The Personalist Project

We are all immersed in the practical, “workaday” world since we all have pressing temporal needs each day—even the most contemplative monks!  Most of us, of course, are much more inundated by daily practical cares than are members of the contemplative orders, who arrange their lives specifically in such a way as to remind themselves regularly of the transcendent.  We have to attempt to do this too in a way compatible with our lay vocation in the world; but, we do have to try to transcend just everyday practical cares and worries—which threaten to sweep us along each day in only one perspective.  How can we do this and what is the nature of this transcendence? 

Spiritual considerations, prayer time, the search for ultimate wisdom in theology and philosophy are indications of this higher perspective, but we cannot all live like monks–-or even like Socrates, spending his days conversing about higher things with whomever is willing to dialog.  (Even Socrates seems to have gotten into some trouble with his wife Xantippe over his lack of practical concern.) 

So what other sources in our experience are there that can help us to attain a higher and more proper perspective, allowing us to inform (and confirm) the practical in its importance without getting lost there?  To help with an answer, we can again turn to Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture (as in my earlier post on the World of Work and the World of Leisure).  Pieper, of course, describes this higher perspective as reached through: (1) philosophy as the search for meaning and purpose beyond mere worldly success and (2) prayer, as long as it is not just regarded as some special technique to get what you want, to “manipulate” the divine—this would be to drag God down to the level of your practical priorities rather than to allow Him to lift you up. 

But Pieper also illustrates this higher or deeper perspective on life with several other examples of “breaking through” or “stepping out” of just the practical or utilitarian perspective.  These might help us to get a better understanding of the two levels of importance (or concern) implied. 

So (3) another way to catch sight of this higher perspective is to think not of philosophy or theology, but of poetry.  St. Thomas says that what the philosopher and the poet share is a concern for that which is worthy of wonder or marveling.  Consider, for example, the way a poet and a lumberjack look at a stand of trees.  Both perspectives are valid and good, but they operate on quite different levels; they cannot be compared on the same plane.  Pieper uses the term “incommensurable” to describe this difference.  The poet focuses on capturing the wonder and beauty of the scene; the lumberjack sees good jobs and perhaps hundreds of houses that could be built with those trees. 

Again, both are valid but on completely different levels; thus, it would be somewhat odd to picture both together, as if the poet would write a beautiful piece capturing the glory of the natural scene and then himself hop up and cut down all the trees!  Yet something similar is described by William Wordsworth himself in his poem “Nutting,” wherein he describes the discovery of a beautiful grove of untouched hazelnut trees in full maturity, luxuriates in the beauty and fullness of it all, then strips the trees of all their nuts as a great treasure for himself, but finally experiences some pain and regret, despite walking off with the treasure.  He moves between the two perspectives: glory and joy in the practical fact that all the nuts are his, but a mysterious regret at the denuding of the fullness and beauty of the trees, and with a hint of the transcendent at the end.  Herewith a few selections: 

---------------------It seems a day
(I speak of one from many singled out)
One of those heavenly days that cannot die;
When, in the eagerness of boyish hope,
I left our cottage-threshold, sallying forth
With a huge wallet o’er my shoulders slung,
A nutting-crook in hand; and turned my steps
Tow’rd some far-distant wood….

Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook
Unvisited, where not a broken bough
Drooped with its withered leaves, ungracious sign
Of devastation; but the hazels rose
Tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung,
A virgin scene!--A little while I stood,
Breathing with such suppression of the heart
As joy delights in; and, with wise restraint
Voluptuous, fearless of a rival, eyed
The banquet;--or beneath the trees I sate
Among the flowers, and with the flowers I played;
A temper known to those, who, after long
And weary expectation, have been blest
With sudden happiness beyond all hope.

I heard the murmur and the murmuring sound,
In that sweet mood when pleasure loves to pay
Tribute to ease; and, of its joy secure,
The heart luxuriates with indifferent things,
Wasting its kindliness on stocks and stones,
And on the vacant air. Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being:

and, unless I now
Confound my present feelings with the past;
Ere from the mutilated bower I turned
Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings,
I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky--
Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch--for there is a spirit in the woods.

Three main points might be stressed here.  First, we truly need both perspectives: the appreciation for being itself in all its beauty, goodness, and fullness, plus the concern for food, shelter, clothing, etc., foundational for human life.  We need both the poet and the harvester.  We need both St. Francis’ view of nature reflecting the divine and the lumberjack’s view of nature in all its practical possibilities.  Second, however, and even more important, is the fact that the former perspective—that of the saint and the poet—is the one most difficult to maintain and most likely to be forgotten or overlooked in the midst of immediately pressing practical needs and worries.  We have to remain in our depth in order to see it at all.  Third, it is this higher perspective alone which can keep the practical one within its proper limits, so that it does not completely dominate.  Just as the soul should inform and order the bodily desires for the sake of the beauty and harmony of the whole, the perspective of intrinsic value, goodness, and beauty should inform the practical one.

In a follow-up post, I will discuss Pieper’s next three examples of “stepping out” of  or transcending the limits of the workaday-world perspective: (4) love, (5) death, and (6) beauty.

Comments (1)

richard sherlock

#1, Mar 29, 2012 10:16pm


Great post. I think a much understudied way of connecting the human with the transcendent is St. Thomas' 4th way that reason can know that God exists. Everyday we make judgments that this is better than that. We do this fundamentally around 3 axis: the good, the true, the beautiful. But to say as we naturally do that this is a better good than that or that this person is morally better than that person, e.g. Mother Teresa vs.  Bill Clinton requires that we know what the scale is, that is we must have some, however imperfect, idea of what the true ultimate good, wise and beautiful is: God. Our common experience of judging the imperfect leads to the conclusion that to recognize the imperfect we must have some grasp of the perfect. But to expand St. Thomas, since what we fundamentally judge are persons the true good must be more than simply the platonic good, however close that is to the truth. The true good must be a person.

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