best face forward and hide our less attractive aspects. As we get to know someone, we gradually reveal more of ourselves, including those less attractive elements, doing so to the degree that we believe we can trust the one to whom we are revealing it.  Now the whole point of living with someone without marriage is to hold open the option of leaving them at any time; in other words, it puts a lack of trust at the center of the relationship. In such circumstances, people will hide those unattractive elements. And I'm sure they can do so for years at a time.

In other words, you can live with someone for a long time without truly knowing her should she choose not to reveal herself. The point of the living together arrangements, however, is a sort of truth in advertising: I insist on knowing exactly what I'm buying before I do so in marriage. Imagine a man's perplexity after five years of living with someone, that after a year of marriage he's discovering sides of his wife's personality he never dreamed were there. She thinks, of course, that now that they are married she has the level of trust necessary to finally reveal herself completely. For his part, he may feel he's been taken advantage of: I was supposed to find out all this beforehand, and she held it back from me, so she's gone back on our arrangement.

Of course, demanding that someone reveal her deepest self to you in an arrangement constructed so that you can examine that self and decide if you like it or not, and then decide whether or not to discard her, is deeply disrespectful. Again, it doesn't matter if both parties are doing it to each other. Mutual disrespect is a very poor form of equality and certainly no basis for marriage.

The fact is that genuine marriage involves tremendous risk; that is one of the things that makes it so exciting. Real marriage is an adventure that involves much deeper risk than rock climbing or skydiving. You don't really know your marriage partner until you have been married for a time and they have fully revealed themselves. And both of you know this going in; to some degree, you are marrying a stranger.

What sense, then, does the marriage vow make? How can you promise yourself to a person you don't really know, and won't really know perhaps for years? The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel addressed this question in his book Creative Fidelity. The title neatly summarizes his answer: In marriage, the partners create the conditions under which they remain faithful. What they are vowing themselves to is not just a person, but a mutual journey of discovery and self-creation, where the partners discover each other and themselves, changing and growing in the process. I am not the man I was when I married at age 23; and I am not the man I would have been had I not married or even married someone other than Tricia. She has been a dynamic element of my self-creation over the last 29 years, and I of hers.

That sounds very abstract, but it is extremely concrete in practice. It means being able to confront and discuss aspects of your partner's personality that you find difficult and, perhaps, even impossible to live with over the long term. Will they do what is necessary to develop that aspect of themselves for the sake of the marriage? And of course it runs the other way as well: I discover things about myself through her that I had not noticed, but are unpleasant for her. Am I willing to work on those things for the sake of her happiness, or will I demand that she take me as I am? Not all things can be changed. The ongoing negotiation and development, in the context of love, is the substance of marriage.

This dynamic process of growth is stunted if the partners have gone into marriage after a trial period of living together; for they have already sent each other the message that they reserve the right to bail out if they find they don't like what they see, instead of sending the message that they are committed to the process of change and growth no matter what.

The result is not a more secure marriage, but a marriage in which the trust necessary for the deepest communication will be difficult to find.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chesterton and Original Sin

From the introduction to The Defendant in the collection of essays In Defense of Sanity:
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
The rest of the animal kingdom has an advantage on us: They are what they are and can be nothing else. A bear cannot fail to be bearlike, or a worm wormlike. But man can fail to be human. Chesterton's wonderful description of Original Sin, imagining what it might be like should an animal suffer it, illuminates what it means for us. Imagine a fish that forgets the sea; meaning, I think, a fish who forgets how to live in the sea as a fish. Such a fish is never home, for the only home it could possibly know, the sea, is foreign to it. It must live its entire existence as a stranger in its own home.

Even better is the ox who forgets the meadow. Unlike the fish, for whom the entire sea is all home to it, or should be, the meadow is peculiarly the home for an ox. An ox in the city or on a mountain is not home. But the ox who forgets the meadow is still not home in the city or on the mountain; like the unfallen ox that finds itself in the city, it would search for home. But while the unfallen ox would recognize the meadow as home should it find it, the fallen ox may find the meadow but would, tragically, not recognize it as home... it would wander right through home and continue to pine for the home it already found.

The great fall for man means that he has lost the knowledge of how to live as man in the world; he feels that he is not at home, or that he should be home but somehow isn't. So what does he do? What can he do? A man at home lives naturally; he doesn't have to figure out how to live. Since we are not at home - or at least we have forgotten how to live at home - we must construct ways of living. And these ways are at some level false simply because they are constructed - they can never replace the natural way of living of unfallen man.

Rousseau noticed this artificiality but rejected Original Sin; for him, the social constructions of man are the fall rather than a consequence of the fall. This has the convenient consequence that the fall lies outside us rather than in us, and in dealing with it we don't have to change.

But the truth is that there is no state of nature that is our true home, and in which we would be at peace could we find it. We are already in our true home. We just don't know how to live here.