The truth of our destinyEach of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny.
John Paul II
Oct. 27, 2010, at 1:55pm
John G. Geer, has written a book defending the use of negative campaign ads. His main point seems to be that such ads are much more likely to focus on the important political issues than positive ones. He is probably right about that. The so called positive ads tend to be rather empty.
I am glad the book is out there, even if only to counteract the widespread and thoughtless repudiation of what is often called “the politics of personal destruction.” That there is such a thing, and that it is reprehensible, I don’t want to deny. But the term is bandied about way too freely and often applied to instances of political criticism that are both legitimate and important for the democratic process.
But, of course, negativity as such isn’t any more desirable than positivity as such. It all depends. I suspect that the book sheds more light on the issue than the title.
Oct. 26, 2010, at 10:29pm
I was just helping my son Nick with his math homework. The answer to one question we worked on was 223. (At least that is what we think, what we hope, what we really, really, really hope it was, because some much needed extra credit depends on it.)
223. Did you know there was a Wikipedia entry about this number? I didn’t either until I googled it (I thought it was a prime number, and wanted to be sure). It turns out that 223 is not an ordinary number (in the ordinary sense of the term) at all. Besides being “the natural number between 222 and 224” and the “atomic mass of francium,” it is also “a long prime, a lucky prime and [get this] a sexy prime”.
What does this have to do with personalism? Well, it seems to me that these are the sorts of things any well-rounded personalist ought to know.
Oct. 23, 2010, at 11:39am
I must have sent some money somewhere along the line to Senator Jim DeMint, because the other day I received in the mail a “Freedom Fighter” T-shirt, some bumper stickers, and a book of his called, Saving Freedom: We can stop America’s slide into socialism.
I picked it up in a desultory mode this afternoon and found that it opens with the full text of The Declaration of Independence.
I read it as if for the first time. (Quite possibly it was the first time.)
One item in the “long train of abuses and usurpations” committed by the King and detailed by the signers particularly caught my attention:
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
When we are tired and out of sorts, we are apt to comply with our own diminishment as persons. Like Esau selling his birthright for some stew. Weariness weakens the will. So does being displaced.
Is it not ironic that the same time and culture that places such a high premium on individual rights and personal liberty seems by its chronic rootlessness, instability and alienation to set us up for serfdom?
Oct. 22, 2010, at 4:02pm
Saturday evening Jules and I hosted a reading circle gathering centered on Vaclav Havel’s great and influential essay, The Power of the Powerless. The essay deals with the web of lies that had engulfed eastern European society under the domination of communist ideology and Soviet military power—the suffering it caused, and the struggle for truth and freedom that could bring it down.
Havel points out in the essay that the then-state of the east should serve as a warning to the west, which contains within its own alienated, de-spiritualized, consumerist culture the seeds of the same human catastrophe.
One way to arm ourselves for the resistance is to feel our way imaginatively into the nightmare. A great way to do that is to watch movies that bring it vividly to life. Here is a list of my favorites.
The first three are especially great; alll show the horror of Soviet communism and the triumph of the human spirit in spite of it.
NB: Some of these—the first especially—have some rather raw scenes. Eminent Domain and White Nights both make for great family-film night viewing for families with kids old enough to cope with some serious thinking about the nature of evil.
Oct. 22, 2010, at 1:49pm
Utilitarianism, in one form or another, has a serious grip on the contemporary mind. No matter how logically compelling the arguments against it may be, or how often they are repeated, the habit of utilitarian thinking seems to prevail unchecked. I even notice the problem in my own mind. In spite of my rejection of the theory, both morally and intellectually, I find it all too easy to sympathize with the likes of Jack Bauer who are willing to break any and every moral principle as long as the results seem to justify it.
I also see the problem in my students. Some of them are unabashed utilitarians. They agree that euthasia, torture, cannibalism, etc., are undesirable in themselves, but they also think that such acts are sometimes justified by their consequences. Others are more like me. They reject the theory in principle, but can’t help sometimes falling into utiliarian ways of viewing and thinking about the world.
I am always on the lookout, therefore, for persuasive arguments against utilitarianism—especially for arguments that show how inhumane and depersonalizing the doctrine really is. The latter is important because utilitarianists often seem to be more personalist than their critics since they pay more attention to the interests of persons than to abstract, universal moral rules. Such rules are fine, they argue, as long as they serve the general interest. But in case of a conflict, we should never sacrifice the interests of persons to an abstract rule.
So I appreciated an argument I came accross recently in an article by Tom Regan (an animal rights advocate with whom I otherwise mostly and strongly disagree). Whereas many advocates of animal rights make their arguments on utilitarianist grounds—Peter Singer among them, who famously holds that “all animals [human or not] are equal”—Regan thinks that the utilitarian conception of equality is badly flawed: it basically says that all individuals are equal only in the sense that none of them have any intrinsic value at all. As Regan puts it: “Utilitarianism has no room for the equal moral rights of different individuals because it has no room for their equal inherent value or worth. What has value for the utilitarian is the satisfaction of an individual’s interests, not the individual whose interests they are.” Here is an analogy he uses to clarify his meaning:
a cup contains different liquids, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, sometimes a mix of the two. What has value are the liquids: the sweeter the better, the bitterer the worse. The cup, the container, has no value. It is what goes into it, not what they go into, that has value. For the utilitarian you and I are like the cup; we have no value as individuals and thus no equal value. What has value is what goes into us, what we serve as receptacles for; our feelings of satisfaction have positive value, our feelings of frustration negative value.
Let me also quote the long example he gives to further illustrate the way in which the utilitarian calculus works, and how it completely disregards the value and rights of the individual:
That utilitarianism is an aggregative theory — different individuals’ satisfactions or frustrations are added, or summed, or totalled - is the key objection to this theory. My Aunt Bea is old, inactive, a cranky, sour person, though not physically ill. She prefers to go on living. She is also rather rich. I could make a fortune if I could get my hands on her money, money she intends to give me in any event, after she dies, but which she refuses to give me now. In order to avoid a huge tax bite, I plan to donate a handsome sum of my profits to a local children’s hospital. Many, many children will benefit from my generosity, and much joy will be brought to their parents, relatives and friends. If I don’t get the money rather soon, all these ambitions will come to naught. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real killing will be gone. Why, then, not kill my Aunt Bea? Oh, of course I might get caught. But I’m no fool and, besides, her doctor can be counted on to co-operate (he has an eye for the same investment and I happen to know a good deal about his shady past). The deed can be done . . . professionally, shall we say. There is very little chance of getting caught. And as for my conscience being guilt-ridden, I am a resourceful sort of fellow and will take more than sufficient comfort - as I lie on the beach at Acapulco - in contemplating the joy and health I have brought to so many others. Suppose Aunt Bea is killed and the rest of the story comes out as told. Would I have done anything wrong? Anything immoral? One would have thought that I had. Not according to utilitarianism. Since what I have done has brought about the best balance between totalled satisfaction and frustration for all those affected by the outcome, my action is not wrong. Indeed, in killing Aunt Bea the physician and I did what duty required.
What do you think? I think this argument is basically sound (even though it would have to be shored up against all sorts of utilitarian counters). But is it convincing? Will it leave an impression? Or do you, my kind reader, have a better argument I can use?
Oct. 17, 2010, at 12:01am
“Cleansed, but not saved” was the theme of a homily I heard last Sunday. The homilist took his cue from the Gospel reading (Lk 17:11-19) in which Jesus cleanses ten lepers, but only one—a Samaritan—returns to give thanks. “Ten were cleansed, were they not?” Jesus asks. “Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then He turns to the one who came back and says “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
Ten persons were cleansed by Jesus. They were relieved of terrible objective suffering and restored to health. But only one was saved. What made the difference? Gratitude, said the priest.
This got me reflecting. Why would gratitude make such an ultimate difference? What was that difference? Perhaps the ten were at first only cleansed in a physical or bodily sense, and only the one who came back was cleansed a second time, and now in a spiritual sense?
Yes, surely. But my thoughts went in different, more personalist direction. I was thinking about the way in which God’s saving work among persons requires our free cooperation, even participation. Laundry gets thrown into the machine and comes out clean. It passively undergoes the cleansing. With persons it is different. It is not just that persons have souls, and that souls require a different kind of washing. It is rather that persons are so constituted that they cannot be washed (as persons) without freely willing it. Persons cannot be cleansed by passively undergoing some procedure. They must want it and go along with it. In other words, they must subjectively appropriate the washing.
This, I think, is why the gratitude of the one leper is so important. It shows that he saw the cleansing action not simply as a fantastic bit of good luck that happened to him, but rather as a great gift coming from a loving and compassionate Giver. As such it called for a proper and personal response; for “active receptivity” and deep gratitude. By giving this response, the leper allowed the cleansing to do its deeper and saving work—not just in his flesh, but in his very self.
Gratitude is the means by which a subject, a self, appropriates a gift, and makes the giving and receiving a genuinely inter-personal act.
Oct. 12, 2010, at 5:50pm
Like von Hildebrand, whose birthday she shares, Edith Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl and Adolf Reinach. There, too, she met Max Scheler, whose genius influenced her profoundly.
From a short biography by Laura Garcia:
Stein’s philosophical studies encouraged her openness to the possibility of transcendent realities, and her atheism began to crumble under the influence of her friends who had converted to Christianity.
During the summer of 1921, at the age of twenty-nine, Stein was vacationing with friends but found herself alone for the evening. She picked up, seemingly by chance, the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite Order. She read it in one sitting, decided that the Catholic faith was true, and went out the next day to buy a missal and a copy of the Catholic catechism. She was baptized the following January…
Stein eventually became a leading voice in the Catholic Woman’s Movement in Germany, speaking at conferences and helping to formulate the principles behind the movement.
...Most of Edith Stein’s writing on women and women’s vocation stems from the decade of her professional life between her conversion and her entrance into the Carmelite community at Cologne. The importance of these essays cannot be overestimated, both in terms of their originality and level of insight, but also in terms of their wider influence. On a recent visit to the U.S., Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, himself a Jewish convert to Catholicism, called Edith Stein one of the greatest philosophers of our time. “Her best pupil,” he said, “is the Holy Father” [John Paul II]. Anyone who has read the pope’s encyclical on The Dignity and Vocation of Woman, or his more recent Letter to Women, will see immediately how much they owe to Edith Stein’s pioneering work on this subject.
In 1942, Edith died at the hands of the Nazis. Jules and I and several of the faculty and students of IAP were present for her canonization in Rome twelve years ago.
This month’s Magnificat has a litany of quotations from saints. It includes this one from Edith Stein:
Holy realism has a certain affinity with the realism of the child who receives and responds to impressions with unimpaired vigor and vitality, and with uninhibited simplicity.
And here is a beautiful, deeply personalist prayer of hers. Its last lines especially are like Newman.
Whatever did not fit in with my plan did lie within the plan of God. I have an ever deeper and firmer belief that nothing is merely an accident when seen in the light of God, that my whole life down to the smallest details has been marked out for me in the plan of Divine Providence and has a completely coherent meaning in God’s all seeing eyes.
To be a child of God, that means to be led by the Hand of God, to do the Will of God, not one’s own will, to place every care and every Hope in the Hand of God and not to worry about one’s future. On this rests the freedom and the joy of the child of God. But how few of even the truly pious, even of those ready for heroic sacrifices, possess this freedom.
When night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him—really rest—and start the next day as a new life.
Oct. 12, 2010, at 5:17pm
From the biography at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project website:
Born October 12, 1889 in Florence of German parents, Dietrich von Hildebrand was an original philosopher and religious writer, a brave anti-Nazi activist, an outspoken Christian witness, and a unique representative of Western culture - truly a great figure in twentieth century religious, political, intellectual, and cultural history…
Von Hildebrand studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl, who declared his dissertation to be a work of genius. He was profoundly influenced by his close friend, the brilliant German philosopher Max Scheler, who helped to pave the way for von Hildebrand’s conversion to Catholicism in 1914…
Throughout his life von Hildebrand wrote many works unfolding the faith and morals of Catholicism. Among these are such classics as Purity and Virginity, Marriage, Liturgy and Personality, and Transformation in Christ...
Many of von Hildebrand’s most important and original philosophical works - among them Ethics, What is Philosophy?, The Nature of Love, and Aesthetics - were written after his arrival in America. Through his many writings, von Hildebrand contributed to the development of a rich Christian personalism, especially by his stress on the transcendence of human persons.
When Jules put together a short anthology of DvH’s thought at the request of the Legacy Project, that stress on the transcendence of persons was its hermeneutical and organizational key.
Looking for the link just now, I noticed this comment in review:
I’ve gotten more spiritual help, REAL help and understanding from this little book than from any other I’ve ever owned. It is brilliantly concise, accessible and spiritually sober in a manner that inspires complete trust in this beautiful man.
Oct. 10, 2010, at 7:58am
Your text on and by the Maritains is just wonderful. The young Maritains must have had a very similar experience to the one Friedrich Nietzsche describes so forcefully in the third Untimely Meditation (Unzeitgemäße Betrachtung); this is a work which overtly deals with Schopenhauer but, as we know from later letters and works of Nietzsche, really recounts Nietzsche’s own experience. There Nietzsche expresses his conviction that every philosopher who takes his starting point from Kant will fall into a scepticism which ‘corrodes and smashes everything.’ Nietzsche expresses his own feelings in the moving words of the famous German poet Heinrich von Kleist (see picture below) who wrote in a letter that, after having studied Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he felt that his deepest aspirations and search for meaning had been frustrated, the ‘most sacred inner sanctuary of his soul had been deadly wounded,’ and ‘the highest and only goal of his life had sunk.’ The goal referred to by Kleist was his hope to come to know a truth which was not relative to human consciousness and opinion, a truth ‘which remains true until after the grave.’
Here is the text:
This was the first danger in whose shadow Schopenhauer grew up: isolation. The second was despair of the truth. This danger attends every thinker who sets out from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clattering thought- and calculating-machine. Now we all know very well the shameful implications of this presupposition; it seems to me, indeed, that Kant has had a living and life-transforming influence on only a very few men. One can read everywhere, I know, that since this quiet scholar produced his work a revolution has taken place in every domain of the spirit; but I cannot believe it. For I cannot see it in those men who would themselves have to be revolutionized before a revolution could take place in any whole domain whatever. If Kant ever should begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism; and only in the most active and noble spirits who have never been able to exist in a state of doubt would there appear instead that … despair of all truth such as Heinrich von Kleist for example experienced it as the effect of the Kantian philosophy. “Not long ago,” he writes in his moving way, “I became acquainted with the Kantian philosophy—and I now have to tell you of a thought I derived from it, which I feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shatter you so profoundly and painfully as it has me.—We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be it. If the latter, then the truth we assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavor to acquire a possession which will follow us to the grave is in vain.—If the pointed edge of this thought does not pierce your heart, do not smile at one who feels wounded by it in the deepest and innermost sanctuary of his being. My only and highest goal has sunken and I have no other one left.” [Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Mar. 22, 1801.] When indeed will men feel in this natural Kleistian fashion, when will they again learn to assess the meaning of a philosophy in the “innermost sanctuary” of their soul?
I will look for a fuller translation of the truly outstanding letter of Kleist on truth being the condition of a life worth living, of which Nietzsche only quotes a part. Unfortunately Kleist’s despair of truth did not end so happily as the Maritains’. He did not encounter a Bergson and committed suicide with his fiancee.
Oct. 9, 2010, at 2:25am
5. The Evidence of Freedom Obtained by the Experience of Overwhelmingly Many and Fundamental Human Acts of Everyone that not only Presuppose but Show Free Will
A fifth and closely related way to reach the knowledge that human persons are free is to investigate the conditions of an overwhelmingly large number of basic human acts each of us performs daily, acts directed at our own or at other persons. If we look at the object and subject of these acts, such as asking for something, thanking someone, reproaching him, or repenting our sins, we existentially encounter our own and other person’s freedom. And none of us could live a day or even an hour a normal human life without presupposing and seeing freedom.
Thus one could show how not only the act of vowing or promising, but also the essentially self-directed act of repentance of one’s own sins or the essentially other-directed act of gratitude or forgiveness, and many further fundamental human acts presuppose the evidence of freedom not only in the subject-person but also in the object-person of these acts. In the act of gratitude, for example, we find that it is rooted in an evidence of the freedom of both the subject-person (a forced gratitude would be no gratitude at all, but a “wooden iron”) but also in the object-person to whom we are grateful and who gave us a freely given gift. For it would be senseless to thank anybody if we did not understand and believe that he acted freely as well as kindly towards us or to persons dear to us. We cannot thank a machine or marionette. Also in the act of repenting we find the evidence of our freedom at its root: it would be absolutely senseless to repent what our nature compelled us to do. Likewise, when we reproach another person, or when we forgive her some wrong done to us by her, we necessarily presuppose that she is a free agent. But when we look more deeply into it, we find much more: that in these acts we possess a large degree of evidence that we or other persons, and that human persons as such are free. The same is true when we exhort or praise, admonish, chide, condemn, or encourage other persons.
Hence, in this five-fold way we can indeed know that we are free and answer the question “Are we free?” with the unambiguous answer: “Yes, we are free!” and what is the best: all of us, at least deep down, know this immensely important truth from childhood on which philosophy can only bring out from the dark into the light as a midwife helps the already existing child to reach the light of the day. So I hope that each of you only understands more clearly what you all knew all along: “Yes, I am free!”
Oct. 9, 2010, at 2:08am
4. The Argument from the Self-contradiction of denying freedom and pledging to defend determinism
A fourth kind of argument on behalf of our freedom is that everybody who denies freedom already presupposes it. Both in the act of denying freedom and in insisting that we and everyone else should recognize the truth that there is no freedom, we presuppose the evidence that we and other persons are free and only for that reason we can possibly have a moral responsibility towards ourselves and towards others of publicizing this alleged truth. Thus in all of these judgments in which we reject freedom we contradict our deterministic view and presuppose the evidence of freedom. An excellent form of this kind of “transcendental argument” for freedom and against determinism we owe to Hans Jonas.
In his book Macht oder Ohnmacht der Subjektivität, he refutes brilliantly the materialist ontology and the deterministic account of mind. Jonas opens his book by relating the historical fact that a group of young physiologists (students of the famous Johannes Müller) met regularly in the house of the physicist Gustav Magnus in Berlin. Two of them (Ernst Brücke and Emil du Bois-Reymond) made a formal pact to spread the truth ‘that no other forces are at work in the organism except chemical-physical ones.’ Soon also the young Helmholtz joined them in this solemn promise. Later all three men became famous in their fields and remained faithful to their agreement.
Jonas shows, however, that the very fact of this promise already contradicted, without them noticing it, the very content of their promise, or rather, the materialist theory and negation of freedom which they pledged to promote throughout their career. For they did not bind themselves, and could not have bound themselves, to leave to the molecules of their brain their respective course of action because the course of molecular events in their brains, according to their opinion, was wholly determined since the beginning of the world, nor did they bind themselves by means of their promise to allow these molecules to determine all their speaking and thinking in the future. (This would have been equally senseless for the same reasons.) Rather, they pledged fidelity to their present insight or better, their false opinion. They declared by their pact, at least for themselves, that their subjectivity was master over their action. In the very act of making this promise they trusted something entirely non-physical, namely their relationship to what they took to be the truth and their freedom to decide over their action. Moreover, they ascribed precisely to this factor a determining power over their brains and bodies – which power, however, had been denied by the content of their thesis. To promise something, with the essentially included conviction to be able to keep such a promise and to be likewise free to break it, this admits a force of freedom at work ‘in the organism’ of man. Faithfulness to one’s promise is such a force. Thus, precisely the very “act of vowing always to deny freedom and any non-physical force” solemnly confirmed the existence of the very sort of freedom and ‘non-physical forces’ which they denied!
Oct. 8, 2010, at 2:26pm
October 9th is the anniversary of the day in 1845 when Newman entered the Catholic Church, “the one true fold.”
Looking for something to post in honor of the occasion, I read just now for the first time a remembrance of Newman by J.A. Froude, brother of Newman’s close friend, Hurrell. It’s more than worth reading in full, and I won’t resist quoting it at length. For me it evokes Newman exactly as I have encountered him imaginatively, reading his works and reading about his life, and through beseeching his intercession as a friend in heaven.
When I entered at Oxford, John Henry Newman was beginning to be famous. The responsible authorities were watching him with anxiety; clever men were looking with interest and curiosity on the apparition among them of one of those persons of indisputable genius who was likely to make a mark upon his time. His appearance was striking. He was above the middle height, slight and spare. His head was large, his face remarkably like that of Julius Cæsar. The forehead, the shape of the ears and nose, were almost the same. The lines of the mouth were very peculiar, and I should say exactly the same. I have often thought of the resemblance, and believed that it extended to the temperament. In both there was an original force of character which refused to be moulded by circumstances, which was to make its own way, and become a power in the world; a clearness of intellectual perception, a disdain for conventionalities, a temper imperious and wilful, but along with it a most attaching gentleness, sweetness, singleness of heart and purpose. Both were formed by nature to command others; both had the faculty of attracting to themselves the passionate devotion of their friends and followers; and in both cases, too, perhaps the devotion was rather due to the personal ascendency of the leader than to the cause which he represented. It was Cæsar, not the principle of the empire, which overthrew Pompey and the constitution. Credo in Newmannum was a common phrase at Oxford, and is still unconsciously the faith of nine-tenths of the English converts to Rome.
He captures two particularly striking features of Newman: his originality and the intense reality of his faith.
Here were thoughts like no other man’s thoughts, and emotions like no other man’s emotions. Here was a man who really believed his creed, and let it follow him into all his observations upon outward things.
...No one was more essentially tender-hearted. But he took the usually accepted Christian account of man and his destiny to be literally true, and the terrible character of it weighed upon him.
Sunt lacrymæ rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
One feels his essential personalism, both in the sense of the power and breadth and refinement of his individual personality, and in the sense of the way his mind and heart operated, and in the themes that occupied his attention.
I had then never seen so impressive a person. I met him now and then in private; I attended his church and heard him preach Sunday after Sunday; he is supposed to have been insidious, to have led his disciples on to conclusions to which he designed to bring them, while his purpose was carefully veiled. He was, on the contrary, the most transparent of men. He told us what he believed to be true. He did not know where it would carry him. No one who has ever risen to any great height in this world refuses to move till he knows where he is going. He is impelled in each step which he takes by a force within himself. He satisfies himself only that the step is a right one, and he leaves the rest to Providence. Newman’s mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what man really was, and what was his destiny…
Listen to what Froude says of Newman’s sermons of the day.
The hearts of men vibrate in answer to one another like the strings of musical instruments. These sermons were, I suppose, the records of Newman’s own mental experience. They appear to me to be the outcome of continued meditation upon his fellow-creatures and their position in this world; their awful responsibilities; the mystery of their nature, strangely mixed of good and evil, of strength and weakness. A tone, not of fear, but of infinite pity runs through them all, and along with it a resolution to look facts in the face; not to fly to evasive generalities about infinite mercy and benevolence, but to examine what revelation really has added to our knowledge, either of what we are or of what lies before us.
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us. Pray for the Church.
Oct. 8, 2010, at 11:43am
An article in the latest American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (sorry, no link) reminds me of the inspiring story of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s encounter with Henri Bergson.
The Maritains, though earnestly looking for ultimate truth and meaning in their lives, had been deeply discouraged by their teachers at the Sorbonne in Paris, all of whom were enthralled by the scientific and atheistic materialism in vogue at the time. These teachers taught them that the truth they were looking for—i.e. absolute truth, truth that goes beyond natural science, truth that is worth living (and dying) for—that such truth did not exist, or, at any rate, was impossible to find.
Raïssa describes the crushing effect on Jacques and herself:
Already I had come to believe myself an atheist; I no longer put up any defence against atheism, in the end persuaded, or rather devastated, as I was by so many arguments given out as ‘scientific.’ And the absence of God unpeopled the universe. If we must also give up the hope of finding any meaning whatever for the word truth, for the distinction of good from evil, of just from unjust, it is no longer possible to live humanly. I wanted no part in such a comedy. I would have accepted a sad life, but not one that was absurd. Jacques had for a long time thought that it was still worthwhile to fight for the poor, against the slavery of the ‘proletariat.’ And his own natural generosity had given him strength. But now his despair was as great as my own.
And so the Maritains came to a decision: if the world was truly meaningless and absurd, the only rational response would be to commit suicide. They would leave the world together, “by a free act,” and at a time of their choosing.
Thank God, it never came to this. Before the time they had given themselves ran out, they met Henri Bergson. Again Raïssa recounts their experience:
there was always present within us this invincible idea of truth, this door ajar on the road of life; but until the unforgettable day when we heard Bergson, this idea of truth, this hope of unsuspected discoveries had been implicitly and explicitly frustrated by all those from whom we hoped to gain some light. … [Then] by means of a wonderfully penetrating critique … [Bergson] dispelled the anti-metaphysical prejudices of pseudo-scientific positivism and recalled to the spirit its real functions and essential liberty.
What is inspiring about this story is how serious the Maritain’s were about truth. They realized much more deeply than most of us ever do how crucial it is for living a truly human and dignified life. In contrast, what is so depressing about much of today’s culture is the fact that the impossibility of reaching absolute truth is accepted as a matter of course; as if it isn’t really a big deal. “Truth? No truth? Who really cares? It’s for the academics to fight about.”
Oct. 6, 2010, at 1:00pm
I’ve gathered many gems from the rich vein of Alice von Hildebrand’s “apostolate of being” over the years of our friendship. Among them is her way of looking for and rejoicing in “bonds” between her and those she loves, and delighting when she finds them. “That’s another bond between us!” is a characteristic phrase of hers.
The fact that they were both born and raised in Europe is a bond between her and my husband. If she suddenly remembers a Flemish word learned in childhood more than 75 years ago, she’ll find a way of bringing it into the conversation—as a way of both exhibiting and deepening this particular bond between them. If I mention my regret over my weakness and irritability, or my practical ineptitude, she’ll say with all compassion: “Dear one, that’s another bond between us.” Their love of classical music and all great art was among the great bonds between her and her husband.
It goes without saying that the higher rank of the value in question, the deeper that bond will be. Religious values create the deepest bonds, then moral values, and so on down the line to much more modest but still real things, like a shared love of Italian food or a hatred of loud trucks.
I thought of this today, because October 6th is our son—whose middle name is Hildebrand—Max’s birthday. It’s also the birthday of her father-in-law, the great sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand. A bond between us.
I know she’s thinking of it today too.
UPDATE: When I first wrote this post I mistakenly identified Oct. 6th as the birthday of AvH’s father, Henri, who in fact was born on February 6th. She kindly corrected me.
Oct. 4, 2010, at 9:02pm
Who can read it without sympathizing with feminism?
On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:
“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think—and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.“
She admires her husband’s gifts of insight and expression, and feels most at peace when she’s able to help him his work by typing his manuscripts, sometimes repeatedly.
Yet, as she poignantly remarks, “If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through.”
Her life is filled with enervating child-rearing and household cares. In the introduction to the book (which I found at Amazon.com), Dahlia Lithwick makes clear that Sofia Tolstoy was a typically modern woman, in exactly the sense Jules discusses below—in her self-awareness, her brooding restlessness and discontent.
...why am I not happy? Is it my fault? I know all the reasons for my spiritual suffering: firstly it grieves me that my children are not as happy as I would wish. And then I am actually very lonely. My husband is not my friend: he has been my passionate at times, especially as he grows older, but all my life I have felt lonely with him. He doesn’t go for walks with me, he prefers to ponder in solitude over his writing. He has never taken any interest in my children, for he finds this difficult and dull.
Sofia longs for new landscapes, intellectual development, art, contact with people: “To each his fate. Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband…”
Lithwick makes the likewise typically modern and back-firing mistake of seeing birth control as the solution to Sofia’s problem:
Like most women at the time, Sofia was at the mercy of her reproductive system—the advent of the pill was still almost a century away.
But to me, even without yet having read the diaries, it seems clear that the real source of her suffering was much deeper, and had everything to do with her sense of subordination, instrumentalization and thwarted personal selfhood. The consolation is that her suffering and her husband’s gifts have been part of awakening the world to problem.
Oct. 4, 2010, at 1:30pm
In a recent talk I gave on his life and thought, I tried to explain that John Henry Newman is an especially important saint for our times, in large part because of the modernity of his faith. He lived in a culture that, in spite of some obvious differences, is nevertheless very close to our own. But he did not just live in this culture, he was also a part of it. His inner life and thought was shaped by it, and so, therefore, was his faith. Newman, in other words, shows us what holiness looks like in today’s world.
In a recent interview Pope Benedict XVI expresses the same point better than I did. Asked about the significance of Newman, he answered (in part)
Newman is, above all, a modern man who lived the whole problem of modernity, who also lived the problem of agnosticism, the problem of the impossibility of knowing God, of believing… This interior modernity of his life implies the modernity of his faith. It is not a faith in formulas of past times but a very personal faith, lived, suffered, found in a long journey of renewal and conversion. (my italics)
Reading this reminded me of another perceptive author, Romano Guardini, who also singles out Newman as a uniquely modern saint. In his Letters from Lake Como, which is a beautiful but also somewhat depressing reflection on the modern, technological world, he expresses his conviction that in an age like ours—“uncertain, skeptical, seeking, and homeless”—believers “must stand directly before God.” They must be deeply rooted in themselves, and in the God they find there, in order to come to grips with the world around them. Newman, Guardini thinks, is a great example of this:
I know people who relate with skeptical clarity to scientific inquiries but who, along with their lack of illusions, still bear in their souls a belief that is not affected by liberal and rationalistic attenuation but derives instead from what is above nature. Newman’s greatness was not that he said this or that but that he gave expression to this attitude in his soul. This belief becomes greater and stronger, and under its clear coldness it shelters an inner fire that makes it the equal of the faith of primitive Christianity and the Middle Ages.
I am not sure if Newman’s relation to the modern scientific world is aptly described by terms like “clear coldness” and “skeptical clarity.” Something like “serene confidence” (in the unity of all truth) seems better. But Guardini is right about the inward depth of Newman’s faith, the “inner fire” and conviction of it, and about the fact that it does not rely on the “external” supports that so many of us need. Newman’s faith is rooted in and fed by a direct, interior, and intimate relation with God. This is how he could be so brutally honest about the many objections to Christianity, including those he couldn’t answer, without being in any way shaken by them. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt… difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.”
The interiority and independence of Newman’s faith, and thus in some ways its modernity, also comes through in these well-known lines from the Apologia:
I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth [the existence of God], of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of the great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society ..., but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.
Sep. 29, 2010, at 1:09am
The Caucus blog at the New York Times reports remarks President Obama made today about his faith.
President Obama expounded Tuesday on the reasons he became a Christian as an adult, telling a group of residents here that he was a “Christian by choice” and that “the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead – being my brother and sister’s keeper.”
What’s wrong with this answer? It’s less conspicuous in the full quote below, but still, something rubs me the wrong way.
“I’m a Christian by choice,” the president said. “My family, frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew but she didn’t raise me in the church, so I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead. Being my brothers and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me, and I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes and we achieve salvation through the grace of God.”
Mr. Obama went on: “But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.’’ Yet he said that as president, he also “deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith.’’
Sep. 26, 2010, at 10:55pm
There are quite a few books on our shelves that I feel I ought to have read, but haven’t yet. Until a few days ago, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was one of them. But now I have finally gotten around to beginning it.
Today I came to a section in which MacIntyre argues that there are no natural or human rights. This took me by surprise. He does not just say that rights-talk has gotten out of hand, or that there is too much emphasis on rights and not enough on duties and responsibilities. Nor does he limit himself to saying that an ethics of rights needs to be supplemented with, and grounded in, an ethics of virtue. No, he simply and bluntly denies that rights exist at all: “the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”
I do not have to finish the book to say that I think he is wrong about this. Rights do exist, and it is crucial to recognize and defend them. Still, I am interested in trying to understand the reasons for his position better.
So far I have found two. The first is that virtually no culture other than our own recognizes the concept of natural rights. It seems therefore to be a creation of our culture rather than an objective feature of reality that is in principle observable by all. To this I would reply (in a nutshell) that not all objective facts are explicitly recognized and understood by all cultures. (Especially some moral truths, and certain truths about the person, require a cultural maturity that cannot be taken for granted.) And so in this case our western culture has a decided advantage over most others. The recognition of natural rights naturally grows out of that deep appreciation of “the infinite worth of the individual soul”, which Max Scheler referred to as the “magna carta of Christian Europe.”
But “the best reason”, MacIntyre thinks, for asserting that rights do not exist is of “the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches,” i.e. that “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.” So far this reasoning seems circular. What he really means, however, is that, in the final analysis, all arguments for natural rights are based on the claim that their existence is self-evident, or that they are known through moral intuition. MacIntyre has no patience for that sort of claim: “we all know that there are no self-evident truths,” and “one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a sign that something has gone badly wrong with the argument.”
This reasoning is almost as surprising to me as the claim it is meant to support—especially considering the influence of Aristotle on MacIntyre. Aristotle is well known for showing that if nothing is self-evident then nothing can be proven. Self-evident truths are the ultimate starting point of any argument. Moreover not all self-evident truths are easily perceived or perceived by all. That is why Aristotle thinks that it is useless for young persons—young in age or youthful in character—to attend classes in ethics and politics.
It is true that an appeal to intuition or self-evidence can be abused. But that is hardly a reason for dismissing the notion altogether. Are there any readers who are more sympathetic with MacIntyre on this point then I am? If so, I would love to hear from you.
Sep. 25, 2010, at 9:10pm
The Friends of Newman have a web page dedicated to his influence on Pope Benedict. This passage highlights several of the themes we touched on at our gathering last night. It also makes me think how close he and Wojtyla were in their thinking.
For Newman, the middle term which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth. I do not hesitate to say that truth is the central thought of Newman’s intellectual grappling. Conscience is central for him because truth stands in the middle. To put it differently, the centrality of the concept of conscience for Newman is linked to the prior centrality of the concept of truth and can only be understood from that vantage point. The dominance of the idea of conscience in Newman does not signify that he, in the nineteenth century and in contrast to “objectivistic” neo-scholasticism, espoused a philosophy or theology of subjectivity. Certainly, the subject finds in Newman an attention which it had not received in Catholic theology perhaps since St Augustine. But it is an attention in the line of Augustine and not in that of the subjectivist philosophy of the modern age. On the occasion of his elevation to cardinal, Newman declared that most of his life was a struggle against the spirit of liberalism in religion; we might add, also against Christian subjectivism, as he found it in the Evangelical movement of his time and which admittedly had provided him with the first step on his lifelong road to conversion. Conscience for Newman does not mean that the subject is the standard vis-à-vis the claims of authority in a truth less world, a world which lives from the compromise between the claims of the subject and the claims of the social order. Even more, conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject himself. It is the overcoming of mere subjectivity in the encounter of the interiority of man with the truth from God. The verse Newman composed in1833 in Sicily is characteristic: “I loved to choose and see my path but now, lead thou me on!” Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was not for him a matter of personal taste or of subjective, spiritual need. He expressed himself on this even in 1844, on the threshold, so to speak, of his conversion: “No one can have a more unfavourable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics.” Newman was much more taken by the necessity to obey recognized truth than his own preferences - even against his own sensitivity and bonds of friendship and ties due to similar backgrounds. It seems to me characteristic of Newman that he emphasized the priority of truth over goodness in the order of virtues. Or, to put it in a way which is more understandable for us, he emphasized truth’s priority over consensus, over the accommodation of groups (Conscience and Truth, 10th Workshop for Bishops, February 1991, Dallas, Texas, USA; in: Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, p. 46).
Sep. 24, 2010, at 1:06pm
The other night, our highly patriotic and devout friends, Chuck and June, hosted a gathering at their home with Peter Lillback, author of the best-selling book about George Washington’s faith, titled, Sacred Fire.
The book is unwieldy at nearly 1000 pages, but the speaker was convincing, so I brought one home and began reading. These lines by Thomas Jefferson arguing for the disestablishment of religion in Virginia (which then required worship in the Anglican church) rang my personalist bell.
the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord of both body and mind, yet choose [sic] not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone…
How great and wonderful! How rare and beautiful in the history of humanity! Religion that is proposed to our freedom; that eschews coercion of all kinds.