Monday, January 9, 2012

"He's a Catholic guy": A concise summary of some important problems between dating and Catholics.

I would preface this note by fully and completely admitting that I am singularly not a living expression of the "average Catholic" who is in the dating realm.  In the first place (and I say this solely insofar as it may bear upon this post), I am actively pursuing discernment of a possible religious vocation, though I keep an open mind at the moment with respect to dating; in the second, my dating history did not start with a hookup, as is becoming something of a phenomenon in Western societies (and, I should add, even if the preceding link to MSNBC is not convincing, one must really examine how often they know themselves or their friends to go on "proper" dates. This is a universal experience.)  However, by the same token, I have no attachment to the school of thought that thinks these things are necessary or inevitable parts of the "dating life" of every young man. Frankly, I wouldn't call them dating.

Putting that aside, this post is not about the hook-up as such; it is about hypocrisy, and perhaps the most common hypocrisy one sees among college-age Catholics today.  I am referring here to the policy of identifying as Catholic even as one indulges the hook-up culture. To begin with: 90 percent of Catholic adults apparently, according to one Harris Interactive poll, support coverage of birth control as a health care policy. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that polls are flexible, and it does not immediately imply that they would personally use contraception, the immediate problem this presents to an educated Catholic is that those 90 percent of Catholics have turned against all the Church teaching on the matter.  This would manifest itself in several issues:

Canon Law 916 states that "anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible." Now, it is, in fact, a grave sin to use contraception; it is likewise a sin to support it knowing that it is wrong, because to support a mortal sin deliberately is to become an accomplice. Now, there is a clarification to be made here; one may not know that it is a mortal sin. But even in that circumstance there are other factors in play. Was someone willfully ignorant of the Church's teaching? Was their ignorance due to negligence, fully willful or otherwise? If so, even the lack of knowledge does not excuse them, because like the person who chooses to get drunk knowing that they may be tempted to drive and thus risk killing someone, they choose ignorance knowing that they may choose it to their own undoing. If these are the case, then such ignorance does NOT excuse the sin; thus, true ignorance is a much rarer bird than anyone might think. And when it is not present, one is then deliberately supporting something that one knows may be a mortal sin, and one is as responsible as a drunk man is for a murder or other crime he may commit.

Now, I have friends who are not Catholic, and a lot of them. They are very dear to me, and often tell me how their life is going; part of that involves the romantic. And many of them do not see anything wrong with hook-ups, or if they do, they tolerate the ill for some perceived further good. Occasionally, too, they meet someone who claims to be better than the rest, or to be part of a group that advocates for things which, if followed, would at least make someone trustworthy. Such a group would be the Catholic Church...if, that is, anyone who claimed to be Catholic followed her teachings. They say that the proof is in the pudding, but when one ruins a pudding of a certain sort, they still expect it to taste something like a burnt version of the sort of pudding they call it or intend it to be. Dating a Catholic who turns out to be merely nominal, not doctrinal, is like biting into a pudding only to discover that it is, in fact, mud with the word "pudding" inscribed into it with a child's finger.

People wonder why the Church has a bad name, and there are plenty of reasons, not all of them their fault. But if you want to see the most common, look to the everyday interactions between "small-c catholics" who claim to be "Catholics" even as they plot their next bedroom excursion in a bar where no Catholic should be wasting their time. Look to their life in relationships where, like the Pharisees, they wear coats of outward gold and inward lead. Outwardly, they present a picture of being in a culture of life and of respect. They present themselves to others as "the sane ones." Indeed, these are both things real Catholics can do, authentically. But the second they are tested, they fall; and they are not like those who have never been truly tested, who have some excuse; they are those who play their Catholicism as a gambler plays his cards, as tactics for their real end, the end for which they sell themselves cheaply.

To the non-Catholics, I would make this entreaty, one I have been forced to make many times before. I am not a lawyer (though, above, I may cite some Canon Law), but it is part of being a Catholic that one learns from difficult experience to advocate for the innocent. And as I am discerning that vocation, that I should live my life in service and love of the Church, it is perhaps good practice that I should ask you now: please do not blame her. The Church says not to engage in the pre-marital sex that has become the norm; people do it anyways, and to their own undoing, and a great many of the modern relationship problems are out of sex being taken out of context. The Church says, at the same time and together with the prohibition of premarital sex, not to use contraception; a schizophrenic application of this by misguided nominal Catholics or simply those too caught in the heat of an avoidable moment to care leads to children one (often, but thankfully not always) has no intention of loving, and its ignorance perpetuates the hook-up culture; and then the Church gets blamed because of the sin she prohibits. This frequently creates an occasion for abortion, which the Church prohibits in no uncertain terms; either one gets one and suffers both spiritually and physically, or one does not and blames the Church for a life that ought to be loved, prompted by a sin that child did not commit. Where in this is the Church's fault? Let's look instead to what dating a Catholic SHOULD look like, in precisely these situations.

Confronted with the temptation to premarital sex, the good Catholic recognizes it for what it is: the desire for a sort of knowledge which can only be properly situated in the context of a perpetual commitment to the other person, whereby one's own good can only be regarded together with that of the other person, where selfishness is not just antithetical to the commitment but emotionally painful in itself, properly understood. If she and I are one, regarding us as two should echo as a lie in the depths of my soul; if she is torn from me, it will be precisely that, a violent tearing, against my will; if she is gone, then so also is part of me; and if this is all the case, even that suffering is a reminder of the God who deigned to first bless our love to point to Him. That is the commitment of marriage, partially; I do not have the words or the experience to express its fullness, though many authors have plunged into that mystery. Dante, notably, remained mute; his marriage was not of that sort, but an alliance of convenience made by others. His lack of discussion of marital love in the Comedy was a mark of respect, not of distaste; and in other respects, he gave quite a bit of tribute to it.

Confronted with an occasion of temptation with regard to contraception, assuming that one has already given in to the resolve towards premarital sex, we are first dealing with the decision already made towards that resolve, which may be changed even until the moment of the deed. But assuming it remains constant, the contraception itself is the removal even of the greatest good of that communication, the possibility of producing a child, the Trinitarian virtue of sexuality. Intimacy is also a great good, but it itself is directed towards the production of the imitation of the Trinity in that act! If that direction intentionally fails, the intimacy itself is a ruse, which dissolves with the rising sun, and leads itself to further hate, further perversion, and mutual despair such as that Dante notes between Paolo and Francesca, in the first Circle of the Inferno. Contraception destroys the aim of intimacy; and if the purpose of the thing is destroyed, so also is the thing thereafter. A hammer is of no use without something it can be used for; and if hammers could be happy, they would be happy as tools, in being used, that for which they were made, because that would be their perfection. We are more than hammers; but we contain parts which are ordered as hammers are, and it is their greatness that we can allow them to do well, and our sickness (literally) that we can prevent them. But whether we employ their greatness or their sickness, what we do with them is our greatness or our sickness; and if we use their greatness or sickness badly, we become sick in soul.

And supposing the contraception fails, or supposing that one does not compound the sin of premarital sex with that of contraception, and a child results. Children are hope. One may have done horrible things that led up to their coming to be, but no child is ever truly a "mistake"; it is only our act that is the mistake, and the child its happy consequence. I say this because in children, if we have done ill, they are our natural shot at redemption; the movie Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks and Jude Law, is all about this. If we have done well, they are our chance at our image and glory. And supernaturally, they are opportunities to once again and anew serve the God whom we may have betrayed in accidentally choosing the act that made them (in the context of the premarital sin.) A good Catholic who has nevertheless made bad choices will here buck up, take responsibility, and help to raise the child; ideally, they could make the choice to marry for the sake of the child, so as to situate the child's life in the commitment of two loving people which the child by their natural dignity should have. And if the spouses cannot always love one another as those spouses who fully freely do (personally, I would be profoundly surprised if many people who marry "for love" have such an idealistic connection as they think), they can certainly love one another for the sake of the child, who they can love even when they cannot stand one another. To think to murder this child, to abort this life, would ever be a good decision is to ignore the sheer good a human life possesses; to betray the very principle of wonder; to stick a knife into our own humanity, for once upon a time that could have been us. That it was not was luck; abortion, in fact, is the attempt to condemn someone to death for the accidental misfortune of their being conceived under an unhappy moon. And even if one cannot wax poetical thus (it is not, in fact, difficult, at least if we are sane) one can recognize that at no point was the Church responsible for the misdeeds committed under a false flag.

There are other misdeeds, of course. Disrespect of women through the sex act itself is only the most common. Other things, too, are horrifyingly common: going to strip clubs, encouraging immodest behavior, and what have you. Chivalry is not just jousting; at its heart, it is the way of being a Catholic human being; it is the imitation of Christ in the service of Mary, and vice versa. It is no surprise, in fact, that Paul says both "Husbands, love your wives," and "Wives, obey your husbands"; the first is a matrimonial analogy to the way God (God the Father, God the Son Who is called Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit) loves His Church (of which Holy Church Mary is precisely the Icon, the Icon of redeemed humanity), and the second is the way in which the Church obeys God in love. Marriage is a cosmological picture of salvation, in which the beloved (the Church) and the lover (God) become one in the marriage-feast that is the Song of Songs. The Church herself teaches this. But is it not the strangest phenomenon that someone who claims to believe this (the Catholic you meet on the street) should act in a way that in every particular denies it? That is hypocrisy; and a small-c catholic is no more Catholic than a hypocritical Pharisee is a holy man.

When you date, my friends, if you meet a Catholic, make sure they live up to the name. It should not be a wild card, but a badge of quality; it should be a seal upon their heart which disposes them to the seal that is marriage. The sign and character of this seal is the virtue of virginity: that quality whereby someone lives as though their purity is something that is part of their nature.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's almost naturally, it's time to talk neutered patriotism!

The "Finlandia Hymn", by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, was written to be a moving, patriotic anthem for Finland, and the original lyrical setting (here given not to meter but in literal translation) is quite powerful in its frank joy:

O, Finland, behold, your day is dawning,
The threat of night has been banished away,
And the lark of morning in the brightness sings,
As though the very firmament would sing.
The powers of the night are vanquished by the morning light,
Your day is dawning, O land of birth.

O, rise, Finland, raise up high
Your head, wreathed with great memories.
O, rise, Finland, you showed to the world
That you drove away the slavery,
And that you did not bend under oppression,
Your day has come, O land of birth.

Here you have a dynamic, powerful, meaningful celebration of Finland's national identity, one well adaptable to her needs in triumph and suffering alike.  That's what a national anthem does; it reminds the people of some nation, in particular form and style characteristic of the nation itself, of the good which that nation is.  In suffering, it gives hope; in joy, it amplifies and redounds to the glory of the nation's common good.  It is in this sense the finality of music which can only come to be in a polis; and the Church, as the ultimate polis which assures the good of every true polis, likewise encourages such anthems and even sings them from time to time, because the local Church is as local as the local populace, while as universal as the love of God.

Unfortunately, this ecclesiology is a bit too involved for the modern Christian.  Modern Christianity is thoroughly occupied (even obsessed!) with the private good within the spiritual life.  Politicians are not considered to be people whose religious views are of any concern; thus the Church is separated from politics.  Communities are seen as mere accidental collections of similar individuals, or clubs; thus parish life ceases to reflect the essential union of the body of Christ, but rather reflects baptism into the political establishment.  The common good is either viewed as that which absorbs the private good, as in the socialist view of "The People", irrespective of any individuality, or that which is a non-existent fiction, as in the consumerist notion that "self-fulfillment" is something that must come at expense to others and can be procured in an exclusive manner.  Person is separated from community, and since personhood is fundamentally matured in relationality, the person is separated from him- or herself.  One loses the reality of what it is to be human.  Community, moreover, is separated from that which the community is for "commonly"; thus one cannot speak about the ultimate end of things.

Alas!  If you wish to see where this castrated identity reflects itself (and often in music probably designed more for castrati) look to the music written by modern composers of liturgical music!  Or, if they do not write the music, they are not content; they also look to ruin the hymns that are approved by imposing ridiculous lyrics.

I feel sad, because the Finlandia hymn is a lovely piece of music, and can be very powerful when sung by tenors, but so many of the lyrical settings to it are such nonsense.  How, realistically, can one picture a bunch of young patriotic men singing this drivel (thank you, United Methodists):

"This is my song, oh God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
This is my song, thou God of all the nations;
a song of peace for their land and for mine."

I mean, okay, I get it, you want to fight prejudice, and the Church shares a common end.  But if you think I'm going to say that, say, Detroit has anything as beautiful as the canyon that houses my alma mater, by God, I will FIGHT you.  And there is no way in hell that I am going to say that the notoriously gray skies in Detroit are "blue as mine."  My skies are pretty darned blue.  And pretty much anywhere has bluer skies than Detroit.  And if I were IN Detroit, patriotism would demand that I take ownership of those gray skies as gray, and stand for them unless it were actually vicious.  Patriotism is not about affirmation of the good generally; it is about the active profession of the common possession of the good one has as a member of the polis, and the healthy joy and zeal one must have from defending its reputation.

The Methodists, far from being finished with their rejection of the common good, have developed an additional verse to lampshade it:

When nations rage, and fears erupt coercive,
The drumbeats sound, invoking pious cause.
My neighbors rise, their stalwart hearts they offer,
The gavels drop, suspending rights and laws.
While others wield their swords with blind devotion;
For peace I'll stand, my true and steadfast cause.

Note the picture we have here.  Nations?  Angry.  Fears?  Omnipresent.  Pious cause (presumably OF said nations and fears)?  Causes war.  Neighbors?  Involved in said war voluntarily.  Justice?  Completely gone.  Literally everyone but the one singing? "Wielding swords with blind devotion."  What do we get from this?  Oh, right; it is never just to engage in war, the people who do so do so out of "blind devotion" (something which simply makes no sense in light of the real character of the wars we see every day) and the singer resolves to stay home and presumably smoke weed in protest.  Or if not that, perhaps they protest that they are the only sane ones, and that all who fight are deluded.  Now, I don't know about them, but I would be hesitant to make such a claim, because it requires a complete breakdown of the common good and a near total pride on the part of literally ninety percent of the populace.  Yet this is a normative verse "for difficult times."  I suspect that what this verse really is is the final exultation of the private good over the common, sung in a masturbatory (that is, designed for the excitation of the passions based on a reflexive action, potentially performed in company but not comunally, that only goes out for the purpose of returning into oneself) ritual of pride, designed to convince the desperate singer that what is really required of them is anything but the difficulty of acknowledging that they may be the cause of some of the evils about which they complain.  Whatever the case, it fits the "everyone is equal and equally right or wrong" attitude of much of the modern United Methodist Church.  I know of a few exceptions, but I also know of quite a few people who prove my point.  Protestant congregations, even "United" ones, tend to vary in character.

The Unitarian Universalist version MUST be some kind of cruel joke:

"We would be one as now we join in singing,
Our hymn of love, to pledge ourselves anew.
To that high cause of greater understanding
Of who we are, and what in us is true.
We would be one in living for each other,
to show to all a new community."

Ladies and gentlemen, Unitarianism!  It's not surprising that a unitary view of the Trinity involves a denial of the notion of the common good which reduces back to a stupid and dissonant over-emphasis on the individual.  I mean, to say that this is masturbatory is just a factual observation, but what's really funny is that it doesn't even end on a rhyme (much like Unitarianism, which can not reach closure on anything; as a result, they identify themselves by a lack of closure.)  And they aren't even able to pledge to love "who we are" and "what in us is true"; that requires a bit of cojones which Nietzche would at least consider worthy of comment.  But since they don't know what it is they fancy, they have to commit themselves to loving the "cause" of (potential) "greater understanding"; it cannot be said that they HAVE said understanding without offending anyone.  This is also the direction of lots of Catholic liturgical music, in which the notion of patriotism is something which simply passes along unnoticed, far from the parish.  I sometimes suspect that the field of liturgical music is dominated by folks who have no interest in sports, nor can recognize why people in fact would have such an interest.

The Calvinists are starting to get warmer, in that Calvinism is all about the dependence of the individual upon something that is not oneself:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew,
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true,
no, I was found, was found of thee.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found, was found of thee.

But because Calvinists focus so much on the individual in predestination, and not upon the Church as an institution of the Mystical Body of Christ, it is still private.  In a sense, it provides an incomplete picture of the common good, not a missing one; the private good of the soul is fulfilled by the common good that is God acting as principle of its pilgrimage.  Very Dantesque or Augustinian.  And yet, again, it is missing something Dante did see, namely, the role that the participating soul does have in seeking God, according to its servant's merit.  One needn't thus set the primary cause of God's love against the secondary cause of the servant participating in that love freely. And that participation is not immediately the participation of the one saved, but rather mediately, through the ministry of the Church; otherwise the Sacraments, the visible and ordinary mode of salvation, would be pointless.  Since this is in fact being used as liturgical music, that is a horrifying omission; particularly because it is for the Sacraments which we must pre-eminently give thanks!  So out goes the Calvinist verse.

Now, the Salvation Army also has their own verse.  (One might gather it is quite the popular tune.)  Its verse is quite different from the others:

Thou art the way, none other dare I follow...
Thou art the truth, and thou hast made me free.
Thou art the life, the hope of my tomorrow
Thou art the Christ who died for me.
This is my creed, that 'mid Earth's sin and sorrow
My life may guide men unto thee.

Initially, this is quite nice.  A repeated affirmation of the necessity of the Incarnation; an affirmation of God's theological perfection as the Way, the Truth, and the Life; a degree of thanksgiving, because "he has made me free"; and finally a profession of love of God which prompts the desire to serve others in bringing them to Him.  Pleasant, good as far as it goes, and even communal at the end, in the sense of reminding someone of their duties.  The problem is that it is no longer an anthem.  It is, perhaps, an encomium and a personal statement of thanksgiving, which is quite beautiful; but it is not communal in principle, only in end.  If I say to myself that I should better serve the common good, that can be an act either private or common.  I might say it as a public act (to provide an example for others and to myself) or as a private one (for my own sake.)  Anthems are not ever thus ambiguous.  They do not look to one's own good, as devotional hymns do, although these are quite laudable in their own setting.  They do not look directly to the duty of others as such, as hymns which inspire to service do; although these are also highly laudable.  Rather, they look to the good of a polis. They are the song of a community, as a community.  Each person has something to give in their experience thereof; picture a veteran who cries as he or she salutes the flag, inspired by their long and painful service to his country; or a mother, who weeps at the children she has lost; or a child, awestruck by the service of their parents.  (As it is a fact that women now serve in the military, I make a point of using "or she" here, because I want to honor not just their service indefinitely but also their individual service.)

The Salvation Army thus does not really get the point, although the point they see is good.  An anthem has a place.  And I would like Finlandia to maintain its dignity of purpose even in translation.  There are a few other translations:

We have the idyllic but generic and thus indeterminately patriotic "Cedar Grace":

The pleasant trees and silver, ripling waters,
the flow'rs and clouds, the un-dimmed, sunlit sky
and bread by thee, our gracious Father, given,
We thankful take of thy so rich supply.
And bread by thee, our gracious Father, given,
We thankful take from thy so rich supply.

and while the trees might indeed be "pleasant", I have yet to locate "silver" waters while at the same time under an "undimmed, sunlit" and presumably cloudless sky; fortunately, the last part is at least an act of communal thanksgiving.

We have (at last, something really dignified!) the beautiful but still private "Be Still, My Soul":

Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He, faithful, will remain.
Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

But none of these are anthems!  Where, outside Finland, would we find an anthem lyric suited to this?  (It is not actually the official national anthem of Finland.)  After looking a long time, one finally locates it in...


Well, I'll be.

Gweddi Dros Gymru, in translation:

For Wales our land, our Father hear our prayer.
The blessed vineyard entrusted to our care.
With mighty shield, guard us, defend our faith.
Make Wales a haven for truth and loyalty.
For the sake of the Son who died upon the cross,
create a land worthy of His name.
O blessed day when holy breezes blow across withered acres, breathing life again.
Heavenly raindrops fall on arid desert, turning it into a sacred garden where young saplings thrive.


Well! Okay, then!  We have the common good: "Wales our land", under God our Father, seeking the political good of being a haven for truth and loyalty as a nation, directly connected to the Incarnation, and concluding in an aesthetic contemplation of the resurrection.  Sounds to me like an anthem!  Of course, because the Finnish people claimed the hymn, maybe this is all just an exercise in criticism.  But hey!  I guess this makes Wales the best at appropriating other people's hymns.

Wales.  Wow.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

“We Need To Go Deeper”: A Pragmatic Exploration of Language and the Philosopher

Philosophy, to paraphrase Finley Peter Dunne, ain't beanbag. It is not easy stuff. To be a philosopher is, if not to plunge into the deepest secrets of the universe, at the very least to plunge to the heart of how we know the stuff of that universe and talk about it. This is a subject of, not specialized, but universal interest; and yet it is understood by many that philosophy is for philosophy majors in their ivory towers. This has been counteracted in one direction by those who seek to make all philosophy political, in the same way that a current suffering is counteracted by suicide; and as such intellectual copping-out is not terribly appealing, I do not think it wise to take such a route. Moreover, such a route, not grounded as it really ought to be in anything unchanging and teleological about the nature of human beings, inevitably ends in a sort of self-consuming hipsterism. A good example of this is the history of colonialist and post-colonialist thought: each epochal writer accuses the epochal prior of some prejudice left unexamined, and in doing so devours their own tail, until there is nothing left upon which to build, because the act of proposing an opposition inherent in every system whatsoever is fundamentally destructive as divisive in method. One must take with one hand what one gives with the other.

But to reflect on politics and philosophy is not the purpose of this particular offering. Rather, inspired by a fantastic discussion with a dear friend of mine, I want to reflect on a rhetorical point in the study and exposition of philosophy, the ever-present rhetorical role of language. There have been two distinct movements in the field of philosophy, the analytic and the synthetic. Each has presented us with a remarkable set of conclusions, conclusions which proceed from such differing principles as to make them the most difficult and unlikely of bedfellows. If the comparison may be allowed, the synthetic is rather like a child who has been raised by a set of conservative and strongly religious parents, and the analytic has been raised by a set of free-love supporters living in an anarcho-syndicalist commune. They have met in the university setting, where they were both given a copy of Plato's Complete Works and told to have at it. To expect any agreement on anything but the most general points over a short time would, perhaps, be folly, given their differing backgrounds. The synthetic study arose out of the stricter adherence to the classical and medieval tradition; the analytic, out of a re-examining of the very early classical tradition alongside a rejection of vast parts of the medieval tradition. With the two traditions came vastly different understandings of method.

Prelude: The Situation of Analytic Philosophy and its Discontents

(N.B.: At the time of writing this, I forgot to add a note that when I am speaking of Analytic Philosophy here, I mean it broadly, including what results (post-colonialism, etc) from what is now properly known as Analytic thought, Frege and Russell and the like.  While post-colonialism is not Analytic in the sense that Frege and Russell are, in the sense of logically analyzed propositions, it is analytic in the sense of the breaking-down of the thing into perceived dichotomies.)

If much ink has been spilt about different movements in philosophy, most of that ink has been about the Cartesian shift from medieval to modern thought. Whereas the medievals taught that the foundation of our knowledge of things was the trusted if cautious infallibility of the senses, from which they deduced about other things, about themselves, and about God, Descartes placed the source of human knowledge in vastly separate deductions. Firstly, in his clear and distinct perception that he, a being that thinks, the reality of which being is deduced from its thought and therefore by his mathematicism a thinking being, existed, and secondly, in the confidence derived from his own admitted perfections as a thinker that God exists and is good, and thus not a deceiver in giving him sense impressions. While there have been varying opinions about the usefulness of this split in both traditions, these by and large characterize the more general principle that in the modern tradition, the thinker moves from thought to world, and in the classical tradition, the thinker moves from world to thought.

I am not really a fan of the analytic method, myself, as it is something holding with itself a large amount of philosophical baggage it can not easily escape and which tends to pollute the direction it takes. But it is undeniable even to honest proponents of the synthetic Aristotelian-Thomistic direction that the other tradition has made invaluable contributions “from the other direction” to the synthetic oeuvre, in such places as the continued exposition of the concept of “person” (as Robert Spaemann in his “Persons: The Difference Between 'Someone' and 'Something'” elegantly and powerfully demonstrates) and in the understanding of Art, as Jacques Maritain repeatedly shows in all his work. It is nevertheless incredibly difficult to penetrate as Spaemann and Maritain have into most analytic work from a synthetic or even a literary perspective. Picture any time one attempts to read Kant to see how this plays out in the rhetorical expression of modernity; or more directly, Hegel, in the transition to continental thought. This is not always the case, as one sees from existential authors like Kierkegaard or Sartre; or in Nietzsche for a singularly defiant exception to the rule concerning philosophy and rhetoric, as in his work philosophy becomes rhetoric. But it has become so institutionally accepted that to write impenetrably is to be intelligent that I would propose that the more obtrusive movement in writing has become accepted, and one need look no further than to authors like Judith Butler. Whether this is as everyone would like it is immaterial, because it has become what everyone accepts. But wherefore, indeed, must we accept it?

The synthetic writers, while not exempt from the charge of pedanticism (which, while many times having the same motivation, is not the same charge laid out here against Butler and the like) are nevertheless justified in saying that finer distinctions require more precise words and qualifiers. It is not enough to say that matter is “what underlies change” if one is explaining the concept; one must move to more abstract conceptions like “philosophically indeterminate” and “possibility of being” to make the concept more determined in the mind of the philosophical audience. And when one hits metaphysics it is very easy to begin to drown in Latin. I am still, after several years of study, left scratching my head when one uses the term “determinatio ad unum”, which I am assured is a fairly simple concept but for all that is never explained to me. And to say that my understanding of esse and essentia was tenuous for a vast part of my metaphysical education would be an understatement. (Thank you, Senior Philosophy class, for your unending patience. May you be rewarded with much cattle.) But such complexities are nevertheless usually resolved by a most patient teacher whittling out the history of the term in the mind of the student, then explaining the application in particular cases, usually through several analogies.

Enter Derrida. Derrida is not synthetic. Derrida said a couple of good things which could comprise a very short list, but in the process did one very bad thing. Derrida used words that are not words, and said that this is how one should “do” philosophy. This is not to say that Derrida made up words. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger...all these people made up words, both in making new ones and in making new meanings for old ones, for better or for worse. Many of these words have become mainstays of the philosophical vocabulary, such as phenomenon and noumenon, form and matter, essence and existence (or the technical meaning of esse, for Aquinas.) I am not complaining about this, in principle. What Derrida did was take a perfectly valid word, 'difference', change the 'ence' to 'ance', making it differance, and proceed to give it a “meaning” so metaphysically convoluted that one is actually not allowed to convey an idea in a manner other than affective or emotional by means of the word. Let us say that I, after asking that teacher what esse and essentia really are, and getting a good explanation, decide to hazard another question and ask the learned professor what differance means. One usually gets one of two answers: either it is a word “without a determinate meaning”, as though it is some kind of linguistic prime matter, or one is subjected to a ten minute lecture on postmodernism which concludes with the first answer. It is a word with no definition, say supporters of Derrida, because it is the difference between things having definition. Now, I realize that this sounds nice, but to one who understands the meanings of “difference”, “between”, “things”, “having”, and “definition”, this can only result in a mental absurdity for synthetic thinkers. The Derrida supporter only looks at the one thus confused with a self-righteous smirk and says “Ha! See, o pathetic Scholastic, how I have revealed the prison of your logocentrism!”

I am not a fan of this move; it is a purely rhetorical political move, not a philosophical one. As luck would have it, my friend from above with whom I had the conversation is a damned extraordinary teacher who, though coming from the same Aristotelian nurture from which I have received, nevertheless has been more fully educated in the history of the movement from modern, to poststructuralist, to colonial, to post-colonial, to Anglophone philosophy; and who as a good friend of mine and a forerunner in that education has been a great help in all sorts of educational need. He was kind enough to explain the benefits of Derrida's move, and the assorted language-tricks which have punctuated that tradition, in an explanation more penetrable than most postmodern scholars have seen fit to couch their field. And while I can appreciate the, so to speak, accidental benefits of that tradition, I am still of the opinion, as someone interested in knowledge and not just political manipulation of the mind, that such postmodern “thought” is ultimately pure sophistry, a linguistic self-pleasuring and not a real academic discipline.

This is a claim that inspires much ire. “But Tsunami, you closed-minded, logocentric blithering idiot,” (they say, because post-modern poststructuralist argument has as its first line of defense the accusation of the one who claims to dislike it that it is the fault of the one disliking) “don't you see how powerful a tool poststructuralist thought has been in political liberation, women's rights, pastoral ministry, assessment of prejudice and generally societal harmony?” The answer is that I do see how it is “useful”, and that's part of the reason why I dislike it so. It is not honest. Real postmodernism, if taken honestly and not simply used to service the views of every single pedestrian that walks past the street-corner, is an amoral tool, devoted to destroying perceived oppositions for no purpose other than that of the one using the analysis. Based on the thought of Saussure, Derrida equates the “conventional” character of language with the “artificial” character of language; and if artificial, it seems, then words are a fact about language and not the world.

This is not true, though, because the reasoning does not follow. Conventional does not equal artificial in every respect, in the first place; it only implies an artificiality in which sound is chosen to mean which thing. It is conventional that we call a container which holds flowers and mud a flowerpot; it is artificial that we choose that sound; but it is not artificial, but natural that we require a word for this flowerpot. And indeed, there is a certain art in wordcraft, as Shakespeare exemplifies and Pratchett notes in The Wee Free Men. (The word “susurrus” is a delightful example of a word that sounds like what it means, a “rustling.”) The compelling artistic necessity, the urge to find the right word for this phenomenon, constitutes a recognition of fittingness, something which seems foreign to Cartesian and post-Cartesian thought. At a certain point, deconstruction of linguistics hits the bedrock of reality. And the problem with this issue is that most deconstructionists do not admit this; objective reality is a problem for them, because it is part of the old scaffolding which poststructuralism aimed to destroy, the notion of one reality or one truth. I used the word “natural” above to describe the point of this collision; it is precisely this notion of nature which poststructuralists deny as a sort of Ur-structure.

Mind, you don't see that many dyed-in-the-wool poststructuralists anymore, for this reason. Instead you see their politically reactionary nephews, the postcolonialists (although they are on the way out too.) Apply the rules of poststructural linguistics to politics and you get colonialism, when you analyze out the prejudice of the conqueror; apply them again and you get postcolonialism, the “liberation of the voice of the conquered.” This I see all the time, and it has all the problems of poststructuralism, plus the political mistakes of those who study analytical linguistics instead of economics. In any case, poststructuralism will get little more out of me, for the simple fact that it is not philosophy and does not deserve commentary from an actual reputable philosophy department. It is a form of Rhetoric, which is why my friend who is so well acquainted with it is quite right to study it, it is his chosen field. But it is not really a seeking-after-Wisdom, which is what philosophy is; and it is the culmination of a movement which, while accidentally being useful at times, eventually devolves into madness and the abyss. A sign of this is that literally anyone can be considered a conqueror or a conquered, and there is nothing to say why the conquered should be given a voice in some situation that should be regarded as equal to the conqueror. If one wishes an example: a serial killer who murders soap opera stars to fight consumerism out of some insanity is in some sense oppressed by consumerist culture; should they be given a voice over that of the soap opera star who has not been systematically murdering people? Any situation involving the oppressor and the oppressed may undergo a relativistic shift.

And this is indicated by the problem it introduces, the key problem for the author: the madness evinces itself in the way such “philosophers” write. Judith Butler, recently the current “thing” in the postcolonial movement, has received an award for being the worst writer in academia, for this ninety word (!) sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
(Butler, Judith. “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” Diacritics 27 (Spring 1997): 13–15.)

To quote Tom Lehrer in “Lobachevsky”: “This, I know from nothing!” And indeed, who could? For, not content with giving her undergraduate students the run-on sentence of the century, Prof. Butler is a great fan of the Derrida-reminiscent fabrication of words. “Hegemony”, formerly a word one might associate with Chinese dynasties, has been adapted by Butler to mean, presumably, some sort of ideological prejudice looming in the background of politics undetected. Mind, one couldn't get that from this sentence. One could not get anything from this sentence. This sentence, in its fashionably-eccentric character and lack of willingness to give up its meaning to even the persistent reader, is like the love-child of Ebenezer Scrooge and Lady Gaga. D.G. Myers wrote an excellent examination of this phenomenon of purposefully horrific writing and the wake it generated, which included an incredibly obtuse defense of bad writing as such by Butler herself. Remarkable indeed, because now we have seen something which might be a travesty: a defense of writing which has no rhetorical efficacy in itself, written by a sitting professor of Rhetoric (!) at UC Berkeley!

When I read that sentence, I long for the days when the philosophers I disagreed with (or, for that matter, those whom I agreed with) knew how to write. This is not without parallel to my longing for the days when the most vocal atheists knew how to think and argue, unlike the insufferable Prof. Dawkins. But then I remember who the greatest author, rhetorically, in that series was, who had a golden pen to seduce and corrupt, and I remember it to have been the same man who took all analytic philosophy before him or since to task. If analytic philosophy is a history, Nietzsche is the prophet of its eschaton. I will not go into too much detail, but this is a thought: Nietzsche thought that those who would propose something and not hold themselves to it simply because they proposed it, challenge the whole world with it and defy the opponent with one's own will to power, was a coward. Now, these post-structuralists do propose things, and they parley agreement to themselves in-house, the nods and grunts of their fellow post-structuralists who want to be “in the know.” But they hide their doctrines so thoroughly behind the guise of a cloak of substandard prose as to remove them from actual “criticism”, the field in which they profess to be expert. They say, with Prof. Butler, that “complicated matters demand complicated language”, an aphoristic sentence which is by its very vocalization put out to sell its body on the street. I do not buy this as the real, deep reason they use such obtrusive language as a matter of course. I think, and Nietzsche would say, that it is because of a very deep-seated fear of being outed as charlatans.

Synthetic Philosophy and Linguistic Theory: The Ladder out of the Hole of the Linguistic Madness

Whatever the laments of the other tradition, it does not deserve our sympathy as it is itself. To say that analytic philosophy has had its moments in the Sun would be an understatement given the way Scholastic and synthetic thought has been systematically jackbooted into the ground since the time of Descartes. Why did this happen?  
We are given a few excuses: Scholastics “did nothing but repeat what their teachers said”, “discussed pointless questions”, “were too dogmatic.” To the first, this Scholastic would say that this would be quite fair to say, if one knew nothing about how vastly important disagreements in Scholasticism were in moving forward at any point. Every single point of Scholastic thought took into account objections, replies to the objections, the clear elucidation of the answer to the question at hand, and even a cursory glimpse at the Summa of Aquinas will reveal that this misunderstanding of the use of authority deserves to be cast into a kindergarten waste-paper basket and burned to ash. A more conspiratorial me would say that this prejudice was maliciously perpetuated and reinforced only by the more stubborn adherence of later Scholastics who seem to have missed the point, and that more conspiratorial me would be right, as the impugning of “the Schoolmen” was part of Descartes' mission.

To the second, the discussion of “pointless” questions, we are often informed of a question as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In the first place, historically, that was not even an actually posed question, but probably designed to ridicule Scholastics. Secondly, any Scholastic knows that this is not how such a question would be posed; it would be broken down into “can angels move”, “can angels dance”, “can angels occupy a place”, “do angels have number”, “do angels have size”, “are angels corporeal”, and so forth.  The first question seems silly; but if you, as did the Scholastics, believe in angels, the parts of the question are of the most fascinating importance! So wherefore should one spurn the noble “pointless” question, when every question (including the famous Thomistic Quodlibetal “which has more force to move man, wine, women or the truth?”) is so pregnant with explanatory value? In other words: there are no stupid questions.

To the third, well...yes. There were a lot of people asserting a lot of things without first investigating them. There are also a lot of moderns, postmoderns, structuralists, poststructuralists, fundamentalists, atheists, and greengrocers at the corner store who will dogmatically assert things for lack of knowledge of the cause of their truth or falsity. We do not, however, judge analytic philosophy, atheism (or honest atheism, anyway), fundamentalism or the occupation of the greengrocer by their dogmatism. We may very possibly judge them, if not charitably, but we cannot judge the field in which they are, unless their dogmatism somehow represents their field; and as the great Scholastics represent the field better than the shoddy ones, Aquinas and Aristotle being no dogmatists themselves in philosophy, this is a false accusation of Scholasticism as such, albeit one which indicates a need for caution. And even in the case of Scholastic dogmatism, this dogmatism was grounded upon the words of those who still find a real purchase in the modern understanding of the world, whereas a dogmatic Cartesian would be laughed out of any medical convention.

Putting these aside, one thing characterizes synthetic philosophy, and that is the movement from first principles and appearances to demonstrative knowledge. While there are many theories about how this works, the medieval theory illustrates in parallel the way I think we ought to view the use of language in philosophy. When you come to know things, you start from what you see; to Aristotle, this is what is “most known to us”, whereas the things farther from our initial grasp are “most knowable”, concluding with God being most knowable of all. For when we move from the effect, what is “more known”, to the cause by syllogism, we know both something about the cause and something about the effect as it shares in the cause; and the cause is necessarily greater than or equal to the effect. This is the principle of sufficient reason. As we sense many instances of things, we form concepts in our mind through the process of induction. Thus, seeing many dogs, I form a concept of “dog”, separated from what is accidental to being a dog: what can come to be and pass away without making the dog “not a dog.” Then, when I say “Toby is a dog” and “Wally is a dog”, I am referring to two different existing living things, Toby and Wally, both of which have that by which a dog is a dog and not a cat or anything else. I and my society or culture come up with words (“dog”, “cat”, “spoon”, “fork”, “spork”) and we use these to signify a thing.

So far, there is nothing controversial about this. But it illustrates the ancient and medieval linguistic principle: the modes of signifying in language are taken from the modes of understanding in which man understands a thing, and as man understands a thing as the thing is, these modes of understanding are taken from the modes of being of things. Linguistics itself, as human beings study it, is concerned with the connection between the modes of understanding and the modes of signifying. And it is in this way of looking at things that we start to get the notion of what medieval linguistics was all about: language is something over and above the understanding, whereby we signify the understood thing to someone else capable of understanding things as they are. This language is borne into life by convention; if I suggest that there is a susurrus emitting from the bulrushes, and the one to whom I am speaking is not so familiar with either English or botany to know that I mean that the sedge plants over there are shaking and making a sound, then there is no language between us, no signification. The other person may yet have some sort of understanding that sedge is a plant, and that the plant does not normally shake, and they may lack only the knowledge that “susurrus” and “bulrushes” are both perfectly good English words, yet that is enough to eliminate language, that these words are not accepted between me and my companion by the bulrushes; we lack convention.

Why is this so important? After all, the post-colonialists think language is for signifying and conventional as well. They do, after all, write academic papers. But this is not the whole of the thing; signification and conventionality are what it is to be a language, but not what it is to be a good language. It is here that we arrive at the bone of contention in linguistics, a bone which has been tugged from both sides since the essentialist-existentialist, nominalist-realist debate which has so plagued philosophy peeked into the tent of linguistics. I may have a “language” which is utterly, so to speak, without “that swing.” My words can be so chosen and formed, like notes in an atonal musical piece, as to be utterly incapable of aesthetic order or expressive unity within a sentence. One is reminded of Orcish in Lord of the Rings, a language so ugly that only the ugly speak it out loud; even to think it is to do violence to the mind. And as Louis Armstrong said, in a sentence which wonderfully expresses the simultaneously relaxed and tight “play” of language in slang, “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.” Sure, one can signify conventionally in Orcish; but one, in doing so, makes oneself like the Orcs. This is a variation, a subversion, on Derrida's claims about language; language makes one like it, but it is through a certain logocentric outlook that one is able to escape the sort of ideas about language that would make this an unfortunate phenomenon. Logocentrism, this Western outlook on reason and reality, if it is a cage, is a cage for the free.

And how does this cage, as I claim, so set us free? Buried deep in this logocentric background is the notion of the complimentary necessity of fittingness: the idea that, over and above the necessity needed to achieve something at all, there is a necessity if one is to do something well, which is what one inevitably aims to do in willingly doing something for the sake of happiness. If I wish to cut wood, I could use a whittling knife, but it would take a long time and require altogether too much effort to be reasonable. In point of fact, when one wishes to cut down a tree, one buys an axe. (“Axe” is another example of a word that sounds like what it is for. One “hacks” with an axe; there is a certain therapeutic benefit to using the sharp and sudden word “hack”, and there is a therapeutic benefit to the act itself when done with an axe and not a whittling knife. “Whittle”, as well.) Likewise in the crafting of language itself, one comes up with words like “hack”, “whittle”, and “axe”, which evoke the thing they intend to signify. This, on the level of wordcraft, is how fittingness plays a role; not just in making a language itself, but in making a language good.

But there's more to language than wordcraft. How about sentence formation and structure? Let us take a classic sentence: “I think, therefore I am.” In the Latin it is, of course, “cogito, ergo sum.” The Latin emphasizes the “think” as an act of the “I” in an integrated fashion, and thus emphasizes Descartes' notion of man as a thinking being. But in the English, one can see how philosophical nuance is made more possible analytically: “cogito” is broken down into the parts “I” and “think”, each of which may be italicized or inflected for emphasis. “I think, therefore I am.” “I think, therefore I am.” The same goes for “sum.” Different languages make different sentence descriptions which actually erode the possibility of emphasizing what might be a matter of the easiest practice in other languages, for the purpose of emphasizing some sort of linguistic attitude which is commonplace or accepted by those who speak the language. In this way polyglots are at an advantage in philosophy; it is not just pretension that can cause people to quote translations in other languages. There are four or more words for love in Greek, while there is just one in English, which we have to qualify heavily to produce a linguistic equivalence. There are even words which are, because of the character of experience and the known, wholly incommensurable with expression in most other languages. The Hawaiian “da kine”, for example, is nearly entirely contextual and thus to a certain degree untranslatable without a participation in its use. (Nevertheless, it differs from differance in that it does have a meaning, albeit a variable one; if someone says “Brah, go drive to the store and da kine,” said “brah” will know that it means, in some given situation, “buy cigarettes and Spam,” a perfectly definite meaning.)
Sentence structure and wordcraft alike benefit from fittingness. So in order to understand the root of goodness in language, let us examine fittingness as it is understood classically and fittingness as it is understood by postcolonialists, as represented by the difference between pedagogy/conversation and what I will call “proportioned speech”, since that seems to be the expressed intent of Prof. Butler, to proportion her writing to the issue described in its supposed complexity. Working with the aphoristic expression above as characteristic of (though paraphrased from) her defense of bad writing, “complicated matters demand complicated language”, and working with the Aristotelian-tradition axiom that “whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver” as the root of a pedagogical or conversational language, what is the notion of fittingness expressed in these two traditions?

The Aristotelian one, I think, has been mostly expressed above; language is for signifying. This is not to say the merely workhorse interpretation of “explicitly and rigorously getting the point across.” If this were the case one could not have rhetoric, which Aristotle defended, and poetry would be a fool's errand. (Indeed, perhaps it is...but folly is not always a bad thing after all is said and done.) Poetry signifies in a different way than rigorous speech, and one no less necessary for the human personal and common goods. Philosophical language circumscribes experience, and poetry inscribes philosophy with the experience itself. It is all quite different to know that “summer is warm,” “the sun is radiant,” and “flowers tend to be at a certain time of life” from knowing experientially the way summer is warm such that one may pen Sonnet 18. Signification is, at root, to convey the concept or understanding from one human mind to another. Thus we have language, and words that sound like what they mean. These being received in the mode of the receiver means that there is an interest in employing language in a way that does not just describe but also has power to convince or persuade, to evoke and direct. Hence, the word “bee”, which has such power in its strong-vowel simplicity to remind us of that rather complex insect. This is the place from where “common” language arises.

The specialized language of the academic has a place here. It is not enough to say “the way something is” when one wants to say what nature means. The definition lies behind our normal intuitions; it is composed of more primary concepts, which require new words, because they are so primordial and distant from the immediate use of language. Words like “act” and “potency”, in the Scholastic scheme, while not magic, are like magic; they are intellectual tools to reach beyond what we see and extract the true nature of things. They have a purpose and a unique beauty, like hidden Philosopher's Stones for the mind; and they ought to receive our respect, as a wise alchemist would respect his tools if, like these words, they actually held a power. Thus, they are a bit more difficult to understand than normal common language; they are technical terms, requiring a trip of the mind down the little streams of the understanding of what we do see. But they are not mystical; study will yield them up, and they can be understood by more than one person in the same way.

Here meaning is seen as something discovered, and the human being is the one to whom it is given to name the phenomena. Yet in discovering meaning, the synthetic philosopher is not moving outside the foundation one has in the senses; rather, part of the character of synthetic philosophy is that nothing is superfluous. Every proof, every syllogistic motion moves from something to another thing as a cord in a webbed net, such that each move must be as certain and rigorous as is possible for that science, while the synthetic philosopher recognizes that to each science belongs its own degree and sort of certainty. This informs the words we use, which nevertheless each have their own particular character. Thus no word becomes superfluous; no meaning becomes frivolous; grammar is one of the most important sciences, because the grammar of a language belonging to a (principally) synthetic culture is not artificial, but reveals the inner workings of the human mind.

From this arises a curious phenomenon, that for non-philosophers philosophy becomes incredibly difficult to decipher. The synthetic answer to this has always been that if the meaning is difficult to decipher, it is because the concepts and the tradition themselves have an order one must follow, an order from the more known to the less known, one which reflects itself in language but which is rather something inherent in the character of knowledge itself. This, from synthetic thought, is understandable if one accepts what has been said above, that synthetic thought is the attempt of the intellect to bungie-jump into the deep places of the universe and claim, in the process, her deeper causes as prize. What of the postcolonial tradition, though, represented by Butler?
One sees a similar reasoning in her defense of bad writing, an article written (in my opinion) in a rather snarky fashion having the pugilistic title “A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back”. Verbatim:

If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense. Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or "natural" understanding of social and political realities.
(Butler, Judith. "A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back". New York Times, 3/20/1999; URL=

Common sense, she claims, gives us normal language (the inheritance of our logocentric, Scholastic culture, presumably) which is occasionally abused by unclear definitions (as, perhaps, when one uses “he” in an academic paper intended exclusively rather than inclusively in an attempt to disparage women, or uses “man” instead of “human” in the same way for the same purpose.) Following along, Butler dictates that unclear definition demands...what? New words having no meaning whatsoever, or a meaning that itself indicates the choice of a neologism to be informed by the underlying (hegemonic) prejudice that the author has the privileged position of being within their rights to dictate how language and thought should work? Since when (I ask those in the academic community) did we lay down the arms of the English department before the altar of political conditioning? When did we allow it to be a decided thing that Grammar and Vocabulary, formerly so dignified, ought to be two-dollar prostitutes for their new pimp, Political Science?

This is, to return to the point about language, a fundamental misunderstanding of the synthetic phenomenon of deep thought demanding deep language. Butler is advocating that language should be a political tool for the purpose of informing those who are not In The Know that they are to toe the line or walk the plank; if you do not know what hegemony means, you are therefore a victim of hegemony, and the solution is to buy the postcolonialist product and become one of The Chosen Few. This is to turn philosophical writing into the sort of writing one sees in a commercial mission statement; words such as “synergistic” and “actioning”, verbal Mata Haris which seek to undermine the linguistic common good, are agents of the same Empire in a different department. It is linguistics as condescending marketing. Worse, it is as though one has taken a moderately talented band (such as the Oneders in the movie “That Thing You Do”) and put it at the mercy of a commercial machine; “hegemony”, as a word, might have admitted some neologistic potential, and is, as a concept, “a neat idea”, but was never going to be The Beatles, and yet now it has been made an all-important concept. Such a misplacement fundamentally cannot really hold. (As a side note, I hope the reader will notice the predictable scare quotes around “natural”, a word that does not mean what I think Butler thinks it means.) What this notion of fittingness represents is nothing but a denial thereof. Words cannot fit something when there is no way in which “something” can be said to be thus; only according to a thing's nature can something signify the way something really is or tends to be.

Conclusion: Save The Pitchforks And Torches, You've Got The Wrong Field

Philosophy is not at fault for postcolonialist crimes against language. This sounds strange, until one admits what I have insisted upon for the entire paper: postcolonialism and poststructuralism are not philosophy. They are ambiguous tools of political science which, because they tend to engage some of the more experiential aspects of that science, seem to be too close to the individual to be politics and too abstract to be anything else, and are therefore deemed practical philosophy, despite their denial of the wisdom philosophy (philosophia) implies etymologically. They deny natures, deny the understanding of things, deny the purpose of philosophy as impractical, and denounce those who try to understand the world in a more than opportunistic way as logocentric. Their focus on praxis subverts their “philosophical” claims because philosophy is not praxis; it is that from which praxis proceeds. Ultimately, the only way in which they serve a good purpose is when they are subordinated to a good cosmology, and left to themselves, they actively undermine any possibility thereof.

Which mode of synthetic thought proceeds in the right direction, of course, is for philosophy as a field to discover, if it has not already. As an Aristotelian-Thomist I tend to think it has, but this is immaterial to the purpose of this particular exploration. What is important is to recognize that we must remain at the level of common language, and treat the notions of poststructuralism as possible critiques; and precisely that, possible, since there is nothing in that field itself to say whether the critique is valid or not. The continuing relevance of philosophy utterly depends upon this. That being said, since (in my opinion) Judith Butler's work is more of an academic fad than a serious system, I have some hope that the absurdity of her conclusions will prevent further damage to philosophy in that they will make it more difficult for anyone having half a brain to believe them.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Dignity of a Fool's Errand: The Useful Uselessness of Philosophy and Theology

There is a popular canard in the anti-intellectual post-Dewey sphere in which we live that "those who can't do, teach."  Neglecting the logical factoid that teaching is, in fact, a sort of doing, one that most who proverbially "do" are woefully incapable of "doing" well, I have always thought that this statement, for its insight into the minds of the modern members of our vaunted populace, is perfectly expressive of the plight of philosophy and theology.  People who "do", one is told by the philosophy major, "do" or avoid doing because of some philosophy.  If this is the case, then everyone has a philosophy, or they could not "do" or avoid doing because of it.  Judging by this, then, to do philosophy is simply to be; and we don't give people government grants to simply be, we give them to do, don't we?!  Thus philosophy majors, for being so tragically "meta", are deemed head-in-the-clouds useless academics who wouldn't know a day's honest work in their own dubious field if it bit them in the ethereal ass.  Real work gets done by the practical folks.  For all one might say about the politicians, who of themselves produce nothing, they at least organize practical folks into producing something.  As to the musicians, they may not make something which will put food on the table, but at least they can make us feel something funny; and even then, they are often a bit too ethereal for the likes of the dirty-handed real man of our era.

This is the attitude of our society towards most of the higher humanities.  It has become such that if one mentions that their degree is in Theology, one is like to receive, not an inquiry as to where they procured this degree, but a query as to whether that is the sort of degree one gets from an accredited source.  Derogatory comments may be expected; I have been told on no less than five occasions that "it's nice that you did that; my degree, as it happens, is in Truthiness!"  On one occasion the less-than-gentleman responding proceeded to add "with a minor in Snack Food Studies."  I have grown used to such comments; they are not very clever.  And of course, with the current plague of the Youtube attention span, one cannot possibly expect someone to sit through the five minutes it takes to explain that, well, in Ancient Greece theology was considered the highest science, since it affected every other science in principle, and it's only in the last three hundred years we have abandoned this, much to the posthumous chagrin of most of our forefathers.  It may profit the soul to respect something which the men and women who brought us into being wished us to respect.  Certainly de Tocqueville, in writing Democracy in America, thought so in his defense of the mores of family, private property and religion on the grounds that they perpetuated the culture by which America continued its miraculous existence.

But, of course, we do not read de Tocqueville; to most students of political science, he is an insightful but quaint relic of a past era.  We are realpolitik America.  "America does if America says it's so."  In point of fact, we do not read, not really.  We certainly ingest; we, like baby birds, take the pre-digested food provided to us mouth-to-face by our mama birds, the lecturers and writers of textbooks, and we pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on how very clever we are when we get good marks on a test (and it is always about good marks on a test.  It should trouble us that we think one's personal estimation can be graded by a Scantron.)  But we do not digest.  We, as a culture, something grown, have never had the shock of a real heresy, because for my own generation at least, we have never had a culture against which one may be heretical and shocking.  When one has no nutrients taken in, one has no growth; and when a society is not nourished by a fundamental belief held in common by all and grown-into, that society does not grow, it gains no "culture."

This might need an illustration.  I will take the example of a popular game among the very young or the extremely immature: the "penis game."  The goal of the game is, between two people, to shout that word louder than the other, but not so loud that one is actually caught doing so.  The one caught in the act of immaturity loses.  This only works because people are scandalized by the word signifying the anatomy.  But we are a culture without scandal; walk through your average Ivy League school playing this game and you are like to be mistaken for the latest bunch of Women's Studies majors, those asexual hippies who spell "women" with a 'y' instead of an 'e' because, like, it's so much more, like, liberating that way!  And this education is passed down, and has been since the 70s, such that we are now seeing a generation without any sort of discretion with regard to bodily members promote their agenda as the ruling climate.  William F. Buckley Jr. anticipated this well enough in God and Man at Yale; let Yale abandon God, and nothing about man remains sacred, least of all Yale.

So in our picture are both ethics and politics vitiated.  I have said enough in other contexts about my thoughts on the sciences, and anyone with a fleck of gray matter can see that a decline in ethics also leads to a decline in everything else human beings are concerned with in practice.  These are accompanied with a decline in the character of our conception of logic itself; no longer do we begin from true first principles, but assumed axioms, from which internally consistent conclusions are deduced based on mathematical "laws of thought"; this is taken into the conception of science as what we now call logical positivism.  Aristotle deduced what this would mean in Ancient Greece millenia ago; if one has no known first principles, one has no known conclusions, and therefore no knowledge at all.  Certainty about things is reduced to certainty about appearances, and then uncertainty; knowledge becomes the fading grin of a Cheshire cat in the Wonderland of postmodern deconstructive thought.

There goes Tom ranting again, the casual and hasty reader will say, imbecile-like.  This is all philosophical degree-waving, and like Descartes said about Aristotle's definition of motion: "Who understands this?"  Clearly, not such a reader.  But I will have it be understood to that reader that they had best understand that it is better to have someone with an intact conception of ethics around when the decision to push the nuclear button is being made; or when any sort of decision is being made about any group of people; or when the reader's own case is being decided in a court of law; or in the last judgement, if at no other time.  These people do not spring, fully formed, from the womb of their parents; and if we keep neglecting education in the humanities, it is unlikely that their parents will be able to produce something truly human in their soul, not possessing it themselves.  You cannot do this without the humanities, which brings me to a point very dear to me.

I am not getting my degree to masturbate myself to the academic rhythm.  I intend to do something with it.  I will not be a perpetual academic, nor would my graduate school (or any such school) desire me to be so; they do, after all, need donors.  However, I am not out to "change the world."  I am not a recently-graduated, fresh-faced 21 year old.  That is the task of other people, with more ambition than probable result and an infinite capacity for disappointment.  I have long ago resolved that if the world is changed as a result of anything I do, welcome as that may be if it is positive, it cannot be because of me, but because of the One who loved me into existence.  People are just too annoying for me to expect to be able to change them under my own power.  And even if I could change them, as one can see from reading this post, I am terribly annoying, myself.  The difference between me and them is that a) I am annoying in a better way, because b) I know that I am annoying, and c) I know the point of being so.  Sometimes, doing the right thing is about annoying someone in just the right way, just enough.

No, I do not want to change the world.  It's far too big and too difficult to maintain.  My mission is to offer young men and women the ability to decide whether or not it's worth it to seek change themselves, according to the highest and best ways one may seek it.  Adults today are too set in their ways, since by and large they, and their educators, are the reason why we children of the children of the '60s have our work cut out for us in teaching the humanities.  And why do I want to teach them this useless science?  Because whatever else those young men and women do, their enjoyment and excellence depends on their having someone teach them why anything is worth anything, and why this is worth more than that, and why this is most worthy of all; so that when they realize, for example, that their husband or wife trusts them not to cheat, they will not; so that when given a choice between drugs and education, they will choose education; so that when they see a stranger in mortal need, they will drop everything and help, not because someone told them to, but because it's the right thing to do and the right thing is always worth doing.  And teaching them this useless science, moreover, opens them to the possibility of being happy in whatever they do.  There is very little in working in retail conducive to happiness, but one who truly understands what the promises of Christ are may be happy cleaning the slime out of his worst enemy's shower, let alone while working in retail.  We understand these in part through imitation and connatural knowing, but in part through arduous and devoted study.

Lastly, and also really firstly, I want to teach philosophy because it makes me truly happy.  I am not happy doing research to "advance the field".  I will do it, and I will strive always to excel at it, but my happiness is not in innovation but in transmission.  I do not want to transform academia, except insofar as I stop it from betraying its charges by poisoning the wonder inside them through politically-motivated betrayals of duty, or insofar as I make it better by being the best damn teacher I could possibly be.  I, too, was once a confused, scared teenager, with no direction or conception of my own happiness.  I would pleasantly have spent all my time on my computer, then learned a trade skill in community college, packed up my leisure time into a work-a-day job, made some money, eventually bought a house, and probably asked myself a couple of times what went wrong with me and when.  This is assuming I did not acquire any worse addictions on the way, as I watched all my friends head off to college.  Instead, I made a choice, prompted by my mom, to look at colleges, and by sheer chance she showed me TAC.  I fell in love, applied, went, and here I am.  I am terrified at what might (not) have been if I had not done it.  I am a great believer now in doing the right thing at the right time, because it saved my life from an unfulfilled pointlessness.

Look at this, and ask yourself, reader: is this not worth teaching?  Do I not have something to give, having received?  I am 23 years old, about to get two Master's Degrees, in Philosophy and Theology, and I now can do something very few people I know can claim: I can save lives.  And not just in the basic physical way, either, although I have no doubt that philosophy and theology can stop someone from harming themselves or others, and routinely save the world on their own merits.  I can give people the ability to not just be alive, but to have a life worth living, through teaching philosophy; and in theology, I am able to be an instrument of God, by which those same ones may have life more fully.  If this is "useless", it is the most noble, useful, beautiful way of being "useless" that I can fathom.  I save lives.  I make people happy.  I give people the chance and the ability and the expertise to be human.  That is a damn good aspiration.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Posts on Poetry Pt. 2: Brutal Honesty

In my last post, I spoke on the formal and basic attribute of poetry that is conviction. In speaking about it, I mentioned honesty a couple of times, and with a bit of difficulty (as we all have difficulty in being perfectly honest, even about honesty) I feel I ought to speak about it as the material side of things. One does not have a conveyance without something conveyed, nor an expression without something expressed; and if one wants their expression to reach impression, if they want their poetry to be impressive, as all good poetry fundamentally is, one needs to have something worth conveying. But this is the real first step behind seeking the form to fit the matter, namely, seeking the knowledge of the matter itself.

Everybody's got something to say, I said in the last post. This is well and good, but telling someone that somewhere inside them is an interesting person waiting to jump out and wail at the world is cliched if one does not at the same time tell them that there is perhaps no more difficult thing in the history of poetic composition than the eduction of that inner voice. To give an idea of how difficult a thing it is, I am again going to present you, my dear reader, with the brutal honesty of a man wounded in the expression of Taylor Mali, because the man is a most excellent poet and knows precisely how to examine himself in front of a crowd in such a way that the crowd is brought into that examination. I will not give any context; the poem, I think, is enough.

And as I think of this it occurs to me to provide a second example from his body of work on the same subject, or as it were subjects, or as it were now, part of a subject, bruised and battered.

As you can no doubt see, poetry can be very brutal. In fact, it should be, at least at times. The child speaking with conviction about his toy is in no way as expressive as Mali's anguished lament in sheer content, though very much more so in volume. One may screen out the child's wailing lament, but the silent gravity of Mali's self-baring pierces, perhaps as many times as we watch it, into our very souls, as we for just an instant are led into the way he sees himself and the one who borrowed his soul, only to return it, unexpectedly and expectedly, in another condition. What gives his poetry this bitter power? The answer is that he is brutally, brutally honest.

But what is honesty? We must certainly have some concept of it, since every poetry teacher ever has informed their class that honesty is not just the best but the only policy when it comes to poetry. Poetry of the most fiery sort requires first that the poets drag themselves over the coals of self-examination, and some of their substance is going to suffer in the act. This dragging-over-the-coals, this act of self-examination whereby one confronts and determines oneself is honesty; but it is more primary than this, it is more than an act. Honesty is a virtue, a habit whereby one is in the habit of expressing the truth and confronting it, without compromise, even when one feels that the part of oneself that confronts may be, so to speak, broken in the battle. Thus, a Lear goes insane when confronted with the real character of the situation of his ungrateful daughters, Regan and Goneril:

You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Lear's madness is rational because its cause, his honesty, is rational, and because its effect, his seeming despair at the rational order of the universe, is the normal result (in the Greek world, anyway) of confronting the tragic order of things. Orestes must be chased by the Furies. Oedipus must suffer until Colonus. And yet in doing this, in confronting that order, a remarkable thing occurs. Mortality is given new meaning. Achilles must become mad with rage in confronting his own mortality and that of Patroclus, dragging Hector around Troy seven times by chariot mercilessly; but this sets the stage for the meeting with Priam, the character of paternity and justice himself to Troy, who nevertheless will kiss the feet of Achilles, murderer of his son, in supplication. And in Achilles' greater story, though to all the world Hector looks to have failed his city, his family and himself, Hector, breaker of horses, has tamed swift-footed Achilles. He has succeeded. Homer writes this and it becomes the original poem of all Greek and ultimately Western civilization. When Gilgamesh stopped being quoted, the Iliad still continued. The Iliad was an honest look at mortality itself, a look which begins in fear and despair but ends in the realization that whatever it is that ends our lives is a gift, not a withholding; the very gods envy us for mortality.

If one wishes to see how we see this in everyday life, and more specifically in semi-popular art, one could do worse than look at Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra: “Mr. Blue, you'll get it right, / but soon comes Mr. Night, / creeping over, now his hand is on your shoulder, / never mind, I remember you this...I remember you this way!” Sleep is an analogy to death. “Do not go gently into that good night, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” would be the way Dylan Thomas or immature Achilles would look at it, and pensive Hamlet thinks to himself “but in that sleep of death what dreams may come / must give us pause.” Honesty dictates that we remove our presuppositions based on deception of ourselves, and is tied to conviction in the way Mali speaks in his poem on conviction: “Contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough to 'question authority.' You have to speak with it, too.” Honesty is, in other words, the proper submission of one's belief to the authority of truth and her ministers.

As seems to be the style, the reader may object: “What about certainty? Isn't certainty the highest authority? Wouldn't honesty just be tied to 'thinking for ourselves'?” I would say that that was the case, if we ourselves were the only authority we could trust. And indeed, we do get something out of trusting ourselves. Mostly, we get what we had before we started our self-examination, varying degrees of truth and falsity. We do not derive, trusting only ourselves, anything new about ourselves, since what you finish with is that with which you start. If anything, one is in danger of losing something, since we are prone to second-guess what we believe ad infinitum out of the sometimes rational but usually irrational fear of being wrong. And when do we get a rational indication that we are wrong? Precisely when we open ourselves to the rational authority of something outside that which accepts authority. In other words, true honesty comes from due trust in what is, at least in part, not the one trusting, such that we may rightly redetermine ourselves to the truth. And this authority, this owed nature of trust, comes about precisely from union with the truth. In other words, to be honest with oneself is to seek the truth about oneself through her ministers.

Now, this almost seems like a homily. And in point of fact, according to most speakers on spiritual discipline, it is the result of the first step, since honesty is developed by discipline, something which most would-be poets could use. Poetry is in many respects an attempt to convey reality as experienced, and reality is experienced more deeply in honesty than in deception. Indeed, one can ask whether a life of being deceived is any life at all. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, and to allow oneself to deceive oneself, I should think, is even worse. Poetry itself is an attempt to represent the life of a human being to another, both in relation to itself and in relation to other things. If one wishes to know oneself, such that one may know other things, one must acquire the virtue of honesty.