26 April 2012

Natur und Kunst

Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen,
Und haben sich, eh' man es denkt, gefunden;
Der Widerwille ist auch mir verschwunden,
Und beide scheinen gleich mich anzuziehen.

Es gilt wohl nur ein redliches Bemühen!
Und wenn wir erst in abgemeßnen Stunden;
Mit Geist und Fleiß uns an die Kunst gebunden,
Mag frei Natur im Herzen wieder glühen.

So ist's mit aller Bildung auch beschaffen:
Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister
Nach der Vollendung reiner Höhe streben.

Wer Großes will, muß sich zusammenraffen:
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

24 April 2012

A Poem for the End of the Century

When everything was fine
And the notion of sin had vanished
And the earth was ready
In universal peace
To consume and rejoice
Without creeds and utopias,

I, for unknown reasons,
Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians,
Of philosophers, poets,
Searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.

What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful.
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage
Against the health of mankind.

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

Why then innocence
On paradisal beaches,
An impeccable sky
Over the church of hygiene?
Is it because that
Was long ago?

To a saintly man
--So goes an Arab tale--
God said somewhat maliciously:
"Had I revealed to people
How great a sinner you are,
They could not praise you."

"And I," answered the pious one,
"Had I unveiled to them
How merciful you are,
They would not care for you."

To whom should I turn
With that affair so dark
Of pain and also guilt
In the structure of the world,
If either here below
Or over there on high
No power can abolish
The cause and the effect?

Don't think, don't remember
The death on the cross,
Though everyday He dies,
The only one, all-loving,
Who without any need
Consented and allowed
To exist all that is,
Including nails of torture.

Totally enigmatic.
Impossibly intricate.
Better to stop speech here.
This language is not for people.
Blessed be jubilation.
Vintages and harvests.
Even if not everyone
Is granted serenity.



Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.

Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.

19 April 2012

On the Cyclical Nature of History

"My lords, I pray you for God's sake, consider what bills are here daily preferred from the Commons.  What the same may sound in some of your ears I cannot tell, but in my ears they sound all to this effect, that our holy mother the Church, being left unto us by the great liberality and diligence of our forefathers in most perfect and peaceable freedom, shall now by us be brought into servile thralldom like a bondmaid, or rather by little and little to be clean banished and driven out of our confines and dwelling places.  For else to what end should all this importunate and injurious petitions from the Commons tend?  What strange words be here uttered, not to be heard of any Christian ears and unworthy to be spoken in the hearing of Christian princes?  For they say that bishops and their officials, abbots, priests, and others of the clergy are covetous, ravenous, insatiable, idle, cruel and so forth.  What?  Are all of this sort, or is there any of these abuses that the clergy seek not to extirpate and destroy?  Be there not laws already provided by them against such and many more disasters?  Are not books full of them to be read of such as list to read them if they were executed?  But, my lords, beware yourself and your country, nay, beware the liberty of our mother the Church.  Luther, one of the most cruel enemies to the faith that ever was, is at hand, and the common people study for novelties and with good will hear what can be said in favor of heresy.  What success is there to be hoped for in these attempts other than such as our neighbors have already tasted, whose harms may be a good warning to us?  Remember with yourselves what these sects and divisions have wrought among the Bohemians and Germans, who, besides and innumerable number of mischiefs fallen among them, have almost lost their ancient and catholic faith.  And what by the snares of John Huss and after him of Martin Luther (whom they reverence like a prophet) they have almost excluded themselves from the unity of Christ's Holy Church?  These men now among us seem to reprove the life and doings of the clergy, but after such a sort as they endeavor to bring them into contempt and hatred of the laity.  And so finding fault with other men's manners, whom they have no authority to correct, omit and forget their own, which is far worse and much more out of order than the other.  But if the truth were known, ye shall find that they rather hunger and thirst after the riches and possessions of the clergy than after amendment of their faults and abuses.  And therefore it was not for nothing that this motion was lately made for the small monasteries to be taken into the king's hands.  Wherefore I will tell you, my lords, plainly what I think.  Except ye resist manfully by your authorities this violent heap of mischief offered by the Commons, ye shall shortly see all obedience withdrawn first from the clergy and after from yourselves.  Whereupon will ensue the utter ruin and danger of the Christian faith, and in place of it (that which is likely to follow) the most wicked and tyrannical government of the Turks.  For ye shall find that all these mischiefs among them riseth only through lack of faith."

— St. John Fisher, bishop and martyr,
a speech delivered in 1529 
to the house of Lords

11 April 2012

Legalism, Rights, and Volition


4.  How are rights understood in our social-political context?  A basic right is understood to be something fundamental about human moral agency: a kind of castle keep into which no moral judgment or exercise of political prudence can intrude.  Rights are a kind of entitlement, and the intrusion of any one or anything into the domain guaranteed by a right is an absolute moral evil.  Thus the contemporary language of rights implicitly postulates the existence of a sphere of perfect privacy within the person.  Within this space the person is separated from the world and exists apart from all truth and objective goodness and free from any constraints of nature, since none of these things are capable of rightful entry.

5.  On the face of it, we ought to sympathize with this kind of construction.  To deny the real interiority and independence of the human with respect to his self-determination and creative activity would be to do a great injustice to the reality of human nature.  However, problems arise in the application of this conception of right, because those who accept it mistakenly apply to justice — a virtue which concerns man's positive relations with others — considerations which actually belong in an analysis of the human will.  How does this happen?

6.  The idea of an "inner sanctum" of the human person actually arises from the concept of the will, specifically the notion of the voluntary in human action.  And this is the common understanding of the voluntary: An act is voluntary insofar as it proceeds exclusively from the interiority of the agent, without being constrained or affected by any external agent or accidental cause.

7.  The common understanding of volition paints a clear picture of human interiority.  The human being is embodied, has senses and knowledge and so on, but at the heart of the human there is a kind of impenetrable black box from which issue forth commands and directives.  Thus this black box (a.k.a. "the will") is the first principle of human activity, which governs everything else but is not dependent on anything but itself. 

8.  For convenience, let's refer to this conception of the human person as "voluntarism", because of its very high view of the voluntary.  Now, If the will is the first principle in human activity (as the voluntarist says), and is completely unaffected by anything outside itself, then indeed the earlier-mentioned inner sanctum (or "black box") seems to be a necessary consequence.  But from the existence of this totally independent seat of human action, it follows that acts can only really be judged on the basis of their external attributes.  Why?

9.  If the black box is governed by internal principles or causes, then the conception of freedom given by the voluntarist no longer applies.  Therefore either there will ultimately be no external, objective way of explaining human actions or choices, or human freedom must be sacrificed.  Obviously we prefer the former view, and accept the black box.  But this produces moral legalism.  How?

10. As we have already seen, the voluntarist cannot accept the possibility that moral judgment penetrates into the actions of the will, since these are indescribable. Thus the domain of morality (rightness and wrongness) includes only the non-volitional, that is, the external aspects of human activity. And therefore the merit or fault of an act must be contained solely in its external object. This tendency to reduce moral action to the object of the act, without concern for the character or intent with which it is done, is basically identical with moral legalism. Why is it called legalism?

11. Positive law describes only observable events, and is capable of describing all observable physical events. Thus, if the rightness or wrongness of an action is derived solely from its object (which is almost always an observable physical event, and always something reducible to a definite description), then the law can fully capture the moral quality human action and, from the legalist standpoint, moral casuistry and jurisprudence are potentially coterminous. The moral law is then distinct from the positive civil law solely in that the latter is the limited application of the former to matters which concern the common life of men. At this point, we can see the connection between the morality and law swinging to two opposite extremes:
12.  On one hand, one can take the path of some well-meaning but misguided counter-reformation casuists, and attempt to flesh out the full legal description of the human moral life.  This becomes strange very quickly.  Why?  The language of law is geared toward maintaining equity between persons in natural or contractual relationships.  Thus it tends to focus on entitlement and obligation.  However, many very important moral questions cannot be reduced to those terms.

13.  Take for example the question of romance.  In the legalist framework, one can reasonably ask how often one is obliged to give one's girlfriend a gift.  What proportion of one's weekly salary ought the gift be?  Or, to take a similarly bizarre case: how often is one obliged to express one's love for God in prayer?  Twice a month?  Three times?  Once a day?  And how grave is the sin of omitting this expression?  It's easy to see how absurd this gets, not to mention completely obliterating personal freedom of choice. (This, friends, is why virtue is so important.  A healthy virtue ethic recognizes the freely given nature of friendship and love.)  Let's call this "Legalism A".

14.  The opposite tendency ("Legalism B") runs as follows:  Law concerns equity between people in society.  But if the domain of morality is formally identical with the domain of civil law (i.e., if morality is simply a more detailed kind of law which covers the same sorts of things), then morality cannot concern acts that do not somehow affect the proper relations between people in society.  It follows that moral judgment is not only inapplicable to interior acts of the will, but also excludes judgment about the private acts of freely consenting persons.

15.  One final step is necessary to see how this latter tendency becomes modern liberalism.   The liberal follows voluntarism's moral implications through to Legalism A, which tends to reduce every act to the fulfillment an obligation.  This is unbearable and anathema to human freedom.  The liberal wants to preserve freedom, but at the same time, he accepts the voluntarist and legalist categories which seem to exclude it.  Hence his only way of salvaging freedom is by expanding the scope of the "black box" along the lines of "Legalism B".  He does this by means of the concept of right.

16.  Rights, in a liberal society, involve the absolute entitlement of an individual to autonomy within the "black box" of the private sphere.  Here no law or judgment can enter.  Now, where the mere voluntarist sees the private sphere as existing solely in the faculty of the will, the liberal expands it to consensual, non-communal activity.  Thus this expanded private sphere becomes the exclusive domain of "the will".

17.  The will (again, in a voluntarist conception), is the primary faculty of the human being.  It determines acts and creates identity.  Thus any impingement on the freedom of the will in its proper sphere is an assault against the voluntary nature of human acts.  If, then, any inequity in governance or distribution of wealth should create a limitation in the private exercise of freedom, we could properly complain about a violation of human dignity.

18.  It is, however, a basic principle that what is necessary for human existence is, in times of need, owned commonly by all.  A town of starving men is free, on the verge of death, to raid the mayor's grain stores.  But any lack of wealth or inequity within society is, according to the liberal mindset, a deprivation of what is necessary for one's existence as human.  And from this logic emerges a host of invented "human rights".


19.  So much for the errors of our time.  I now want to offer a few short corrections to the voluntarist understanding right and volition.

20.  First off, right.  Right is the object of justice, and is the relation one has to others in natural, political or contractual communities, in which something is due.  Rights exist by association with another, and are characteristics of exchange.  They do not inhere in individuals.  They are not absolute.

20b.  Next, volition.  A voluntary act is not one that is free from all causal contact with the world.  This is absurd.  The voluntarist conception of human freedom reduces the will to a kind of random output generator, eliminates the meaningfulness of actions in relation to their context and intention, and ultimately closes off the understanding of what one does from one's own intellect.  A perfect illustration of the absurd conclusion of voluntarism is the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, who taught that individual choices had no significance beyond the direct affirmation of one's freedom from moment to moment. 

21.  Rather, a voluntary act is one which proceeds from an interior principle of motion by means of knowledge of what one does as good, and as a goal to be pursued.  In other words, voluntary acts are caused by a person's attention to the goodness of the end for which they are done.  If an act is not caused by this attentiveness to the good end, then it is not voluntary.  Thus coercion and automatic action are not voluntary, but consciously desired acts are.  The human will is in constant cooperation with the intellect: directing the intellect to one or another object for consideration, and pursuing the good things which the intellect judges worthy.  (This is why the memory of smut is sufficient to excite lust and produce commensurate acts in the incontinent person.)

22.  Now, if coercion is opposed to the voluntary, and voluntary action is natural and essential to human nature, then the liberal is in a sense right to oppose the excessive paternalism of a moralizing state.  Justice properly extents only to the equity of relations within a community, and thus positive law is only competent to prescribe and proscribe actions are necessary for or detrimental to that equity.

23.  Moral action, is not as a whole within the sphere of positive law, but of natural law.  And human acts are more perfect when they arise out of understanding and not out of blind obedience.  Thus even though the state is responsible in legislating to promote the common good, the lawmaker is not competent to mandate a proper understanding of the good, or to enforce the development of virtue. 

24.  Rather, these tasks devolve upon parents, teachers, friends and spouses, who in acts of love and generosity help bind together communities for the mutual upbuilding of individuals and for the common good.  This is something no legislator can  bring about, and it is the natural good of human community as it tends toward the ultimate perfection of man.   So, my friends, if you want to improve community, restore the acts proper to individuals to those who ought to do them.  Try to undo the paternalism of large governments based on a faulty theory of rights and a legalistic conception of morality.


A1.  This wasn't explicitly stated, but it's implicit in my rejection of voluntarism that I don't think there's any such thing as a "private sphere" as we think of it today.  There is nowhere that moral judgment cannot go.  There is no wrongful deficit in human behavior which is not punishable by the community for its injustice.  I.e., the community is free to legislate against whatever wrongful acts it likes, public or private.  In this sense there's no real limitation on the law, except that it reflect the natural law and be in accord with reason.

A2.  That said, it would be ineffective and perverse for the lawgiver to usurp certain functions that are natural exercised by individuals within the community: first, because it will do a worse job of them than those who ought to be doing them; second, because the logic of right and obligation which comes necessarily with positive law is anathema to certain important aspects of human life (parenting, teaching, etc.).  And really, we've all heard these truths before, just from the lips of strangers (i.e. classical liberals, who hit upon them accidentally, despite their misguided view of man).

A3.  The point of all of this is to promote freedom: genuine freedom, i.e., freedom for excellence and perfection.  The care of the lawgiver is to create general rules which guarantee equity and justice within the community.  But justice is not the only virtue of interest to the lawgiver: prudence is also essential to good government.  Where through the exercise of justice and (ideally) wisdom, the lawgiver is capable of seeing how everything should fit together within a community for the common good, the exercise of prudence is necessary to determine when and how the power of the state intervening in communal affairs can actually promote the good.  Since the power of the state is the power of the sword, we should see very clearly that these cases are limited.

10 April 2012

St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Book XXXI, Ch. 45

87. For the tempting vices, which fight against us in invisible contest in behalf of the pride which reigns over them, some of them go first, like captains, others follow, after the manner of an army. For all faults do not occupy the heart with equal access. But while the greater and the few surprise a neglected mind, the smaller and the numberless pour themselves upon it in a whole body. For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders it immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. And an army in truth follows these generals, because, doubtless, there spring up from them importunate hosts of sins. Which we set forth the better, if we specially bring forward in enumeration, as we are able, the leaders themselves and their army. For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin. [Ecclus. 10, 1] But seven principal vices, as its first progeny, spring doubtless from this poisonous root, namely, vain glory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, lust. For, because He grieved that we were held captive by these seven sins of pride, therefore our Redeemer came to the spiritual battle of our liberation, full of the spirit of sevenfold grace.

88. But these several sins have each their army against us. For from vain glory there arise disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contentions, obstinacies, discords, and the presumptions of novelties. From envy there spring hatred, whispering, detraction, exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbour, and affliction at his prosperity. From anger are produced strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamour, indignation, blasphemies. From melancholy there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects. From avarice there spring treachery, fraud, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence, and hardnesses of heart against compassion. From gluttony are propagated foolish mirth, scurrility, uncleanness, babbling, dulness of sense in understanding. From lust are generated blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, inconstancy, precipitation, self-love, hatred of God, affection for this present world, but dread or despair of that which is to come. Because, therefore, seven principal vices produce from themselves so great a multitude of vices, when they reach the heart, they bring, as it were, the bands of an army after them. But of these seven, five namely are spiritual, and two are carnal.

89. But they are, each of them, so closely connected with other, that they spring only the one from the other. For the first offspring of pride is vain glory, and this, when it hath corrupted the oppressed mind, presently begets envy. Because doubtless while it is seeking the power of an empty name, it feels envy against any one else being able to obtain it. Envy also generates anger; because the more the mind is pierced by the inward wound of envy, the more also is the gentleness of tranquillity lost. And because a suffering member, as it were, is touched, the hand of opposition is therefore felt as if more heavily impressed. Melancholy also arises from anger, because the more extravagantly the agitated mind strikes itself, the more it confounds itself by condemnation; and when it has lost the sweetness of tranquillity, nothing supports it but the grief resulting from agitation. Melancholy also runs down into avarice; because, when the disturbed heart has lost the satisfaction of joy within, it seeks for sources of consolation without, and is more anxious to possess external goods, the more it has no joy on which to fall back within. But after these, there remain behind two carnal vices, gluttony and lust. But it is plain to all that lust springs from gluttony, when in the very distribution of the members, the genitals appear placed beneath the belly. And hence when the one is inordinately pampered, the other is doubtless excited to wantonness.

90. But the leaders are well said to exhort, the armies to howl, because the first vices force themselves into the deluded mind as if under a kind of reason, but the countless vices which follow, while they hurry it on to every kind of madness, confound it, as it were, by bestial clamour. For vain glory is wont to exhort the conquered heart, as if with reason, when it says, Thou oughtest to aim at greater things, that, as thou hast been able to surpass many in power, thou mayest be able to benefit many also. Envy is also wont to exhort the conquered heart, as if with reason, when it says, In what art thou inferior to this or that person? why then art thou not either equal or superior to them? What great things art thou able to do, which they are not able to do! They ought not then to be either superior, or even equal, to thyself. Anger is also wont to exhort the conquered heart, as if with reason, when it says, The things that are done to thee cannot be borne patiently; nay rather, patiently to endure them is a sin; because if thou dost not withstand them with great indignation, they are afterwards heaped upon thee without measure. Melancholy is also wont to exhort the conquered heart as if with reason, when it says, What ground hast thou to rejoice, when thou endurest so many wrongs from thy neighbours? Consider with what sorrow all must be looked upon, who are turned in such gall of bitterness against thee. Avarice also is wont to exhort the conquered mind, as if with reason, when it says, It is a very blameless thing, that thou desirest some things to possess; because thou seekest not to be increased, but art afraid of being in want; and that which another retains for no good, thou thyself expendest to better purpose. Gluttony is also wont to exhort the conquered heart, as if with reason, when it says, God has created all things clean, in order to be eaten, and he who refuses to fill himself with food, what else does he do but gainsay the gift that has been granted him. Lust also is wont to exhort the conquered heart, as if with reason, when it says, Why enlargest thou not thyself now in thy pleasure, when thou knowest not what may follow thee? Thou oughtest not to lose in longings the time thou hast received; because thou knowest not how speedily it may pass by. For if God had not wished man to be united in the pleasure of coition, He would not, at the first beginning of the human race, have made them male and female. This is the exhortation of leaders, which, when incautiously admitted into the secresy of the heart, too familiarly persuades to wrong. And this a howling army in truth follows, because when the hapless soul, once captured by the principal vices, is turned to madness by multiplied iniquities, it is now laid waste with brutal cruelty.

91. But the soldier of God, since he endeavours skilfully to pursue the contests with vices, smells the battle afar off; because while he considers, with anxious thought, what power the leading evils possess to persuade the mind, he detects, by the sagacity of his scent, the exhortation of the leaders. And because he beholds the confusion of subsequent iniquities by foreseeing them afar off, he finds out, as it were, by his scent the howling of the army.

Because, then, we have learned, that either the preacher of God, or any soldier in the spiritual contest, is described in the account of the horse, let us now behold the same person under the signification of a bird; that we, who have learned his strength by the horse, may learn his contemplation also by the bird. For since we have heard in the description of the greatness of the horse, how much a holy man endures through patience against the assaults of vices, let us now learn by the appearance of birds, how high he soars by contemplation. It follows;

Ver. 26. Doth the hawk gel feathers by thy wisdom, stretching her wings toward the South?

06 April 2012

How to Grow in Love

Whether Contemplation or Meditation is a Cause of Devotion?  — ST IIa IIae q.82 a.3

It is written (Ps. 38:4): "In my meditation a fire shall flame out." But spiritual fire causes devotion. Therefore meditation is the cause of devotion.

The extrinsic and chief cause of devotion is God, of Whom Ambrose, commenting on Lk. 9:55, says that God calls whom He deigns to call, and whom He wills He makes religious: the profane Samaritans, had He so willed, He would have made devout. But the intrinsic cause on our part must needs be meditation or contemplation. For it was stated above (Article 1) that devotion is an act of the will to the effect that man surrenders himself readily to the service of God. Now every act of the will proceeds from some consideration, since the object of the will is a good understood. Wherefore Augustine says (De Trin. ix, 12; xv, 23) that the will arises from the intelligence. Consequently meditation must needs be the cause of devotion, in so far as through meditation man conceives the thought of surrendering himself to God's service. Indeed a twofold consideration leads him thereto. The one is the consideration of God's goodness and loving kindness, according to Ps. 72:28, It is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God: and this consideration wakens love which is the proximate cause of devotion. The other consideration is that of man's own shortcomings, on account of which he needs to lean on God, according to Ps. 120:1,2, I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me: my help is from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth; and this consideration shuts out presumption whereby man is hindered from submitting to God, because he leans on His strength.

The consideration of such things as are of a nature to awaken our love of God, causes devotion; whereas the consideration of foreign matters that distract the mind from such things is a hindrance to devotion.

Matters concerning the Godhead are, in themselves, the strongest incentive to love and consequently to devotion, because God is supremely lovable. Yet such is the weakness of the human mind that it needs a guiding hand, not only to the knowledge, but also to the love of Divine things by means of certain sensible objects known to us. Chief among these is the humanity of Christ, according to the words of the Preface, "that through knowing God visibly, we may be caught up to the love of things invisible." Wherefore matters relating to Christ's humanity are the chief incentive to devotion, leading us thither as a guiding hand, although devotion itself has for its object matters concerning the Godhead.

Science and anything else conducive to greatness, is to man an occasion of self-confidence, so that he does not wholly surrender himself to God. The result is that such like things sometimes occasion a hindrance to devotion; while in simple souls and women devotion abounds by repressing pride. If, however, a man perfectly submits to God his science or any other perfection, by this very fact his devotion is increased.

04 April 2012

Interiority and Solipsism (in Movies!)

 A significant number of popular movies made (or recycled) in recent years have focused on apparently ordinary characters living more or less anonymous lives, who discover that the world is somehow an illusion which conceals their interior greatness.  The characters then embark on a heroic journey which involves the overturning of the governing structures of the world in favor of a previously hidden structure, within which the protagonist is a uniquely potent manifestation of god-like cosmogenic powers.  Examples (or closely related cases) that come to mind include: The Matrix, Harry Potter, Wanted, Star Wars, Inception, Pan's Labyrinth, Pleasantville, Shutter Island, and The Truman Show. 

Each case differs somewhat from the others.  Thus while The Matrix and Inception are strikingly similar, they differ in the latter's heavy use of freudian psychology and in that the artificial world is being imposed on the characters by humans.  Again, Truman may not have the powers Neo has in The Matrix, but the plots of the two movies are essentially identical (although The Matrix extends in its latter parts to Truman's life after he has left the bio-dome).  Pleasantville is an interesting case in that it is outsiders who enter into the world (as if by a Platonistic emanation) to share their experience with it.  Here again, the structure of the plot is analogous to that of The Truman Show, though Pleasantville is frankly more interesting in its use of scriptural themes and treatment of vice.

In any case, the common theme in all of these movies is that the truth of the individual is being repressed by the force of an artificial common life.  This common life (which is represented, curiously, by grayscale in Pleasantville, black and white in Star Wars, and men in black suits and white shirts in The Matrix) is supported by a pernicious force which is vulnerable to the realization of the heroic virtue implied by the truth of the lone protagonist.  In The Matrix it is the calm evil of a meaningless job that's show to be at the service of the more malicious "agents".  In Truman, it is the saccharine character of the wife that conceals the greatest manipulative force, and the serenity of the sky which hides the puppetmaster.  Or, again, the oppressive evil of the Dursleys in Harry Potter is replaced in the magical world by Voldemort and his followers. 

Once the real struggle between the authentic interiority of the protagonist and the oppressive commonality of the ordinary world is revealed, the protagonist takes up arms against the world in order to defend himself.  His task becomes the destruction of the entire world for the sake of his personal liberation and self-actualization.  The justice of this act is motivated within the plots of these movies in various ways.  In The Matrix, the antagonist is a computer that is using humans as an energy source.  In Pleasantville the world being destroyed is portrayed as naive and old-fashioned and shallow.  In  Shutter Island we find out that the entire scheme of things is a psychological charade.  And of course in Star Wars the imperial armies are all masked clones fighting under the orders of a pair of shrivelled and tyrannical old men.  Etc. 

One catches the scent in all this of a variety of philosophical impulses.  Most of all, one thinks of the opposition posited by the modern secular world between the authenticity of the individual self in its interiority, and the inauthentic commonality of people at large.  This idea has found expression particularly in the neo-hipster movement that has developed in the past decade, at the core of which is a question about how self-expression is possible in an era of mass-culture.

Excursus on Hipsters

Mass-production, along with the broad uniformity and ubiquity of the norms of behavior and consumption promulgated by the mass media, gives rise to a pessimism about the meaningfulness of communication and doubts about the possibility of authentic expression. Given these doubts, the modern dualistic person takes the alienation of his soul from his body and realizes (with Saussure and Barthes) that meaning is alienated from signifiers, so that the way to be authentic is to communicate self-consciously, and the way to communicate that one is self-conscious is to do things which are ridiculous but not be ashamed of them, so that it is clear that one is doing them only ironically. (This is the closest the unimpowered bourgeois post-adolescent can come to overthrowing the social order.)  Thus in order to bridge the gap between meaning and signifier, one has to sever the two and graft meaning onto a new signifier, often the opposite of the old one. This is “irony” in contemporary usage. The ironist does something and implicitly says “I’m not really doing this; I’m ironically doing this.”  The consequences of such an approach to taste and activity broadly speaking are fascinating.  It amounts to a kind of studied imprudence, where the proper reasons for action are broadly replaced by their opposites.

However, leaving the question of virtue aside this behavior has two consequences: first and most obviously the ironist is incapable of expressing values positively, because his communication never really gets past sarcasm. Second, the increasing gap between meaning and signifier forces the ironist to buy into an especially strong idea of interiority.  The result is a kind of kierkegaardian despair. Communication becomes utterly contentless, except in its descriptions of its own formal qualities, descriptions which are themselves blighted by the plague of hyper-interiority.  Interiority becomes a sort of postmodern defense mechanism, which assumes the existence of an insurmountable barrier protecting the self from intrusion by others. The individual cannot be understood, and thus cannot be judged, cannot be held accountable. Therefore, the thought goes, his freedom in his own sphere is absolute.  However, the ironist is nonetheless human, and as such requires fellowship. But he cannot go outside the limits of his own sphere, because to do so would involve re-attaching meanings to their original signifiers, and this, he worries, means submitting his authentic, proper self to the inauthenticity and cliche which is the medium of all intersubjectivity. So he remains alone.

Back to the Show

Of course, this isn't how it works out in the movies.  There, once the world of the ordinary is overthrown, life in the protagonist-centered hidden world begins.  This new world does justice to the nature of the protagonist in a way that the ordinary one didn't.  In almost every case, the new world allows the protagonist to join a community where the authentic interiority of individuals is respected.  (One might think of the school for mutants in X-Men.  It is populated by diverse creatures each led to cultivate his own art.)  Thus, for all the unpleasant associations of the scheme we've related so far (esp. the suggestion that the self and the world are in an inexorable conflict), another positve line of interpretation is possible for this genre of film.  The bland mass-produced fixity of the inauthentic is replaced by the voluntary communion of individuals.  The violence of anonymous mass-culture (which restricts the ability of the individual to act freely and meaningfully, to grow in virtue and be perfected), is replaced by the freedom of personal community, in which the particular aptitudes of individuals are developed, art reasserts its right against usurping technologies, and the self is embodied and located with others in a natural way. 

The supreme and tired irony of all this is that it's being propagated by the very sort of mass-cultural apparatus that the films are apparently speaking against.  Which leads us to think that, given the escapist function of most fantasy films, screenwriters have found that what most viewers are really looking for in the temples of mass culture is an escape from the monotony of mass culture itself.  Of course, the viewers don't recognize their real desires, and so they'll continue to buy 2 liter sodas and packs of snow caps while they sit in the theater watching allegorical condemnations of consumerism and mass culture.

03 April 2012

The Second Gift

Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for men; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction.  — Wisdom 7:7-14

That the Gift of Understanding Corresponds to the Sixth Beatitude (i.e., "Blessed are the pure of heart...")

Augustine says (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 4): "The sixth work of the Holy Ghost which is understanding, is applicable to the clean of heart, whose eye being purified, they can see what eye hath not seen."

Two things are contained in the sixth beatitude, as also in the others, one by way of merit, viz. cleanness of heart; the other by way of reward, viz. the sight of God, as stated above (I-II, 69, 2,4), and each of these, in some way, responds to the gift of understanding.

For cleanness is twofold. One is a preamble and a disposition to seeing God, and consists in the heart being cleansed of inordinate affections: and this cleanness of heart is effected by the virtues and gifts belonging to the appetitive power. The other cleanness of heart is a kind of complement to the sight of God; such is the cleanness of the mind that is purged of phantasms and errors, so as to receive the truths which are proposed to it about God, no longer by way of corporeal phantasms, nor infected with heretical misrepresentations: and this cleanness is the result of the gift of understanding.

Again, the sight of God is twofold. One is perfect, whereby God's Essence is seen: the other is imperfect, whereby, though we see not what God is, yet we see what He is not; and whereby, the more perfectly do we know God in this life, the more we understand that He surpasses all that the mind comprehends. Each of these visions of God belongs to the gift of understanding; the first, to the gift of understanding in its state of perfection, as possessed in heaven; the second, to the gift of understanding in its state of inchoation, as possessed by wayfarers.

Lectio 6

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of man glorified and in him God is glorified; 32 if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and [will] glorify him at once.
1825 After Judas left to bring about our Lord's death, Jesus mentions that he himself will be leaving for glory. First, to console them, he mentions the glory to which he is going; secondly, he foretells his leaving (v 33).

1826 The glory to which he is going is the glorification and exaltation of Christ insofar as he is the Son of man. When he had gone out, that is Judas, Jesus said, to his disciples, Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified. The [Latin] word used was actually "clarified" and not "glorified." But both words mean the same thing. To be clarified, (to be made bright or splendorous, to be displayed and made known) is the same as to be glorified, for glory is a kind of splendor. According to Ambrose, someone has glory when he is known with clarity and praised.[41] And so exegetes translate the Greek word "clarify" as "glorify," and vice versa.

We can understand this statement in four ways, by referring it to the four kinds of glory which Christ had: the glory of the cross; the glory of his judicial power; the glory of his resurrection; and the glory of being known by the faith of the people. Scripture attributes this fourfold glory to Christ.
1827 First, then, Christ was glorified by being lifted up on the cross. Even Paul said that his own glory was in the cross: "But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6:14). This is the glory Chrysostom has in mind in his explanation of the text.[42] In this explanation our Lord mentions four things about the glory of the cross: the glory itself; the fruit of this glory; the author of the glory; and the time of the glory.
As to the first [the very glory of the cross] he says, Now is the Son of man glorified. Note that when something is beginning, it seems in a way to already exist. Now when Judas went out to bring back the soldiers, this seems to be the beginning of Christ's passion, the passion by which he was to be glorified. This is why he says, now is the Son of man glorified, that is, the passion by which he will be glorified is now beginning. Indeed, Christ was glorified by the passion of the cross because by it he conquered the enemies of death and the devil: "that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death" (Heb 2:14). Again, he acquired glory because by his cross he joined heaven and earth: "to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col 1:20). Further, he was glorified by his cross because by it he acquired all kingship. One version of Psalm 95 (v 9) says: "Say to the nations that the Lord has reigned from his cross." Again, Christ was glorified by the cross because he accomplished many miracles on it: the curtain of the temple was split, an earthquake occurred, rocks were split and the sun was darkened, and many saints arose, as Matthew (27:51) states. So with his passion drawing near, these are the reasons why our Lord said, now is the Son of man glorified. It is like saying: now my passion is beginning, the passion which is my glory.
The fruit of this glory is that God is glorified by it. So he says, and in him God is glorified, that is, in the glorified Son of man. For the glory of the passion leads to the glory of God. If God was glorified by the death of Peter - "This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God" (21:19) - he was much more glorified by the death of Christ.
The author of this glory is not an angel or a human being, but God himself. He says, if God is glorified in him, that is, if his glory is so great that God is glorified by it, he does not need to be glorified by another. But God will also glorify him in himself, that is, through himself: "Father, glorify me"[43] (17:5).
The time for this glory is fast approaching, because God will glorify him at once, that is, he will give him the glory of the cross. "For the cross, although it is foolish to the Gentiles and to those who are lost, yet to us who believe, it is the very great wisdom of God and the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18).
1828 The second glory of Christ is the glory of his judicial power: "And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory" (Mk 13:26). This is the glory about which Augustine speaks, as the gloss says.[44] In reference to this, he does four things here: first, he mentions the glory of the judicial power of Christ; secondly, he shows the merit from which he acquired it; thirdly, he expounds on this; fourthly, he shows the source of Christ's glory. As to the first, he says, Now is the Son of man glorified. We should note that in Sacred Scripture, one thing is not explicitly said to signify another, and the word for the signifying thing is also used for the thing signified. For example, we do not read that "The rock signified Christ"; rather, it says, "And the Rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4). In the departure of Judas away from the apostles we have a kind of image of the future judgment, when the wicked will be separated from the good, and Christ will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left (Mt 25:33). Since this departure of Judas signified the future judgment, right after this our Lord began to speak of the glory of his judicial power, saying, Now is the Son of man glorified; that is, this departure or separation represents the glory which the Son of man will have in the judgment, where none of the good will perish and none of the evil will be with them. He does not say: "Now is the glorification of the Son of man signified," but rather, Now is the Son of man glorified, in keeping with the above-mentioned custom of Scripture.
Now the merit of this glorification is that God would be glorified in him. For God is glorified by those who seek to do his will, and not their own. Christ was like this: "For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (6:38). And this is why in him God is glorified. He amplifies on this when he says, if God is glorified in him, that is, if, by doing the will of God, he glorifies God, then rightly God will also glorify him in himself, so that the human nature assumed by the eternal Word will be given an eternal glory. Thus, in himself, that is, in his own glory: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9). Therefore the glorification by which God is glorified in Christ is the merit in virtue of which Christ as man is glorified in himself, that is, in the glory of God. This will occur when his human nature, its weakness having been laid down by the death of the cross, receives the glory of immortality at the resurrection. So the resurrection itself was the source from which this glory began. Accordingly he says, and will glorify him at once, at the resurrection, which will quickly come: "I will arise in the morning early" [Ps 108:2]: and also, "You will not let your Holy One see corruption" [Ps 16:10].
1829 The third glory of Christ is the glory of his resurrection, about which we read, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4). It is in terms of this glory that Hilary explains this passage, and Augustine also in part.[45]
From this aspect, Christ first foretells this glory of his, saying, Now is the Son of man glorified. Here he is speaking of the future as if it has already happened, because what we think will quickly happen we regard as good as done. Now the glory of the resurrection was very near, and so he says, Now is the Son of man glorified, as if his body, by its union with the divine nature, had in a way acquired the glory of the divinity.
Secondly, he mentions the cause of this glory quite subtly. As he said, in the resurrection the humanity of Christ was glorified because of its union with the divine nature; and there was one person, that of the Word. For we read: "You will not leave my soul in Sheol; you will not let your holy one," who is the holiest of all, "see corruption" [Ps 16:10]. Such glory is also due to this human being, Christ, in so far as he is God. We too will have the glory of the resurrection to the extent that we share in the divinity: "He who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you" (Rom 8:11). So he says that the Son of man, that is, Christ considered in his human nature, is glorified, by his resurrection. And who will glorify him? He says, God will also glorify him in himself, so that this human being, Christ, who reigns in the glory which is from the glory of God, may himself pass into the glory of God, that is, might entirely abide in God, as though deified by the way his human nature is possessed. It is like saying: A lamp is bright because a fire is burning brightly within it. That which sends the rays of brightness into the human nature of Christ is God; and thus the human nature of Christ is glorified by the glory of his divinity, and the human nature of Christ is brought into the glory of his divinity, not by having its nature changed, but by a sharing of glory in so far as this human being, Christ, is adored as God: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" (Phil 2:9). So he says, if God is glorified in him, that is, if it is true that the glory of his divinity overflows to the glory of his humanity, subsequently God will also glorify him in himself, give him a share of his own glory by assuming him into that glory: "Every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus is in the glory of the Father" [Phil 2:11].
Thus, Christ has a twofold glory. One is in his human nature, but is derived from his divinity. The other is the glory of his divinity, into which his human nature is in a way taken up. But each glory is different. The first-mentioned glory had a beginning in time. For this reason he speaks of it as past, saying, and in him God is, or has been, glorified, on the day of the resurrection. The other glory is eternal, because from eternity the Word of God is God. And the human nature of Christ, assumed into this glory, will be glorified forever. And so he speaks of this as in the future: and will glorify him at once, that is, he will always establish him in that glory forever.
1830 The fourth glory of Christ is the glory of being known by the faith of the people. Origen has this kind of glory in mind in his exposition.[46] According to him, glory means one thing in ordinary speech, and another thing in Scripture. In ordinary speech, glory is the praise given by a number of people, or the clear knowledge of someone accompanied by praise, as Ambrose says.[47] While in Scripture, glory indicates that a divine sign or mark is upon one. We read in Exodus [40:34] that "The glory of the Lord appeared over the tabernacle," that is, a divine sign rested over it. The same happened to the face of Moses, when it was glorified. Just as glory, in the physical sense, indicates that a divine sign rests upon one, so, in the spiritual sense, that intellect is said to be glorified when it is so deified and so transcends all material things that it is raised to a knowledge of God. It is by this that we are made sharers of glory: "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor 3:18). Therefore, if anyone who knows God is glorified and made a sharer of glory, it is clear that Christ, who knows God most perfectly, since he is the brightness of the entire divine glory (Heb 1:30), and able to receive the splendor of the entire divine glory, if, I say, this is so, then Christ is most perfectly glorified. And all who know God owe this to Christ.
But men did not yet realize that Christ was so glorified by this most perfect knowledge and participation in the divinity. And so, although he was glorified in himself, he was not yet glorified in the knowledge of men. He began to have his glory at his passion and resurrection, when men began to recognize his power and divinity. Our Lord, speaking here of this glory, says, Now is the Son of man glorified, that is, now, in his human nature, he is receiving glory in the knowledge of men because of his approaching passion. And in him God, the Father, is glorified. For the Son not only reveals himself, but the Father as well: "[Father] I have manifested thy name" (17:6). Consequently, not only is the Son glorified, but the Father also: "No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Mt 11:27). He says, in him, because one who sees the Son also sees the Father (14:9).
It is characteristic of one who is greater to return what is greater. And thus he adds, if God is glorified in him, that is, if the glory of God the Father somehow increases because of the glory of the Son of man, because the Father becomes better known, God will also glorify him in himself, that is, make it known that Christ Jesus is in his glory. This will not be delayed for he will glorify him at once.