Descartes before the Machine

I read Frankenstein for the first time last year which also happened to be the centenary of the first publication. So that worked out.

In this piece, David Lloyd Dusenbury re-asks the question at the heart of Mary Shelley’s story: why should we not mechanically recreate life? Dunesbury answers the question by first discussing the philosophical context of Shelley’s work. Naturally, Descartes comes up. He then mentions this interesting piece of biographical information:

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

I did not know this about Descartes, and it doesn’t improve my opinion of him. Read the rest of Dusenbury’s piece at First Things.

Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

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Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Whither and Whence #1

I’m going to attempt to maintain a weekly schedule of posts. It’ll be a little like a newsletter where I simply share a handful of essays, images, podcasts, movies, etc. I enjoyed that week. Right now, the working title for these posts is “A Survey” but that’ll probably change.* In the meantime, here are five things I enjoyed this week.

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1. Finished watching a five hour documentary on Saint Paisius yesterday. I watched it over the course of a month. It’s a documentary in Greek, narrated/translated into Russian, with subtitles in (broken) English. Worth every minute.

2. A fantastic opening line for a fantastic essay:It would have been much better for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s posthumous reputation if the KGB had killed him just before or shortly after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1974.”

3. Alan Jacobs on the only productivity guidance/advice worth your time.

I pay myself first. That is, if I need to get writing done then writing will be my first task of the day. If I try to get all the other stuff done before turning to writing, I’m usually too tired to write much or well.

When I work I work and when I play I play. When I’m writing I deny myself access to email, to social media, to fun internet sites. I don’t write a hundred words and then reward myself by watching a YouTube clip or arguing with strangers on Twitter. I just write until I have to do something else or am too worn out to write any more.

4. A new podcast, Libromania. The first episode with John Wilson is wonderful. Next up, David Kern’s interview with Jeffrey Overstreet.

5. I’ve been signing up for newsletters from writers whose work I enjoy reading. Apparently newsletters are the latest and greatest trend in the open internet movement. I don’t know if these will catch on, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some of the folk I’m following: Alan Jacobs, Austin Kleon, Jake Meador, Matthew Lee Anderson, Prufrock

 

 

*UPDATE 2/4/2019: I’ve now changed the title of these posts to “Whither and Whence.” We’ll see how long this lasts.

 

A Tale of Twos

The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (TTC) is a glorious one hundred nineteen words long. Even if you haven’t read the novel–and unless you’ve been living under a giant rock–you’re familiar with it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Before teaching it over the past three weeks, I hadn’t read TTC, which I realize is an embarrassing admission from someone who has a graduate degree in English literature. But better late than never! While reading and discussing it with my students, I was struck by Dickens’ artistry, specifically his ability to blend both the formal and thematic structure of the story without detracting from the momentum of the plot.Image result for tale of two cities

Like the title of the book and the opening sentence, the story revolves around opposing extremes. At the heart of the story are the social and political extremes of the unchecked authorial abuses of the French aristocracy and the blood lust of the French revolutionaries.* But the pairings form the macro as well as the micro components of the story. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

Wine & Blood

The color red shows up everywhere in the story, from the revolutionaries red hats, to the spilled wine cask in the street, to the blood spilled by the French revolutionaries and aristocracy. The Eucharistic imagery is unmistakable–in fact it might be an unspoken rule in western literature that if an author pairs wine with blood in any way, shape, or form, then you should expect a theological theme running just below the surface. Dickens uses the imagery to great effect by turning the Eucharistic image on its head. At the beginning of the novel, a large cask of wine breaks and spills all over the streets of St. Antoine where the French lower-classes and poor live. A frenzy ensues: the people ladle it with their hands, bend their faces into the gutter where the wine has pooled and lap it up. The red wine stains everything and everyone. Dickens parallels this scene with another scene toward the end of the book. The people of St. Antoine have been transformed into revolutionaries. Dr. Manette and Jarvis Lorry, standing on a balcony above a courtyard, look out to see these same people stained with blood as they sharpen their weapons and prepare for more killings and executions.

There are varying Christian beliefs about what happens to the wine during a Eucharistic service, but historically the Church has taught that a change occurs to/within the elements–whether that’s the Roman Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation or the more common teaching of Real Presence. Dickens avails himself of this theological point: in the same way that the people have been transformed into revolutionaries, the wine at the beginning of the story has been transformed into blood. Unlike the Eucharist, however, the transformation is not salvific. If anything, TTC presents us with an inverted image of Christian soteriology. Dickens’ description of the revolutionaries, like his description of the French aristocracy, is not overly sympathetic. The pendulum of injustice has swung to the opposite extreme.

Sydney Carton & Dr. Manette

Another important pairing, and one that ultimately extends the wine and blood imagery, is that of Sydney Carton and Dr. Manette. Comparing these characters may seem odd since the narrative explicitly connects Carton with Darnay. Physically Darnay and Carton share such a close resemblance, that Carton uses it in the opening courtroom scene to clear Darnay’s name of false charges. Later, Carton expresses disappointment in himself, recognizing that Darnay has shown him what he has fallen away from, “and what [he] might have been!” (II.iv).

In terms of character arc, however, Manette and Carton exhibit a closer parallel. Aside from their general supporting roles, neither character is very useful at the beginning. Manette’s mental instability and Carton’s alcoholism and unchecked self-deprecation render them mostly unreliable. Nevertheless, they both share a deep love for Lucie Manette (Dr. Manette’s daughter) which proves redemptive. Lucie manages to restore her father’s mental health when his memories of his Bastille imprisonment haunt him. And Carton briefly becomes reacquainted with a side of himself that has been all but forgotten. In the scene where he responds to Lucie’s kind rejection to his marriage proposal, Carton attempts to reassure Lucie who is concerned that he will relapse into his old ways:

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this home made such a home by you,has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight (II.xiii).

Manette and Carton’s love for Lucie sets the stage for the final scenes of the story. When Darnay is imprisoned in France, Manette steps into the role of savior. As someone who suffered at the hands of the French aristocracy and who has a friendly history with the leader of the revolution, Manette recognizes his influence with the revolutionaries and uses it without hesitation to save Darnay from “Sainte Guillotine.” No longer an old and feeble former prisoner haunted by the demons of his past, Manette trades roles with his daughter by becoming a source of security and consolation.

Unfortunately, Manette’s efforts fail. The night after Darnay is released from prison, he’s rearrested. Manette dangerously relapses into his old pattern of mental instability. It’s at this point that Carton returns and trades places with Manette. Only this time, Carton’s attempt to save Darnay is successful.

I like to imagine Dickens graphing the character arcs of both Manette and Carton prior to writing the story itself. Manette’s line of ascent begins at the end of book II and reaches its zenith half way through book III. His down turn then crosses paths with Carton’s ascent. Both characters rise above their troubled pasts and personal flaws, and both do it for the love of Lucie at great personal cost.

Carton’s sacrifice reasserts the wine and blood imagery. If Dickens has turned the Eucharistic image on its head with his description of the revolution’s trajectory, then he’s attempted to restore it in the character of Carton. Carton’s character is closely associated with wine (and alcohol in general) throughout the story. He’s a drunk, unable to exercise any self-control. In book III, however, he’s reappears sober. His vow to serve Lucie and anyone she loves calls him out of himself. He trades his alcoholism for a sober self-sacrifice that will “recall to life” Lucie’s husband. His wine becomes blood and saves those he loves most.

There’s more to be said about the various pairings throughout TTC. Right now, I’m tempted to think that the Eucharistic imagery is at the heart of the story, and every other pairing a variation on that theme. The pairings, however, are not inflexible. Miss Pross, for example, could be compared with Madame Defarge and Jerry Cruncher; Cruncher with Jarvis Lorry and Monsieur Defarge; Dr. Manette with Lorry; and on and on it goes. In every instance, Dickens will have illustrated new aspects of his theme. The result, like all good literature, is a work of art that will always reward close attention to detail.

 

 

*I realize Dickens’ understanding of the historical circumstances of the French Revolution is mostly wrong. But for the purpose of his story, his description of the context serves him well.

Thinking Through Hell: Repentance

I just read Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno with my students. Dante is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle where the Fraudulent Counselors are punished. Here he meets Guido da Montefeltro, a man who experienced a spiritual transformation in his life only to relapse into sin in response to pressure from Pope Boniface VIII.

I’m not going to give a full summary of Montefeltro’s particular sin. If you want a good overview, Wikipedia has a decent summary. I also recommend you check out the passage itself on the World of Dante website.

The fascinating part of the scene with Montefeltro occurs at the end. Although 08 | June | 2010 | Wickersham's ConscienceMontefeltro was hesitant at first, he decides to commit the sin of evil counsel because Boniface VIII guarantees him absolution ahead of time. On the day of his death, St. Francis attempts to take Montefeltro’s soul to heaven, but he’s stopped by a demon who says Montefeltro is bound for hell.

Why? Because, as the demon points out, the law of non-contradiction holds true for repentance. One cannot repent of a sin and at the same time commit that sin. Absolution, likewise, can’t be granted ahead of time because it does not function like an advance on a paycheck. Contrition and the resolve to avoid sin are the two conditions required for absolution to take effect.

My students raised a natural concern: what is the role of repentance in salvation? If we die without having repented of our sins, will God bar us from heaven?

These questions are worth struggling with because they force us to confront two oversimplified narratives of salvation. The first narrative concerns the relationship between faith and works and whether our works have any effect on our salvation. Protestants–especially those rooted in the reformed tradition–will quickly say “Faith alone!” Works are a product of faith in Christ. Works have no bearing on our salvation except as evidence of our salvation. God saves people. Period. Full stop. Insistence on faith alone guards against the first narrative of a works-based salvation.

A second narrative pushes the first to an opposing, though logical, extreme: if works have no bearing on the efficacy of faith and salvation, then God will bring sinners into heaven regardless of repentance or any other good work. In Montefeltro’s case, his initial conversion to Christianity should have been enough to carry him into heaven. Yes, he may have committed a sin at the behest of the pope, but such a sin–even without specifically repenting of it–would not inhibit the salvation that comes through faith. But the idea that God will save people regardless of repentance contradicts scripture and what many of the church fathers since the second century have taught about the nature of salvation. God does not infringe human will. In Dante’s scheme, the gates of hell are open. No one stands guard ushering sinners in or keeping sinners from escaping. Hell is the place for people who, because of their unrepentant life, would find heaven unbearable.

So what is the role of repentance in the Christian life? I’m still working the answer out myself, but here are some initial thoughts inspired by Dante:

Repentance is an act of faith. “Of” indicates that the efficacy of repentance is rooted in something outside itself. That is, repentance qua repentance is meaningless and useless unless it is oriented to some external end. Describing the relationship between faith and repentance in this way, however, dangerously over-emphasizes the subordination of the act of repentance to faith. A Christian cannot confuse faith with repentance, but he cannot pretend that repentance as a discipline of the faith is optional. St. James famously drives this point home in his discussion about the relationship between faith and works:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:24-26)

James’ formulation “faith apart from works is dead” works in reverse order as well: “works without faith are dead.” The two share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Too often in conversation with my protestant/reformed friends, discussion about faith and works inevitably ends in weird abstractions, as if a person’s faith exists as a non-material substance within the heart and mind. But as James points out, an abstract faith is no faith at all. Faith will prove itself through the discipline of good works.

“Discipline” is key to understanding how works and faith relate to each other. Insofar as repentance is a work of faith, it should be a defining feature of a Christian’s daily life. The works of faith will not come naturally to the Christian because converting to Christianity does not entail immediate sinless habits of thought or behavior. Instead, it prompts the process of sanctification. The work of sanctification progresses slowly and requires the purposeful participation of the sinner. Believing in Christ as the Son of God and in the salvation he brought through his death and resurrection is an important start. The rest, however, is prayer and repentance. St. Paul famously exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. The life of the Christian is a constant striving to live in communion with God every second of every day.

Through repentance, we recognize the variety and patterns of sins committed, and then we resolve to avoid them by calling upon God’s mercy and grace, trusting fully that God has and will answer our request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Historically, the church has provided devotional disciplines to help facilitate and encourage repentance. Some of these practices include the sacrament of confession and seasons of fasting. There’s also a monastic tradition where monks and nuns frequently repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, a discipline that conditions a person to pray for repentance without ceasing:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

 

Monasticism and Minimalism

I didn’t address my theological concerns about minimalism in the previous post. I might discuss those at some other point.

In the meantime, here’s a quick note on one of the annoying consequences of the minimalism movement: the comparison between a minimalist lifestyle and monasticism. @w0ke_space_jesuit.exe posted this picture on Twitter recently, and I can’t think of a more succinct way of summing up the differences.

Also, there’s this quotation from Heidi Deddens’ recent article in Comment Magazine:

Whereas the desert fathers practiced asceticism in order to achieve closer spiritual union with God, minimalists have varied goals: greater personal creativity, respite from the rush of the rat race, increased focus on relationships, or inner calm and enlightenment. Never prescribing a specific spiritual object, the minimalist movement suggests that reducing your possessions can help you achieve broad spiritual fulfillment or joy, whatever that might look like for you individually. The goal is no longer spiritual fulfillment outside of the self, but self-fulfillment.

Tidiness is (not) Next to Godliness

Marie Kondo finally has her own Netflix show. She puts her tidying strategies into practice with “real life” people who could use a house-size purge of material possessions. My wife has been watching it recently, and any time I walk pass the living room I’m inevitably drawn to the latest depiction of American consumption gone awry. Some of the participants have floor-to-ceiling boxes of baseball cards, shoes, or nutcracker dolls. Clothes spill out of closet doors. Kitchen appliances litter counters, cupboards, and tables.

For each of the show’s participants, Kondo employs a simple technique to help them tidy their home: pick up each possession individually and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “Yes,” then keep it. If “No,” then donate it or throw it away (and don’t forget to tell it “Thank you” for having served its purpose). Easy enough.

Like everything in the ever trendy anti-consumerism movement, Kondo argues that the Image result for marie kondopurpose of tidying up is to help you “establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” But what could this magical self-fulfillment be? It’s hard to say because it’s different for everyone.

Kondo is not the only anti-consumerist lifestyle coach teaching a doctrine of self-fulfillment. She’s in line with most writers of the minimalist movement. Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus also define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

On a practical and visceral level, minimalist practices and Kondo’s tidying up method directly counter-balance general mindless consumption–a phenomenon related to the enormous amount of capital produced within the past century. At best, most people are low-key hoarders. The slow accretion of possessions, however, has contributed to a growing awareness of a psychological burden. People feel they’ve lost control over their lives. They’ve buried themselves in debt and storage units, and find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to keep everything.

I get it. Extreme consumerism erodes most people’s emotional and mental well-being. Who wouldn’t want a tangible solution like getting rid of stuff to ease the inner turmoil?

But “self-fulfillment” as the primary motivator for reducing possessions and tidying up just doesn’t cut it.

First, introspection rarely produces the clarity and long-lasting results it claims. I can only speak for myself here (though I know others who would agree with me): most attempts of turning inward usually result in high levels of anxiety. Nothing will set me on edge faster than when I ask myself questions like, “Are you happy?” “Are you living your dreams?” “Have you achieved, or are you achieving everything you want?” The honest answer to all these types of questions is “I don’t know!” and “Oh no, I’m going to die some day!”

I’m not wholly against introspection. I think it can be good for identifying bad habits and patterns of thought. The trouble arises when we confuse means with ends. Introspection is a means, not a solution. Truth, goodness, and beauty–the ultimate objects of all our desires–lie outside the self, not buried under our insecurities and boxes of scratched CDs stashed away in a closet.

Second, minimalism plays into a cultural obsession with individualism and autonomy. Here’s an underlying assumption in the doctrine of self-fulfillment: if we clear away the non-essentials in our life, we’ll inevitably find a glorious, coherent self underneath it all. And this self is free from all forms of social and cultural limitations.

Nothing in my experience suggests that such a self exists. There is only the me born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture. The particulars necessarily limit the person I am and become. They give me my identity. I cannot transcend these circumstances, nor should I want to–any attempt would be pure hubris. One of the redemptive aspects of stuff is that it reminds me of who I am, of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Kondo always wants you to ask, “Does it spark joy?” But what if an old t-shirt reminds me of a family camping trip in the sierra mountains, which then signals a whole network of other memories that makes me aware of the relationships and experiences that led me to the present moment? Nothing can substitute that kind of tangible interaction with my own history. Not to mention the memories that would have disappeared if not for the physical presence of a particular object.

No man is an island. We all come from somewhere, and all our achievements stem from the help and love we’ve received along the way. As a new father, I’m constantly amazed that the human race has survived. It’s a bloody miracle. My three month old child is completely helpless. Without his mom and me, he’d never make it past infancy. Yet, this is the starting point for every human being. Somebody fed us, clothed us, and ensured our physical well-being so that we could become relatively successful and responsible individuals. To throw away every tangible reminder of our dependency creates a fictional ego-centered reality that only leads to self-deception.

So by all means, let’s reduce our consumption and recycle our stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves.