Stoic Lies and Assisted Suicide

Frequently, I find immediate connections between readings and discussions of great authors and contemporary issues. In our last CIT webinar discussion, we considered St. Augustine’s analysis of all the views held by philosophers about happbzx4hchceae8xcdiness. St. Augustine points to one thing they have in common: they cannot accept that happiness is only possible in the next life. By and large the philosophers have to lie to themselves and others about the truth of the human condition. In fact (as the ancient poets saw), human happiness is extremely fragile. It is rarely achieved or maintained for any length of time, and it can never be secure.

The life, then, which is either subject to accidents, or environed with evils so considerable and grievous, could never have been called happy, if the men who give it this name had condescended to yield to the truth, and to be conquered by valid arguments, when they inquired after the happy life.

St. Augustine saved his strongest condemnation for the Stoics. They insisted that wisdom can make us securely happy in this life, yet at the same time hypocritically honored the wise man who, when faced by really terrible things like wasting sickness or torture, made a conscious decision to commit suicide . When the happy lie that happiness is ours for the choosing is overturned by the troubles that all human life is subject to, the Stoics held that the courageous man ends his own life and leaves its dishonorable miseries.

Earlier this week, a Washington Times article about assisted suicide revealed a strikingly similar dynamic. According to it, fear of pain is not the most common reason for requesting medication that will end life. Avoiding dependency on others is.

[The chair of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school] noted that most of those who have used aid-in-dying laws are white, well insured and college-educated. “These are people who are used to controlling every aspect of their lives, and they want to control this aspect of their lives.”

In a strange way, this description connects today’s most successful with yesterday’s Stoics. Although they do not use philosophy to convince themselves that life has no real evils, the comforts of contemporary life have encouraged them to believe similarly that they have achieved happiness by their own powers. When they see that their powers will no longer be sufficient, that they will have to depend upon others to take care of them, they lack the courage to resign themselves to the reality of human life. Rather, they lie about courage itself and celebrate as courageous those who insist on controlling the manner and timing of their own death.

St. Augustineaugustine proposed a different view of happiness. There is a kind of happiness achievable in this life, but it is specifically Christian. Christians do not have to lie about this life. They know it is fraught with difficulties, sometimes terrible ones. But they also know that this life is not the only, nor the most fulfilling life. The heavenly happiness will come certainly for the faithful Christian. Resting in that knowledge, Christians can be happy also in this life:

As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this with patience; for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure. Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.

Christians are unique in our ability to see this life for what it is — a life in which consolations are not missing but are not to be relied upon nor overvalued. Because of that, we can live authentic lives of virtue, marked by patience, courage and hope, even when faced with the terrible news of terminal illness.

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Christian Spaemann on Transsexuals

Politically charged issues are always hard to consider carefully, thoughtfully and faithfully. This looks to be helpful with regard to a difficult topic.


The psychiatrist Christian Spaemann, son of the great Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, has written a remarkably intelligent and balanced article on “transsexuals” and how the Church ought to give them pastoral care. The article was so good that I agreed to help translate it for First Things.

As a psychiatrist Spaeman has a lot to say about the psychological suffering of those who consider themselves transsexuals, and about the appalling way in which that suffering is being instrumentalized today, and the appalling haste with which young persons are being lead into drastic measures:

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Peter Kalkavage on Hegel’s Anti-Aristotelian Account of Desire

I remember the amazement I had when, reading through the modern philosophers in college for the first time, I realized how all the societal disasters I had grown up with were presaged and, I thought, provoked by their writings. Ideas have consequences.


Hegel has sometimes been called an “Aristotelian” It is indeed undeniable that he was heavily influenced by Aristotle’s hylomorphism, the theory of nous, and so on. But there is a great gulf between Hegel and Aristotle. It is the abyss between the ancients and the moderns. One way of understanding that abyss is in terms of the account of the good and its relation to desire. Marcus Berquist once wrote that since the good is the cause of causes, the first principle, it is disagreement about the good that “defines modern philosophy, as it separates itself from the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, and the teachings of the Catholic Church.” To the moderns the good is good because it is desired, while to Plato, Aristotle, and the Catholic tradition it is desired because it is good. The following passage from Peter Kalkavage’s brilliant book on Hegel shows very clearly how central…

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Telemachos and the Divine

773516The Odyssey is an epic that often reads like a contemporary novel.  It opens with an intimate portrayal of a terrible but familiar situation — a young man has grown up without a father, and is overwhelmed by responsibilities that he feels totally inadequate to face.  So we meet Telemachos, whose father, Odysseus, spent the first decade of his life fighting overseas, and then was lost at sea on his return home.   Since Telemachos turned 16, his mother has had many men hanging around all the time who have made themselves masters of the house and treated him as a boy of no consequence.  The reputation of his great father is a sorrow and a burden to him, making him feel his own inadequacies even more deeply.

But Telemachos is not alone.  Two older men, one a stranger, one a fellow-citizen, befriend and encourage Telemachos as they guide him to take the first steps towards dealing as a man with the many troubles facing him.  “Mentor” is the name of the one who encourages Telemachos to begin to take up the leadership role of a man, and guides him on a sea journey to discover news of his father.  Telemachos follows his advice, finding the courage to call out his mother’s telemachus-mentor2-1-680x380suitors in public, and to be bold in asking the great hero, Nestor, about his experiences in the Trojan War.  He is not entirely successful, but he grows visibly through the experience of taking initiative.

But unlike most contemporary novels, Homer has the divine enter into his story immediately.  Homer begins the story by having Zeus complain about how mortals blame the gods for their evils, when they really bring them upon themselves.  Athena pleads on behalf of Odysseus, then determines to give Telemachos the mentoring she knows he needs.  Mentor, we learn, is really Athena in disguise, as is the stranger who first counsels him.  This is Homer’s way – he sees the unexpected help we receive from others in our darkest hours as the divine hidden by thin veils.

I was very touched when I read the opening books early this past Sunday.  They lingered with me as we sang Psalm 146, about the faithfulness of the Lord to those in need.  The Lord “keeps faith forever”, “secures justice for the oppressed”, “protects strangers”, sustains “the fatherless and the widow”.  Homer longed for such a Lord, and perhaps experienced his tender care even through the veils of his devotion to false gods.  But Homer also made me realize how it often is that the Lord does all these things – through us.  Homer dimly sensed that the unexpected and often unmerited kindness of others was divine in origin.  Now it has become clear.  We know that the Lord inspires in our hearts care for those who are in need. Through us, He brings them comfort and counsel; they feel His presence through the love that we, who have learned from Him, show them.  Through the prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman, which was also a favorite of holy Mother Teresa, we learn to ask to be vessels of the love of the Lord Jesus: “Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see, no longer me, but only Jesus.”


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Figurative Language and the Poetic Art

Many years ago, I was doing research in the Catholic University of America library, and by chance discovered Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language by Sister Miriam Joseph. At first, I was overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of her analysis, but the part that I grasped at once was her discussion of figurative language. Even though I had “honors” literature classes in my public high school, I could only name the most basic forms of figurative language: metaphor, simile, personification and hyperbole. I did not know other forms even existed. And when we studied literature, even poetry, the use of figurative language was scarcely noticed, let alone analyzed.

SrMirJoseph ShakespeareSr. Miriam’s book introduced me to metonymy (which substitutes an attribute for the thing itself, e.g a car is a “ride,” a restaurant customer is a “plate”); synecdoche (which substitutes the part for the whole, or the whole for the part, e.g. “suits” for officials or “skirts” for girls); and meiosis (or “understatement,” the opposite of hyperbole, e.g. a major wound is “a scratch”). In his discussion of poetic language, Aristotle observes that it is “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” (Poetics, chap.22, 1459a5-8) Aristotle focuses on metaphor, but clearly his point applies to figurative language in general. Hence, the genius of Shakespeare’s language, the richness use of figures such as metaphor, simile and many others besides, was lost on me until I met Sr. Miriam.

In my high school, we tended to focus on imagery and symbolism to the detriment of figurative language. We would analyze what the forest “stood for” in The Scarlet Letter, or what the Duke and Dauphine “symbolized” in Huckleberry Finn. This certainly has its place – imagery and symbolism are literary devices. But, if Aristotle is right, the comparisons and contrasts that figurative language makes possible is a defining trait, perhaps the defining trait of both prose and poetry. It is even, as Aristotle explains in his logical works, a philosophic ability. Part of logic is training oneself to find likenesses in unlike things (Topics, I.17). When Socrates relates his “cave allegory” in the Republic, his hearers consider the prisoners and their prison “strange.” But Socrates tells them, “they are like us.” He helps them to understand their own situation in something that at first seems completely unlike and “strange.”

The genius of figurative language is to see likenesses between things that do not at once appear like to us. It is this gift that allows F. Scott Fitzgerald to say of Daisy “Her voice is full of money” or Milton of his devils that “amazement seized the rebel thrones” (metonymy); or again, Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to write “the western wave was all aflame” or Shelley to say of Ozymandias, “the hand that mocked them/and the heart that fed” (synecdoche); or Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye to say “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor in my brain.” and Poe to describe his macabre tale of “The Black Cat” as a “homely narrative” (meiosis).

Quinn FiguresIf you wish to learn more about figurative language, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language is a must-read. Perhaps an easier place to start is Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech, which illustrates various figures with quotations largely (though not exclusively) from Shakespeare’s plays and Biblical texts. (Most of the examples in the preceding paragraph are from Quinn’s book). Quinn was a longtime professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, (“Can anything good come from Berkeley? Come and see!”) and the book is as charming as it is instructive.

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The Joy of Returning

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.  (Hebrews 12:22-24)

For some reason, as I listened to today’s reading from Hebrews, the description felt familiar.   St. Paul seems to be drawing on an experience very familiar to Jews of his time – the culmination of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city to celebrate the Passover.  After all the miles, the hardships of the journey, to finally arrive!  They must have felt such joy, like they had made it to their true home, as they joined the celebrations erupting throughout the city.McLean

“Why did this feel so familiar to me?” I wondered.  “When have I experienced joy like this?”  Then I remembered.  It was the beginning of last week, when college’s President culminated our convocation ceremonies with the words he uses each year:  “I declare Thomas Aquinas College in session, in this Year of Our Lord 2016.”  The student body erupted with applause and shouts and laughter, as they do every year.  Every year.  And every year, the sound gives my heart a lift.

I count it a great blessing to be a part of a school community devoted to learning truth under the light of the Catholic faith.  Our central commitment grounds our life together and makes our school a magnet for families and youth who treasure the traditions of Catholic wisdom.  The joy that we find in coming back together after our summers scattered around the country and the world gives us a taste of what the Jews must have felt, and a real foretaste of our promised entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem.

As I travel the country working with Catholic classical schools, I am thrilled to find that they share a similar sense of joy in their life together.  Yet I am also filled with great sadness, when I think of how rare it still remains.  May the Holy Spirit ground more and more Catholic schools and colleges in the love of the Truth that they might become centers of joy and foretastes of Heaven.

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Classical education — “learning to read.”

In his Confessions, Augustine expresses gratitude for his classical education. Although he is highly critical of the pagan mythology that saturated his curriculum, he observes, “those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will.” (I.13.20) As modern people, it is easy for us to see the phrase “the power of reading” and understand this as “basic literacy.” On the contrary, the curriculum of Augustine’s day studied a limited number of authors (Virgil, Terrence, Sallust, Cicero) with slowness and care almost unknown in our time.


As Peter Brown explains in his classic Augustine: A Biography, “The great advantage of the education that Augustine received was that, within its narrow limits, it was perfectionist. The aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of an ancient classic. ..Every word every turn of phrase of these few classics, therefore, was significant. The writer did not merely write. He ‘wove’ his discourse; he was a man who had ‘weighted the precise meaning of every word.’ We need only see only see how Augustine as a bishop will interpret the Bible as if everything in it were ‘said exactly as it should be said’ to realize the lasting effect of this education.” (p.25)


One can find support for this characterization of classical education from a thinker whose views on almost everything else are diametrically opposed to St. Augustine, namely the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is famous as a philosopher, but it important to remember that Nietzsche’s “day job” was a philologist, that is a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Basel. (Ill health and academic politics forced him to retire early.) Nietzsche commends the study of the classics in Greek and Latin as a discipline of “reading slowly”:


“For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurelyNietzsche art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of ‘work’: that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is intent upon ‘getting things done’ at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not ‘get things done’ so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes!” (Dawn of Day, Preface, 5)


A classical education should be approached in a radically different way from contemporary schooling, which studies too many unrelated subjects in a broad but shallow way, and which virtually guarantees that the student will retain little or nothing. A return to the classical tradition means rethinking what we teach and how we teach it. For the goal is not just to “expose” the student to knowledge, but rather to form his mind through the greatest works, to think critically and deeply about the world around him.

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The Creative Historian: The Role of the Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder


Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past?


J.R.R. Tolkien, age 24

If what we say here is true of Tolkien’s sub-creation, it is equally true of those less radical creative departures from the so-called “real world” – those works that go by the name of the roman or novel? Such works, historical in character as they are for the most part (insofar as they generally speak of past events) and set in the “real world,” usually contain their dose of error or even (dare we say it?) lies. For who reads, for instance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III and thinks he is getting the straight dope on the events proceeding and following the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare at times frankly distorts the past for purposes of his own – purposes quite other from those of the historian. And not only Shakespeare is guilty of falsifying the past; one can point to countless other writers who, with their creative imagination, recast past events and personalities for their own arcane intentions and purposes.

If we expect poets and novelists to be liars, we count on historians to tell the truth. “The facts, mam, the facts, and nothing but the facts” – this is what the historian is after. The historian narrates, or at least tries to narrate, what actually occurred at some defined time and place, without addition or subtraction. If the historian is an artist, it is only in how he narrates the facts, not in the facts themselves, or so we think. Indeed, we would describe the historian as “scientific” rather than artistic or “creative.” The novelist may play fast and loose with the events of the past; the historian is tightly constrained within the parameters of a demanding discipline.

Thus, it seems I have confirmed the suspicions of at least many of you – that I am some sort of intellectual heretic for even suggesting that an historian may be creative. Yet, before you sick the hounds of the Inquisition on me, I would beg you to hear my case. For despite my protestations to the contrary, I maintain that the creative imagination has a role, a very central and important role, to play in the exploration of history, and the telling and teaching of it. I pray this august assembly to hear me for my cause, and only then, pass judgment upon me. When I have had done, if need be, you may denounce me to the authorities. Continue reading

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Jacques Barzun on Reading the “Classics”

Many readers will be familiar with Jacques Barzun from his monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which he completed at age 93. (Barzun died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 104!) Among his many interests was education, which he first addressed in his 1945 work The Teacher in America. The following excerpt is taken from his essay “Of What Use are the Classics?” from Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. (1987)

“Because a classic is thick and full, and because it arose out of a past situation, it is hard to read. The mental attitude and attention that are good enough for reading the newspaper and most books will not work. We read ordinary matter by running the eye over the print at a steady rate, rarely stopping to think or wonder.Barzun BeginHere

“But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics?  The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what?  Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines — Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip; wider especially than one’s business or profession. …The great works do not yield their cargo on demand; but if one reads them with concentration, the effort gives us possession of a vast store of vicarious (indirect) experience; we come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial (manufactured) existence.

“…I have said that the classics cannot be read like a magazine article. It takes some form of compulsion to get started, and often the eager starter bogs down in difficulties. To give help, therefore, and to apply the steady pressure, coaching is necessary. Hence the classics must be met and conquered at latest in college.
At latest: the really appropriate time would be the last two years of high school, when the onset of maturing stirs feelings and thoughts about the meaning of life and the nature of society. Our obtuse (slow-witted) educational experts would be astonished to see how passionately a group of perfectly average fifteen-year-olds can be brought to discuss Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ or the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine.’  But the opportunity is missed, and college offers the last chance of initiating the habit of reading and enjoying solid books.”


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Homer, Zeus and Destiny

“Is there a right answer?” a student interrupted our discussion of Book XVI of the Iliad to ask me tonight. I really hate that question, which is usually a sign that students are tired of thinking. But tonight, the student was serious, and the conversation had been serious. But the topic was hard, “What is the relation between Zeus and destiny?” and he needed me to assure him that I knew there was a right answer.

The amazing thing was that he cared that much. In fact, the whole seminar seemed deeply interested in the question. Seven or eight gathered with me and another tutor after our two hour class discussion to pursue it for another 45 minutes. “I need to know!” said one young woman.

Now why would a group of college freshmen mostly from serious Catholic families “need to know” how Homer, a pagan author dealing with bloody, glory-seeking semi-barbarians, portrayed Zeus and destiny?

One reason could be that they had seen his story didn’t fit with the tidy picture they had of the Greeks, who thought fate was over everything.  Or did they? “And the will of Zeus was accomplished,” opens the epic. Later  Zeus tells Hera that Hektor and Patroklos and his own son, Sarpedon, will all die because he promised Achilles’ mother that he would bring honor to Achilles.  Yet Zeus laments that Sarpedon is destined to die. He seriously considers saving him until Hera talks him out of it, and then weeps “tears of blood” as he leaves Sarpedon to his destiny.

The surprise element must be a big factor. But I also raised the question of whether this mattered to the story. Is the Zeus/destiny question really important or just a matter for maddening or scholarly curiosity? They thought it deeply important, for if Zeus were in charge of all, then he could give reasons for why he let terrible things happen even to those he loved. And maybe he could be supplicated, and could change his mind. But if Zeus is simply subject to destiny, then no reason can be given for why Patroklos, who wins our sympathy through the tears of pity he sheds on behalf of his fellow Achaians, must die. Another senseless death.

Patroklos goes to his death because he succumbs to the rage and fury that success in battle breeds. “Besotted!” Can battle really do this to a man? It seems so. But Homer continues, “But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” Do men feel that, when they are overcome by passion in the moment that something divine is driving them? Is it a god? The God? Can it have a purpose even when it leads to disaster?

These are deeply human questions. As Catholics, we are blessed to have all the answers. But having all the answers from the time of your youth often means you never really face the questions. I hope that in part my students’ fascination came from seeing how marvelously Homer shows his world, a world for which the questions are deeply real, and is fueled by the hope that his “answer’ – murky, delicate, profoundly suggestive – might offer a window of wonder opening on the mysterious God whom they love and serve.

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