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The “Historical Point of View”

The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others;  for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk”.

C.S. Lewis

Screwtape Letters

Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics (2)

Oct. 27, 2009, at 12:14pm

The 2nd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.

Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics

Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:14am

There will be more to say about this response to his critics, but for now let me only highlight some of it and urge everyone to read it in full.

The pivotal question as I see it is this: What does the grace of redemption offer us in this life with regard to our disordered sexual tendencies? From there, the questions multiply: Is it possible to overcome the pull of lust within us? If not, what are we to do with our disordered desires? If so, to what degree can we be liberated from lust and how can we enter into this grace? Furthermore, what does it actually look like to live a life of ever deepening sexual redemption?

It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence - that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough. The battle with concupiscence is fierce. Even the holiest saints can still recognize the pull of concupiscence within them. Yet, as John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh… Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).

Many people seem to doubt this “effectiveness” and thus conclude that the freedom I hold out is beyond the realm of man’s possibilities. From one perspective, these critics are correct. “But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’?” John Paul II asks. “And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ” (Veritatis Splendor 103)? For those dominated by lust, what I hold out is impossible. But those who enter the “effectiveness” of redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6).


Katie van Schaijik

Scientific evidence for the importance of fathers

Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:03am

Interesting new study featured in today’s Wall Street Journal: Missing fathers cause brain and behavior changes in offspring.

German biologist Anna Katharina Braun and others are conducting research on animals that are typically raised by two parents, in the hopes of better understanding the impact on humans of being raised by a single parent. Dr. Braun’s work focuses on degus, small rodents related to guinea pigs and chinchillas, because mother and father degus naturally raise their babies together.

When deprived of their father, the degu pups exhibit both short- and long-term changes in nerve-cell growth in different regions of the brain. Dr. Braun, director of the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, and her colleagues are also looking at how these physical changes affect offspring behavior.

Their preliminary analysis indicates that fatherless degu pups exhibit more aggressive and impulsive behavior than pups raised by two parents.

More reason for distressing over the state of our culture. More reason for turning to God, our Father in heaven, for help and solace.


Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics (3)

Oct. 27, 2009, at 1:14am

The 3rd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.

Katie van Schaijik

Why Benedict did what he did

Oct. 26, 2009, at 11:37am

Ross Douthat, who I think means well—which is not nothing when it comes to the New York Times’ coverage of Catholic issues—pens a speculative piece about Pope Benedict’s “gambit” in establishing a canonical structure allowing Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church. He wonders out loud why the Pope would drop this “bombshell”? Why this “unusual effort at targeted proselytism” breaking with the recent ecumenical traditions of emphasizing unity and common ground over differences?
He wonders whether besides trying to increase Catholic numbers, the Pope may not have in mind a coming epic struggle with Islam.
Well maybe so. But if we’re trying to understand why the Pope did it, shouldn’t we begin by considering what he said about why he did it? Key from that point of view is the fact that this move on the part of the Pope came as a response to “the many requests that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world who wish to enter into full visible communion”.
A further key—key to all things touching the Church and touching human persons—is the spiritual question. In other words, the Pope (being a good Pope) is surely less concerned with political questions—questions of strategy and tactics and numbers and concentrations of power—than he is with the care of souls. If he has many souls and many congregations of souls who have been expressing a longing for full, visible communion with Rome, is not reaching toward them and working to ease their way in simply the fatherly and priestly thing to do?


Katie van Schaijik

Two views on children

Oct. 21, 2009, at 2:52pm

From the Psalmist:

“Sons are heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him…Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (A quiver holds 12 arrows.)

From the environmental writer at the New York Times, as reported in an article in Investors Business Daily:

“probably the single most concrete and substantive thing an American, young American, could do to lower our carbon footprint is not turning off the light or driving a Prius, it’s having fewer kids, having fewer children.”

“More children equal more carbon dioxide emissions,” Rivkin has blogged, wondering “whether this means we’ll soon see a market in baby-avoidance carbon credits similar to efforts to sell CO2 credits for avoiding deforestation.” Save the trees, not the children.

There’s more:

Rivkin’s views are unfortunately shared by people with power and influence. Jonathon Porritt, chairman of Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission, believes that “having more than two children is irresponsible” and that people should “connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint.”

Earlier this year, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi defended federal contraceptive initiatives as an effort to “reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.” For Pelosi, mother of five, the fewer the merrier.


Katie van Schaijik

Moral bankruptcy among the elites

Oct. 19, 2009, at 3:13pm

Naomie Emory has a great article in today’s Weekly Standard.  Hit tip Mark Steyn at the Corner.



Katie van Schaijik

The big difference between Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung

Oct. 19, 2009, at 1:54pm


The news emerged this week that White House’s Director of Communications, Anita Dunn, announced to high schoolers just this June that “two of her favorite political philosophers”, two of the people she “turns to most” are Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung. (Listen to the audio here.)
The endorsement of the single greatest mass murderer in history is beginning to attract the infamy it deserves. Not noted in the commentary so far, though, is the outrage-in-itself of the comparison between these two moral personalities.

Ms. Dunn identified the common ground between them—the ground of her admiration—by using a quotation from each. In response to someone who pointed out that Chaing Kai Shek had the army behind him, Mao had said: “You fight your war and I’ll fight mine.” And Mother Teresa had replied to a socialite who wanted to come to India to help her, “Find your own Calcutta.” You see the moral point? Both these highly impactful people had stressed the importance of finding your own way, following your own dreams. That’s all Anita Dunn wanted to say.

She may as well have held up Maximilian Kolbe and Adolf Hitler as two great example of men who were totally committed—committed to the point of death—to their respective causes. Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung are no less at moral antipodes with each other.

Mother Teresa’s entire life was a witness of her commitment to the dignity and preciousness of each and every human life—even the weakest, poorest social outcast. Each was infinitely beloved, infinitely deserving of care, more than worth sacrificing for.
Mao Tse Tung was foremost among the moral monsters of the 20th century whose ambition entailed, as Karol Wojtyla put it “the pulverization of the individual.” Persons, in the communist view, have no value in themselves. They deserve no respect; they are expendable on a grand scale. In fact, if we examine the history of Mao’s China, it becomes clear that, as with Stalinism, the destruction of individuality was its prime goal.


Jules van Schaijik

Man: the dressing animal

Oct. 13, 2009, at 1:38pm

Apparently, the Disney company is going to update its retail stores. One new feature, inspired by Apple’s “Genius Bar,” will be called “WWTD: What Would Tinkerbell Do?” It is a place where you can ask all sorts of Disney related questions. This, for instance, is the question Macworld reporter, Scott McNulty, has been dying to ask:

“Why does Goofy wear pants while Pluto doesn’t? They’re both dogs.”

That’s a question that never occurred to me. But now that it’s been pointed out, I find it rather interesting. It’s true: Goofy wears pants, Pluto doesn’t. Why the difference? Is Pluto a moral libertine? a nudist? Does Goofy have some sort of a hang-up about his own body? Not at all. It turns out, as Luis Alejandro, a Macworld reader, shows, that there is actually a personalist reason for it: “Pluto, as a character, is a dog. Goofy, as a character, is a person. Persons use clothes. Goofy uses pants.”

So, whoever at Disney came up with these two characters had a good intuition into the difference between persons and animals. Draw a dog with pants on, and it’s no longer just a dog. Perhaps we can make a new entry in the long list of lighthearted definitions for man:

• Man is the animal that dresses

The habit of wearing clothes is not as central or illuminating a characteristic of human persons as that of being rational or free. But it is revealing nevertheless, especially in light of the phenomenon of shame (as analyzed by Scheler or Wojtyla, for instance). It can be compared, in that respect, to other definitions such as:

• Man is a talking animal (C.S. Lewis makes much of this feature in the Chronicles of Narnia. Also Disney: i.e. Goofy can, whereas Pluto cannot, talk.)
• Man is a laughing animal
• Man is an animal laughed at (Cf. Bergson’s interesting essay on Laughter.)
• Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called
upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason (Oscar Wilde)

Are there any others that I am leaving out?


By the bye, during my extensive research into the Pluto - Goofy question I discovered that the question has been asked before. See this page for some other answers.


Katie van Schaijik

Scientistic dogmatism vs. God and human dignity

Oct. 13, 2009, at 11:34am

Former Bush speech writer, William McGurn, has aa WSJ op-ed today about the way scientific dogmatism threatens human well being.  The whole thing is worth reading.  Here is just one paragraph:

In 1997, for example, an International Academy of Humanism statement in defense of human cloning—whose signatories included scientists such as E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins—went out of its way to attack the special dignity of human beings. “Humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover.” They concluded “it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.”


Katie van Schaijik

Remembering two great personalists

Oct. 12, 2009, at 8:26pm

October 12th is a sort of feast day for the Personalist Project, since it is the birthday of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889) and Edith Stein (1891). They studied philosophy (a few years apart) under phenomenologists Adolf Reinach and Edmund Husserl; both were profoundly influenced by Max Scheler. They were converts to Catholicism (DvH from nominal Protestantism; ES from Judaism). Both dedicated themselves to resisting the evil of Naziism, intellectually, morally, and religiously.

Lacking time to do their contributions anything like justice, let me at least offer, in honor of the day, a glimpse of why the Personalist Project looks to them as two of our leading lights.

These paragraphs are taken from the introduction to Jules’ anthology of DvH’s writing:

In his introduction to The New Tower of Babel, a collection of essays in which he examines various manifestations of modern man’s flight from God, von Hildebrand wrote that “[t]he dignity of the human person is written over this period as its objective theme, regardless of how few persons hold the right and valid notion of this dignity and its metaphysical basis. The present epoch is great because the struggle that centers around the human person is ultimately a fight engaged under the banner of Christ…”
This great struggle “centered around the human person” and engaged “under the banner of Christ” provides an interpretive key to the life and work of Dietrich von Hildebrand. Whether it was his heroic resistance to the evil of totalitarianism, or his critique of relativism, materialism, and all secularizing trends; his value ethics, his personalist metaphysics, his emphasis on the heart, the liturgy, beauty, marriage and love; whether in his religious writings or his philosophical writings, his teaching in the classroom or in the small gatherings of friends and disciples in his grand home in Munich or in his tiny New York apartment, his passion and the implicit mission of his life was to unfold, cherish, and defend the great mystery of what it means to be a human person—a being called to live his life in conscious, free, and full responsiveness to the world of values and above all to God, who created him, who redeemed him, and who offers him total transformation in Christ.

And here are a few points of particular interest for us taken from the Vatican website’s description of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein:

In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to Gottingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl’s new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception. His pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: “back to things”. Husserl’s phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In Göttingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism…

Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer”...

She worked enormously hard, translating the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as Thomas Aquinas’ Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. The latter was a very free translation, for the sake of dialogue with modern philosophy….

In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a “tool of the Lord” in everything she taught. “If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him”....

When she made her eternal profession on 21 April 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.”

Edith Stein died August 9, 1942, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Dietrich von Hildebrand died January 26, 1977, in New Rochelle, NY.


Katie van Schaijik

Another frowned-upon emotion

Oct. 12, 2009, at 10:49am

A Wall Street Journal review of two pessimistic books meshes nicely with Podles’ point about anger denial.

“Bright-Sided” opens with Ms. Ehrenreich’s discovery that she has breast cancer. Immediately she finds herself drawn into the intensely feminine, beribboned world of the modern sufferer, with its cuddly stuffed bears, personal-testimony Web sites and insistence that the patient put on a happy face: “Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world,” she realizes, “to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.”

Americans disallow unhappiness; Christians disallow anger.
I’d say American Christians have a serious reality-deficit problem to contend with.


Katie van Schaijik

Podles on anger and the virtuous life [updated]

Oct. 9, 2009, at 9:20pm

A propos of more than one of our on-going discussions, friend Scott Johnston points me to this archived Touchstone article by Leon Podles, author of a more-than-sobering book about the clerical sex abuse scandal. Podles argues that common distortions of Catholic teachings have led to a general misunderstanding of anger and its right uses in the moral life—a problem that came to head in the scandal but extends well beyond it.

Mark Serrano confronted Bishop Frank Rodimer, asking why he had let his priest-friend Peter Osinski sleep with boys at Rodimer’s beach house while Rodimer was in the next bedroom: “Where is your moral indignation?”

Rodimer’s answer was, “Then I don’t get it. What do you want?” What Serrano wanted Rodimer to do was to behave like a man with a heart, a heart that is outraged by evil. But Rodimer couldn’t; his inability to feel outrage was a quality that had helped make him a bishop. He would never get into fights, never rock the boat, never “divide” but only “unify.” Rodimer could not understand why he should feel deep anger at evil, at the violation of the innocent, at the oppression of the weak.

Podles goes on to show that this anger deficit is at serious odds with the views of great Catholic theologians and moral philosophers:

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

Aquinas, too, says that “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

My sense and sympathies are generally with Podles here.
I think it’s undeniably true that we Christians are taught to feel guilty about our anger and to suppress it to a fault—to the serious detriment of ourselves and our communion. The idea that anger is bad and negative—a sign of moral weakness and lack of virtue—is so strong and widespread that many Christians feel justified in dismissing the claims and testimony of anyone who expresses anger on the grounds of that anger alone. Rather than attending to what the other is saying and asking the question whether it is true, we shake our heads in sorrow over his lamentable “anger issues”. I have seen it again and again, including from prominent Catholic leaders.

But I cannot go as far as Conrad Baars—the great Catholic psychologist also cited by Podles—when he claims that feelings are “outside the realm of morality and guilt” (cf. Born Only Once, p.97). It seems to me rather that a right integration of anger into the moral life will involve not just discernment about what to do with my feelings, but about whether or not those feelings are justified by and proportionate with the moral reality before me. If they are not justified and proportionate, they are blame-worthy—something to apologize for and correct.


Katie van Schaijik

Newman’s conversion

Oct. 9, 2009, at 12:25pm

On this day in 1845, John Henry Newman conformed to the Church of Rome at Littlemore.

Newman’s buildings (Church & school) at Littlemore


These items taken from his private correspondence (and later published in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua) in the months leading up to his conversion show Newman’s profound personalism, and his intense suffering:

In January, to an Anglican woman on the same journey:

This I am sure of, that nothing but a simple, direct call of duty is a warrant for any one leaving our Church; no preference of another Church, no delight in its services, no hope of greater religious advancement in it, no indignation, no disgust, at the persons and things, among which we may find ourselves in the Church of England. The simple question is, Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die tonight? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion?

In April, to his friend Church:

... Accept this apology, my dear Church, and forgive me. As I say so, tears come into my eyes;—that arises from the accident of this time, when I am giving up so much I love. Just now I have been overset by James Mozley’s article in the Remembrancer; yet really, my dear Church, I have never for an instant had {233} even the temptation of repenting my leaving Oxford. The feeling of repentance has not even come into my mind. How could it? How could I remain at St. Mary’s a hypocrite? how could I be answerable for souls, (and life so uncertain,) with the convictions, or at least persuasions, which I had upon me? It is indeed a responsibility to act as I am doing; and I feel His hand heavy on me without intermission, who is all Wisdom and Love, so that my heart and mind are tired out, just as the limbs might be from a load on one’s back. That sort of dull aching pain is mine; but my responsibility really is nothing to what it would be, to be answerable for souls, for confiding loving souls, in the English Church, with my convictions. My love to Marriott, and save me the pain of sending him a line.”

His account of his journey concludes (when he left his home at Littlemore, near Oxford, a few months later) with almost unbearable poignancy:

“January 20, 1846. You may think how lonely I am. ‘Obliviscere populum tuum et domum patris tui,’ has been in my ears for the last twelve hours. I realize more that we are leaving Littlemore, and it is like going on the open sea.”

I left Oxford for good on Monday, February 23, 1846. On the Saturday and Sunday before, I was in my house at Littlemore simply by myself, as I had been for the first day or two when I had originally taken possession of it. I slept on Sunday night at my dear friend’s, Mr. Johnson’s, at the Observatory. Various friends came to see the last of me; Mr. Copeland, Mr. Church, Mr. Buckle, Mr. Pattison, and Mr. Lewis. Dr. Pusey too came up to take leave of me; and I called on Dr. Ogle, one of my very oldest friends, for he was my private Tutor, when I was an Undergraduate. In him I took leave of my first College, Trinity, which was so dear to me, and which held on its foundation so many who had been kind to me both when I was a boy, and all through my Oxford life. Trinity had never been unkind to me. There used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms there, and I had for years taken it as the emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University.

Years later he said that before his conversion, his personal life was rich and full, his religious life dreary. After his conversion, the reverse was true. His religious life was infinitely rewarding; his personal life comparatively sad and dull.

It is good to think of him now, in Reality, where everything true and good converges.


Jules van Schaijik

The goodness of lamenting

Oct. 5, 2009, at 12:07pm

There is one aspect of mere conservatism or traditionalism that I have never liked: namely, what seems to me an overly pessimistic view about the present coupled with a largely unfruitful nostalgia for the past. It seems to be such a hopeless view, so dreary. One reason, in fact, why I think Personalism is so important right now, is that it provides the key to retaining most of the good things of the past, while enabling us to rethink those things in light of the positive developments of the modern period (most of which are related, in one way or another, to a deepening sense of personal selfhood). God is still with us. His truth is still marching on.

Having said that, let me now add that Mark Henrie, in “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” an article he kindly sent me after reading my last post, has made me more sympathetic to traditionalist nostalgia. He shows that it is neither unfruitful, nor necessarily anti-present.

“The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling,” Mark writes, “the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia.” By itself this is perhaps too obvious to mention, but Mark draws several conclusions from it which, I for one, had never considered. First, he shows that this explains why it normally has a reactionary flavor.

The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

Secondly, and more significantly from a philosophical point view, that same sense of loss also serves as an important source of knowledge. The absence of what is lost not only makes the heart grow fonder, but also helps the mind to see more clearly. Here’s how Mark puts it:

While in possession, we take our good for granted and, so, often fail to recognize it. But in the face of loss, the human good is vividly revealed to us. We lament the loss of goods, not the loss of evils, which is why lament illuminates. Is it not striking that whereas antebellum Southern writers championed both the economic and moral superiority of the “peculiar institution,” post-bellum Southern conservatives typically did not lament the loss of slavery, but rather lamented the loss of gentility, gallantry, domesticity, and the virtues of yeoman agriculturalists? While it may be true that nostalgia views the past through “rose-colored glasses,” such a criticism misses the point. To see the good while blinkered against evils is, nevertheless, to see the good.

Lastly, by remembering, and hence keeping alive in some way, the goods that are rapidly disappearing from today’s culture—e.g. “communal solidarity, friendship, leisure, honor and nobility, and religious ‘enchantment’”—, traditional conservatives perform an invaluable service to modern America, which has been influenced too heavily and exclusively by a Lockean, individualist liberalism. This, if I can take Mark’s word for it, is why Russell Kirk so often insisted on the need “to revivify the ‘moral imagination’ through a serious engagement with poetry and imaginative literature.” This “prophetic call for the cultivation of moral imagination was an attempt to free Americans from liberal ideology so that they could begin to name those other elements of the human good which are obscured in the liberal dispensation.”

There is a lot of truth and insight in all this. Mere conservatism, indeed, is no answer. It has no future because it lacks the crucial element of life, and of growth. Without conservation, on the other hand, there can be no life and growth either: only decline and corruption.


Katie van Schaijik

Two must-read articles on sexuality and porn

Oct. 4, 2009, at 5:07pm

In an article in the latest issue of First Things, What Does Woman Want?, Mary Eberstadt brilliantly exposes the link between the rising tide of pornography (and the social pressure among secularists to treat it as a harmless, if vaguely embarrassing, pastime) and unhappy, sexless marriages.

Yet the explanation from imposed gender neutrality does not by itself go far enough. Something else lurks under the rocks picked up by the fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of much of the new confessionalism.

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

The article brought to mind Charles Williams’ novel, Descent into Hell, which I read many years ago, after learning that Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and that Tom Howard had written his dissertation on his novels. In it the lead character, by preferring a fantasy to reality, gradually cuts himself off from everything, becoming in the process less and less human, less and less real and good and true. More and more this seems to me the prime temptation of modern existence: reality avoidance.

Roger Scruton, in a paper given for the Witherspoon Institute: The Abuse of Sex eviscerates the utilitarian myths about sex that dominate our culture. And he does it phenomenologically (i.e. starting from the data of moral experience), and via personalism, in a way reminiscent of Josef Pieper and Dietrich von Hildebrand.

[Sexual desire] is rooted in animal instincts. But in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the inter-personal dialogue. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. In describing sexual desire we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. ‘I want you’ is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very centre of free and responsible choice which constitutes the inter-personal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being that you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing I want.

...This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important here, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations. People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it….Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.

...Persons are individuals, not merely in the weak sense of being substances that can be reidentified, and which undergo change, but in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes.

...It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each is viewed as unique, without a substitute. As I try to show in my book, this has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute – someone who says ‘Take Jane, she will do just as well’ has not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.

His conclusion about the effects of pornography is remarkably similar to Mary Eberstadt’s:

Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, porn is habit-forming. It short-circuits that round- about route to sexual satisfaction which passes by the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire… It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit – a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cut-outs in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, or to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naïve assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize. Indeed psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by porn, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and with only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that porn encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive. And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love. This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.


Katie van Schaijik

Weigel at Immaculata

Oct. 1, 2009, at 11:41am

Last night we attended a talk by George Weigel at Immaculata University comparing John Paul II and Edith Stein.  My reaction was somewhat mixed.  Weigel has a marvelous command of the timeline of their lives and some of the major points of convergence between these two giants of 20th century Catholicism and 20th century philosophy: their shared faith and intellectual vocation, their common critique of the atheism and materialism of the modern world, their profound interest in re-establishing the right relation between faith and reason, their work to bring Thomism and phenomenology into fruitful contact with each other, their contributions toward a Christian femininism, and so on. 
But for someone passionately devoted to personalism, the talk was frustratingly devoid of mention, never mind explication, of that basic legacy, which is, to my mind, the great, compensatory achievement of the entire modern period.  He did offer a few nuggets for deeper reflection on that score, however.  One was in the form of a quote from Henri de Lubac that admirably encapsulates the communitarian implications of personalism [paraphrasing from memory]: “We may organize society without God, but only if we organize it against each other.”  Another was a reminder of John Paul’s emphasis on culture and fostering a “communal subjectivity”, without which we will be pitifully prone to the domination of a soulless statism.
Here is a task I would like to set for our circle:
An essay comparing and contrasting humanism and personalism.  In other words, I propose that the personalism is the new humanism called for by JP II, and that it is importantly different from and more potent for meeting the challenges of our day than the old humanism.  I propose further that personalism is a fruit of (and not just a reaction against) the modern world.  I would so love to see better philosophers than I am take up this theme!


Katie van Schaijik

Newman on perfection

Sep. 29, 2009, at 11:25pm

Here is the context for the great Newman quote in Jules’ post below.

A Short Road to Perfection

September 27, 1856

IT is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.

I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.


Jules van Schaijik

More on ideology

Sep. 29, 2009, at 11:20pm

The question of what exactly an ideology is, how it functions in human life, why it appeals and how it affects us, has been with me ever since I posted about it a week or so ago. Here are some points from my reading and reflecting that I thought might interest others.

Ideologies lead to homogeneity
First, I have been reading a great and probing lecture by our friend Mark Henrie (not to be confused with Mark Henry). (Katie linked to it some weeks back; here it is again). Its central theme is ideology and conservatism’s resistance to it. According to Mark, the essence of ideology lies in its claim “to have captured the whole truth about man” and the correlative proclamation of “a universal history for all the world.” On the basis of a presumed insight into the universal nature of man, ideologies work to impose a homogeneous (and ultimately global) state.

Conservatives, he argues further, while unlikely to fall into the danger of communism, are by no means immune to the danger of ideology as such. Adherence to the ideology of individualistic liberalism, for instance, or of the unrestrained free market is widespread. The reductive and depersonalizing tendencies inherent in these ideas (if not kept in check) are becoming clear. Nowadays, for instance, the free market is often experienced as “a realm where uniform laws of rational efficiency work to the end of homogenization. Human goods such as community, solidarity, and indeed, even eccentricity…are threatened”.

The homogenizing power of liberal market logic is revealed in contemporary political arguments that speak of the necessity of “competitiveness” in international markets. While it is often claimed that modern technological production has freed humanity from nature or necessity, the unrestrained market has itself become the realm of necessity that cannot be opposed. Here it is contended that we are not free to resist the demands of market efficiency. We are not free to seek such social goods as higher environmental standards. We are not free to defend settled ways of life by protecting older domestic industries. Owing to lower wage levels brought on by a competitive labor market, women are not free to remain at home as mothers, regardless of the non-quantifiable harm to children. In short, we are not free to organize any of our social relations in a manner that will lead to production inefficiencies.

There are more worthwhile things in Mark’s lecture (for instance, on how the present encounter with Islam might hasten the end of the age of ideology by revealing the “universality of the West’s modernizing history” as a kind of “parochialism”.) But I have said more than I meant to already, and turn now to the first few pages of Vaclav Havel’s essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which is included in this great collection of his writings.

Ideologies are attractive because they provide ready answers to life’s difficult questions
Havel thinks that an ideology can be atractive because it offers ready-made answers to difficult, existential questions. It provides a coherent worldview in a confused and drifting age.

Keep in mind, while reading these excerpts, that Havel is reflecting on the communist ideology of the Soviet system. This means 1) that his remarks, while containing general insights into the nature of ideology as such, are taylored to a specific instantiation of it. And 2) he is dealing with an ideology that has been very successful in terms of being able to establish itself and maintain its grip on whole peoples, across large regions, and for a long time. As a result, essential characteristics of ideology are more thoroughly realized and clearly revealed than they would be normally.

It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.

But there is a cost:

Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.

Our experience with ideology is more benign. But don’t we all know instances of a similar dynamic in more ordinary circumstances and in less dramatic ways? In certain religious groups, for instance, or in peer-groups?

Ideologies have an excusatory function
Havel begins section 3 of his essay by describing a greengrocer who hangs a sign in his window, “among the onions and carrots,” with the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Obviously the grocer has no interest in this message at all. Why, then, does he place it in his window? Simply because he is expected to do so and wants to stay out of trouble. Havel continues,

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and has a sense of his own dignity… Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interests in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class.

I am sure we are all familiar with the temptation of hiding something low behind something high. For instance, instead of admitting we are afraid to do something, we tell ourselves it would be imprudent. It is when such deceptions take on a communal character, that they start to look more like an ideology. Good examples don’t come to mind right now, and its time to turn in. (As Newman said, “go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.”) Perhaps a reader can provide an example?


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