Forgetting What You Know

“You know the house, then?” I said.

“Too well,” he answered, and with a sadness so strange as to have something eerie about it. “I am always trying to forget what I know–and to find what I don’t know” (90).

–Innocent Smith stealing his own wine from his own house, having led a clergyman to believe that he’s stealing from a complete stranger.

 

Source

Chesterton, G. K. Manalive. 1912. Dover, 2000.

Friendship and Society

From Micah Mattix’s recent Prufrock newletter:

I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

The themes of friendship and hospitality have been coming through loud and clear as I’ve been rereading the Odyssey this summer. I’m teaching The Odyssey and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics next year to a group of high school freshman. Discussing the idea of “friendship” seems like a great place to start analyzing and understanding both works…not to mention the myriad of other connections to the other books we’ll read as well (e.g., The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Metamorphoses, etc.). It’s going to be a great year!

THS: BenOp before BenOp

Continuing my observations after reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Observation #2: St. Anne’s is the BenOp prior to all the hubbub about BenOp
I was struck by how St. Anne’s on the Hill more-or-less prefigures the recent discussions and debates surrounding Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Tour the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand | HGTV

St. Anne’s is a quasi-agrarian household–complete with a garden and (from Jane’s perspective) a backward social structure based on conservative/traditional values regarding gender, religion, etc. St. Anne’s is the primary resistance to the growing threat of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE).

The NICE, in contrast, is a bureaucracy: it abstracts humanity into numbers and then attempts to harness the evolutionary process through technology. It is, more importantly, progressive. It wants to better humanity by discarding tradition and marching towards an ever purer form of human existence–one that is free from the messiness and limitations of biology.

One of the recurring debates at St. Anne’s is the usefulness of their resistance. MacPhee, the hyper-rational logician and skeptic, frequently raises the complaint that while the NICE continues to grow and gain power, the small group of insurgents at St. Anne’s continue to do nothing. They garden, cook meals, argue with one another, corral Mr. Bultitude–the bear–whenever he traipses through the garden or wanders too close to the fence, and–worst of all–wait for orders from Ransom’s masters (i.e., the eldil) in whom some of the members have little or no faith.

There is so much waiting at St. Anne’s and so little doing. There is no “warrior class” or “special operations unit” making attacks on the NICE. There is no “war room,” per se, where the members of St. Anne’s talk at length about their plans. There is only waiting.

In an article from 2015, Jake Meador describes the St. Anne’s strategy well, comparing it to the current state of evangelical Christians in 21st century America:

In one of the essential texts for today’s church, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the insurgents rebelling against the sexual industrial complex of the modern west are not culture warriors assailing the institutions slowly consuming our earth and its creatures. Rather, their insurgency takes the form of faithful living in an out-of-the-way manor house out in the English countryside called St. Anne’s. It was at St. Anne’s that these people could live in fellowship with one another and with God’s creation while they waited for the undoing of the NICE in a Tower-of-Babel-style collapse. The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne’s or it will not exist.

I like Meador’s emphasis on the lack of “culture warriors” in his description of St. Anne’s: the urge to “DO SOMETHING” productive–i.e., something quantifiable and empirically useful–would be the undoing of St. Anne’s because it would result in its dissolution. NICE is too big to be threatened by an external attack from the small group of people at St. Anne’s. And NICE’s cultural influence and political power is too ubiquitous to be hampered by a political campaign based on the St. Anne’s way of life. Anything other than small, faithful living would be doomed to fail.

It’s worth noting, however, that St. Anne’s, despite being an out-of-the-way manor house, remains the sole form of rebellion against NICE. Lewis intentionally wants to draw our attention to St. Anne’s as the only productive form of resistance. It may feel like useless inaction, or passive aggressive behavior, or even like a retreat to the bunkers. But we would be mistaken. To live faithfully in small ways requires a herculean effort of courage, determination, and hope no military charge would require of its members. It’s easier to act rashly than it is to wait patiently.

If you’re concerned about cultural trends in 21st century America, think small. Forego flashy exploits or rhetorical dunking on your opponents. How does your way of life reflect your beliefs? Are you willing to sacrifice the conveniences  and cachet of cultural relevance–and I mean everything from staying up-to-date on the latest Netflix shows to life-style trends like minimalism and F.I.R.E.?

The cultural battles ahead (…if you can call them battles…) won’t be won on a grand stage; it won’t be decided by a single showdown where the champion will win glory for himself/herself. It will probably be won in a garden–somewhere on an obscure patch of land in an obscure region of the world. After all, as Meador points out, the battle is not ours to win.

The Odyssey and Not Knowing

I’m rereading the Odyssey right now and it has occurred to me that one of the fundamental themes throughout the entire story revolves around the problem of uncertainty.

Because Telemachus and Penelope do not know the fate of Odysseus, they cannot maintain order in his house. If he were dead, then there would be social customs Telemachus could set in motion that would keep the evil (i.e., inhospitable!) suitors at bay. But because Odysseus’ whereabouts are unknown, neither Telemachus or Penelope have sufficient grounds for taking action and restoring order to the home.

And for some reason, the gods seem to be in on the whole thing.

Athena sends Telemachus on a journey to Pylos, where he’ll meet with Nestor and eventually Menelaus to ask about his father’s condition. She goes to great lengths to set this errand in motion:

  • She pleads (twice!) with the council of the gods (…mostly with Zeus) to save Odysseus and they agree to do so;
  • She disguises herself as a friend of Telemachus (Mentor) and urges him to provoke the suitors and then to take a ship to Pylos;
  • She goes with Telemachus to visit Nestor, and then heads back to the ship.

Then there’s the strange moment where she sends Penelope a dream at the end of book IV, assuaging her sorrow about Telemachus’ journey and to encourage her to stay strong in Odysseus’ absence. Penelope, recognizing the dream as sent from Athena, does a reasonable thing: SHE ASKS ATHENA ABOUT ODYSSEUS’ WHEREABOUTS (…something Telemachus has neglected to do up to this point).

But does Athena give Penelope an answer? No.

“As for that other one (Odysseus), I will not tell you the whole story

whether he lives or has died. It is bad to babble emptily.” (IV.836-37)

Leaving aside the fact that it wouldn’t be empty babble since Athena in fact knows where Odysseus is and whether he’ll return to Ithaca, I wonder what the purpose of holding Penelope and Telemachus in suspense serves.

Is it purely for dramatic effect? Maybe. But that seems cheap and uncharacteristic of Homer if it’s the only reason.

My current thought hovers around the idea about the purpose and effect of knowledge itself. One of the conditions of the human experience is its uncertainty about it’s past, present, and future circumstances. Nevertheless, despite a felt lack of certain knowledge, humans attempt to bring order out of chaos, justice out of injustice. In order to do so, there needs to be some shared sense/acknowledgment of a fundamental ordering principle–e.g., what is justice?

In the case of the Odyssey, that principle is Odysseus. His name, his accomplishments, and his reputation have brought his house into existence by giving it definition and a source from which it’s renown and order stems. Presumably, Odysseus could die, and his house would remain given the social customs surrounding death.

(E.G., one of the reasons Telemachus wants to find out what has happened to Odysseus is so that he can erect a funeral pyre and tomb to bring everlasting honor and fame to his father).

But what do you do if the fundamental ordering principle of your house is missing? Not just dead, but absent without trace or explanation? What if he’s still alive, but you can’t find him? Do you continue to behave as if he is still alive? Or do you behave as if he’s dead?*

In other words, how should you live?

Odysseus’ house is in disarray at the beginning of the Odyssey. Not because it has been openly attacked, but because it has been in a state of arrested development for nearly twenty years, and now the effects of its slow deterioration have surfaced.

And isn’t this state of affairs characteristic of the human condition: more often than we care to admit, we suffer more from our sins of omission than sins of commission. Unlike Telemachus and Penelope, we lose hope that Odysseus will return, or fail to search for him as ardently as Telemachus. If we’re lucky, we’ll wake up to our inattention, like Dante waking up to find himself lost in a dark wood.

———-

*Questions along these lines have me thinking a lot about the opening of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus: “One, two, three; but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth…?”

 

 

That Hideous Strength: Fiction vs. Reality

I just finished reading the third book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. I haven’t read it since high school, and I regret every decision that distracted me from picking it up again.

In the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on a few observations that stood out to me this time around.

Observation #1: Fiction vs. Reality

Several aspects of Lewis’ biography stood out to me–he quotes directly from Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres, he references Owen Barfield’s theory of semantic “ancient unities,” and Tolkien’s myth of Numenor. I’m also convinced that it would be possible (and I’m sure someone has already done it) to map many of the real-life Inklings members onto the characters in the story. Lewis, obviously, is the Ulsterman MacPhee–the snuff-addicted, hyper-rational skeptic member of St. Anne’s on the Hill.

The cross-over between Lewis’ real life and the fictional world of the story creates an effect that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The self-assertion of the narrator also contributes to the effect. The narrator frequently interrupts the story with personal/retrospective opinions about the events; he refers to himself with masculine pronouns; and he explicitly states his own limitations as a narrator. However, it’s not clear how/why the narrator knows as much he does about the details of the story–especially the thoughts and emotions of many of the characters. This narrative device is often used in fairy tales, which makes sense given the subtitle of the book: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. But I think its significance plays into Lewis’ deeper philosophical conception of the relationship between fiction and real-life.

For example. In his essay, “On Stories,” Lewis writes:

To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series–the plot, as we call it–is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path.

The “quality” or “state” is the reality caught by the fictional series of events and characters who act, think, and appear in very specific ways. For Lewis, this has a direct correlation with everyday life and forms one of the underpinning themes of the book. Based on the knowledge we have about biological life we have three interpretive/philosophical options in front of us, all of which are represented by three different groups of people in That Hideous Strength:

  1. The Materialist Interpretation: We can, like Mark Studdock and many people within the N.I.C.E., define life down to purely physical phenomena–e.g., emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain; the appearance of “ghosts” are hallucinations, etc. The physical world does not point beyond itself. It is, instead, a highly rationalistic, machine-like system. Every event or phenomenon has a material explanation that explains away whatever spiritual significance we think it may have.
  2. The Evolutionary Interpretation: The N.I.C.E. looks at human evolution and attempts to harness it and direct it to what the organization perceives as a “higher” mode of existence. The ultimate goal is to transcend human physicality–i.e., the aspects of an embodied existence that hamper intellectual achievements. Birth, decay, and death stand in the way of human achievement. This philosophy is a form of trans-humanism–the attempt to evolve beyond our physical limitations.
  3. The St. Anne’s Interpretation: I don’t know what label to give this interpretation. Fundamentally, it stems from a traditionally Christian anthropology: man is neither solely beast (materialist) or solely angel (evolution); he is by nature an in-between creature–one for whom there seems to be infinite potential, but never at the cost of either aspects of his nature. In the image of St. Anne’s on the Hill, Lewis describes a kind of monastic commune where the people work in a garden, maintain friendly relations with animals, submit themselves in obedience to the authority of Ransom, and, in the end, entertain the gods. The community of St. Anne’s represents the ultimate–and only–resistance to the growing evil and encroachment of the N.I.C.E. It resists by cultivating a way of life, not by marching out against the enemy (much to the frustration of MacPhee). It’s an odd form of resistance because it doesn’t feel like anything is being done. No quantifiable progress is being made–nobody attempts to capture enemy soldiers, commit espionage, or invade N.I.C.E. headquarters. Instead, they simply wait and obey. Preserving a way of life, especially one centered on an anthropology that is conducive to man’s dual nature, is the only effective resistance against evil. Any other active form of resistance falls into the trap of mirroring, and ultimately being consumed by, the enemy’s own tactics (…there are echoes here of Saruman’s downfall in Tolkien’s The Two Towers).

Like our understanding of a story, all three philosophical alternatives attempt to make sense of the world by way of it’s events, characters, and physical structure. These give rise to the plot of every day life, the net whereby we try “to catch something else.” And in this instance, the “something else” is a proper understanding of human nature and the cosmos.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality in That Hideous Strength, Lewis prompts readers to confront their conception of reality–or, at least, our interpretation of the physical world which suggests/signifies/indicates/catches “something else.”

 

 

My First Foray in Integralism

Below is my running commentary of an article written by Pater Edmund Waldenstein. It’s my first real attempt to learn and understand the integralist position in the debate surrounding liberalism. Waldenstein’s article is a response to another article by Timothy Troutner who offers a critique of the post-liberal Christian/integralist assessment of liberalism.

(H/T to Jake Meador who brought these articles to my attention through his email newsletter, Notes from a Small Place. I´ll also mention that Waldenstein has a great blog that documents some of his life as a monk at the monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz.)

My General Assessment:

I lean towards Waldenstein’s view, but with a few caveats:

  1. Waldenstein’s vocabulary is very specific, and if we’re going to understand and/or disagree with him, we’ll need to make sure we mean the same thing, for example, by “hierarchy” and “nature.”
  2. I’m concerned he downplays the abuses of hierarchy and power too much in this article. I recognize that his goal isn’t to discuss the abuses of hierarchy per se, and that he’s ultimately making a case for it despite it’s abuses. Still, I think we can’t ignore abuses, especially as it concerns the practical consequences it has on an empirical/social level. At it’s best, I think integralism is an attempt to work with the grain of human nature and the order of the cosmos. But it seems that integralism runs the risk of trying to impose an abstract philosophical/theological ideal onto human relationships and social structures.

Commentary

1. Christ self-emptying in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion is meant to restore and elevate the hierarchy of creation wounded by sin, not to replace it with egalitarianism. Nor was the Church’s juridical understanding of herself in Christendom an imitation of worldly power, unaffected by Christ’s kenosis. In fact, the very opposite is the case: the form of temporal politics in Christendom was a conscious imitation of the hierarchy of the Church and the rules of the monastic orders. And the ruler was always understood as an image of Christ, bound to give himself for the common good of his commonwealth just as Christ offered himself for the Church.
  • This, to me, is an important component of the integralist argument. Growing up in a non-denominational church, one of the arguments I heard from pastors about why  protestant/evangelical churches eschew the traditional church hierarchy of bishop-priest-deacon is rooted in the kenotic argument that Jesus came down to earth and turned hierarchies upside down. Waldenstein’s point, however, goes deeper and sees Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection as restorative of the natural hierarchy embedded in the cosmos. Sin, at it’s core, is a rebellion against authority. Satan, at the bottom of Dante’s hell, won’t stop flapping his wings out of pride–as if to say, “I will rise of my own power!” Christ reminds us that we are under authority. We are under the authority of God and of the people (e.g., the apostles) who God invests with authority.
2. Waldenstein’s argument/description of hierarchy I think is important to our understanding of integralism. He’s not arguing (…at least, I don’t think he’d say he is…) for a totalitarian structure. Rather his argument is an attempt to argue for a “natural” hierarchy in creation (and in heaven) that worldly power structures would do well to imitate.
3. Robin’s book is a strident defense of the same program of liberation in the form of an attack on the reactionary conservatism that has always opposed it. “Since the modern era began,” Robin writes, “men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions.” Robin sees this series of rebellions of subjects against their rulers—the bourgeoisie against the nobles, peasants against land owners, workers against industrialists, wives against husbands, and so on—as fully just.
  • If I understand him correctly, I think Waldenstein is mainly taking aim at the liberal push for “egalitarianism-at-all-costs.” In which case, this seems like a straw-man argument that would cut both ways. Rebellion against a particular power structure isn’t an inherently good thing, nor is it an inherently bad thing. Rebellion against injustice, on the other hand, is always good (maybe…).
4. As rational beings, men are capable of understanding their good and pursuing it by their own will: true freedom.
  • I like this: there’s a distinction to be made between liberty and license. True liberty is enjoyed when we understand what the good is and then pursue it. License leads to the slavery of sin.
5. I admit, of course, that in human affairs the good of hierarchy has often been abused. Rulers have often exploited their subjects for selfish advantage rather than aiding them to attain to the common good. And, indeed, the world has seen many false hierarchies—such as chattel slavery—founded on unjust principles. But the abuse of something does not take away its proper use.
  • Two thoughts here: 1) This would’ve been an opportune moment for Waldenstein to mention the sex-abuse scandal that plagues the RC church; not doing so feels a little disingenuous. 2) Nevertheless, his last sentence rings true: abuse does not mean no use.
6. The Hierē Archē, the Holy Beginning of all.
  • I did not know the etymology of hierarchy prior to reading Waldenstein’s article, and now I’m a BIG FAN.
7. Here again there is a kind of equality, for each angel enjoys the same common good, but it is an equality that depends on the inequality of their hierarchical order. The spiritual symphony whereby the angels proclaim the Divine Silence is entirely determined in all its acts and motions, and yet this is a completely voluntary and personal determination—in a sense, it is freedom.
  • I’m loving this section on angels. And this idea (quoted above) is something I talked with my students about while reading Dante. Inequality as a good is hard to digest in our liberal order. God, however, is not an egalitarian, and it’s this emphasis that I appreciate about the integralist position. It’s a reminder that heaven won’t be a democratic republic, much less a democracy. God’s will will be done, and it will set us free.
  • I also like this section on angels because it sets him up well for the macro – micro image he argues for later.
8. Lucifer’s sin was therefore a proto-liberal rebellion against hierarchy and obedience.
  • Not to put to fine a point on it, but….LIBERALISM = SATAN
9. Since original sin was rebellion against hierarchy, our Lord’s work of salvation is the exact opposite.
  • His discussion of Satan and the fall is a clever way of turning Troutner’s libido dominandi argument on its head. Hierarchy has never been the problem (even if it’s been abused); it is rebellion that’s the problem, not hierarchy.
10. As long as he is a tyrant who exploits the poor and weak, Herod should indeed fear Christ who comes to save the poor and oppressed. But as a tyrant Herod is himself a rebel. If he were to start ruling for the common good, his power would be legitimate, and he would receive his authority from God.
  • This is also an interesting idea given what I see Waldenstein doing with Troutner’s argument (see point 9 above). He concedes that it’s possible for rebellion to exist within worldly hierarchies–both ecclesiastical and “secular” (for lack of a better word). I’d like for him to flesh this point out more. Is there any redemptive value to rebellion? I’m wondering specifically if we may conceive of Christ’s ministry and the establishment of the kingdom of God as a form of rebellion in this world. Or is “rebellion” the wrong word to describe the work of Christianity in this world? I’m tempted to think it’s the latter–especially if we want to keep our vocabulary clear and consistent.
11. It is certainly true that Christendom did not always live up to such ideals. There were many abuses. But Troutner makes no distinction between abusive and legitimate uses of temporal power. It would be wearisome to go through the examples of the uses of power that Troutner mentions, and distinguish abuses from proper uses (Thomas Pink and others can be consulted on most of them). The point that I want to make here is a more fundamental one: power has good uses.
  • Again, this feels like a deflection regarding the real and horrible abuses that have occurred within the hierarchy of the church catholic (not just RC). But I take his point.