Mon 25 Feb 2008
“I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish.”
(Blaise Pascal. Pensées, “Liasse Titles,” 24 [Oxford, 1995], p. 8 )
It seems that Pascal has pretty much got it covered when it comes to judging human beings, and all the options are bad. Here he is rejecting some traditional conclusions about the human condition: the Stoic view, which claims that we are really reasonable and good if we would just remember and assert that we are; the materialist view, which rejects the claim that we are any better than the animals and criticizes human pretensions; and the Pyrrhonist view, which holds that we will be more content if we do not take a side in the matter. But what does he recommend instead? His recommended path—searching in anguish—sounds even less reasonable and, frankly, not much fun. What’s the point of searching if there is no conclusion? And why would one seek a path of anguish? Pascal’s conclusion sounds anti-intellectual and unfulfilling. So what’s the point?
The Pensées are a fleshing out of a response to this last question. Pascal claims that what he is recommending is, in fact, the only really rational and happy way to go. There are good reasons for blaming each of the three rejected options, both in terms of knowledge and happiness.
We know that the first three options are not reasonable. Praising human beings makes no sense when one considers their ignorance and the evil they do. Of all that can be known, we know precious little. Worse, of all the creatures in the world, we alone willfully harm other creatures and our fellow humans. The facts are indisputable: all of us sin. Blaming human beings, the second option, ignores the point that human beings can know (can dispel their ignorance) and can will what is good. In having such capacities, human beings are unique among the creatures of this world. As Pascal says, “Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint: through thought I can grasp it” (145, p.36). We have the freedom to turn from what is false to what is true, from what is evil to what is good: the whole project of the Pensées (and, in some way, of any book) is centered on this distinctive characteristic of human beings. Diversion, the third option, is no answer since it is precisely the refusal to seek and answer—the refusal to make use of the intellectual and moral powers that are uniquely human. Obviously, diversion is a pleasant part of our lives, but if one were to make it the purpose of one’s life, that would be absurd. Such a life would be the rejection of purpose.
In terms of our natural orientation toward happiness, Pascal’s blaming of the three positions also makes sense. The danger in being praised is that we become proud and presuming. We think that something is owed us for our goodness. But such pride and presumption are obvious impediments to further progress toward the happiness of fulfilling our rational and moral natures. If we think we are wise and good enough, we won’t try to become wiser and better. The danger in being blamed is that we might despair. Despair is as equally effective as presumption in destroying the motivation to pursue what will fulfill us. Why bother to try if we are bound to fail? Finally, the indifference to questions of truth and goodness implied in diverting ourselves is also an impediment to our happiness. Although we have a hunch that there are some things worthy of sorting out in our lives, we prefer to put off such sorting. “We run carelessly over the precipice after having put something in front of us to prevent us seeing it” (198, p. 59).
Once we have seen how the three options fail to deliver in terms of reason and happiness, Pascal’s suggestion begins to make more sense. The search is important, for no systematic account of reality is complete, and no inkling of truth and happiness totally misleading. The admission of these points, as Socrates was fond of repeating, is necessary for the philosophical life. And this is not blind fideism, for it is reason itself that leads us to the assertion that there are things beyond reason. “Reason’s last step is to recognize that there are an infinite number of things which surpass it. It is simply feeble if it does not go as far as realizing that” (220, p. 62). The anguish comes because we really do want to know the truth and to live as we should. Time is precious. We only have so much of it. “Between us and hell or heaven there is only life, the most fragile thing in earth” (185, p. 58). Will we make the most of the life that is given us? That is Pascal’s question.
Mon 18 Feb 2008
The cliché, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is probably either trivially true (there can be no perception of beauty without sense organs) or else obviously false (the same thing could turn out to be both beautiful and non-beautiful). But what if we said that beauty is in the soul of the beholder? This is what Plotinus tells us (Enneads), and he is hardly a squishy relativist.
Plotinus’s argument runs something like this: Qualities such as symmetry and harmony cannot be definitive of beauty because they apply only to compound objects, but not all beauties are compounds. In fact, the quality in a beautiful thing that governs other qualities, such as symmetry and harmony, is unity; but unity is properly found only in non-compound objects, such as the soul. Just as the soul imparts unity to the body, which is a compound, so form imparts unity to an artwork or natural object. The human soul thus has an affinity for the form of beautiful things—and an aversion to the deformity of ugly things—by nature. It is by virtue of this affinity for beauty residing in the soul of the beholder that beautiful things are recognized as such. Therefore—my paraphrase—beauty is in the soul of the beholder.
It’s interesting to think about this in connection with a perennial problem in aesthetics: how do you reconcile the irreducibly subjective concept of taste with objective criteria of beauty in nature and in artworks? Kant wrote about this. An aesthetic judgment is subjective, he claimed, but its content is understood to be universal, or objective (Critique of Judgment). So what I mean when I say that I like a given painting is actually that it is beautiful and that you should like it, too. But at the same time, I realize that you might not like it, that taste varies. This is paradoxical, just one of quite a few paradoxes that Kant cheerfully embraced in his philosophy.
But is the situation really paradoxical, or does Plotinus have a key to its solution? The faculty of taste is subjective and highly variable; it requires a person, a perceiver, a soul, that is, one who likes or dislikes, and no two persons are entirely alike. At the same time, the appreciation of beauty—whether in nature or in art—is an activity that inherently points to something outside of and beyond the person. Beauty itself is in one sense the objectification of something realized from within and manifested externally, whether by the creative artist, by the appreciative viewer or listener, or by God. In a word, to recognize something as beautiful—a painting, a song, a sunset—is to acknowledge that it pleases the human soul. And this is something that every human soul in fact does acknowledge with regard to some things. Disagreements about matters of taste presuppose some degree of universal or shared humanity, and that humanity, or human soul, is beautiful in the primary sense of the term. Other beauties are derivative from it. Or so Plotinus appears to have thought.
Mon 11 Feb 2008
The Golden Rule tells us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What exactly is the Golden Rule telling us to do? There are several possible interpretations.
It could be telling me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while keeping all of my current preferences intact. Thus, if I love loud rock music at all hours of the day and night, turning up my stereo at 3:00 a.m. would be treating my sleeping neighbors as I would wish to be treated. Hmmmm –somehow that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the Golden Rule, does it? As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you – their tastes might be different!”
Another interpretation is that it could be directing me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while assuming all of their preferences. This leads to a more favorable outcome for my sleeping neighbor who really hates being woken up at 3:00 a.m. However, what if my neighbor is a masochist who loves being beaten, or a sadist who wants to beat me up? Surely I can’t be obligated to set aside my aversion to beating or being beaten just to humor a pervert living next door.
One solution here might be to weigh and compare the preferences involved. If I really hate beating or being beaten as much as my neighbor loves the opposite, then my neighbor’s application of the Golden Rule to me would cancel out my application of it to him. After all, we both ought to be following the Golden Rule. And my sleeping neighbor’s interest in sleep is much stronger than my desire to hear loud music at 3:00 a.m., so he is not violating the Golden Rule by asking me to turn down the volume. So maybe what the Golden Rule is demanding is that I view the preferences of all those affected by an action from the viewpoint of an impartial spectator who benevolently wants to maximize the satisfaction of everyone’s preferences. Think of two people in the check-out line at the grocery store, one with a full cart and one with a gallon of milk. If I have the full cart, I should let the guy with the milk go first, even if I am next in line and have to wait a bit longer as a result. A minor wait for me is better, from an impartial standpoint, than a long wait for him.
But consider a problem with this approach. Suppose I have only a moderate aversion to hurting people, while my masochistic neighbor has a passion for being beaten. If I am obliged by the Golden Rule to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, then it seems I morally ought to beat him. Surely this can’t be right. I am reminded of a line from the movie Jesus of Montreal, spoken by a female character who was having a sexual affair with a Catholic priest. When asked why she was doing this, she answered, “Because it gives him so much pleasure and me so little pain.” Was she just following the Golden Rule!??! Surely not!
What have we missed? Just this, I think: The Golden Rule cannot be applied in the absence of some other moral rules for assessing preferences. Some preferences are inherently debased and have no claim on satisfaction, as with the sadist and masochist (and the wandering priest). Some desires are for things that hurt and degrade us; others are for things that genuinely build us up and help us to flourish. Perhaps the Golden Rule is really telling us to help others and not harm them, just as we wish others to refrain from harming us and to help us when they can do so at no unreasonable cost to themselves. And an important aspect of helping and harming has to do with respecting our dignity as persons. As John Stuart Mill observes in Utilitarianism, our unwillingness to sink into “a lower grade of existence” is rooted in “a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or another.” Helping and harming must be defined in terms of some account of what it means to flourish as a human being, to lead a fulfilled human life. Thus, an account of human flourishing is necessary for us to know how to follow the Golden Rule.
Thu 7 Feb 2008
The Eucharistic Order of History
By Donald J. Keefe, S.J.
Presidio Press, 1996
$50.00 + $5.00 mailing (add 2.50 for Credit Card Processing via Paypal)
Writing in the Heythrop Journal 36 (1995), B. R. Brinkman states that Fr. Keefe offers us a “fresh theological principle” by proposing the Eucharist as the key to understanding the movement of history as at once integral and free. Eugene TeSelle in America (vol. 168, no. 16) calls Fr. Keefe’s book a “suggestive” and “faith-centered” work that displays utter confidence in the fundamental coherence of all things, uniquely revealed in the “new and everlasting covenant” established by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. “Man and his world,” Fr. Keefe writes, “have no truth other than the mystery of the Eucharist, and no meaning or significance which does not find there its source and its culmination.”
Fr. Keefe is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Fordham University. He taught on the faculties of Canisius College, St. Louis University, Marquette University and St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie), Yonkers, New York. In 2002, Fr. Keefe was the Cardinal Edmund Szoka Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Archdiocese of Detroit.
This work, perhaps the most innovative piece of Catholic systematic theology produced in America in the last fifty years, was first published in two volumes by University Press of America (1991). The Presidio Press revised edition contains the entire two volumes in one, and includes an Appendix that offers an important summary of the whole. The only remaining copies from the original Presidio printing, still in the publisher’s cellophane wrap, are available exclusively through:
Kevin A. McMahon
Department of Theology
Saint Anselm College
Manchester, NH 03102
You can order through this form and pay with a check sent via US Mail or by using your credit card with Paypal.
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Mon 4 Feb 2008
One of the most perennial human fears is the fear of the dark. It is also, strangely (at least to me), one of the least explored of human phenomena. Though countless articles and books have been dedicated to the examination and elucidation of every nearly every other fear, from anxiety to xenophobia, little to no scholarly work has been done on that most basic of fears, the fear of the dark. The little that has been done, usually from early childhood educators and psychologists, has not focused so much on examining the nature and reason behind the phenomenon as proffering possible solutions to it (for example, one such article I read spent a turgid 30 pages weighing the pros and cons of night-light use and concluded by suggesting the best brand of night-light to purchase if the reader, having weighted said pros and cons, ultimately decides to purchase a night-light. It read more like a consumer report than a scholarly article, though it was recommended to me by a colleague in early-childhood education as one of the leading pieces on the subject). I think this approach to the fear of the dark, and indeed all fears, as problems to be treated rather than as phenomena to be studied, explains in part the general lacuna within scholarship. But, I think another motivating factor of this gap in research is due to the fact that the fear of the dark is generally treated not as a human phenomenon, but as a childhood phenomenon, one which is naturally grown out of at a reasonable age. I am not at all convinced that this is the case however. Who hasn’t woken in the night to be seized by an irrational fear of the darkness even late into life? Who hasn’t switched on a light in the middle of the night not merely to guide their nocturnal wanderings (say to the kitchen for a drink of water), but to comfort their fears and discomfort with the darkness? It seems to me that the persistence of this fear nominates it as a worthy candidate of study motivating at least three deeply philosophic questions: 1) Whence this fear of the dark? What is it that terrifies us in the dark? What possibility is presented by it that is so threatening to us? 2) What is the meaning of our fear of the dark? What does it reveal about our nature? And, 3) Why the tendency, or, more provocative still, the need to relegate (or perhaps repress) such fears to childhood? Clearly there is more here to explore than can be treated in one blog posting (and it is my hope to explore these questions more extensively elsewhere), but let me try for now to treat at least the first of these three questions.
Whence our fear of the dark? On first glance this question strikes us as facile and simply answered. Indeed, we think, it belongs to the cannon of common knowledge. Everyone knows, we think, that what we fear in the dark is really the unknown. Put more philosophically, the general assumption is that fear of the dark is really just a species of a larger genus: fear of the unknown. In this regard, it is really no different from those other fears much more extensively explored and mentioned above: anxiety, which is fear of the unknown with regard to the future, and xenophobia, which is fear of the unknown as applied to geography and culture. So it is that our question is answered before we even begin. But let’s assume for the moment that it is not at all clear that this is the case, and that the question still remains as to the nature and origin of our fear of the dark? In this state of suspended belief, let us turn momentarily to examine the phenomenon itself, or, even more specifically, one of the accompanying phenomenon of this fear (one of its symptoms we could say), what I will call here: whistling in the dark.
It is a common phenomenon that children will sing or tell stories to themselves in the dark before falling asleep in order to calm their fears. Adults too, when walking down a dark street, are prone to whistle or hum a tune. Whatever its manifest form, there seems to be a basic human need when confronted with the dark for a voice or sound, preferably from another (someone else’s story or song), but in a pinch our own voice reverberating off of the walls around us will do (as a side note, it strikes me that much of what makes cell phone’s so popular is that they give us a voice to cling to in the dark – which is why we always call someone when walking home at night). Freud notes this need for a voice in the dark in an interesting footnote to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. There he writes that “[I once heard] a three-year-old boy . . . calling out of a dark room: ‘Auntie, speak to me! I’m frightened because it’s so dark.’ His aunt answered him: ‘What good would that do? You can’t see me.’ ‘That doesn’t matter,’ replied the child, ‘if anyone speaks, it get light.’” While Freud takes this as evidence of the fact that the fear of the dark is motivated by the loss of the loved object/mother, a more interesting note to make (at least to me) is the way in which the voice of another functions as a kind of illuminative power in the dark one which has the power to cast away all fears. Indeed, it seems that the reason that we whistle in the dark, sing, or tell stories to ourselves once the lights have dimmed and we are alone is as a kind of substitute for the voice of the other. We’d much rather have someone else to talk to, someone else calm our fears, but barring that possibility, we’ll take on the task ourselves. This need for a voice, for a sound from another (if only falsely imitated) is revealing of the nature of our fear of the dark. What it seems to suggest is that what we really fear in the dark is not the darkness itself, but being alone, for indeed it is this lonesomeness that is ruptured by the voice of the other. But, of course, this suggestion only leads to further questions. Why, for example, does the darkness seem to amplify our aloneness? After all, being alone in the light is not a source of fear in the same way that being alone in the dark is? To this I will offer a hasty answer and attempt to draw this already protracted blog entry to a close.
In the light, though we may be alone, we are not forced to confront ourselves. We are offered a myriad of possible distractions through which we may transcend ourselves. Our vision in a sense liberates us from being too intimately bound to ourselves. Our eyes may range over the horizon or delight itself in the goings on around us. In this way we are not properly alone (i.e. forced to confront ourselves), but are instead caught up in the object of our gaze, our surroundings. In the dark, however, we are denied these distractions. Our power to transcend ourselves is cut off and we are forced back upon ourselves, confronted irrevocably with ourselves. Only in the darkness, it seems, can we be truly alone. And, it is precisely this possibility which we find so frightening. What frightens us in the dark then is not any possibility held out in the dark itself, but the way in which the dark casts us back upon ourselves in an inextricable way. It is for this reason that we need a voice or a tune – to act, in a sense, as a kind of wedge which we can insert between ourselves offering us another mode of transcendence. The monsters which we fear in the dark are, it seems, nothing more than the exteriorization of the monster which we fear in our own being.
Of course this analysis leads naturally to the reformulation of the questions we initially asked. In light of this possibility we must pose them as such: 1) Why are we the kind of being that cannot bear to be alone with itself, 2) What does it mean about our being that we find it so intolerable, 3) and why are we as adults so scarred to admit what even the smallest child has the bravery to admit, that it is scary being left alone?
Again, I know this is a hasty conclusion to an already too long blog entry, and for that I hope that you will forgive me and offer me a bit of readers grace – but, I hope nonetheless, to have some important questions which we can, and should, investigate more fully elsewhere.