Wisdom in the Scriptures

[This is the text of a talk given to the Thomas Aquinas College community around 2000. In it, I shared what I thought I had learned about wisdom, which I have sought my whole life, from reading the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and the passages about Wisdom in the New Testament, especially St. Paul.]

Thomas Aquinas College is devoted to scholarship in the Catholic tradition…. Rather than compromise the tradition, Thomas Aquinas College meets the secular challenge to Christian wisdom by offering an education that is carefully grounded in the fundamentals of that wisdom…. (Opening description of The College from the Bulletin of Information)

Through its curriculum, classes and other efforts, the College aims to pass on to you, the students, and to us, your co learners, the treasury of Christian wisdom. Not all at once, of course, but through little streams closely followed coupled with sweeping glimpses of the vast ocean the College hopes to set us on the right road to becoming wise. The College takes its direction from the magisterium of the Church, which gives us clearly marked buoys to warn us away from great dangers and points us to the greatest navigators as guides. Let me translate the metaphor: through its Creeds, Conciliar decrees and other instruments, the Church lays down clearly and authoritatively the truth to be held and the errors to be avoided; but for penetration into these mysteries, She points us to the greatest of those whose faith sought understanding: the Fathers and Doctors of the Church —  St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, St. Teresa of Avila, and so on.

When we consider these great lights of Christian wisdom, something immediately appears to be common to them all which is really odd though it might not strike us so at first. They are all saints. “Of course, they are saints,” you might say; “What did you expect them to be?” But, I would answer to you, why should I expect them to be saints? Christians are canonized because they have loved, not because they have thought. And loved not just in the ordinary manner of even a very good man, but to a heroic degree, “such as no two men of today” could attain, to steal a phrase from The Iliad. Thomas Aquinas is held up to us by the Church as the greatest of her teachers, which could only have happened if he had the extraordinary mind of an intellectual giant. But why should it also happen that he, along with all or nearly all on the list of Fathers and Doctors, should possess the overflowing heart of St. Francis?

Philosophy and experimental science have a common maxim that goes something like this: If something happens always or for the most part, there must be some reason for it. Let me apply it here. If Christian wisdom and heroic sanctity always appear together, there must be a connection. An aphorism attributed to St. Thomas lends credence to this idea. He said, I have learned more at the foot of the Cross than I ever learned from study.” Consider the countless hours that his great mind poured over the works of Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, and be astounded. Yet it was his hours in prayer before the Crucifix more than anything else that enabled him to become the Common Doctor of the Church.

Tonight I want to explore the connection between charity and Christian wisdom by looking to Holy Scripture, which has a great deal to say about the wisdom that we are to seek. In fact, five whole books of the Old Testament are commonly referred to as Wisdom literature; wisdom and truth are prominent themes from the beginning to the end of the Bible. Rather than be prudent and explore one passage or one book on the topic, I am going to be ambitious and take on the whole, or at least most of the Bible, trying to present at least a glimpse of this vast ocean. Such an ambitious project will necessitate not dallying too long over the many troublesome difficulties that could prevent us from reaching the end of the course. The promise of a panorama is often worth a climb, even though the details of the scene remain hazy and vague. And its one virtue of a lecture that you cant stop me to object. So without further eloquence, I am going to launch into a two part lecture, first considering wisdom as found in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, secondly looking at a few passages from the New Testament that relate. I will focus on two questions: What is wisdom? Why are the wise also the saintly?

Wisdom in the Wisdom Books

As I said, five books of the Old Testament are generally considered Wisdom Books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, The Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. Sometimes the Song of Songs and certain Psalms are considered related to these books, but with a full plate already, I will reluctantly pass them up tonight. I am going to take the five books up in three groups, based on similarities which I will note in each section. One caveat: Since we are only interested in them tonight insofar as they help us to understand wisdom, I will ignore much of central importance in each of the books. First, we will look at Ecclesiastes and Job, next at Proverbs and Sirach, lastly at Wisdom.

Knowledge begins in wonder. So says our wonderful College Bulletin, and the explicit search for wisdom in the Old Testament begins in wonder, too. Before you want to know, you must be puzzled, and Ecclesiastes and Job are designed to puzzle, almost to bedevil, the faithful man who seeks wisdom. When the Holy Spirit challenges faith, He doesnt hold back any punches. Much like freshman classes, these books raise great questions, which they hardly begin to resolve. How can we make sense of a mans life? What good is it? Is there any reason for the evils he suffers? Is there any real good in the goods he can enjoy?

Ecclesiastes immediately raises what the Preacher seems to consider as the ultimate question facing the wise man: What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? (1:3) He never finds a real answer to this question, as he foreshadows in his opening, despairing cry: Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! (1:2) In his life, he tells us, he has surveyed everything men do; he has himself tasted all the pleasures that men desire (1:12, 2:1ff.). They all fail to give meaning to mans existence. Even his own wisdom he judges finally to be Abut a striving after wind (1:17).

The tragedy of mans life, which the wise man discovers and faces, is death. No matter what good he may enjoy now, death will rob him of it all.

How the wise man dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (2:16 17)

The fool will deceive himself and ignore this fact; but since mans greatest desire is to be eternal, no man can find rest in the goods that he will ultimately lose: God has put eternity in mans mind…. (3:11) The goods men seek are themselves always liable to be lost even now; death will rob every man of his goods and turn them over to a worthless heir.

From this, we can see that the real wise man. If such a man could be found, would be the one who understands the purpose of mans life. But the Preacher is wise in a way precisely because he realizes that death is an insuperable barrier to human happiness and human understanding of life:

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it? (7:23 24).

Because of death, faith seeking understanding fails; all that is left is faith:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. (12:13)

Fulfill your duty, For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ibid.) But what good can be expected from this judgment remains unknown to the wise man. Yet, in spite of the fact that it does nothing more than to reveal the vanity of human life, Qoheleth considers wisdom the greatest of goods. Who is like the wise man? …a mans wisdom makes his face shine…. (8:1) Why? Because, The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fools walks in darkness….(2:14) While the fool immerses himself in the muck of goods that will cheat his desire, the wise man knows that he must resign himself to God, accepting what comes from Him even though he has no hope of finding satisfaction in it.

Why must the path to wisdom have such a bitter beginning? Let us consider it in the light of the promises associated with the Old Covenant, promises reiterated many times also in the Psalms. What blessings are the faithful promised in the Torah? Chapter 26 of Leviticus lays them down as clearly as anywhere else:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you rain in due season, abundant harvests, bread to the full, safety in the land, victory over enemies, many children, and I will make my abode among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. (26:3-11)

The wise Preacher now knows that all but the last will fail to satisfy man; the last remains a mystery.

Although Job doesnt claim to be a wise man, he is in anguish for much the same reason as Qoheleth is tempted to despair. What good is mans life? The difficulty Job faces in answering that question is not death simply but the fact of suffering. Why does the good man suffer? What possible sense can be made of senseless suffering? For seven days he sat silent in the ashes pondering that question in the agony of his soul. His failure is proclaimed in the heart wrenching cry that finally erupts from him:

Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night which said, A man child is conceived. (3:3)

Jobs problem really goes beyond that raised by Ecclesiastes. It isnt simply, What good is mans life if he suffers?although that is certainly a part of it. Far surpassing that difficulty is the question, Why has God done this to me?For Job is in no doubt about who is cause of his suffering, which not only racks him with bitter pain, but makes him look like a sinner to all his friends.

Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company. And he has shriveled me up, which is a witness against me….He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me….[Omitting a reference to Our Lords suffering.] I was at ease, and he broke me asunder; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target, his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare; he pours out my gall upon the ground. (16:7 13)

Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov could not address God more accusingly.

The wisdom Job seeks is to understand the plan of God in the suffering of the innocent, and conversely, in the success of the wicked. But, like the Preacher, he knows he is doomed to failure. To paraphrase chapter 28: Although man can dig deep into the darkness of the earth to find the treasure of silver and gold, he cannot find wisdom; it cannot be known by the living. But God possesses wisdom, and it was present in the very acts of creation. To quote:

God understands the way to [wisdom], and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and meted out the waters by measure…then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out. (28:23 27)

So the wise man according to Job would be the one who understands the plan of God in allowing, even bringing about, the suffering of the innocent. Only God Himself knows his plan: Job, like the Preacher, must be content with faith:

And he said to man: ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. (28:28)

The story of Job gives hope that God will vindicate and succour the innocent who suffer, but why he permitted it in the first place remains a mystery.

Proverbs and Sirach

If human wisdom is simply fearing God and keeping His commandments, a part of it must be knowing that keeping His commandments is no simple task. How hard it is to know how the man who fears God should behave in the day-to-day business of life, with its myriad of perplexing situations that ever offer a temptation to willful blindness and rationalization!

Knowing our ignorance and foreseeing our difficulty, God offers to man the books of Proverbs and Sirach. These books have a completely different feel than Ecclesiastes and Job: the passionate, tortured, mysterious dialectic of the latter offer a striking contrast to the plodding, tedious, detailed instruction of the former. No subject is too big or too small for their Polonius-like advice: how to behave with wives, children, friends, enemies, king, pauper; Sirach even devotes a whole chapter to dinner manners. If human wisdom simply consists in keeping Gods commandments, it is still worth a book or two in Holy Scripture.

Yet Proverbs and Sirach offer hope where Ecclesiastes and Job despair. The Preachers conclusion, The end of all: Fear God and keep His commandments, gives way to the famous line of Sirach: To fear the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. (1:14) Let me emphasize beginning. The fear of the Lord is not all; it is the beginning of a road that the author assures us will lead to Wisdom. Wisdom is not unattainable. The author of Proverbs presents wisdom to us under the figure of a woman who cries out to us to seek her, and promises that she will come when we turn away from the busy-ness of the market and the earthly city and pursue her.

If you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding….then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom…he stores up sound wisdom for the upright. (Prov. 2:3-6)

The last part of this quotation offers some reason why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For the Lord gives wisdom to the upright. The wisdom that makes sense of the life, sufferings and death of men, which they cannot attain on their own, God has promised as a gift to those who faithfully follow His commandments. (See Sirach 6:37) So Jesus ben Sirach says,

If he has faith in her he will obtain her….For at first she will walk with him on tortuous paths…and will torment him by her discipline until she trusts him, and she will test him with her ordinances. Then she will come straight back to him and gladden him, and will reveal her secrets to him. (4:16-18; see also, 6:19-22)

Qoheleth in vain sought wisdom through study and wide experience; Job prayed for wisdom in the midst of suffering and received a knowledge of his vast ignorance. Sirach and Proverbs promise that the secrets of wisdom will be revealed to those who follow the Law of God.

But the road is often tortuous, and perhaps its difficulty is the reason why both books not only exhort their reader to follow the commands, but also try to inspire them with a passionate love of the wisdom that is the goal of their striving. Well aware that the maxims of the wise man are boring to the young, and living according to the maxims at first seems drudgery, even painful, (6:20) the authors present Wisdom as a woman surpassingly desirable, for whose sake the paths are trodden.

She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her….Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. (Prov. 3:15-18).

Without desire, wisdom shall not be obtained. Sirach tells us: He supplied her to those who love him.(1:10) And the desire will not cheat us; its consummation is sure.

Reflect on the statutes of the Lord, and meditate at all times on his commandments. It is he who will give insight to your mind, and your desire for wisdom will be granted. (Sirach 6:37)

Perhaps this is why the book of Proverbs, which begins with nine chapters exhorting us to pursue wisdom, and then spends 20 chapters giving detailed advice about daily life, ends with a beautiful chapter on the blessings of the faithful wife. The life of the man who fears the Lord and walks in His ways is not that of a courtly lover who always pursues but never attains; it is a life to be consummated in a union with the most precious of spouses, wisdom, who brings all blessings with her.

So far then, we see that these books of Scripture go beyond Ecclesiastes and Job in teaching that Wisdom is attainable, as a gift from God, to those who follow His commandments. This gift is sure if it is desired ardently enough to lead us to pursue it through the arduous testing of a life lived in accordance with the commandments.

This confirms the claim made from experience at the beginning of the lecture. It is no surprise that the wise men of the Church are holy, for God has promised that He will give wisdom to those and only those who fulfill the commands and passionately love wisdom. So faith confirms experience. But still faith and experience seek understanding. Why should God decree thus? Is there an intrinsic connection, or is this the whim of God?

Lets turn to our second question. What is the wisdom that is promised? Proverbs and Sirach both describe wisdom in words wondrous and strange. Let us return to the book of Job for a minute. Recall that in his anguish, Job frequently calls upon the Lord to come before him and explain His actions. Jobs wish is granted; the Lord appears to him in the whirlwind. But the Lord immediately addresses Job with a question that dashes all hope of explanation: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Job is literally dumbfounded by this question.

But in Proverbs and Sirach, Wisdom is presented as person who answers, I was there! First Proverbs:

When he established the heavens, I was there…when he marked out the foundation of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman. (8:27-31)

Then Sirach: Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss.

So Wisdom has all the answers that Job sought; it knows why all things were made, for it was not only present at the moment of creation, but it was at work in creation like a master workman, or as the Douay translation reads, I was with him forming all things.

Wisdom was with God in creating, but what is it? Is it God Himself? In these works, the relationship between God and Wisdom is unclear. As the opening of Sirach makes clear, wisdom properly belongs only to God:

All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him forever….There is one who is wise, greatly to be feared, sitting upon His throne. (1:1, 8)

This makes us think that wisdom is divine, one of the attributes of God. It was at work in all creation, it is with the Lord forever, it is, as Sirach says elsewhere, from eternity and shall not cease to exist. (24:9) And yet, both Proverbs and Sirach clearly state that wisdom is not God, but a creature. The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. (Prov. 8:22 [Translation difficulty]) From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist. (Sirach 24:9).

The portrayal of wisdom in these books is indeed wonderful. The wisdom that is promised to those who fear the Lord and walk in His commandments is something beyond the ken of men an eternal creation of the Lord that contains an understanding of all His works, that can open to our eyes the secrets of creation, including the strange and terrible fate of men doomed to death and suffering. And yet it is strange. How can it be eternal and yet a creature? If it is not God, how could God create through a creature? Didnt He create all things from nothing?

The Wisdom of Solomon

If God revealed Himself in a veiled, prophetic way in the Old Testament, still at times the light beneath the veil is so bright as to shine through with almost perfect clarity. Isaiahs prophecies of the new covenant and the suffering servant, for example. The book of the Wisdom of Solomon, compared with rest of the Wisdom literature, seems to shine with similar clarity. Unlike the questioning works of Ecclesiastes and Job, or the loosely structured, aphoristic works of Proverbs and Sirach, the book of Wisdom is a tightly structured argument that presents the mature reflection of Israel on its history and mission and offers solutions to some of the greatest difficulties faced by Job and Ecclesiastes.

The book of Wisdom, written in the person of Solomon, summarizes certain points we have seen so far. Solomon recognizes the vanity of the natural pursuit of wisdom:

For what man can learn the counsel of God?….For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail….We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out the heavens. (9:13-16)

But, like Sirach, Solomon teaches us to hope that Wisdom will be given to those who seek her.

Who has learned thy counsel, unless thou hast given wisdom and sent thy holy Spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and men were taught what pleases thee, and were saved by wisdom. (9:17-18)

So God has given some men Wisdom, the knowledge of His counsels in laying out the heavens and the earth. Solomon agrees basically with Proverbs and Sirach on how to get wisdom. However, unlike Sirach, who emphasized the torment of the paths to wisdom, the book of Wisdom expresses Solomons own experience: To get wisdom is simple; only two things are necessary. First, to love her:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. (6:12-13)

So, The beginning of Wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction…. (6:17) Second, the lover of wisdom must know to whom wisdom belongs, and pray for it.

But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me and it was a mark of insight to know whose gift she was so I appealed to the Lord and besought him (8:21) …and the spirit of wisdom came to me. (7:7)

So Solomon teaches that wisdom is attained through love and prayer, which is consonant with what weve already seen. But on the question, What is wisdom?, he takes a different, though not unrelated, approach. According to Solomon, wisdom is, above all, the knowledge of the goodness of God and of his power. Let me begin my proof of this with a quotation in which wisdom is not explicitly mentioned.

But thou, our God, art kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy….To know thee is complete righteousness, and to know thy power is the root of immortality. (15:1-3)

These themes, knowledge of Gods merciful loving kindness, and of His power, dominate the whole book. The bulk of the work is devoted to distinguishing wicked fools from wise saints. The ultimate source of the folly of men and nations is idolatry, the worship of things made by the hands of men. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. (14:27) Since idols are dead, lifeless, in dignity far beneath the man who makes them (15:16-17), they have no power, nor do they see or care about the wickedness of their worshipers. Their lack of providence gives their devotees licence for every form of wickedness, even to the swearing of false oaths by them: …for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. (14:29) Soon such men cease to believe in the gods altogether, and make the fatal mistake of thinking that all is chance and life ends with death:

…We were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. (2:2)

This error leads them to all manner of debauchery and, in the extreme of wicked folly, to the oppression of the righteous man whose own life condemns them.

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law…. (2:12)

And so they persecute him and kill him. (2:20)

But the righteous man has knowledge of God (2:13). He knows that God sees all things, even the hearts of men. (1:6) He also knows that through His power, in His loving kindness for His children, God will not allow his sons to suffer ultimate disaster. He understands that the sufferings God sends him at the hands of wicked men are to test him like gold in the furnace, so that he might be worthy of Gods gifts. (3:5-6) Even the fear of death does not shake this conviction, for he knows that death has no power over him. Gods power will make him immortal, and Gods love will shower him with the glory of an eternal crown.

But the righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them. Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with His right hand he will cover them, and with his arm he will shield them. (5:15-16)

So the wise man knows Gods providential care and power to save him from all harm. But wisdom is more than the wise mans knowledge of God; it is also the very Providence of God at work since the fall of man to save all men from ultimate disaster. The last 10 chapters of the book are devoted to showing the saving work of wisdom from Adam to the Exodus. Above all was wisdom manifested in the salvation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Gods loving kindness was abundantly shown to the Israelites in the many miracles wrought on their behalf, and His power was shown in that he changed the very nature of the elements to serve them.

For the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew, complying with thy commands, that thy children might be kept unharmed. (19:6)

Israel, in reflecting on its own history, can see the wisdom of God in His loving care for them. Further, Israel can understand that, through its trials and the mighty works that God performs on its behalf, God is preparing it to fulfill its mission as Gods son, through whom the imperishable light of the law was to be given to the world. (18: 4)

We can see from the survey so far that, in this book, as to some extent in Sirach and Proverbs, Wisdom has many appearances. Wisdom is that which God gives to men so that they might know His plan for them. It is also Gods providence at work in history, and, let me add, in the very act of creation (7:22). Finally, although really firstly, it dwells with God. More explicitly than Sirach and Proverbs, the author of Wisdom sees wisdom as more than His plan for creation it is something of or intimately from God Himself.

For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty….She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. (7:25-26)

In his teaching, Solomon does not speak of Wisdom as created, but rather as some sort of procession (breath, emanation), and a reflection (mirror, image); she comes forth from the power of God and images His goodness.

Summary

Let me quickly summarize what we have learned about wisdom from these works of the Old Testament. All the works agree in presenting wisdom as an understanding of the providential plan of God in creation. This is what Job and Ecclesiastes seek but cannot find, but Proverbs, Sirach and Wisdom promise will be given by God to those who seek. This understanding is variously presented as with God from eternity, as at work in the creation of the world and the salvation of man, and as dwelling in individuals as a gift from God. The book of Wisdom goes further than the others in identifying wisdom with the knowledge of the power and goodness of God, so that we see His plan for creation as a manifestation of His own divine attributes.

We also see that wisdom can be attained by men. Not through the natural efforts of Ecclesiastes, but through the gift of God. God gives this gift to those who fear Him, who love wisdom with all their hearts, who are disciplined in following the commandments and who pray ardently for her.

Our conclusion from all this is that revelation confirms our original survey of the experience of the Church holiness is indeed a prerequisite for wisdom. It is no wonder, then, that the Fathers and Doctors are also saints. And yet, why this should be so still remains a question for faith seeking understanding. Is there any other reason than Gods fiat that the understanding of His plan for creation should be given only to those who love wisdom, follow the commandments and pray for her?

A final comment before moving on to the New Testament. We might be tempted at this point to think that these books are speaking of some sort of mystical wisdom, given by God through visions and ecstacies, and not the kind of wisdom that a theologian such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas possessed. Certainly they speak of wisdom as a gift of God, which cannot be attained by study and experience alone. However, Proverbs and Sirach, at least, dont distinguish this wisdom from that of the learned man. Proverbs opens by stating that its purpose is in part to bring the wise man to be able to understand the mysterious sayings of the wise. And Sirach is adamant that the wisdom he speaks of can only be attained by those who have leisure to study the Law and to gain wide experience through travel (38:24- 39:5). So while the wisdom poured out by God might not be identical with theological wisdom, it is certainly necessary for the learned man to have in order to understand the plan of God.

Wisdom in the New Testament

Having glimpsed wisdom in the shadows it casts in the Old Testament, the time has come to look at it in the light of the New Testament. Hopefully, the outlines we have seen in the shadows will make it easier for us to see in the light.

St. Paul speaks of wisdom more than any other New Testament author. In fact, we might call St. Paul, The Apostle of Wisdom. Paul himself frequently speaks of his apostleship in the language of wisdom and mystery. He tells the Corinthians,

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor. 4:1)

And he writes to the Ephesians:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…. (Eph. 3:8-9)

The plan of God for creation has finally been revealed, and Paul has been chosen by God to bring all men to understand the plan. For this reason, Paul sees that the conversion of his hearers is not enough; conversion is only the beginning of his labor. He cannot rest until he has brought his newborn sons into the full understanding of the mystery that Jesus has revealed to him. As he tells the Colossians,

And so, from the day we heard of [your faith], we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…increasing in the knowledge of God. (1:9-10)

And a little later in the letter he speaks of his great labor in bringing them to Christian adulthood:

[Christ] we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me. (1:28)

So insistent is Paul on the importance of wisdom that he scolds those of his children who have failed to attain spiritual maturity, whose understanding has not developed as it should. For instance, he tells the Corinthians:

…Among the mature we do impart wisdom….But I brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Cor. 2:6, 3:1-3)

So it is natural for the Christian to become wise; his spiritual maturity is closely connected to his growth in wisdom. Christians are essentially contemplatives. The mystery of Gods plan has been revealed to us and, if we have a living heart, we long with the angels to gaze upon it.

But what are we to contemplate? St. Paul epitomizes the mystery in a famous passage in First Corinthians:

…But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Cor. 1:23-24)

What a wonder: that the great and mighty wisdom of God should be found in two words! Christ crucified is the wisdom of God.

But does this make sense in the light of our survey of the Old Testament? We saw that the wisdom of God is His plan for creation. Can we say that of Christ crucified? Indeed we can, for Christ crucified is the very reason for the creation of heaven and earth. In one of the most famous Scriptural passages on the mystery of Christ, Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the beginning and the end of creation:

…In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth…– all things were created through him and for him….He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:16-18)

All things were created for him; all has been arranged so that in everything Christ might be first. Napolean might have said, I have a plan to make a great monument to myself, LArc de triomphe; God has said, My great plan is make Christ; all creation shall be for His glory. For among all the wonders of creation, material and spiritual, it is only of Christ, who is the Son of God, that can God fittingly say, “He is my Beloved. (Cf. Eph 1:6; Matthew 3:17)

In choosing to take on such an ambitious project, I have not made myself a good example to juniors pondering theses topics. But here I will give a good piece of advice: Have someone read your theses over carefully before your defense. Fearing the grilling I am no doubt going to get soon, I had a learned colleague peruse my draft. At this point he said, You have shown that Christ is the end of creation. But you said that Christ Crucified is the end. How do you show that? In Pauls letter to the Ephesians, he makes the central importance of the Crucifixion clearer. God wills to glorify Christ, and He glorifies Him by uniting all things in Him through the redemption wrought by His Crucifixion.

In [the Beloved] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:7-10)

So Christ Crucified indeed epitomizes the plan of God for creation. In the Old Testament we saw this plan in three different aspects or moments: With God from all eternity; at work in salvation history; and present in the those who love and pray for it. Are all of these true of Our crucified Savior? Let us begin with the first. Certainly in His divine nature, the Son of God is with the Father from all eternity. But even as Incarnate, the idea of Christ was present to the Father in His Word from all eternity. In the idea of Christ, the Father took delight, and so brought forth all that was, is and will be. So when Paul told the Colossians that all things were created through [the Son] and for him“, he was referring existentially, we might say, to the divine nature of the Son (the Word through whom was made all that is), but also ideally to the yet to be created Incarnation of the Son. In other words, as the magnificent chapel already exists in the mind of the architect (even if nowhere else) driving him on to the completion of his labors, so Christ Incarnate was at work before all time in the mind of God.

This might be why Paul, when introducing the Colossians passage quoted earlier, recalls the teaching of Proverbs and Sirach that Wisdom is the first of all creatures. Like wisdom, Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…. This is true in two senses corresponding to Christs two natures. As the Word, He is image; as Christ, He is Gods image made visible; as Word, He is author of all creation; as Christ, He is the first-born of creation. (Let me note here that this interpretation has some difficulties. But, as I said before, you arent allowed to object. Just yet.)

So the idea of Christ crucified existed with the Father from all eternity, and, in the second aspect of wisdom, it was the driving force behind the creation of the world, and the forming of the people Israel. What about the third aspect of wisdom does Christ crucified come to dwell in the hearts of men so that they might understand the wisdom of God? Yes. In fact, Paul says to the Colossians that Christ in themis the mystery that was hidden in God for ages:

To [His saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)

In all ways, then, Christ crucified is the wisdom foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And Paul has said that we must strive to become wise. So we must strive with all our might to understand Christ crucified. What shall we learn if we ponder on it night and day, if we kneel at the foot of the cross with St. Thomas? Let us look at another passage from First Corinthians.

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:20-21)

According to this passage, the business of the wise man is to come to know God. According to Acts, when Paul visited Athens, the city of the great philosophers, he told them that God created all men so that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. (Acts 17:27) But his experience in Athens made manifest to him that the wise men had failed. Although they had reached the truth that God is not one of a pantheon of idols, but the Creator and Ruler of all things, they ridiculed him when he proposed his great mystery to them, that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead. As he wrote to the Corinthians years later, their ridicule revealed their own folly. For their own efforts after wisdom could not reveal God. Only through the cross of Christ is God fully revealed.

So when we kneel at the foot of the Cross, we see the culmination of Gods plan for salvation. But more importantly, through this plan, we see God fully revealed. The wisdom of God is this: that He would make Himself fully known through His act of saving those who believe in the folly of Christ crucified.

Why should God choose this means for His self-revelation? Because in this way He reveals His merciful love to an extent impossible through any other means. If St. Paul is the Apostle of wisdom, even more is he the Apostle of grace. As he introduces the mystery of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them that God has saved them in Christ precisely so that His grace might be revealed and praised.

He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph. 1:5-6)

A synonym for grace is favor. Among Gods many favors to us, the first and foremost is the fact that He loves us in the face of our sinfulness. As he wrote to the Romans:

Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:6-8)

So Gods magnificent plan has finally been revealed, that He should manifest His love by sending His own Son to save us through His death on the Cross. And Christians must make it their daily aim to come to comprehend this mystery. Yet Paul says to the Ephesians that this love surpasses all knowledge. How then do we become wise? Paul tells the Corinthians that there is a person who fully comprehends the inner mysteries of God, namely His Spirit who, like wisdom in the Old Testament, can answer I was there.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a mans thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Cor. 2:9-12)

Since we have received this same Spirit, we too can come to understand the love that God has bestowed on us, if we allow the Spirit to complete his work in us. When the Spirit is given to us, he gives us a share in the resurrected life that Christ now enjoys (Rom. 8:9-11). If we allow Him, He will continue to develop that life in us, transforming our sinful natures so that we become through and through images and likenesses of God. So Paul tells the Ephesians:

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)

The essential element in our transformation into likenesses of God is found in love. As Paul writes in the letter to the Romans,

…Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:5)

The Holy Spirit brings many gifts, but the most important is love. (See also 1 Cor. 13.) As he transforms us according to that love, we can begin to comprehend the love that God has revealed through the cross of Christ. As St. Paul says:

…I bow my knees before the Father that…he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19)

We can now see why it is that Christian wise men must be saintly. Christian wisdom is above all the understanding of the plan of God to reveal His merciful love through the death of Christ. But His love surpasses all possibility of human understanding. Only through the transformation of our hearts by the love poured into them by the Holy Spirit can we begin to comprehend its unsearchable riches. As we grow in love, or rather as love grows in us, extending its roots into the deepest, darkest corners of our hearts, we become other Christs, and can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Before I move into the conclusion of the lecture, I feel I have to deal with an objection that you might have at this point; I certainly did after I re-read my lecture this morning. I would rather not raise it, since I am not sure of my answer, but I cant not. Here it is: Why not say that the Holy Spirit is the wisdom of God, especially since the 1 Cor. text you cited describes Him in terms very similar to those applied to Wisdom in the Old Testament books: The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God?

I dont want to deny that this might be appropriate, and that some of texts we considered might apply also to the Holy Spirit. But I think that, if we follow closely the language of Scripture, it is more appropriate to say that Christ is the Wisdom of God who works through the Holy Spirit to bring Himself to be in the world. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the means by which Wisdom created the world and prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Savior through the Law and the Prophets; He overshadowed the Virgin Mary to bring Wisdom to birth in her womb, and having been sent by the resurrected and glorified Christ, He is at work bringing Christ to full maturity in us. This last point St. Peter makes in his sermon on Pentecost:

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this which you see and hear. (Acts 2:33)

The Holy Spirit, then, is not properly the wisdom of God, but the means by which Wisdom works in the world and in our hearts. Our Lord seems to indicate this when in Johns Gospel He calls the Holy Spirit, The Spirit of Truth:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak….He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)

The Holy Spirit begets Truth in us, for He takes the Wisdom that is proper to Christ and brings it to birth in us through love.

Conclusion

At last we have climbed the grade and reached the overlook, as it were. The details remain hazy and many areas call to us for further exploration, but we are able to gaze out over the vista. What do we see? In a way, you might say we see a dialogue going on. Ecclesiastes and Job begin the conversation by asking, without hope, to understand how the plan of God for creation makes sense of death and suffering. Proverbs and Sirach encourage them to have hope, for, if they will follow the commandments in faith, God will give to them a share in the Wisdom that is with Him forever and was at work in creation. The Book of Wisdom tells them that, if they could but understand the love and power of God manifested in His providential care of Israel, they would realize that death and suffering are not the end, for God will give an eternal crown to those who are faithful to Him through the trials of this life.

St. Paul enters this conversation as the messenger of God, declaring, “Ecce, Agnus Dei! Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold, the Wisdom of God!” The Crucified Christ is the Wisdom of God, who provides the most profound answer to Job and Ecclesiastes. In the Resurrected Lamb we see what Solomon had foretold — that God’s power and love would overcome suffering and death. But more than that: we see the ultimate reason for suffering and death. It is true that these evils are a result of the Fall of Adam, which itself finds its origin in the first lie of the Devil. But this is not the ultimate reason, for God would never have created angels and men that would fall if He had not determined the good these evils would serve. But in His infinite wisdom, He ordained that suffering and death would be permitted that He might manifest His merciful love through the suffering and death of His Only-Begotten Son. Though Job could not understand this, his suffering was the means by which he could share in the life and mission of Christ (“filling up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ”), and become a fitting intercessor on behalf of his spiritually immature friends.

Listening to this conversation, we have been able to give at least some account of why wise Christians are holy. In the second book of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine tells us that the ascent to wisdom is made through attaining perfection in the practice of mercy, until we can say that we love even our enemies. For we have seen that to understand the Father as He has revealed Himself to us is to understand His mercy to us, His former enemies. In order to understand this love, we must become like it, so that our study will be guided towards its proper end by our own experience of the merciful love of God flowing out from us to our friends, acquaintances, masters, servants, various human sources of irritation and exasperation, and, finally, to our outright enemies.

Our growth in this love is a matter primarily of opening our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer and sacrament. It is no accident that at this College we do everything possible to encourage participation at Mass, to promote frequent Confession, and to celebrate with great solemnity and joy the reception of the other Sacraments. Not only is this our duty as a Catholic institution, but it is essentially connected to our pursuit of higher education. For without it we shall fail to come to know the surpassing love of Christ and so fail to make a proper beginning on the road to wisdom.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:7-8)

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Aristotelian Matter in an Evolutionary Cosmos

Presented at the Society for Aristotelian Studies

June 2011

In the Theaetetus we learn that an opinion is not something easily formed, that it takes time, conversation both interior and exterior, the proper balance of daring and caution, and I might add hope, fear, joy, depression, wonder and disgust, before one commits one’s soul with confidence to an idea. Some of the ideas in this paper I have been thinking about six or seven years, and they have gone through a number of stages of development, so that they are almost ready to be my opinion. I am grateful to Chris and the Society for accepting my proposal to give this talk. Both shame and friendship have contributed to my working hard to bring my thoughts to as complete a state as I can, so that I can determine through our conversation whether to commit to them or not.

I have been formed in Aristotle’s thought since my youth and managed to imbibe with it a hostile attitude towards the theory of evolution. Likely this arose in part from my early logical studies, beginning with Porphyry’s distinction between genus, species and difference and Aristotle’s Categories. I was also deeply impressed with the account of form and matter in the Physics, which preserved a common sense understanding of the reality of substantial change. Evolution challenged all this by denying that the species of natural living organisms are so radically distinct from each other that they cannot turn into each other.

So I tended to read as a rhetorical excess Charles DeKoninck’s claim in “The Lifeless World of Biology”:

Having been brought up to accept the fact of evolution, I would not find it easy now to doubt that it has happened, however uncertain I may remain about the value of any particular theory devised to explain how it happened. There seems no reason why nature, ‘one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind’, could not produce living things from non-living, and higher forms of life from lower, somewhat as we build a table out of a rough piece of timber. If nature cannot accomplish something analogous to this, nature cannot be what an Aristotelian thinks it to be.

One who reads The Cosmos (and other writings) realizes that DeKoninck meant just what he said. If DeKoninck was right, then my understanding of Aristotle’s natural doctrine was seriously deficient. But The Cosmos did more than just implicitly accuse me of ignorance — his grand unification of Thomistic/Aristotelean philosophy and the natural sciences made an evolutionary cosmos look intellectually very attractive.

How was I misunderstanding Aristotle’s doctrine? DeKoninck would no doubt tell me that part of the problem lay in confusing logical species with natural forms. Logic describes how the mind prefers to think when it is in its element, as in mathematics. Unfortunately, the natural world frequently does not live up to the mind’s desire for clarity. Yet working through Aristotle’s natural works over the last several years has made me think that I also failed to understand Aristotle’s other sense of nature, matter, by thinking of it too abstractly. Over the last several years, helped in particular by some texts from the De anima, I think my understanding of matter has deepened so that DeKoninck’s evolutionary cosmology looks even more intellectually attractive. I want to share my ideas with you today, putting them to the test with you so that what is dross might be removed and what is gold, if anything, might be purified

I hope that my presentation is not too disappointing given its title and the theme of the conference. I do not intend to go into any detail about modern physics or cosmology. Nor do I intend to speak directly about DeKoninck’s views. Rather, I intend to look carefully at Aristotle’s conception of matter, and argue that an evolutionary cosmos, in which the universe begins in nearly complete un-differentiation and attains to humanity through largely natural processes, not only is compatible with Arisotle’s understanding of matter, but even solves one of Aristotle’s central cosmological difficulties more satisfyingly than Aristotle could.

Even this will be more of a conclusion than the body of the talk. The body will be devoted to looking at Aristotle’s account of matter with this passage from DeKoninck’s summary of The Cosmos in mind:

(3) Man is the raison d’etre of Matter – the Matter in every bodily being is an appetite (a desire) for the human form. For: a) every bodily being, although one in substance, has two substantial principles, viz. Prime Matter, and Form; Matter is pure potency, pure determinability; it is the same in all bodily beings – Prime Matter as pure indetermination reunites all material beings in one same matrix, which is common to them all; it is potency to all forms, from the highest to the lowest. b) Prime Matter is an appetite, a desire for the highest form (See S.Thomas in C. Gent. III. c.22)

When I first encountered this claim, I was taken aback. I had always thought of prime matter as potency for all forms, but never as appetite for the human form. In fact, speaking of prime matter as “appetite” seems right away strange. Perhaps it is a cute metaphor, but we ought not to argue philosophical positions metaphorically, right? Yet Aristotle does connect matter with desire in the last chapter of Book I of the Physics, when he says that other thinkers who had kind of seen the material nature had still missed the boat. Aristotle devotes an entire paragraph to identifying the material cause as what desires form.

But for these [thinkers], it happens that the contrary desires its own destruction. And neither can the species desire itself, because it is not lacking, nor [can] the contrary [desire it], for contraries are destructive of each other. But this [which desires] is material, as the female [desires] the male and the base the noble. Yet it is not in virtue of itself base, but is so accidentally, and it is not in virtue of itself female, but is so accidentally.

Perhaps this is merely a metaphor which Aristotle uses here to address the Platonists on their own terms. But DeKoninck seems to think it is much more. So in the bulk of this paper, I want to follow up on this psychological metaphor or analogy, using what Aristotle says about psychological potencies in De anima II.5 to understand better matter and its potency.

Matter in the Timaeus

Since Physics I.9 seems addressed to the Platonists, I will begin by looking at the understanding of matter as found in the Timaeus. In this passage, Plato presents an argument for the “formlessness” of the material principle, one that seems plausible at first.

If the model is to take every variety of form, then the matter in which the model is fashioned will not be duly prepared, unless it is formless, and free from the impress of any of these shapes which it is hereafter to receive from without. For if the matter were like (homion)any of the supervening forms, then whenever any opposite or entirely different nature was stamped upon its surface, it would take the impression badly, because it would intrude its own shape.

In this passage, Aristotle might point out an understanding close to but falling far short of his own. Matter is formless in itself, Aristotle might say, but is it because it is unlike form? Would it’s likeness to some form cause it to “intrude its own shape” when an opposite nature came to it? Is matter properly prepared by making it free from the impress of any form? I want to argue that this passage exhibits just the sort of confusion of matter and privation that Aristotle criticizes in the Physics. For if matter is unlike form, then to desire form would be either to desire its own destruction or to receive the form without being changed at all. Aristotle says rather that “matter is close to and somehow is substance.” Only because it is like substance or form can matter be understood to be fulfilled rather than destroyed or unaffected by form.

Aristotle’s analogous illustrations – as the female desires the male, as the base desires the noble — illuminate this. A slave can desire to live with a master only because he is like enough in substance, he is rational enough to understand commands given to him. He can also recognize that the master’s life is perfect, and that his own perfection as a human being lies in sharing in the master’s life. The slave is prepared for this life by being freed from the barbarian ways in which he exists as he tries to live on his own. But the more important preparation lies in being trained, in having his limited share in rationality developed, so that he can understand and execute the master’s commands promptly, perhaps even gladly. Even more so is this true in the case of the female, who desires to share the life of the male. On the animal level, she desires to generate; on the human level, she desires, as Aristotle indicates in the Politics, to rule. Her nature is ordered to do these things, but she cannot accomplish them on her own. Similarly, matter is like form enough to find its fulfillment in being formed, yet it is incapable of bringing itself to be united with form. It needs to be prepared, to be freed from what is accidentally holding it back and to have its potency for form developed.

The idea that matter might be like form is central to Aristotle’s discussion of food in the De anima and the De Generatione. In both cases, he raises the question of whether the food is like or unlike that which it feeds. Growth and nutrition demand a change of substance of the food (321a34) – grass does not feed the horse as grass but as horse tissue.

And this increase is due on the one hand to the accession of something which is called ‘food’ and is said to be contrary to flesh but on the other hand the transformation of the food into the same form as that of flesh…. For in one sense, ‘Like grows by Like’, but in another sense, “Unlike grows by Unlike’. De gen. 321b36

Clearly the grass must undergo a substantial change at the end of which it is flesh, and so is “like” the horse. But it can’t be flesh beforehand, nor can it become flesh before being incorporated into the animal. In De Generatione, Aristotle solves the difficulty by saying that the grass is potentially that which is growing but actually other, and so “unlike”. Otherwise, he says, we would be witnessing a substantial change rather than a growth. But when incorporated as actual flesh, the grass is like.

In the De anima, Aristotle seems to suggest a different, though not incompatible, answer. In II.4, Aristotle presents reasons for and against saying that Like is fed by Like. The reason one would think like is fed by like is that growth, as we see in De Generatione, occurs through what is like, that is, flesh grows by adding more flesh, not more grass. Others point out, however, that Like cannot be fed by Like because the food must be changed and digested in order to feed it. But Like things do not alter one another. Put fire to water, and it will heat it while being cooled itself. But put water next to water, and nothing happens. So the food must be unlike what it feeds.

Aristotle’s solution is simply put: “Whether the food is what finally is added or what is first makes a difference. If both, the one as undigested, the other as digested, in both ways it can be called food. For as undigested, contrary is fed by contrary, while as digested, like by like.” (De anima II.4, 416b3)

This sounds like the De generatione, except that he insists on calling both ends of the digestive process “food”. Calling flesh food for flesh sounds strange; food is what we call that which is not yet incorporated into the body. We can think of the steak as food, or we can think of aliment, i.e. just the nutritional portion that gets separated out through digestion, as food. Aliment would be like flesh in one sense of the word drawn from the Metaphysics, for “it has the majority of or the more important contraries which the other thing has.” But aliment is not yet flesh; it needs to become flesh. If it is like flesh, how would Aristotle get over the objection that what is like something is to that extent unalterable by it?

In the next chapter of the De anima, Aristotle raises similar questions about sensation. I have found the distinctions he makes here among different kinds of potency very helpful in understanding both this particular question about food, and matter generally. The chapter contains his general treatment of sensation, and begins by asking how it is that sensation, which seems to be a certain kind of suffering or alteration, can be like what is sensed, as Empedocles and others seemed to think.

Aristotle first points out that the sensitive part of the animal exists, of itself, only in potency; it can’t bring itself into act. It must be acted on by a being in act, which will make it like itself. In material changes, likeness, it seems, is achieved only after having suffered. But is sensing a suffering? To address this question, Aristotle introduces two senses of being potentially something else, which he illustrates through the act of knowing. One who can learn something but has not yet potentially knows in one sense, while one who has learned but is not thinking potentially knows in another sense. These two kinds of being potentially are subject to two different kinds of changes.

Both the first ones, therefore, are knowers in potency, but the one is altered through learning and often changing from the contrary state, while the other from having sense or grammar, but not being at work, [changes] to being at work in another way. dA II.5 417a30-b2

He goes on to say that the second kind of change is not properly called an alteration. Alteration involves becoming other than what you are, but for the knower to begin thinking his knowledge is rather the completion of being what he is. It is not a suffering, because it is not does not involve the destruction of a contrary; rather it is “the saving of a being in potency by a being in actuality….” [417b4] [See Physics VII.3 for other “not alterations”.] Thus, there is no specific difference between the subject and the term of change. They are different, but only as the potential is different from the actual, which, in specific terms, is really a likeness: the potency is not destroyed, but saved “by something similar, in the way that potency is in relation to actuality.” Such changes are not really “alterations” or “otherings” either, for the change does not make the subject other than it was, “for the progress is into itself and into actuality”. [417b8]

Aristotle applies to sensation these distinctions about potency and likeness drawn from knowledge. As the man goes through learning to knowledge to actual knowing, so the animal through generation develops the power to sense from the contrary privation, at which point it is ready to be led into act the moment it is aroused by an actual sense object. During the generative process, including organ development, sensation exists potentially in the way a boy can potentially lead an army; but once the organs have developed, it is like a general. [417b32] Therefore, we can say of the sensitive power, as we had said of material change, both that “the unlike suffers” (namely in generation), “while having suffered, it is assimilated and is like that.” [418a5]

These distinctions allow Aristotle to solve the problem about how like can suffer by like. Like is impassible to like, when both are in actuality. But like can be fulfilled, though not really alter, when what one is in act, the other is in potency. The learner by learning and the sense powers through generation become like in potency what their objects are in actuality.

Can this distinction help us understand what Aristotle means by saying that digested food is like what it feeds? I think so, at least to an approximation. When a horse eats grass, it attacks what is unlike it. Through the digestive process, it overcomes the various contrarieties of grass, changing it into blood. Now blood is at least much less unlike flesh. It also much closer to being like it, that is, to being in potency what flesh is in actuality. If you ask Aristotle about blood, “What is it?” nothing seems so appropriate an answer as “flesh in potency”. If you don’t understand flesh, you don’t understand blood. This is different than grass – at least on first glance you can understand what grass is without any reference to horse. If this can be so with food, perhaps it can be so with other substances, such as the unfertilized chicken egg, a substance whose essence is “prepared to be a chicken”.

A great difficulty facing the student of Aristotle, as also St. Thomas, is the degree to which you need to read all their works in order to understand any one [Waldstein, Metereology IV, perfect is what reproduces]. I think the account I have given above fits with a number of other parts of Aristotle’s works, which I will mention here. But I cannot go into them in detail, and each provides its own difficulties of interpretation. If I am wrong about one, I might be wrong about the whole account. Yet the whole picture provides some support for the interpretations of each passage.

As Aristotle points out in Metaphysics VIII.4, each thing has its own proper matter, which the naturalist should identify if he is to proceed rightly.

We must not forget that even if all generated things are generated from the same primary constituent or constituents and if the matter as a principle is the same for all, still there is matter which is proper to each thing, for example, for phlegm the proximate matter is the sweet or fatty….

The proper matter arises earlier in the process of generation, so that it seemingly must be prepared first, before the perfect substance may come to be.

In Meta IX.7, Aristotle seems to suggest that matter in this sense properly is said to be a substance potentially. The chapter opens by saying, “We must now specify when something is potentially another thing and when it is not….For example, is earth potentially a man? No, but rather when it becomes a seed, and perhaps not even then.” It is important to see that not everything is potentially something else, even if it arises earlier in the process of generation. Only that is potentially healthy “when nothing in it prevents the healing”. Or, turning to architecture, when “nothing in its parts, which are its matter, prevents them from becoming a house, and if nothing need be added or be taken away or be changed, then this is potentially a house.” Properly “being-in-potency” is said of that which has everything it needs in order to become “being-in-actuality”. [St. Albert – only one motion needs to occur.] This seems close to what has been said above about food through comparison with the knower – what is properly in potency is what is like, what is of the same kind. And the matter becomes prepared by becoming like the composite.

The proper matter for each thing is in potency to it, and is even understood most completely in its relation to what it can become. Then it seems right to say about it, at least metaphorically, that it desires, it yearns for that which will make it to be actually what it already is but is not yet; it yearns to be saved from its non-being by that which is. For they are meant to be one and the same, as Aristotle points out in Meta VIII.6. Those who think they have to account for the composition of matter and form, as though they are two different things, are in error.

But, as we have stated, the last matter and the form are one and the same; the one exists potentially, the other as actuality….So there is no other cause [of unity], unless it be the mover which causes the motion from potency to actuality.

II. The desires of prime matter

So far, I hope that this presentation has helped us to understand better why Aristotle speaks of matter as desire for form. But has it helped us to understand why prime matter should be called desire for the human form? Or has it really made it less clear, because it seems that properly the human ovum (or, as Aristotle would see it, the human semen), if anything, should be called desire for the human form? And, after all, DeKoninck says prime matter is potency for all forms; it is pure indetermination, so that, as potency, prime matter has no order to a specific substance.

We might understand this better if we look again at De anima II.5. Having said that the knower is not changed but really saved by knowing, Aristotle also says that learning should not really be considered an alteration either, or at least only in a limited sense, “for it is a change to the state and nature.” He seems to mean that a learner, who is not in a position to produce knowledge of himself, is yet the sort of being that should be able to do so. If nature is a principle of motion and rest, and the motion appropriate to the learner is knowing, before learning, he is only very imperfectly a nature, that is, a principle of motion and rest. So while learning does involve development and real changes, these are not forcing the learner into another state; rather they complete the very nature of the learner, by bringing him to the full state of potency for knowing, and for this reason, “All men by nature desire to know.”

[Warning – Turgid prose and tangled matter approaching]

Does Aristotle think of prime matter in a similar way? I think so. Aristotle’s most direct treatment of prime matter is found in De Generatione I.3. In this chapter, Aristotle addresses two questions which he thinks are related and together help us to get a grasp on matter’s mystery. He raises two questions which he considers interconnected. First, how do we understand the matter which underlies changes among the elements to be “potential substance”? Secondly, why do generation and corruption go on forever without exhausting the matter? What kind of power can “potential substance” have such that, though things are always being destroyed, something else replaces them?

Without addressing these questions, I want to take a look at a third question Aristotle raises at the end of the chapter: Is the matter of the elements, say that of air and that of water, the same or different? “Perhaps the solution is that their matter is in one sense the same, but in another sense different. For that which underlies them, whatever its nature may be qua underlying them, is the same: but its actual being is not the same.” [Also, Physics I.9 – they thought what was one in nature was also one in potency.] This is not one of Aristotle’s clearest solutions. Does he mean that the matter is one in potency, but the actualities of the diverse elements differ? That does not seem likely for he wishes to say that the matter of each is different in itself. Given our earlier discussions (and following St. Thomas’s suggestion here), we might say that though the underlying must be one, yet its potency is other when it exists as air than when it exists as water. If this is right, we are led to distinguish matter as an underlying nature from the potencies which it exhibits. I think this is supported by Physics III3, where Aristotle says that the body, though it is one in number, contains two distinct potencies, one for being healthy and another one for being ill. To this I might add Physics I.9 and perhaps Metaphysics VIII.4.

So we see that, perhaps, not only does prime matter help us understand the possible intellect, but the reverse is also true. Like the intellect, which is per se a tabula rasa with no pre-existing knowledge, prime matter of itself has no one determinate, real potency. Yet, it is a nature in which different real potencies can be developed. This leads to a further question: Does prime matter, like the intellect, have an orientation, a nature, such that the development of a potency or potencies is a completion of its nature? The same chapter of De Generatione suggests yes. Aristotle raises the question of why, if corruption implies generation, we tend to call some things corruptions and not generations. Certainly when animals are born, a generation has occurred, and when they die, a corruption occurs. In his day (and maybe still in ours), people said that when water becomes air, a corruption has occurred, and when air becomes water, a destruction has occurred. Aristotle thinks there is some truth in this, although most people wrongly make the distinction on the basis of what is most sensible. They think that water becoming air is a corruption because air seems to be nothing. Although this is false, the reverse is true, for air is more of a being than water, and so water becoming air is rather a generation than a corruption, although it implies also the corruption of water. So, prime matter in becoming air becomes something, but when becoming water ceases to be something. I think it, then, fair to say that prime matter is a nature which becomes something as it progresses towards the most substantial of the elements, fire, but corrupts as it recedes from it. And, as the learner desires to know without always having a real potency to know, so prime matter, while not always being fire in potency, always desires fire, always is in need of that culmination.

I hope that we can now see why Aristotle might say that prime matter is desire for fire. But that leaves us far short of DeKoninck’s claim that prime matter is desire for the human form. So let’s see ways in which we might push Aristotle further. First, I will raise the question of whether the nature of matter is ordered towards fire as a culmination. Aristotle doesn’t address this question explicitly as far as I know. But Metaphysics VII.16 might suggest that fire itself is not the end, for it seems in this text that the elements are essentially parts, both of the whole of their kind (all fire together) and perhaps of more complex beings.

It is also evident that most of what are regarded as substances are potentialities. These are the parts of animals (for none of them exists separately, and when separated, even then, they all exist as matter), and earth, and fire, and air; for none of them is one, but they exist like a heap until they are transformed and a unity is produced out of them.

Fire and the other simple substances are rather potentialities than substances. For they lack an intrinsic definiteness that is an important mark of substance. There is nothing intrinsically one about the glass of water in front of me, nor about a fire burning on the hearth. Clearly, more can be added without effecting a substantial change. So then what is fire? Is it essentially the active principle of growing things but existing separately? In this way, it might be like our human skin tissues grown in culture, or kidneys awaiting transplantation. Clearly these are not any different in their definition. A kidney is a part of a man, even if we can artificially keep it alive apart.

That might be more than what Aristotle wants to suggest. Such an account would face the problem of the natural local motions. Each of the elements has its own natural place in the cosmic order, such that they are related as most material to most formal, with fire at the top, closest to the celestial bodies to which it is kin. [“Fire is most akin to form because it is borne towards limit.” De Gen II.8.] In fact, the distinction about the two kinds of potency, those of the learner and the knower, play a central role in Aristotle’s account of the natural local motions in Physics VIII. Just as the learner fully comes into its nature when it is a knower, and is then saved by becoming knowing, so air becomes fire and then immediately is born up to its place as to the completion of its generation. By nature the elements flee one another and flee combination. Combination is always something against the natural tendencies of the elements. So, if Aristotle thinks of the elements are more potencies than substances, his account of natural locomotion poses a serious problem.

Another line of thought might milk DeKoninck’s position out of Aristotle. Going back to Physics I.9, Aristotle said that form is “divine, good and desirable”; it is this for which matter strives and yearns. Yet he also points out that the Physics is about “natural and corruptible species”, and so seem not to be divine. At the end of the Ethics we hear, “If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”

Perhaps in this passage we hear the desire of matter, fully developed and honed, now able, in man, to express and to some extent satisfy its central desire for the divine.

However Aristotle viewed the ordination of prime matter to man, St. Thomas is clear that desire for prime matter is for man. This is clear in Summa Contra Gentiles III.22, a chapter that was very influential in De Koninck’s thinking about the cosmos. St. Thomas argues that matter, like all things, seeks the divine likeness, which it finds in actuality. “And so, the more posterior and more perfect an act is, the more fundamentally is the inclination of matter directed toward it.” Prime matter is immediately in potency to the elements, but the elements are in potency for the mixed bodies, which are in potency for the vegetative soul, and so on until we arrive at the human soul, the most perfect of those things which can come to be from prime matter. “Therefore, the ultimate end of the whole process of generation is the human soul, and matter tends toward it as toward an ultimate form.” He concludes the chapter by pointing out that the celestial spheres move in order that man might be and be preserved:

“So, if the motion of the heavens is ordered to generation, and if the whole of generation is ordered to man as a last end within this genus, it is clear that the end of celestial motion is ordered to man, as to an ultimate end in the genus of generable and mobile beings.”

Let me summarize this part of the talk. Matter desires form. Proper matter desires form as being in potency, being like but not yet what is actual, needing to be “saved” by what is actual. The considerations of food and potency make me fairly confident that Aristotle would agree to this. De Koninck, influenced by St. Thomas in the Summa Contra Gentiles, says that prime matter desires the human form in a different way, as the fulfillment of its nature, but needing to have the potency for man developed in it. This point is less clear in Aristotle. He does see prime matter as a nature which can have different potencies in it, and these potencies have an order in which the most perfect elements fulfills the nature more. Does he see the desire of matter as reaching all the way to man? Although some texts suggest this as a possibility, the natural tendencies of the elements to separate speaks against it.

Before moving on, I want to raise one more difficulty. DeKoninck says that prime matter is potency to all forms, from the highest to the lowest. But I have argued prime matter is potency in one sense for the highest. How is it potency for all forms? Without thoroughly answering this, let me present an analogy from ethics. Man naturally desires happiness, we can say, but he also naturally desires God. The natural desire for happiness, which begins our moral life, is universal, without having a specific desire for what constitutes real happiness. The desire for happiness is a desire for the complete good. It is this desire which is partially fulfilled by food, fun, and frolicking, self-control and heroism, conversation, command and contemplation. Yet there is an order among these desires, as they develop and fulfill the nature of man. “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.” Similarly, prime matter is a desire for form in general, and it restlessly moves through all the species as they more or less satisfy it. But it is desire for man as that union which alone can fulfill it.

III. Aristotle’s cosmology vs. evolutionary cosmology

How does matter fit into Aristotle’s cosmos? In a major break with Plato, who thought the very fact that bodies are sensible means they cannot have existed forever, Aristotle’s cosmos is eternal: eternal motion from an eternal mover using the eternal heavenly bodies that eternally cause generation and corruption in an eternal matter. In particular, Aristotle says in several places that eternal heavenly bodies moving eternally with uniform circular motion provide the key to solving fundamental problems that arise in understanding the cosmos.

Matter is part of the problem. The matter for the elements is primarily ordered to fire, although it is partially fulfilled by earth, water and air. But then Aristotle has a puzzle, which he raises at the end of the De Generatione. The desire of matter, at least considered as the underlying of each of the elements, seems fulfilled by its becoming fire, and the order of the cosmos seems fulfilled by the existence of the four elements each in its natural place. Why doesn’t generation cease then? Although matter explains why corruption doesn’t exhaust the universe, it doesn’t itself cause corruption. The agent cause of corruption is the same as that of generation: the revolution of the heavens, particularly the yearly movement of the sun along the ecliptic. What the sun causes by its approach, it removes by its recession. [At least it allows the elements to corrupt each other.] This means that the eternal beings intend not only the generation of material beings, but also their corruption. A similar problem is found in living beings which, in spite of being in union with actuality, die by natural processes. What is the good of this? Why do nature and the eternal beings intend corruption as well as generation?

Aristotle’s solution to the elemental problem is that, if nature and the God act as though the eternity of coming-to-be is itself the greatest good, participating in an eternal cycle must be the most divine that the natural can be.

“Coming-to-be and passing-away will, as we have said, always be continuous, and will never fail owing to the cause we stated. And this continuity has a sufficient reason on our theory. For in all things, as we affirm, Nature always strives after ‘the better’. Now ‘being’…is better than ‘not-being’: but not all things can possess ‘being’, since they are too far removed from the ‘originative source’. God therefore adopted the remaining alternative, and fulfilled the perfection of the universe by making coming-to-be uninterrupted: for the greatest possible coherence would thus be secured to existence, because that ‘coming-to-be should itself come-to-be perpetually’ is the closest approximation to eternal being.” II.10.336b 25-35.

The elements do not have enough existence to be simply, to be eternal in themselves. Since they can corrupt, they must corrupt at some time. So God and nature have arranged the spheres so that generation and corruption are regular and perpetual. This solution extends to all living beings, who participate in eternity through eternal generation. Even human beings are subject to regular destruction and re-birth, both individually and in their societies and cultures. The arts have continually to be discovered anew. Aristotle has been and will be again. Perhaps he would have liked Canticle for Leibowitz.

Is this satisfactory? It seems at the very least very melancholic. Moreover, if matter needs to have its potencies developed to be prepared for humanity, no natural cause for that is given. Matter becomes the elements, but the completion of their generation lies in their separation; that is, the generator is finished when it has separated fire from air and water. This order is determined by proximity to the heavenly bodies themselves. The mixture and combination of the elements, which develops in them the potency for higher forms of being, is accidental to their natures, though it must fall within the understanding of the ordering intelligences. And the qualities of the composite substances seem themselves to be a kind of truce between the qualities of the elements, which are contrary to one another. And the development of matter must fail in the end, and return to the conditions in which it was in the beginning. Well, not the beginning, but before.

In our contemporary evolutionary cosmology, on the other hand, matter’s role and history is much more satisfactory. Matter’s desire for being seems first (or at least pretty early on) satisfied by stable atomic existence. But this is not the completion of its generation, for matter has a natural appetite to clump together through gravitation. And gravitation brings into effective proximity the electromagnetic forces which lead to nuclear combinations, forming the more complex elements necessary for life. Through their electron configurations, these elements are ready for molecular formation and chemical combination. As these molecules develop in complexity, NOW matter is ready for life, is primed for life. And life arises out of them (through the agency of a created intelligence, as DeKoninck would add). And time goes on, bringing with it ever more developed potencies, until the dirt is ready to have God breathe into it a living soul. Not is matter’s development the good of natural changes, but it is brought about according to its own nature.

Without doubt, the biggest change that Aristotelian physics has to undergo in the face of modern developments is the loss of the celestial spheres, those eternally moving, never-corrupting corporeal instruments of the divine powers. But this might be a great blessing. For now we are free to see the real good in the natural processes of coming to be and passing away. They are all stages in the full development of prime matter as it experiences the grandeur of its own potency through being actualized by the ever more complex forms on its way to being properly prepared for its final goal, union with the immortal souls. And perhaps even time becomes a positive thing, rather than simply the removing of what is. This is why we should desire an evolutionary cosmos, at least from the point of view of matter.

 

 

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The Medieval Roots of American Rights

One unfortunate consequence of a typical Great Books sequence is a one-sided view of the importance of authors like Hobbes and Locke on the natural rights doctrine of the American founding. In this Crisis article, Andrew Latham helpfully summarizes key points from Brian Tierney’s work on the development of natural rights doctrine by medieval canonists, then tracing its further development through the Spanish/Amerindian controversies and Grotius.

Finally, the twelfth century jurists not only enumerated specific natural rights, they also unambiguously universalized these rights. Grappling with the question of whether these newly enumerated rights belonged only to Christians or whether they belonged to Muslims and pagans as well, in the mid-thirteenth century Pope Innocent IV declared that the rights to own property and to create temporal governments “were made not only for the faithful but for every rational creature.” While this question would arise again when the Europeans encountered another radically different civilization beginning in the later fifteenth century, Innocent’s declaration effectively universalized rights as they had come to be understood in medieval Latin Christendom.

His concluding paragraph might suggest that Locke channeled all this to the American founders, but they were directly immersed in the legal traditions of Christendom. (My oldest son wrote an excellent thesis on this topic.)

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Gratitude of a Faithful Vatican II Catholic

Although I was raised a Catholic during the immediate post-Vatican II period, I only embraced my faith seriously on the verge of college in 1983, nearly twenty years after the close of the Council. I have been tremendously blessed to be in fervent Catholic communities from that time. First, I was a member of a lay Catholic organization fostering prayer and formation for Catholic families, then spent four years at one of the pioneering, boldly faithful, lay-run, Catholic liberal arts colleges that arose in response to the abandonment of faith by Land-o-Lakes colleges, then my wife and I were members of a beautiful Oratorian parish during graduate school, which had a two-year Thomistic collegiate philosophy programme for seminarians in which I taught. For the past 27 years, my wife and I have raised our six children in the Catholic renaissance community that has sprung up around Thomas Aquinas College, with its vibrant collegiate, homeschool, independent school, parish, and cultural life. Everywhere we have been nourished by faith-filled, liturgically-rich Masses. The “Benedictine Option” bruhaha was no news to me; I have lived in it my whole life.

So it might be no wonder that I have a positive view of the Council.  Most of the blessings I have enjoyed during my life – Spirit-driven lay leadership, liturgical prayer and song, an emphasis on family holiness, the shining examples of holy Mother Teresa and St. John Paul the Great, an openness to the best innovations of modern life (American democracy, capitalism, psychology, science, culture, a full liturgical life) – I can attribute directly to the reforms encouraged by the Council. Yet, many of those who have shared the same blessings have a critical view of the Council. I sometimes suspect they think the Church would be much better off if the Council had never happened. Problems in the Church today, naturally makes us want to find a scapegoat, and the Council is a reasonable target, especially to the extent one has a nostalgic view of the Church as it was before the Council. The faith was so clearly taught, liturgy was without abuse, everyone was well catechized until 1965. Then the smoke of Satan billowed out of the parishes. Why was the Council considered necessary anyway?

I have thought, prayed, listened, and inquired about this question over the years, and have come to the conclusion that the pre-Vatican II Church was not as strong as many might think. My natural piety towards the Church and Holy Spirit, along with the blessings I had experience always made me want to believe that the Council was Providential; I was first reasonably convinced by realizing that the Church in the West could not have been turned upside down within such a short period of time had the Church before the Council been properly grounded in faith and grace. The clown Masses of the 70s were celebrated by those formed in pre-Vatican II seminaries.

In a recent NC Register interview, Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk  reports that John Paul saw problems starkly in the 40s:

I think it is a great purification in our Church, and perhaps we need it, such purification. The Dutch Church was still very strong in the ’40s and ’50s. But priests saw then that Catholics had more of a social relationship with the Church than a relationship based on the personal faith, on their prayers. John Paul II, as Karol Wojtyła, while he was studying in Rome, here at the Angelicum, he visited our country for a few days and he admired the organization, the mighty organization of our Church. At the same time, he said what it lacks is a life of personal prayer, of personal faith among people. When this individualism came in the ’60s, Catholics only had their social relationships with the Church, but not relationships based on faith, and therefore many left the Church, especially in the second half of the ‘60s, and afterward the decline became slower but it is still going on. The quantity of people who are believing is getting smaller, but the quality is getting higher. People are more believing, the people who go to Church are praying people.

This confirms what I have gathered from many people with some insight into the pre-Vatican II Church. Legislation demanded that seminary and collegiate theological and philosophical formation be governed by the principles, doctrines, and methods of St. Thomas, but his own texts did not lend themselves to the mass production demanded by increasingly democratic higher education, so manuals laid out in quasi-geometric (therefore easily memorized) form proliferated. (Ron McArthur, founding President of  Thomas Aquinas College, saw the hollowness of most Catholic academic wisdom during the 40s and 50s, and so I think was not so surprised that it all fell apart in the late sixties.) Religious life was so dominated by the centrality of obedience (which St. Thomas emphasizes is a means to the development of virtue, not an end in itself) that sisters and brothers rarely developed supernatural prudence in themselves. The old saw about the role of the laity – “pay, pray, obey” – had a strong basis in reality. During my graduate years, an older active parishioner told me he joined the seminary in his youth because he had become a daily Mass-goer; “It was assumed,” he said, “that if you were a serious single Catholic young man, you would naturally become a priest. And when I left the seminary, I know people felt there must have been something wrong with me.” Since spiritual seriousness and clerical or religious vocations were equated, many received ordination or made perpetual vows who probably never had a vocation.

Nor was the traditional liturgy the source of inspiration that many might imagine. Fr. Peter Stravinskas, whose Catholic Answer periodical sustained the faith of tens of thousands from 1987-2004, pointed out in a workshop that I attended that many abuses in the liturgy went unnoticed because so much was said silently or in Latin. He also said that para-liturgical devotions flourished in the West (but not in the East) precisely because the Roman liturgy did not satisfy the devotional needs of the faithful. This fits with the claim made by a young Joseph Ratzinger (in Theological Highlights of Vatican II) that the old liturgy did not inform the spirituality of the Tridentine saints, though the Real Presence did.

I think that Cardinal Eijk’s report on the Dutch Church was true of much of Western Christendom – its unity depended more upon culture than upon faith. From the time of the Reformation, the Church seemed focused on protecting Catholic countries from incursions by the Protestants, and then later by anti-Catholic, anti-Christian moderns. This carried over to the US, when Catholic immigrants clustered in ethnic neighborhoods where Catholicism was the way of life. This situation was already being undermined before Vatican II, as modern successes broke up the neighborhoods and altered the ways of life even in Catholic countries.

The cultural/defensive mentality contributed to a strong sense of loyalty to the Church that was part of the reason that clerical misbehaviour was covered up for so long. I have encountered this attitude upon some occasions myself. In the early 90s, while teaching confirmation at a parish in Iowa, I discovered that the textbook was teaching the kids that the Catholic Church started in the 1500s, at the time of the Reformation. There was a clear timeline highlighting this. I brought it to the attention of the pastor, a very good priest, whose reaction was that it couldn’t be saying what it clearly said because it had an imprimatur from a bishop. In recent years, I have worked with faithful teaching sisters who shuddered at the thought of radical criticism of contemporary Catholic schools. I believe that a good deal of the frustration laity feel over the lack of aggressive action on the part of orthodox bishops stems from their unwillingness to clean house in their chanceries when they assume power, or even to systematically replace personnel with those who share their agenda.

I don’t mean by any of this to stand in judgment on the Tridentine Church. The Council of Trent was and is a most important contribution to the Magisterium of the Church. The protections put in place were no doubt most necessary at the time. The Counter-Reformation was a powerful testament to the enduring presence of the Holy Spirit, and the saints of the era are among the greatest in the Church’s history. Still, all in all, I am deeply grateful to be a Vatican II Catholic. Unfortunately, it exposed the weakness of what remained of Catholic Christendom. But Providentially, it has provided us with the means and inspiration to renew the face of the earth, or at least to provide a renewal of Catholic life that can reinvigorate our parishes, dioceses, schools, and seminaries.

[I shared reflections related on living in Benedict Option in Cave Dwellers or Shire Folk, The Education of the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings, and Natalie Wood and Purity at Midnight Mass.]

 

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The Role of the Philosopher in Society a la Socrates

Below is a transcription of the Q&A session following my talk on the education of the philosopher in the Republic (Turning the Whole Soul). Most of the questions centered on the role the philosopher is supposed to play in society.

I. From the Audience: Do you think it seems a little eerie about how he talks about how we have to keep an eye on these people and those people, it seems like it might be a moral journey but something seems dangerous about this particular approach to education.

Seeley: There’s a couple things that I see here. One would be the total control that he wants society to exercise over every aspect of family life and education. That would be one thing you might think is a problem. Apart from that, I just think that the idea that you have to be testing and watching and choosing who is going to go on. You’re not just going to let anybody- he is very strong about that. He is saying one of the reasons philosophy has had such a bad effect and reputation is because he says anybody can come to it. If I were in charge, I wouldn’t let anyone come to it. So which one of those?

From the Audience: The latter one of those because it seems like Socrates is almost saying “Look, if you all would just make me king, everything will be better” and in a way, you want to read that in a positive and charitable light, he is saying it’s not too far off in, I don’t know, it borders on disturbing at times.

Seeley: He does give that neat little parable that gives an image of the ship captain- the ship captain needs the true pilot but everyone is saying “Oh, I should be the pilot.” And they want to be pilot. And then there is the guy that really knows and nobody asks him to be pilot and he’s not going to be there demanding to be pilot because he doesn’t really care that much. He thinks “Well I am the one who knows, you should come to me. I shouldn’t be begging you.” Socrates has something of that view. You want the one who knows what to do. And if I am that person, you should ask me. Now, he also says, if you really engage in philosophy, you’re not going to have a passion for ruling because its messy and annoying and you have to deal will all kinds of people. It might also be philosophically interesting because in knowing different kinds of people you get visions of good and what it looks like. But for the most part you would rather be with the other people who care deeply about philosophy and talking with them, and then preparing yourself to die. That’s what he says the philosophical life is about is preparing to die. So he says, “You should ask me to rule you. I wouldn’t want to do it but I feel like I have a duty to the Gods to do it if you ask me.” Is that a believable thing for a person to say that? It seems like we do have saints in our tradition who “you need to be a bishop”. “No! No, I don’t want to be a bishop!” and they hide and stuff and they have to be dragged out. Augustine did not want to be a bishop; he did not want to be a priest. But they saw that this is the guy, we need him. Yes, you come, you are called and he answered the call. Augustine might have been able to tell him, and probably did “Really!? Me!?! There must be somebody better.” And then he said, “No, no there isn’t anybody better. I guess I have to do it.” So, is it believable that a person could have that kind of judgement without wanting the power at all. But knowing that if he is going to do the good he can do, he has to have it. I guess that’s the way I feel about Socrates.

From the Audience: I guess its believable that there are people with that kind of noble motive but the fact that he goes about it so secretly. I mean, think about the time he talks about how “we have to make sure they don’t know who their parents are but we’ll concoct the whole thing with dealing with the family”.

Seeley: Yeah, that’s certainly valid. Now there are two things I will say about that. One is some people will say that you’re not supposed to take that stuff seriously in that part of Book 5. I don’t believe that at all. I think that for him Sparta was an example pretty much along the lines of what he was saying, he was just taking it a little bit farther than Sparta. So if you had someone saying if Canada was like Sparta, and then somebody is here saying “We need to have common messes, we need all property in common, and we need men sharing their wives around”, you would take them seriously because they are doing it next door. So yeah, I think that part is of concern, and its possible Socrates would fit right in with this elitist view that people are shaking down right now. Put that aside, do you think the other things he said that I was focusing on in the dangers and the education of the philosophic nature, they don’t have any significance for us because of the sinister things we worry about in the earlier parts.

II. From the Audience: I was wondering about the premise that was there about education. Because it seems like there’s this huge emphasis on knowing. I think this is because I am trying to think more about Maria Montessori’s work. One of the things they do- their education from a very very young age is about teaching the child to love and so it seems like to know and to love are so intimately connected that they kind of grow together. It does seem like loving is the very first thing that kind of makes you want to know. Do you think it strips away the effectiveness of his system because it doesn’t have any sense of love? You mentioned where it’s your duty to be a philosopher king, you have to spend this many years. It’s like he presumes you’re all going to do this without any love.

Seeley: I think one, he really wants to foster the love of learning, the love of the truth. He is likely hopeful that those who engage in that will come to love one another. And love being together because they love the same things. And in the Phaedrus you have this eternal, you get the afterlife, it’s you and your friend that spend it together in completing the journey. In that way I think Socrates may have very well had a deep love for Alcibiades. He wanted Alcibiades for a companion. So he is paying attention to developing the love for the kinds of things he thinks is most fulfilling. I think also that the way in which he has that first stage of turning and he has this view that you have to be serving and particularly in that you have that gap of 15 years were you really serve the society for a long time, you have to have enough of a commitment to your society and it’s good that you do that. There is a reverence there, I think you see it somewhat in Socrates maybe, I haven’t read the Crito in a long time but I was very impressed with him saying, “Look, I have lived here all my life, I chose to live here, I have done it for a reason.” So he must think there’s a good in Athens that he can’t find in other places. So there is at least gratefulness and reverence to some extent for it that I think is important. And it’s important for having that to make sure that when you start to look and question the assumptions of your society that you don’t turn on it. One of the things that is very concerning to me today about the young people of our ilk is that they turn on America. They think that to condemn all the corruptions today, you really have to condemn America and its roots. And if you don’t condemn America then you certainly condemn Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. So there’s this turning on the foundations to our society that Socrates wants to ensure doesn’t happen by making sure the people whom he allows to advance have shown dedication and commitment to that. That might not be the same kind of love you are thinking about.

From the Audience: I think its kind of interesting because you were talking about the love of learning, the love of knowledge kind of comes before, and then your love for citizens is almost like a following-up duty, that love comes from that.

Seeley: I think it might be a human affection and gratitude compared to a divine one, at least the way Socrates would think about it. You are grateful for the physical goods, and to the extent that you’ve grown up in a society with representations of the just which are more or less accurate, to that extent you’re grateful and you maintain a proper reverence for it. But it seems to me he does think the philosopher is going to love something much more intensely than that.

III. From the Audience: When you were going through what you were taking the cave to be, especially the shadows on the wall that the prisoners are all looking at, are you already assuming a corrupt society at that point? Because you were saying that the actual objects that are casting the shadows are the ideals of the society. And the shadows are the bad things that have lasted…

Seeley: My way of running with this is… it’s so wonderfully scriptural in that the more I pour over the details the more significance I draw out of them without feeling like I am imposing things. So thinking about it in the context of the way he describes what life would be like for the young and the guardians in the earlier part of the Republic, I think they are also educated mostly according to shadows. They’re looking at the way in which the adults around them live that life in that republic. That’s mostly has a lot of good to it so it’s a shadow that’s not very dark, maybe. But that’s what they are being educated according to first. They also have an attention to their ideals. Anybody who lives the life of the good, or tries to live a life that is good or follows human grasps of the good, which are more or less accurate, is going to lead a life that is more or less accurate, even though they are not corrupt in the sense that they’ve twisted the fundamental meanings around to gratify their baser pleasures. It’s still going to be like if you learn from, how do you learn what a Catholic life is like? You learn a lot of it from the Catholics that you live with. Most of the Catholics are not living according to a strong thorough vision of the good of the church proposes to them. They are living according to the laws and the customs and the way they were taught and the way the parish life went. I wouldn’t say that’s corrupt, though it does seem like it’s living a sleeping existence, he uses sleep sometimes too…

From the Audience: So would that be more akin to childhood and growing up in general? Like living in the state of the cave until we are ready to learn and want a more experienced way, I guess?

Seeley: Not just childhood but the kind of life you live in if you are an active member of your parish and with all the assumptions there about what’s good and what fulfilling your duty is like as well about what a good Catholic is like. I remember being really surprised that people would say, “Oh yeah, that so and so is a good Catholic because the parents had him Confirmed and they go to Mass sort-of sometimes.” I know them! If that’s a good Catholic, that’s scandalous! I think in a good parish it’s not like that, but it’s still taking it according to the imperfect ways in which people actually live their ideals. It’s not seeing the ideals themselves.

From the Audience: So no one ever believed in them outside the cave if they are going to be in the society?

Seeley: No, some of them do. This is interesting. Socrates in the Symposium in a particular way, I think it also comes up in the Republic, he is talked about, and he talks about the way in which a person who embraces philosophy- his whole soul and his whole life radiates the beauty of the good that he has come to understand and taken to his heart and soul. In that way, when you have those kind of people around like the saints, they are like luminous shadows. They’re what the prisoners can see because their visible, but they are so illuminated by the love and understanding of what’s the best that they shine out. I would think that if you actually incorporate that, then some of those people are behind the wall would be around in front and they would actually have every once in a while a real living being would walk in front of it. And then they would be like “Whoa!” and they would be very startled but they couldn’t ignore it because it was Mother Teresa who walked across the light. Is that better?

From the Audience: Yes. It’s better.

V. From the Audience: You made two questions: what is the real philosopher, is that the philosopher that will have to rule, or the highest manifestation of the philosopher; and the second one is what is the importance of the 15 years in the cave? You said in your answer the necessity of being with people and even philosophizing with people, that is what we see very often in Plato. Plato is showing that these philosophers should think with them. But the point is the philosopher goes inside of the cave and he is alone because they are just doing that- how can he live a good life now if he is not surrounded by people that want to do the same thing? So naturally you will have to return to the stage of the cave where there’s that fire and the handmade cross and try to persuade people to show how great it is even and take those people upwards. In doing that, they will be fulfilling what is the highest level of the philosophers. Doing that they will be showing the importance of the 15 years that will be return to the cave and kind of reconfigure these ideals with the light of what they saw outside and simultaneously bring in people to fulfill that necessity of the real philosophy that they realize together. Do you agree with that?

Seeley: I think so. One of the things that is really striking is that, when he is talking to Glaucon, Glaucon and Adeimantus are the main interlocutors for most of the Republic, and Glaucon I think is probably in his 30’s. And he’s giving him the whole thing about the mathematical disciplines and talking about how hard that is and what you need to do with that, and then Glaucon says “Wow, that’s incredible!” and Socrates says, “Well that’s just the prelude. The real thing is the dialectic, engaging in that.” And Glaucon says “well tell me about the dialectic! That’s what I want to know about!!” and Socrates says “Nope, can’t do it. I can’t even give you an image; you can only engage in it.” And then he goes on. I think what you are seeing Socrates doing with people like Glaucon is just the kind of thing you are talking about. So in this regard, yes- he is philosophizing with people who are not yet ready to come out of the cave. He wants to make them ready come out of the cave. But they’re not. So it’s a wonderful thing for Socrates in a way and yet it’s not as fulfilling because they are not ready to talk with him about the things he really wants to talk about.

From the Audience: So he was not just talking with common Athenians, he was talking with Plato.

Seeley: They were all young. They were all young people.

From the Audience: In a way they are growing in philosophy and at some point might be able to talk with him at maybe the same level.

Seeley: Maybe but Socrates might be dead by that time.

From the Audience: But I feel that is a particular situation. I think if you understand what I mean with the philosopher returning you can see that there is a….

Seeley: There would be a satisfaction in it but its mixed. I think it’s really important for us if we care to live the philosophical life to address the question of whether the philosophical life is lived best if we are completely freed from any duties to society or not. Or is it really best lived when you are involved in a lot of duties with respect to society. And I suspect Socrates thinks yes it is actually best to be doing this even for the philosopher if he has this mix. Partly because I think what you need to do is not only…I skipped a quotation about the democracy. He says that democratic societies are the place where every philosopher wants to live. Because in the democratic, and it’s not because you’re free to do your philosophy, but because in the democratic society you see every regime. Because every individual is free to make of his life whatever he wants. So every individual has really committed himself to a vision of the good. And for some its wealth, and for some its freedom, and for some its pleasure, and for some it’s ruling, and for some its whatever; you see it all. So if you see what an old oligarchic man is like, you are going to find him in a democracy. If you want to see what a real democrat is like- you’ll going to find him there. If you want to see what a honor-bound man is like- you’re going to see it there. So you’re going to see the visions of the good lived out intensely by all kinds of people and you’re also going to do it yourself. So in the midst of that society and in your responsibilities in partaking in the responsibilities society gives you, then you are going to live out your vision of the good. A lot of times you are going to find that “Oh man I didn’t see it as well as I do now.” You’re going to learn from your own mistakes as you live that kind of life. And you have to make decisions when you’re in that sort of situations, you have to make decisions and you can’t hide from them. And your decisions have consequences. So you learn about yourself and about what you think is really good and the errors that you might have are implicit, you learn that in that kind of life I think.

VI. From the Audience: Mr. Seeley you said that democracy is the city that every philosopher wants to live in. Two things: 1) are you saying that in preference to the Republic that he describes or just because that republic doesn’t actually exist, and 2) if is in preference to that city, is that maybe what he sees in Athens that makes him just not go to Sparta?

Seeley: I certainly think the latter- that Athens is the place for Socrates, not Sparta.

From the Audience: “That’s the last place he would want to be.”

Seeley: That’s the last place…and Sparta wouldn’t want him either. He would have been dead in Sparta- like real fast! My inclination would be to say that the philosopher would do well to have a good experience of democracy even if he has been raised in the regime of music and gymnastic carefully controlled. That it would be very good for him to be in a democracy for a while as a young adult or maybe in his ruling capacity that that would be good because he would have a lot of things brought to his attention that he would never think of if he weren’t there. I’m not positive about that.

But this may sound like this is a nice book and story and things but it’s actually I think what we’re living with in terms of the Catholic movement to separate ourselves from society and then reorganize our whole society so that our children are properly raised with the proper gymnastic, with the proper music, with the proper ideals, Irish dancing. So then it’s really important for us, particularly here, to ask the kind of question about what does that do in terms of preparing us for living the philosophical life or what peculiar hindrances does it have. Is it, I guess this came up in one of my junior seminars one time talking about Falstaff and Hal, and I can’t remember how we got to it but the conclusion was, we should be like Hal and go to bars and talk to the people in the bars because that’s going to give us a view of life and help us to really see people in their diversity and be able to understand the good better, bring it to human beings better so that was our field trip- to go to a bar. But if you don’t think that, what you’ll make sure to do as you get older you continue to live in the same kind of community that you grew up in and that’s the best place for you to really be engaging in the philosophic life. I think that the danger of that is you end up embracing the opinions as though its knowledge. You think the opinions of your society, however good they might be, are knowledge so there’s a depth that you don’t get to.

From the Audience: You mean they’re a narrower society that you are living with. Do you think those things are the reality when they are opinions?

Seeley: When they are opinions. And they’re hopefully good opinions and there are ones that are safe opinions. And maybe that’s the best thing.

VII. From the Audience: I was wondering: in this society happiness would be obtained according to Plato by getting to heaven, I guess by philosophy. It seems like in his city, however, only certain people are going to be philosophers, because there’s gold, there’s silver, there’s other people. Some people aren’t able to be philosophers. So is the point of the ruling of the philosopher king to bring people to philosophy or is it to make sure they are doing what they should be doing according to their nature? Also those who don’t have the philosophical nature how do they obtain happiness? Is it just earthly happiness by being in the part of society that they contribute best to or by serving the philosopher king?

Seeley: I am going to go on a little side track for a second. I think if you read this stuff and people like Alan Bloom who’s the translator and his interpretive essays and the notes and stuff are there. Certainly there are people that I’ve talked to that they don’t think Socrates believed in the Forms. They don’t think Plato believed in that stuff. They don’t think they believed in an afterlife that all of that is “nice window dressing” so that they don’t get… I don’t know. Whereas I think that’s patently ridiculous. No human being could really live that way- could write what Plato did and believe what they say he believed. So when Socrates talks about the afterlife and believing there’s an afterlife, I believe him. I believe that about him and I believe that about Plato. The myth at the end of the Republic is, what it would say in part would be if you rule properly in this society that you created then for one, you are going to be able to give those philosophic souls the best chance possible, but for everybody else you are going to at least as he says “keep those chains really thin” so you’re going to make it so as much as possible the desires that make us think we’re going to have satisfactions in this life and that’s what it’s all about – we’re going to work to keep those calm for everybody. Then when they die and they’re going to be reincarnated then they are going to being a better situation to choose a better kind of life. If you take that seriously, he doesn’t seem to think that what you do in this temporal city is all there is and that the whole thing, human striving for real perfection is cyclical with temporal and eternal things. The second thing, I don’t know the extent to which I’ve seen it…the whole question of the city came up in the Republic in the first place because he wants the city to be an image of justice. You can see what’s in the souls, and I take that pretty serious.y, too. You can see what’s in the souls of men by how they live in the society and the kind of society they form for themselves. Those are images of what’s really just. So when you order the society properly, then you create a beautiful society that participates in the kind of justice you can have on earth and holiness and friendship. And though those are imperfect and they all have their good and their bad sides, still they are living, breathing temporal image of the eternal truths. So then the people who aren’t able to see that themselves they still see it; they still live it, they still live in it. They get to live as part of a society that is an image of the divine.

From the Audience: I’m just thinking there’s a lot of people who I know that don’t see the importance of philosophy in their life so they might not strive to be a philosopher or anything like that but they can at least detach- they shouldn’t be riveted to their bodies. That’s at least what they’re doing because what he says if you’re riveted to your body you will be reincarnated something below.

Seeley: And there’s always in everybody something of a grasp of what’s really good and just and holy and your task as a philosopher is to try to bring that as much out in their self-understanding as you can. And that’s a great service that you provide.

From the Audience: As a philosopher you are better able to see that.

Seeley: I think so. And one of the great advantages, the great gifts of the education you are receiving here is that when you go out in to the world and do things in the world you can understand people. You don’t have the experience yet so the experience is important but you already have all kinds of literary experience that you can use to interpret other human beings and say, “Oh yeah I understand this guy! He’s just like so and so in Tolstoy.” Or “I know this guy! That’s an Alcibiades right there!” People who haven’t read widely like we have, they can’t do that. They can’t understand people who aren’t like themselves. So as a person who has pursued a life of learning- you are in a position to help people understand themselves in a ways they can’t understand themselves. And understand other people that can’t understand them. You see that, by the way, in Lucy Maud Montgomery the Anne of Green Gables series? There’s a bunch of middle books where she is just telling one story after another of a ruined small-town life that’s ruined by somebody’s bitterness over some stupid thing. She just tells one story after another and you get the impression that the small towns were filled with that kind of thing because people for all the good there is of living there, for all the comfort there is in living there, there’s also a lot of small-souled-ness there. And a person like Anne can see that help…Oh, there’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever read is in Anne of the Island, I can’t remember. Ruby Gillis, her flirty friend from high school in her younger days that wanted to have all the boys all the time- that’s all her life was. She gets tuberculosis and she’s dying and she and her whole family are pretending she’s not, and it’s gruesome; the description is really gruesome. Anne talks about the night she went and she was there and she hated going there but Ruby was always wanting her to come because she was a real person. And Ruby she wanted her to come but she didn’t know why she wanted her to come but she did and it was very uncomfortable for Anne. And then finally one night Ruby tells her “I know I’m dying and I can’t face it.” And Anne is able to, for one thing she was attractive enough as a serious, substantial human being that Ruby knew instinctively that she was the kind of person Ruby could tell. She couldn’t tell her parents- her parents couldn’t help her face it, but Anne could. And then Anne talks to her about her own vision of heaven and what it’s like and she says “I realize as I went away that Ruby had never lived any part of her life in a way that would make her comfortable with the next life. And I’m never going to do that.” So that’s the kind of thing I think we can provide.

From the Audience: It’s like The Intellectual Life by Fr. Sertillanges, he says what sort of thing your duty to other people as a philosopher living an intellectual life and he says correcting error. You’re basically like a doctor of truth here. You see things that they can’t so you can at least give them the truth and…

Seeley: I think you correct error and then you also do a lot of encouraging of the good and then helping people to see what they really want is in conflict with something else that they want and that they have to help them to see that they have to make a choice. Particularly in the time of crisis- it’s really hard to tell people that when they’re happy and nothing’s wrong but in times of crisis that can be very powerful.

Posted in Philosophy, Post-Secondary Education, Reflections on the Books, Secondary Education | Leave a comment

Integrating the Arts and Sciences through Natural Philosophy

In A Natural Philosopher’s Lament, John Brungardt addresses the important role natural philosophy should play in properly integrating studies of science and the humanities:

In the natural sciences, love and skill can be at odds. Curricula that overemphasize technical competence or STEM-readiness train students in the specific techniques of a given field (i.e., various “parts” of science) without educating them to love knowledge as a whole. They turn out to be all skills and no love….There is a similar danger for those studying the humanities. Recovering classical philosophy is a laudable aim. Yet if these classes are not integrated with classes in the contemporary sciences or the history of science, students risk inculcating a vain love of the whole without a familiarity with any of its parts. Such students are trained to love a game of empty concepts. They are empty because students have not been taught to find those concepts instantiated in the complex natural world around them.

Posted in Classical Education, Math and Science, Philosophy, Science, Secondary Education | Leave a comment

Parents as Educators/Models for Teachers

Back in November, I was honored to give a talk to parents in Denver for The First Educator series. I focused on how parents can draw on The Holy See’s Teachings on Catholic Schools to both aid them in choosing a Catholic school for their children and in guiding their own teaching of their children. The audio is now available here.

I also recommend watching “From a Mother’s Heart: Why Catholic Education is the Answer”, in which Institute VP Chris Weir beautifully shows how parents provide a model for Catholic educators.

Posted in Audio/Video, Classical Education, For Teachers | Leave a comment

Hamlet’s Split Soliloquy

Years ago, a student became notorious at our college for arguing that Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy is not about suicide. It became the subject of Soren’s senior thesis, which led him to draft a book (which I don’t think he ever published). He passionately argued his view with anyone who would listen. I almost always listen to people when they express their opinions passionately and articulately, no matter how crazy they seem. I am usually skeptical, rarely convinced, but almost always find that I learn a lot from their arguments.

In this case, the student’s arguments did not convince me at the time, but his insistence did make me take a closer look at why I was sure the soliloquy is about suicide. Some of his textual challenges weakened my own conviction. In particular, I remember his pointing to “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them,” as not sounding like suicide but assault, and his asking how Hamlet could be thinking of suicide as among the “enterprises of great pitch and moment [which] with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” I had readings of these portions that fit with suicide, but when I looked at them critically, they seemed pale and forced.

george-macdonald-06I have since come to agree strongly with the Soren’s position, strengthened in this conviction by an essay and study of Hamlet by George MacDonald, 19th century Christian fantasy author and inspiration to Lewis and Tolkien, in which he states: Neither in its first verse, then, nor in it anywhere else, do I find even an allusion to suicide. His description of how he came to this judgment was eerily familiar:

But we are terribly trammelled and hindered, as in the understanding of Hamlet throughout, so here in the understanding of his meditation, by traditional assumption. I was roused to think in the right direction concerning it, by the honoured friend and relative to whom I have feebly acknowledged my obligation by dedicating to him this book. I could not at first see it as he saw it: ‘Think about it, and you will,’ he said. I did think, and by degrees–not very quickly–my prejudgments thinned, faded, and almost vanished.

Although I don’t share MacDonald’s entire reading of either this soliloquy or of the play, I do feel as he felt: I trust I see it now as a whole, and in its true relations, internal and external–its relations to itself, to the play, and to the Hamlet of Shakspere.

MacDonald thinks we cannot know “what Hamlet is referring to in the said first verse [To be or not to be]…for it is but the vanishing ripple of a preceding ocean of thought, from which he is just stepping out upon the shore of the articulate.” But I think we can get a very good guess from realizing that dramatically this soliloquy is a continuation of his previous “O, what a rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. Hamlet has no interactions with anyone between the scenes, so it makes dramatic sense (though not necessary) that his mind is turning upon related issues. The central question of that soliloquy is, “Am I a coward?” Hamlet does not understand why the passion for revenge awakened by the Ghost has not driven him on to attempt to kill his uncle. The only idea he has is that he must be a coward, he must be afraid that in his pursuit of revenge he will himself die. The self-loathing that Hamlet unpacks in words arises from his fear that he lacks true manly nobility of feeling. He feels himself the lowest and meanest of men: a “rogue”, a “peasant slave”, “pigeon-livered”, “an ass”, “a whore”, “a drab”, “a scullion”.

I don’t think Hamlet fully understands the complexities that are churning in his soul, but we can clearly see what is on Hamlet’s mind in this soliloquy. And this provides the proper context for the “To Be” soliloquy. In the beginning, he is wondering whether suffering “slings and arrows” is better than to fight against them; in the middle, he runs through a litany of offenses that would make a real man lash out to settle the score (“when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin”); at the end, he explicitly returns to cowardice, which keeps the weak from undertaking the great deed. The middle of both soliloquies makes the continuity of thought palpable.

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face? Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat, As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?

Ha!

‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall To make oppression bitter, or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites With this slave’s offal….

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life….

There are great differences. Passion and imagination drive Hamlet in the first soliloquy, the feeling of shame arising from seeing himself in the mirror of the Player’s passion. But the brain which Hamlet engaged at its end (“About my brain”) dominates the second. Hamlet intellectually analyzes cowardice – it comes down to a question of being and not-Falstaff Final Dress _November 7, 2013 -into-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death-rode-the-six-hundred-13-638being. Is it better to stay alive (a la Falstaff’s “catechism” on honor) or to die, which will likely happen if one rides with the Six Hundred into the Valley of Death. An analysis of death first makes it appear as the greatest of blessings, but then as the entrance to the most fearful of objects – eternal damnation. The dread which arises from a consideration of our eternal fate is what makes thinking men live as cowards, cowards who fear to allow the natural desires for revenge to lead them to action.

I can’t remember what of this reading I might have gained from conversations with Soren (or from reading the draft of his book). But I am very grateful to him for having passionately argued his thesis, which forced me not only to reconsider the meaning of the soliloquy, but become more aware of the central dramatic examination of the passion for revenge from a Christian perspective.

Posted in Literature, Reflections on the Books, Shakespeare | Leave a comment

Hamlet and the Problem of Conscience

Originally published in the St. Austin Review (March/April 2016)

Introduction

I have never really liked Hamlet, neither the character nor the play. The character I found too full of self-doubts, too wistfully desirous of death as a solution to his problems, too full of contradictions to engage hamlet-and-gravedigger.jpgmuch of my sympathy; the play contained too many unconnected moments, culminating in an accidental on-stage bloodbath befitting a caricatured opera. Like many, I found Hamlet’s words wonderful for their powerful expression of the burdens of life. But Hamlet’s death failed to move me.

Wanting to be moved, I happened upon George MacDonald’s edition and study of Hamlet (free on Kindle!). I was intrigued by the discovery — an accomplished story-teller telling the story of Hamlet was just what I wanted. I was not disappointed. MacDonald unashamedly championed Hamlet as one of the the noblest figures in literature, and considered the play “the grandest of all Shakespeare’s presentations”. He was convinced that most students of the play are misled by things they have already heard about the central character – that Hamlet’s problem is thinking too much. Richard Grant White, MacDonald’s contemporary, re-told the tragedy of Hamlet1 as the vacillations of an obsessively melancholic, emotionally self-indulgent, petty-souled man, who muddles a clear call to action by luxuriating in excessive reflection. White drew the natural conclusion from his line of interpretation:

…The lesson that it teaches…If a man have not strong, urgent, exclusive desire, which compels him to put his impulses and will into action, and seek one single object, if indeed he be not ballasted with principle and impelled by purpose, he will be blown about by every flaw of fortune, and be sucked down into the quicksand of irresolution….In the words of the wicked King, which gave the key of Shakespeare’s meaning, “That we would do, We should do when we would….”

White’s Hamlet could move no one. The thought, the expression remain great, Hamlet’s every word is precious, but under that sort of reading, the action of the play fails to evoke fear, pity, or anything but frustration. Appropriately, Grant thought that only the most superlative of actors can make Hamlet anything tolerable to watch. Yet, since Shakespeare’s plays were very popular in his day, shouldn’t the dramatic difficulty White admits be a prima facie reason to question his interpretation? Nor should any, especially lovers of moral reflection, readily acquiesce in the idea that thought hinders action. Should we think that the wicked king really expresses the lesson of Hamlet? Could the same Shakespeare who makes us shudder at Macbeth’s maxim, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings on my hand,” offer us “We should do when we would” as the lesson to take from Hamlet?

MacDonald rightly criticizes those like White, who “pounce upon [Hamlet] with vituperation, as if he were one of the vile, and they infinitely better.” By contrast, his admiration of the character offers us a much more likeable Hamlet and a much more moving play. Yet he wants so badly for Hamlet to be the great Christian hero that he explains away what I consider to be the central drama of the story – Hamlet’s near spiritual destruction and Providential rescue. At the heart of that drama is the problem of conscience.

The Problem of Conscience

In the terrible loneliness that he feels after the departure of the players and his disappointing friends (II.7 end), Hamlet vents against himself the frustration felt by White:

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would he do if he had the motive and the cue for passion that I have?

Why, then, Hamlet asks himself, have I said nothing, done nothing? The question fills him with self-loathing and leads him to a terrible thought: “Am I a coward?” “I must be a coward,” he thinks, “I must be afraid to stand up to my father’s murderer and get the revenge that any red-blooded man would risk everything for. I don’t even feel the passion I ought to feel about it.” He cannot stand to face the thought, so he turns to think of a way to begin doing something – “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”2

But the question does not let go of Hamlet. In what might be a Shakespearean singularity, we next see Hamlet again in soliloquy, so intent that he does not realize he is not alone. The conclusion of his “To be or not to be soliloquy” suggests that he continues to dwell on his self-accusation. He has finally found a scapegoat –

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(III.1)

Hamlet believes his entire audience knows the truth — Conscience makes all of us cowards, conscience prevents us from doing what we feel in the depths of our bones must be done, what our nature groans to do. Any person of conscience can no doubt sympathize with Hamlet here. In particular, Christians can sympathize. How bitter is it to “turn the other cheek”, to try to forgive our offensive brother from our heart? Does it make us feel like we are less than men?

Hamlet blames his conscience for his inaction. Why? Is this Hamlet thinking excessively? What scruple does he see setting itself in his way? In his previous soliloquy (II.7 end), Hamlet determined that before doing anything he must know whether the King really murdered his father. But that is a question of fact, not of conscience. So why blame conscience? Because even should his Mousetrap confirm the Ghost’s charge, the question will remain, “Should I seek revenge?” His conscience tells him, “No.” Why? Because the one who seeks vengeance, when he dies, must face eternal judgment. Hamlet tells himself that he is not afraid to die; why should he be when life is full of heartache and a “thousand natural shocks”? Death should be a blessed sleep. Yet he must fear death, because to die in the act of revenge will make him liable to the fires of Gehenna.

But isn’t Hamlet only seeking justice? Shouldn’t Claudius pay for his crime? Who can do it, if not Hamlet? Yet what is The Iliad but a long grand warning against the horrific evils of a justified anger? And has not the wisdom of ages always taken the sword from the hand of the one to be avenged and placed it in the hands of those who have not been personally affected, like the jury that brings a happy close to the Oresteian tragedies of Aeschylus?

Revenge is a much more prominent theme in Hamlet than justice. The words “revenge” and “vengeance” are used at least 16 times in the play, words related to justice a mere five times. The Ghost gave the great commission in terms of vengeance: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (I.5) The Ghost approves of Hamlet’s natural, impulsive response, “Haste me to know it…that I may sweep to my revenge.” In telling his story, the Ghost does all he can to rouse Hamlet to a rage. He lingers on the physical pains of the sufferings that Claudius caused him, using nine lines to describe the effects of the poison, and another five lines to express his current torments – “Oh horrible, O horrible, most horrible!” He speaks of Claudius as a “serpent”, “beast”, a user of “witchcraft”, “garbage”. He invokes not Hamlet’s sense of justice, but his love for his father. He relies, not on Hamlet’s reason, his virtue, his concern for the common good, but nature at work in him, responding viscerally to the Ghost’s images:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.

In fact, other than “the secrets of his prison house”, there is nothing remarkably supernatural in what the Ghost says to Hamlet. Any man who had suffered betrayal by brother and wife could express similar disbelief, repugnance and anger. Had the poison failed to kill him but left him an invalid in a secret prison, Hamlet the king might have said just the same to his son. The Ghost had been violated; the memory of the wrong will not have ceased to pain him until he has had his revenge. In the Rhetoric, a work that Shakespeare knew well,3 Aristotle tells us that anger desires revenge: “Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends.” (Book II, Chapter 2, 1378a) Anger arises, not just because another has caused us pain, but because the other person has slighted us, treated us as of little worth, as persons unable to do anything about a personal injury.4 Anger seeks “conspicuous revenge”. The offender’s suffering will show him and the world that “I am not so low account5 that you can injure me without fear.” Until vengeance is exacted, a man’s own sense of self-worth is undermined.6

So it is deeply natural that Hamlet castigates himself for failing to seek revenge and feels himself a coward. In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he identifies himself with all those who have been slighted:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes….

Nature drives us to settle our accounts (make our “quietus”) with violence. Only conscience, with the accompanying dread of judgment after death, would prevent a young man of spirit from settling his scores in this way. For a Christian especially, conscience presents an obstacle to revenge. How many pious mothers could answer their son’s questions: “’Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?’ Our Lord who meekly bore all the insolence of the scourging and the crown? ‘Who would these fardels bear?’ Our Sweet Savior who bore with His Cross all the sins and sufferings of the fallen world?” Their answers might refrain their sons, but, whether righteous or not, they will struggle with the womanly feeling that all cowards know.

Laertes shows us what we really would want to do, what we might wish Hamlet had done. Laertes, whose cause is so like Hamlet’s, will have nothing of calming thought. Pausing for thought would make him feel like a bastard with no natural feelings for his murdered father. No human structures, no warnings of conscience, or promptings of grace will stop the natural anger that overwhelms him.

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation.
(IV.1)

Claudius eggs Laertes on — no holy place, no treacherous deed should hold him back from vengeance, or else his pretended love for his father is merely a painting of sorrow, “A face without a heart”. (IV.3)

Hamlet himself experiences the same emotions. When the play has exposed the conscience of the King (III.2), he exults in the expectation that makes anger, as Achilles said (Iliad XVIII, 109) “Sweeter…by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness.” Yet Hamlet knows that Christian vengeance must be more spiritual. When he comes across the kneeling King, he has the perfect opportunity to satisfy his earthly passion, but he refrains. (III.3) The King is praying, and so death will bring him to heavenly reward. “O This is hire and salary, not revenge!” Achilles’s rage could not be satisfied except by never-ending humiliation of Hector’s mortal remains (Iliad XXIV, 1ff), so Hamlet will wait until he can make sure his foe’s “soul may be as damn’d and black As hell, whereto it goes.” Earlier he had feared the devil might be abusing him in order to damn him; now Hamlet himself has assumed the devil’s role in order to damn his uncle.7

Conscience intensely afflicts one other character in the play — Claudius. The first reference to conscience occurs in the last line of Act 2. Hamlet intends to “Catch the conscience of the King.” The King’s conscience is hiding; Claudius has been hiding his guilt. Hamlet prepares the play to expose it. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that the King’s conscience has already begun to show itself. In an aside as he and Polonius prepare Ophelia as a test for Hamlet (III.1), Claudius reveals that he has been bearing the “heavy burthen” of conscience for some time. It has made him so sensitive that Polonius’s gentle lament over the necessity of hypocrisy feels like a lash to him. What a torment the open performance of his seduction and murder must be! The play exposes his conscience to all, but also gets it working interiorly in ways that Hamlet never dreams. Conscience proclaims Claudius guilty, spurs him to prayer, but also prevents him from praying. Grave sinners might find the King’s cry the most pitiable lines in any drama: “Oh bosom, black as death: Oh limed soul that struggling to be free art more engaged.” (III.3) When he bends hopelessly into the posture of prayer, he begs for angelic help and, in a plea that would have shaken St. Augustine, he commands what he can in no way bring about himself, “…Heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!”

Embracing Conscience

So conscience is a real problem in the play – frustrating Hamlet, lashing Claudius, rejected by Laertes.

But conscience returns in Act V as a friend to Hamlet. Hamlet accepts the judgment of conscience, which clears him of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildensterne (V.2).8 Conscience now approves of him “quitting” the one who has “killed my King”, “whored my Mother”, stolen the crown, and attempted to murder him. Conscience will even damn him should he “let this Canker of our nature come in further evil.” (V.2)

How is this change brought about? Much has rightly been made of Hamlet’s new-found sense of Providence in Act V, which amazes, comforts, calms and strengthens him. He recounts to Horatio the providential accidents that brought him back alive to Denmark, and entrusts his life to its care. Perhaps this has an important role in reconciling Hamlet to his conscience. But before he can embrace Providence, he must put aside his demonic desire for revenge. Hamlet’s conversion happened in the Queen’s bedroom. (III.4) When Hamlet heads to meet his mother, his anger against her is as strong as that against his uncle. He is tempted to murder her, but recoils at an act too unnatural, too Nero-esque. But he intends to shame her, even to torment her, by bringing up her awful crime and flinging it in her face.

Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;

He will need all his will power to make himself be satisfied with mere verbal lashings.

In using her conscience as a tool of torment, Hamlet is following the Ghost’s lead. The Ghost had no doubt that his “seeming virtuous queen” had succumbed to her lust before his death. (I.5) Her betrayal was more of a torment to him than his brother’s violence. He lost track of the time as he wondered how she could have left his celestial bed to “prey on garbage”. He knew that his natural rage would infect Hamlet, so he warned him to let Heaven sting her:

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.

Even before hearing the Ghost’s accusations, her evident joy at marrying his uncle had poisoned Hamlet’s view of the whole world. (I.2) After the Ghost’s departure, Hamlet lamented his mother even before accusing his uncle, “O most pernicious woman. O villain, villain, smiling damned villain.” Now, in her bedroom, (III.4) he vents his shame that she is his mother. He blames her not only for her sin, but for the ruin of all his hopes in virtue, in love, in religion.

Such an act That…Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths…and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven’s face doth glow:

His accusations have their effect; Hamlet makes his mother look into her soul and see how black it is. But he is not done. She begs him to stop, but he goes on to portray love-making in such disgusting terms as would make Iago proud. Hamlet, finally having reached her conscience, uses it not just to prick her and sting her, but to bludgeon and bludgeon her.

At this moment, the Ghost appears. He has come to chide his son for inaction, but he sees his unfaithful wife in her torment. In Act I, he desired her to be pricked by guilt. But now that he sees her, his natural tenderness for her comes back to him, and he tells Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul”. He knows she cannot bear direct contact with the world beyond nature. His look of tenderness is so full of pity that it leads Hamlet to lose that thirst for “hot blood” that he so desperately need as the fuel for his actions.

Do not look upon me, Lest with this piteous action you convert My stern effects. Then what I have to do Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.

The Ghost does convert Hamlet’s “stern effects”. He begins to preach to his mother. He urges her to desire grace, confess herself, repent of her past, and begin the long and difficult road to virtue. He offers her Aristotelian advice on the benefit of good actions chosen with difficulty. And he promises he’ll ask her forgiveness when she admits she needs his.

In the Tragedy of Hamlet, instead of rising to greatness and then plunging to disaster, the central character plunges down into the moral abyss and then dramatically is lifted out of it. Hamlet’s rise begins right here, in the middle of the scene with his mother. Hamlet had become satanic9, determined to use the conscience of his enemies to trap them, damn them and torment them. But the Ghost’s expression of natural pity “converts” Hamlet, who then uses his mother’s conscience to correct her, inspire her and direct her to prayer. He awakens her sense of conscience and encourages her to accept its condemnation so that she can embrace the possibility of repentance that it offers:

_Qu._ Oh Hamlet, Thou hast cleft my heart in twaine.

_Ham._ O throw away the worser part of it, And Live the purer with the other halfe.

Hamlet finally recognizes that even the heart of his adulterous, incestuous mother has a purer part. He no longer condemns nature as “a foule and pestilent congregation of vapours” nor see man simply as “This Quintessence of dust.”

Hamlet’s intense experience with his mother immediately opens him to his own conscience as he faces the body of Polonius. It also seems to make him aware of the action of Providence in his life.

For this same Lord, I do repent: but heaven hath pleas’d it so, To punish me with this, and this with me, That I must be their Scourge and Minister.

Perhaps the reconciliation between natural feeling and conscience has opened him up to the Lord of both Nature and Mind.

In the bedroom scene, at the heart of the play, we see Hamlet’s turn toward conscience and Providence. When he returns from his trip toward England, he is a new man – ready to trust his life and death to a Providence which he sees at work in his life, ready to be judged and directed by conscience, ready to repent and amend for the wrong he had done to Laertes in Ophelia’s grave. He is no longer filled with rage nor does he need to be in a rage to act. He soberly judges that his right and duty lies in an attempt to challenge the king; he is ready to act though he is scared; he believes that Providence will provide the right opportunity.

In the final, disastrous duel (V.2), Hamlet shows his true character. He makes a moving apology to Laertes which quenches the rage of “Nature, Whose motive in this case should stirre me most to my Revenge.” Hamlet so touches the better angel of Laertes’ nature that it wakens his conscience, which nearly prevents him from carrying through with the duel. Having been poisoned by his own blade, he admits that his death is just, defends Hamlet’s slaying of the King and dies begging forgiveness:

Exchange forgivenesse with me, Noble _Hamlet; Mine and my Father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me.

Hamlet readily responds: “Heaven make thee free of it, I follow thee.”

The Tragedy of Hamlet is not a typical tragedy for Hamlet. He suffers from the beginning a trial that shakes his seemingly happy life from its foundation. The fabric of natural loves that has nurtured his life has been torn to shreds. Without this natural context, he feels within himself, when he can feel at all, only the base, angry part of nature, which makes the demands of Christian conscience seem external fiats enforced by eternal intimidation. Yet the other side of nature, the natural pity arising from love, lies latent even in the betrayed Ghost. The Ghost to his own surprise is overwhelmed by it, and awakens it in Hamlet, teaching him to hope that his mother’s heart has a “purer part” that can be reached by grace. Hamlet thus begins his rise from demonic manipulation of conscience to embracing Christian conscience as the guide to just action. Perhaps his father is finally able to let go as well; he is seen no more on earth.

The really tragic figure in the play is Claudius. Brought by Hamlet’s Mousetrap to the brink of repentance, he has not the strength in himself to soften his heart and let go of his unjust gains. Instead, like Macbeth, he confirms himself in evil, corrupts Laertes, and becomes the instrument of death for his queen, Laertes, Hamlet, and even himself. Little doubt that his soul ends “as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes.” Had he not led Laertes into treachery, into poisoning the blade, Hamlet would have lived to tell his own story. Yet this was not Providence abandoning Hamlet. Rather, It allowed him to suffer justly for his role in the tragedy. For when Claudius cried out, “Help, angels!”, Hamlet appeared, not as an angel of mercy, but as the angel of condemnation. What might have happened had Hamlet shown himself to Claudius at that moment, and accused him as he later did his mother? Would that have melted those “strings of steel”? We will never know.

1In an essay entitled “The Case of Hamlet the Younger”, Studies in Shakespeare, 1895.

2 N.B. The Folio edition omits his second long soliloquy on the question, the one provoked by Fortinbras’ assault on Poland (IV.4).

3 Cf. Sr. Miriam Joseph’s, Shakespeare and the Art of Rhetoric.

4 No doubt, Aristotle would think of Achilles here.

5Or a “dishonored vagabond”, as Achilles would say (Iliad 9.648).

6 St. Thomas Aquinas accepts this definition of anger – 1-2.48.2. He also holds that anger is, on the part of the subject, the most natural of the passions – 1-2.46.5.

7The spiritual horror of this scene is so intense that Victorian audiences would not stand for it to be performed.

8 Hamlet says their deaths are “not near my conscience”. MacDonald gives a good explanation of Hamlet’s reasoning.

9The Adversary of the Book of Job, whose anti-thesis is the Paraclete, The Advocate, promised by Our Lord.

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Tolkien Essays

I just added a page featuring three of my essays on Tolkien’s works, which have meant so much to me from the time I encountered them as a teenager.

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