Words should reflect realities

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” —Confucius on the doctrine of the Rectification of Names

I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but a good place to start to reform the names we give things, the words we speak, would be to start with the simple things. “Disrupt” often simply means “change.” “New and improved” often means “different.” And “the more you spend, the more you save” is simply a non sequitur.

When we speak more carefully, it becomes easier to share a common vocabulary—and sharing a vocabulary, where most things have a commonly understood meaning, is a great way to change the world for the better.

Failing Eastern Europe

As I’m making my way through William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” I thought of something from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that I read a few years ago. A literary father of the Solidarity movement, Solzhenitsyn exposed the moral bankruptcy of Soviet rule by revealing its Gulags. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” published during the era of de-Stalinization, was like body blow to Western intellectual Soviet sympathizers. Solzhenitsyn also had frank words for Roosevelt and Churchill’s post-Hitler strategic appeasement:

In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim Il Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought!

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.)