Harmonizing knowledge

R.C. Jebb supplies a counter-argument in his same 1899 address to yesterday’s somewhat pessimistic riffing:

“The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature. Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.

But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. A full comprehension of the Greek and Latin literatures demands at least some study of ancient thought, ancient history, archaeology, art. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures ; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.”

As we acquire greater breadth and depth of knowledge, specialization is necessary and becoming a generalist is less about extensive knowledge in the major fields than about an ability to recognize the connecting threads between many discrete branches of knowledge.

Humanism in education

R.C. Jebb writes on the problem that advocates of the classics created for themselves in exaggerating the value of classical study:

“Thus one eminent scholar said, ‘If the old classical literature were swept away, the moderns would in many cases become unintelligible, and in all cases lose most of their characteristic charms.’ Others averred that no one could write English well who did not know Latin. One distinguished head-master even said, ‘It is scarcely possible to speak the English language with accuracy or precision, without a knowledge of Latin or Greek.’ Now claims of this kind, all containing some elements of truth, but needing to be carefully limited and defined, struck people in general as preposterous, when stated with crude exaggeration; and did all the more mischief, because, in the sixties, an apprehension of the true claims of humanism was much less widely diffused, among educated people outside of the academic world, than it is to-day. And when such people, who had no personal knowledge of humanistic study, heard claims made for it which seemed repugnant to experience and common-sense, they not unnaturally suspected that the whole case for the humanities was unsound.”

Now, here’s the thing. R.C. Jebb delivered these words as part of an address not in the past few years; rather he spoke these words in 1899 in a university address. So the “sixties” he’s referring to are not those of the 1960s and the cultural/sexual revolution that so many who are still living remember. But Jebb’s sixties were a time of similar change as the nation’s identity was centralized and Americans lived through a reduction in what I think of as the expansiveness of the nation at least in mental/intellectual scope. The federalism of the post-war 1870s was different in character than the federalism that was born roughly a century before. A sharper sort of federalism that prioritized national purpose in the wake of division.

And in the growth of this America the claims of the humanities must have felt preposterous. After all, what did all the beauty and wisdom of Greaco-Roman memory do to soften the hearts of the secessionists? What did Achilles teach the dead son of a farmer buried at Gettysburg? What did Euclid do for a slain president?

There are many good and honest answers to these sorts of questions, but in the face of some so in love with their tradition that they suggested it “scarcely possible to speak the English language,” who could blame the new generation that prioritized the scientific and mechanic arts over the liberal arts as the embodiment of a “useful” education? An education that no longer segregated those learning the humanities from those learning the principles of scientific agriculture, for instance?

The marriage of what were called the “liberal” and “servile” arts worked for much of the past century. It seems to me that just as the dominance of the humanities once invited an intellectual revolution, the present dominance of the scientific and practical fields invites some sort of classroom reformation; perhaps towards remembering not only what we can do to on a daily, practical basis, but also what human beings are for in the first place and what our ancestors made of this life as a guide and support to our own lives.

Then again, we might have plenty farther to go on the present road of practicality.

Pater and pietas

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes:

The word “patriotism” comes from the Latin pater (father) and patria (homeland, native soil). As with any human father, the nation-state is not a little godling. It can never require our worship. It can never demand that we violate our religious identity and beliefs. But properly understood, patriotism is a virtue and a form of filial love. We’re sons and daughters of the land of our birth. It’s natural and deeply human to love our home and be faithful to the best qualities in our native land.

The word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, meaning humility and a devotion to the gods. Pietas was the highest Roman virtue and a powerful force in shaping early Roman life. It’s no accident that Rome’s ancient poet Virgil, in his epic work The Aeneid, described Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, as pious Aeneas repeatedly.

Aeneas and his piety are pertinent for this reason. One of the great scholars of the last century, the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, demonstrated that all great human civilizations have started from some form of a religious founding. And as the essence of that founding is lost, illness of the soul sets in.

Humans are addicts for meaning. We’re also inescapably mortal, which means we instinctively look for purpose outside and higher than ourselves. The “God question” matters because God made us. Thus in our own country, from the very start, biblical language, belief and thought have provided our moral meaning. The more we discard these precious things, the more alien we become to ourselves and to the nation we were meant to be.

Worth reflecting on at this time of year in advance of Independence Day, when we celebrate the founding of not simply a great nation with incredible power, but a great nation reliant on incredible piety.

Chris Stefanick in Philadelphia

I hadn’t heard of Chris Stefanick’s EWTN program “Real Life Catholic” until I saw the episode below with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in Philadelphia. It’s a great episode for understanding +Chaput’s distinctive pastoral spirit as much as it is for encountering “real life” Catholics and some of Philadelphia’s culture.

Chris Stefanick’s in the City of Brotherly Love to talk about freedom of religion with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, serve a mean cheesesteak at The Original Pat’s King of Steaks, hear the amazing story of Father Chung Nguyen, and hang out with two young Vietnamese Catholics who are living their Catholic faith to the max.

Bill Buckley on skeptics

William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 2005 contribution to NPR’s “This I Believe” is one of my favorites: “How Is It Possible To Believe In A God?” It’s a good example of fides et ratio—faith and reason working together to point toward truth:

I’ve always liked the exchange featuring the excited young Darwinian at the end of the 19th century. He said grandly to the elderly scholar, “How is it possible to believe in God?” The imperishable answer was, “I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop.”

That rhetorical bullet has everything — wit and profundity. It has more than once reminded me that skepticism about life and nature is most often expressed by those who take it for granted that belief is an indulgence of the superstitious — indeed their opiate, to quote a historical cosmologist most profoundly dead. Granted, that to look up at the stars comes close to compelling disbelief — how can such a chance arrangement be other than an elaboration — near infinite — of natural impulses? Yes, on the other hand, who is to say that the arrangement of the stars is more easily traceable to nature, than to nature’s molder? What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?

The skeptics get away with fixing the odds against the believer, mostly by pointing to phenomena which are only explainable—you see?—by the belief that there was a cause for them, always deducible. But how can one deduce the cause of Hamlet? Or of St. Matthew’s Passion? What is the cause of inspiration?

This I believe: that it is intellectually easier to credit a divine intelligence than to submit dumbly to felicitous congeries about nature. …

Since at least Einstein, we’ve hoped for a unified field theory—a “theory of everything”—to unite disparate fields of research that might explain all of this. We want to reconcile fields like quantum theory with classical physics to explain all natural phenomena.

How can Buckley’s faith and reason work together on behalf of God in our world? We know that the universe is intelligible, so why shouldn’t the God of faith also be the God of creative intelligence, the creator through which all we know holds together?

Another way to put it: a unified field theory for Why Reality Functions may one day be discovered, and a unified field theory for the underlying question Why Reality Exists To Function is what we call God and what we understand in Christ and his revealed love.

(You’ve got to listen to Buckley’s voice to really experience this, by the way.)

Center City skyline

I was in Washington today for a conference, and arrived back in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station just after 7pm. As I left the main doors of the station a wave of warm summer air hit me, and the still-lit city sparkled with life.

Spur of the moment, I decided to text a friend and we met up shortly after for a run past the Philadelphia Art Museum at Fairmount, and then along Kelly Drive behind Boathouse Row. Since neither of us had our wallets on us, we were grateful for Apple Pay that let us eat dinner at Whole Foods afterwards.

That’s it; just sharing some highlights of a day’s experiences. It was just one of those “perfect summer evenings” that sticks in your mind when you think of summertime in the city.

Freedom without relationships

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently wrote in advance of next month’s Napa Institute. He quotes two great thinkers, and I’m sharing those quotes and a bit of Chaput’s thoughts:

[Charles] Péguy once said that “Freedom is a system based on courage.” We’re never truly free until we have the courage to accept the idea that truth might actually exist outside and above ourselves; and then have the courage to seek it and live it.

Freedom isn’t license. A large menu of equally bad or meaningless choices is not freedom. Freedom is the ability to see what is right and the character to choose it. That’s why freedom requires courage. Freedom and truth always have a cost. They always place obligations on our behavior. And those obligations always remind us of our relationship with others – with other people, and also with God. The freest person is the person who can see the world and himself honestly in the light of truth, without fear or excuses or alibis. Honesty is hard. But honesty is the beginning of humility, and humility is the beginning of sanity.

“Freedom isn’t license. Freedom requires courage, because it always has a cost in terms of our obligations to others,” to paraphrase. This passage reminded me of an old understanding of the knights and chivalry of the Middle Ages, which was that if you looked over the entire society, it was the knights who were most free despite their service and obligations. They were the most free specifically because they were the ones who chose to live a life of service, whereas a peasant or a local lord was stuck in the sense of being born into something and serving only those inherited and basic and unending duties. The important thing to notice was that even though the knights lived a much freer life, they weren’t abstractly emancipated from their countries or neighbors in the modern way that we have become free and independent individuals of the sort that Yuval Noah Harari describes. What good is freedom without relationships?

[Henri] Bergson once wrote that “The motive power of democracy is love.” For democracy to work, it needs to be powered by something more than the sum of everybody’s opinions and appetites. The kind of “love” that Bergson meant is sacrificial. It’s much more than a warm feeling or a habit of kind thoughts. It demands that we judge our own and other people’s behavior by a hard standard of justice.

Democracy requires the kind of love that places the common good above personal comfort or individual appetite. And the “common good” is never just a matter of people’s material needs. The common good is always about what best serves the well-being of the whole person and the whole of society. In other words, it always has a spiritual foundation in the truth about human dignity. Without that spiritual foundation, society – to borrow a thought from St. Augustine – is just an organized gang of thieves.

We tend to think of “human dignity” as the state where our will is satisfied that our personal good is fulfilled. This is self-referential thinking that leads nowhere. Peter Lawler’s writing on the notion of human dignity having emerged from the older idea of human beings possessing a “noble” character is a place worth starting if you’re interested in reading and thinking more on this.

When human history began

I’m sharing a third and final Spengler passage that I’ll offer today without commentary, and that ties together the first two excerpts:

The development of theoretical thought within the human waking-consciousness gives rise to a kind of activity that makes inevitable a fresh conflict—that between Being (existence) and Waking-Being (waking-consciousness). The animal microcosm, in which existence and consciousness are joined in a self-evident unit of living, knows of consciousness only as the servant of existence. The animal “lives” simply and does not reflect upon life. Owing, however, to the unconditional monarchy of the eye, life is presented as the life of a visible entity in the light; understanding, then, when it becomes interlocked with speech, promptly forms a concept of thought and with it a counter-concept of life, and in the end it distinguishes life as it is from that which might be. Instead of straight, uncomplicated living, we have the antithesis represented in the phrase “thought and action.” That which is not possible at all in the beasts becomes in every man not merely a possibility but a fact, and in the end an alternative. The entire history of mature humanity with all its phenomena has been formed by it, and the higher the form that a Culture takes, the more fully this opposition dominates the significant moments of its conscious being.

[Human waking-consciousness consists of sensation and understanding and to that extent is equivalent to “ascertainment.” It thus encounters the epistemological problem. Waking-consciousness is synonymous with the existence of oppositions; whereas the world of tensions is necessarily rigid and dead, namely “eternal truth,” something beyond all time, something that is a state, the actual world of waking-consciousness is full of changes. Rest and movement, duration and change, become and becoming, are oppositions denoting something that in its very nature “passeth all understanding” and must therefore from the point of view of the understanding contain an absurdity. If the will to know breaks down on the problem of motion, it may well be because life’s purpose has at that point been achieved. In spite of this, and indeed because of this, the motion problem remains the centre of gravity of all higher thought.]

The problem of motion touches, at once and immediately, the secrets of existence, which are alien to the waking-consciousness and yet inexorably press upon it. In posing motion as a problem we affirm our will to comprehend the incomprehensible, the when and wherefore, Destiny, blood, all that our intuitive processes touch in our depths. Born to see, we strive to set it before our eyes in the light, so that we may in the literal sense grasp it, assure ourselves of it as of something tangible.

For this is the decisive fact, of which the observer is unconscious—his whole effort of seeking is aimed not at life, but at the seeing of life, and not at death, but at the seeing of death.

That we do not merely live but know about “living” is a consequence of our bodily existence in the light. But the beast knows only life, not death. Were we pure plantlike beings, we should die unconscious of dying, for to feel death and to die would be identical. But animals, even though they hear the death-cry, see the dead body, and scent putrefaction, behold death without comprehending it. Only when understanding has become, through language, detached from visual awareness and pure, does death appear to man as the great enigma of the light-world about him.

Then, and only then, life becomes the short span of time between birth and death, and it is in relation to death that that other great mystery of generation arises also. Only then does the diffuse animal fear of everything become the definite human fear of death. It is this that makes the love of man and woman, the love of mother and child, the tree of the generations, the family, the people, and so at last world-history itself the infinitely deep facts and problems of destiny that they are.


Oswald Spengler continues:

[The plant is something cosmic; the animal has an additional quality, it is a microcosm in relation to a microcosm. All that is cosmic bears the trademark of periodicity. It has beat-rhythm. Everything microcosmic possesses polarity. We talk of tense thought, but all wakeful states are in their nature tension—subject and object, I and You. To become aware of the cosmic beat we call “to feel;” microcosmic tensions we call perceptions. The ambiguity of the word Sinnlichkeit—sensitive faculty, sensuousness—has obscured the difference between the plant and the animal sides of life; the former [plant] always bears the mark of periodicity, beat: the latter [animal] consists in tensions, polarity of light and object illuminated, of cognition and that which it cognized. We use the word “touch” quite generally of contacts: to “establish” means to fix the position of something relatively to its surroundings. All senses are positive. The blood is for us the symbol of the living. The blood of ancestors flows through the chain of generations and binds them in a great linkage of destiny, beat and time.

The word “consciousness” is ambiguous; it contains the meaning Being (“Dasein”) and Waking-consciousness (Wachsein). Being possesses beat and direction; waking-consciousness is tension and extension. The plant exists without waking-consciousness.

The opposite pole of the eye is light. The picture of life is taken in through the light world of the eye. In man’s waking-consciousness nothing disturbs the lordship of the eye. The idea of an invisible God is the highest expression of human transcendence. Where the boundaries of the light world are lies the beyond. Music is the only art whose means lie outside the light world. Hence it can take us beyond the tyranny of light. Even in the higher animals there are differences between mere sensations and understanding sensation. The development of language brought about the emancipation of understanding from sensation. Understanding detached from sensation is called thought.

This is a challenging passage, and it’s my amateur sense that Spengler’s German thinking makes this passage particularly difficult, because I think his distinction between “being” and “waking-consciousness” is better understood as the difference between “existence” in the physical sense, and “being” in the metaphysical sense.

In any event, here’s my thinking on this passage: that the waking-consciousness we possess (the ability to perceive of ourselves as creatures in time) is the same consciousness that suggests the likelihood of a “somethingness” to life rather than a “nothingness;” in short, the likelihood of meaning.

Individuality and loneliness

Oswald Spengler writes in Chapter 11 of The Decline of the West on “The Cosmic and the Microcosm:”

Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence. The dumb forest, the silent meadows, this bush, that twig, do not stir themselves, it is the wind that plays with them. Only the little gnat is free—he dances still in the evening light, he moves whither he will.

A plant is nothing on its own account. It forms a part of the landscape in which a chance made it take root. The twilight, the chill, the closing of every flower—these are not cause and effect, not danger and willed answer to danger. They are a single process of nature, which is accomplishing itself near, with, and in the plant. The individual is not free to look out for itself, will for itself, or choose for itself.

As animal, on the contrary, can choose. It is emancipated from the servitude of all the rest of the world. This midget swarm that dances on and on, that solitary bird still flying through the evening, the fox furtively approaching the nest—these are little worlds of their own within another great world. An animalcule in a drop of water, too tiny to be perceived by the human eye, though it lasts but a second and has but a corner of this drop as its field—nevertheless is free and independent isn’t he face of the universe. This gaint oak, upon one of whose leaves the droplet hangs, is not.

Servitude and freedom—this is in last and deepest analysis the differentia by which we distinguish vegetable and animal existence. Yet only the plant is wholly and entirely what it is; in the being of the animal there is something dual. A vegetable is only a vegetable; an animal is a vegetable and something more besides. A herd that huddles together trembling in the presence of danger, a child that clings weeping to its mother, a man desperately striving to force a way into his God—all these are seeking to return out of the life of freedom and into the vegetal servitude from which they were emancipated into individuality and loneliness.

This instinctive desire among the emancipated to transcend that emancipation is self-evident in the fact that we’re conscious creatures who finds ourselves deeply unsettled by our existence. Perhaps particularly so because nature itself seems to point to another life.

I’ll return to Spengler for his insights on consciousness.