Rectifying Names

a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut

     1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
     2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
     3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
     4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
     5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
     6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
     7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator

Big Questions: Is Life a Battle or a Journey? - February 9, 2015

Western culture has been graced with two wonderful literary answers to the question, “What is life all about?” In The Iliad the answer is, a battle; in The Odyssey, a journey.

Well, so what, you may say. Aren’t there other possible answers to this question, e.g., life is a game, life is a repetition, life is a dream, life is a collection, life is a recollection, or any number of other answers, answers that have been suggested by writers or philosophers or prophets or oracles? Well, sure, there are lots of answers to the question, but only a few good answers, answers that will stand up to scrutiny, answers that the greatest minds have pondered. The greatness of Homer goes far beyond his style or his plots; it goes directly to his themes. For no other pair of answers to the question of what life is about has so captured the mind or viscera of mankind.

Here are the opening lines from the two works (Richmond Lattimore translations):

Iliad

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Odyssey

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming.

We in the West should find this dichotomy inbuilt into our religious backgrounds. The central event in Judaism is a journey (the Exodus); in Christianity, the central event is a battle (Jesus’ battle with Satan is a model for ours with our natures).

I don’t remember when this battle/journey dichotomy first occurred to me, only that it did occur to me, that it wasn’t taught to me or mentioned to me by someone else. Probably it occurred while I read and reread the Iliad. But, having occurred to me, it filled the interstices of my mind in the knowledge that something came to me in the first place, that this thought, which I knew not only couldn’t be original with me but must have occurred to thousands for millennia before me, shouldn’t be original with me, because this thought was a big idea, and thus one that I shared in silence with all humanity, and, of course, nothing unique ever came about through sharing. It was a much bigger thought than other ideas that have occurred to me without professor- or peer-prodding, like, for example, the fact that Ayn Rand isn’t really a philosopher. Such thoughts constitute a sloughing off of the kind of innocence one must be rid of in order to advance. (There are, I contend, innocences we should maintain all our lives. My father once told me, when I asked him, rather indignantly, since I was then about twelve, why he had just given money to a panhandler, that we were supposed to be taken advantage of . . . now that was an innocence we might well cultivate. That day I learned well and forever that giving is supposed to help the giver as well as the recipient.) But the idea of the battle/journey dichotomy was much bigger than the little discoveries that take place in all of us as we grow and become educated.

Later, in grad school, I learned a bit about India’s classic literature, which wonderfully confirmed the truth of the battle/journey notion. Indian literature has an identical situation in, respectively, The Mahabharata, which is about a battle, and The Ramayana, about a journey, though these two works are much more central to the intellectual and spiritual history of India than Homer’s works are to the West. The Mahabharata (which has one of India’s most famous works, The Bhagavad Gita, contained within it) is more than ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and both of India’s works, we are told, have what seem to be semi-divine origins.

I won’t go into the Mahabharata or the Ramayana except to say that any time devoted to reading portions of them is time well spent.  But, since the audience for this book is Western, I return to the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The two Homeric works connect to the each other in time and characters; this is especially the case for Odysseus, who has a small part in the Iliad and the central one in the Odyssey. But the two works could not be more different in their themes and story lines.

The Iliad concerns a war of honor, brought about to return an errant wife. The story begins toward the very end the ten-year Trojan War. The entire twenty-four books of the Iliad take up but sixteen days, with Book One alone taking up the first twelve of these sixteen days. The Odyssey, on the other hand, takes place after the end of that Trojan War, when the Achaians go home. It is not about honor, but about returning home, specifically about Odysseus’ travels, an adventure that takes up a full ten years, the equivalent in time of the entire Trojan War.

Whereas the Iliad does not refer to time in any way, despite the fact that it deals with a real event in history, the Odyssey centers around specific events and the time it took to complete those events. A journey by nature is concerned with time because it is concerned with the movement of things. As such, it is like music or any auditory sound because it involves waves rather than points, continuousness rather than continuity, series rather than story.

Time is central in the Odyssey; indeed, the entire work is held together by the labor of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, who is pursued by a bevy of suitors and to stave them off says she must complete a tapestry she is making, but each evening, in the quiet, she unravels the work to keep the time going. The Odyssey is a work of history about events that never occurred.

It is passing strange that stories about battles and stories about journeys tend to be rather separated. Of course, if you read a shoot-‘em-up nowadays, there will always be a little sidebar that hints at “moving on,” as though that were the equivalent of “journey.” In the end, battle and journey are two separate categories of stories and rarely can coalesce. The two great exceptions to this, in my thinking at least, are Dante’s  Divine Comedy and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, perhaps the two greatest novels ever written, though I am personally very partial to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both Divine Comedy and Don Quixote are battles within journeys (Karamazov also has small battles within individual journeys of the sons). Perhaps we can see just from this point how big the world must be to cover both battle and journey.

But there is more to Homer’s great works than interesting stories. Both have stories within stories. The Iliad, for example, is a battle within a battle, perhaps even battles within a battle. Despite the fact that the very nature of the story would indicate that the battle is between the Achaians and the Trojans, right from the beginning of the work, it appears that the main battle is within the Achaians themselves, specifically between Achilleus and Agamemnon. Soon, however, it becomes evident that the real battle is not that at all, but within Achilleus himself.

As a side bar, this brings me back to a long time ago, when I was a soccer coach for my sons’ high school. After being around them and learning more about the game and the players, I wrote a little article about what I called the Three Levels of Competition. In the first, the player is new and sometimes scared. He is playing one-on-one, and it is his natural tendency to be concerned about one thing only . . . not to screw up. His aim is to outplay his single opponent or at least not be outplayed by his opponent. Later, especially after he learns more and plays better, he sees the game in larger ways and enters the second level. It is a game of teams, not simply of individuals. He looks to play a part to help others on the team rather than just being concerned about his own play. Not all players get this far; some remain single-players forever. Fewer still enter the third and last level, the level that goes beyond the team, when the player does not aim only at winning. On the third level, he plays, in effect, against himself, to improve himself, to ask more from himself, to excel for the sake of himself, for his teammates, and for the game itself. Very few high-schoolers get this far; in fact, many if not most professionals, I think, do not get this far . . . because what he asks of himself is not that others will love him, honor him, admire him, but that he does that to and for himself.

This is what happens in the Iliad. At first Achilleus argues with Agamemnon on a point of honor. Perhaps the reader will think Achilleus is in the right, but in his manner with Agamemnon he forfeits his right to have sympathy. He is fighting the one-on-one, against an opponent with far more power, even if with lesser talent as a warrior. Achilleus then pulls away from the fight. He retires from the field and refuses to return until he is honored, which cannot happen because Agamemnon cannot afford to lower himself in this way. Here, Achilleus has reached the second level, the team portion, even as he has failed miserably to be a team player. In fact, he has eschewed the team, led by someone who had shamed him. When Achilleus retires from the battle, the Achaians noticeably feel the pinch of his loss. Others beg Achilleus to return to the fight, but even their pleas and praise are not enough for him. He remains adamant about not returning. But then his dear friend Patroklos feels shamed not to be in the fight, and so asks Achilleus for permission to engage the enemy. Achilleus relents and gives him his own armor to wear. Patroklos enters the fray and fights with the greatest leader of the Trojans, Hektor. In their fight, Hektor kills Patroklos and, as is customary, strips the armor from him and puts it on himself. Now comes the third level, the area where few are able to arrive at. Achilleus finds out that his dearest friend is dead; he runs to the top of the mount and bellows his anger and anguish at the death of Patroklos. He is without armor, naked as a warrior, but his very presence is enough to throw violent fear into the hearts of the Trojans, who quit the field despite their being close to completely vanquishing the Achaians. Achilleus then demands to fight Hektor, who would prefer not to enter the field with such a man, but his loss of honor to do such forces him to agree. He enters the field in Achilleus’ armor, the armor he stripped from Patroklos, and since armor is the defining synecdoche in the Iliad, Achilleus finally faces himself. In this final, terrible fight, Achilleus lays waste to his enemy. In facing Hektor, he faces himself, slaughters himself, desecrates himself, alienates himself, and it is only in the denouement, facing Priam, who pleads for the body of his son Hector, that Achilleus releases himself, returns to himself, becomes himself.

And just as the Iliad is a battle within a battle, so too is the Odyssey a journey within a journey. After leaving Calypso, Odysseus recounts the entire story of his journey, so the whole of the ten-year journey is told and retold. While the Iliad concerns only a few days at the end of a ten-year war, without reference to what went before or after, the Odyssey is itself a ten-year journey, full of amazing adventures and even more amazing characters, monsters such as Scylla and Charybdis, nymphs like Circe, sirens, deities, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and others.

The word Iliad means poem about Ilium (i.e., Troy). Odyssey, Webster says, is “a series of adventurous journeys usually marked by many changes of fortune.” One is about a place (one that existed) and the other about a constant change of places (none of which existed). One involves a choice, then a reaction. The other is an action against something that you did not choose.

If we think in terms of a play, we see the Iliad as a tragedy and the movement is down. It concerns honor, courage, arête (virtue, excellence). The Odyssey is a comedy, and the action is up. It hallows not honor but shrewdness, desire to experience all that the world has to offer.

Journey, because it is intimately connected with time and flow, is framed in history. It does not engage the environment, it reacts to it. Despite its seeming to be active in the sense of “doing something,” it is essentially passive (cf. the Sirens’ song in the Odyssey).

Battle, on the other hand, is proactive. It is active, tragic, normative. And despite all the hopes and dreams and plans everywhere, battle seems hard-wired into our psyche; it is about our nature. (No one can say that about journey; if it were so, what happened to the life of the first ten or twenty thousand years in the life of homo sapiens?) Battle existed before the epiphany of God (either in the thorn bush or the manger). Perhaps it is part of what Augustine meant by original sin. The Church has always sought to expunge it, has in modern times condemned battle irrespective of either [OT] righteousness or [NT] charity, as a moral evil.

Whether we speak of what Arjuna learned from Krishna on the plain of Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita or what Achilleus learned from Priam, despite terrible warfare, the world we sense is real . . . and not only real, but good. The lessons in both are similar: the battle that rages on within us or without us has a real purpose, i.e., a real end, for our souls.

And while you may not fight a Cyclops as a moment in your journal or stand atop a mount to engage a new world in battle, what is left for us is greater than all of that. As St. Paul said, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Journey is about hope; battle I believe concerns faith. And both, in their less-than-perfect explanation, give us the possibility of love.

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Big Questions: By Way of Acknowledgments - January 26, 2015

In a life of publishing, I have had more than my share of opportunities to read acknowledgments, but, except for those books I edited, I rarely took advantage of those opportunities. It always seemed to me strangely backward to put acknowledgments in the front of books, when the books themselves should have been the acknowledgments. In other words, the front matter of the book should be devoted to what the author has decided or where he’s arrived at, and the meat of the book should deal with how he got there. Acknowledgments, in short, should state conclusions, and the book should give the reasons, which is exactly opposite from the way almost all books are laid out. But, in most cases, how he got there is more interesting and more important than where he is. I am sure that is the case with me. The question is more important than the answer.

Most scholarly books have acknowledgments, and most of these have a wizened feel to them. Like commencement addresses, acknowledgments, one suspects, are not meant to be remembered. As timely as the front page, they forfeit their right to timelessness. The only one I can remember was one I read several decades ago in a work, now long out of print, entitled Method and Meaning in Jonson’s Masques by John C. Meagher. The author rather overdid it in his acknowledgments, even by scholarly standards, for it seemed that he was expressing his thanks to everyone he had consulted on the topic, everyone who had deigned to say something back to him, everyone who had aided him in his scholarship. It went on for pages and pages. Finally came the last line, which went something like this: And lastly to my wife, whose total indifference to this project was a constant source of perspective.

That line will be all I will take to my grave of acknowledgments.[1]

So in the spirit that acknowledgments should say something about where the author stands, and the book itself should address the more significant question of how he got there, allow me to thank some of the many people (and a few dogs) who have helped me along the way in life in the body of this book, not here, allow me to use it as a sort of confession, and allow it to be my penance, dear reader, not yours.

*     *     *     *     *

This is a book about questions. I do not have many answers, and as I get older, it is not so much that I have fewer convictions or solutions; it is just that I have fewer recollections of what those convictions and solutions are. I remember what I think and thought and what I believe and believed, all right; it is just that I may not remember the route I traveled to get to those thoughts and beliefs. But you never outgrow your need for questions, for the questions are the only possible way to retrace your steps to the route (or root) of those thoughts and beliefs.

Questions change as we age, I think. In the beginning, we question why the world is what it is (“why is the sky blue?” “how can flies walk upside down?” “what causes thunder?”), succeeded by questioning why we and, by extension, our parents, friends, and others, are what we are (“why do I have a curfew if none of my friends do?” “why do I have to learn algebra?” “what’s wrong with me?”). To employ a quasi-Hegelian formulation, the first group of questions is asking as such questions and the second is asking for me ones. Later, we begin the long slide toward narrowing our questions to problem solving, assured, I am sure, that this narrowing is a manifestation of our growing maturity (“what do I have to do to get into that school?” “how can we afford that?”). Eventually, some of us come back to the initial questions, and one is reminded that Plato, in his Republic, said that the education of the city’s guardians should culminate in an initiation to the study of philosophy, at age 50.

But there is something about the first group, the as such questions, that has the ability to intrude on our calm throughout our lives, and I think that that is because there is something universal about these questions, questions that are not burdened by the for me in them, questions we know apply to all people and all times. It is true that these questions themselves change as we grow older, especially, I suppose, if we actually mature as we grow older. But there are similarities to these Big Questions whether the question is “what causes wind?” or “is life a battle or a journey?”

Big Questions appear to be open-ended and without final resolution (face it, they are not as readily answerable as “what causes inflation?” or other easy stuff like that). So, many people take them to be childish foolishness or simply matters of opinion, rather than learning. Everyone has or can have an opinion, of course (to say otherwise would be not only rude, but un-American), but as soon as the most rudimentary explanation is insisted upon, many will say that these Big Questions are child’s play and not worthy of attention.

Few of these questions lend themselves to final proofs in the sense of our being assured that we can convince all others to accept our answers, because all of these questions are in the form in which the answers will have some of the Hegelian “questioning for me” in them. As our teachers said was true, it appears that it is how we come to conclusions or answers that is more important than what those conclusions or answers are, that in some ineffable way the very asking of the questions not only resulted in and exhibits some knowledge but leads to it too, even without answers or even with unsure or unsatisfactory answers. These questions are universals, to employ the philosophical term for them, whereas the answers are undoubtedly particulars.

So perhaps it is best to say that what makes a Big Question big is not the answer, not even the question itself, but the intention of the questioner, for the mere wording of a question is not enough to know whether it is a Big Question. When a child asks why the winter is so long, it affords a different answer and even a different consideration than when an adult asks that same question. For the child, “why is winter so long?” is always a Big Question; for the adult, that question depends upon whether he is complaining about the snow and the gray of the sky on the one hand or, on the other, commenting on the state of life. The bigger it is, the more difficult will be the answer and the more unlikely it is that any one answer will satisfy everyone who asks it. Many adults, after all, have arrived at a conclusion exactly the opposite of this: that it is the answer that is the universal element and the question that differs from one person to another. No wonder so much in life for them has a dreadful dragging grayness about it and everything from products to political candidates end up with a seeming sameness no matter what the question we ask . . . because products and candidates are seeking the supposed same universal answer rather than the actual universal question.

Possibly that is the reason that we tend toward Big Questions in childhood and in the autumn of our lives . . . because, in childhood, we can be satisfied with answers from authority and as we age we know that the most important questions may not have completely satisfactory answers at all but that there may be some benefit derived merely from the asking. And, besides, youth and old age are the main periods when we have the time to question the world we find ourselves in, question our place in it, question our way of finding satisfactory answers, question why there is something rather than nothing.

*     *     *     *     *

The great ancient Greek philosophers laid the groundwork for philosophy to deal with Big Questions. It is true that browsing through the course of study of a modern-day philosophy student might lead one to believe that there are no Big Questions, only big answers to small questions. But the nature of philosophy began otherwise, and it is still in some way what attracts intelligent students to philosophy to this day . . . until they go home for Christmas break and the old man asks what use all this has (which is the archetypal question looking for an archetypal answer), or they take a course with an analytic philosopher who insists that all that stuff in Platonic dialogues or Aristotelian reflection is, gasp, unimportant (or, worse, superseded), and that philosophy involves taking the world apart and examining all the entrails that spill out, and the student is led inexorably toward the conclusion that the gutsy Big Question has to be replaced by the guts in the little answers.

But eventually we all graduate, eventually we all slough off the title “wise idiot” (sophomore), eventually we learn the use of “use.” Then Plato and Aristotle become less fuddy-duddy to us, and we appreciate the wonder that philosophy began with men who sought universals rather than particulars,[2] who stated, as Aristotle said in the Metaphysics, that philosophy (and, by extension, our very nature as thinking beings confronting the world we live in) begins in wonder.

For me, almost all Big Questions are tied in some way to time because, though I cannot explain it well, it is time, even more than space, that ties us to the earth. We are Westerners, and we tend to look out upon the world, rather than inwardly upon ourselves, as the source of learning (more about this in Chapter 1, “Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?”). If we flounder, if we grasp at Big Questions, it may be just that we have only so much time to reach them. When we are adults, looking back, we know that, with time, our questioning will change, our intentions will change, our acceptance of answers will change. Yet now, while there is time, there is opportunity to ask Big Questions. For some, this will hearken back to a period in their lives of innocence and hunger for answers; for others, it may open up new vistas for the future; but for all who pursue Big Questions, it will not be that most evil of all modern failures, time wasted.

When I say that Big Questions are tied in some way to time, I mean not only that sense of time in “to every thing there is a season,” but also because, for me, Big Questions are tied to what I discovered I was given as a child and what I want to pass on after my death, for we pass on more than our names or our treasure, more even than memories. We pass on our habits (our second nature, as Thomas Aquinas put it), our particularity. So Big Questions for me tend to come down to questions about the world and my place in it on the one hand, and, on the other, thoughts about those I love and their place in that world. As I write these words, my father’s death occurred more than fifty years old. As time advances, my memory of his face, his voice, his words all fade, but there is something inexpressible about him that never fades, and I call this his habit. It is something I inherited from him as much as the shape of his nose. And though we never discussed Big Questions, because he did not have the time and I did not have the knowledge, it seems clearer and clearer to me that it is the consideration of Big Questions that ties me to him with ever-stronger cords as the years proceed, because these Big Questions, unspoken and unanswered, are as much a part of my inheritance, as much a part of his legacy, as anything finally left on earth of value.

 

[1] That is, until I told my wife of my theory of acknowledgments being about where the writer has arrived, and she replied, “Oh, so even the acknowledgments is about you.”

[2] One might well say that traditional philosophy is the practice of addressing universal questions with particular answers; modern philosophy, on the other hand, seems, to me at least, to apply universal answers to particular questions.

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The Coming of Big Questions - January 19, 2015

Some years back, I started to write a book on some of the great questions we are faced with in the course of our lives, questions that are often ignored rather than faced, questions that may well define our lives and give meaning to our wanderings and wonderings. Right now, I have bits and pieces of many chapters and a few finished pages.

One of the benefits of writing a blog, for me at least, has been the opportunity to be forced to sit down and finish something (I know, one usually doesn’t think of being forced as an opportunity). I have been in publishing for a long time, and helped, I trust, many authors in their works. Now it is time for me to finish the ideas that have rumbled around in my head for years, ideas about the importance and meaning of questioning, and so I have decided to use the blog for a period of time as an outlet to complete sections of this planned work from the beyond.

Because writing pieces of a book will be longer than the current, short blog, it will appear every other week. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, complaints, and whatever else that moves you.

Thank you.

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” - A reworking - January 5, 2015

THE NEXT BLOG WILL APPEAR ON JAN. 19TH. 

 

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a blog on this subject; I enclose most of it below, then update it for the present.

This famous line from Benito Mussolini was his simplified understanding of fascism.

People confuse the economic programs of fascism v. socialism. In the simplest definition I know, fascism exists when the means of production, to use Marx’s term, are in private corporate hands, but controlled by the state, for the benefit of the state. Socialism, on the other hand, exists when the state owns the means of production directly. The best way for me to give you a way of remembering this difference is to tell you of the way my high-school physics teacher differentiated chemistry from physics. He said, “If is smells, it’s chemistry. If it doesn’t work, if’s physics.” Change “chemistry” to “fascism” and “physics” with “socialism,” and you have a working definition for both of these economic disasters.

These two theories, born in economics, whether they evolve or our understanding of them evolves, eventually are understood as political theories. Neither has worked for long as an economic success, though fascism can last a long time before society collapses. In my understanding, the political changes we are witnessing in our country are not socialist but rather a (so far rather tame) form of fascism.

Like those from many other ages who think that the world was made new with their appearance, we may be under the false idea that socialism and fascism are wholly new. They are not, though the names are fairly new.

Socialism, I think, is the proof in political terms of original sin. How else to take Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results? Socialism has been tried for thousands of years, including most definitely the founders of Christianity and the experiment that became the United States. It pops up in rich societies and poor, promoted by educated people and illiterates. It attracts people whose motivation is love of neighbor and those who distrust everyone, for reasons of altruism (please note, I’m not saying “charity”) and for reasons of punishment. The New Testament contains passages that are pro-socialist (“they had everything in common.”  Acts 4:32; cf. Acts 2:44) and those that are anti-socialist (“If any one will not work, let him not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 2:10).

Many may find that holding everything in common an inducement to happiness, but the experiment is usually abandoned over time. This is an important factor, because the one recurring aspect of socialism is that it does not work. Over time, free people almost always notice this, as they grow poorer in spirit and in abundance, and they often very peacefully change their minds. Indeed, what seems inextricably the case with human beings and socialism is that eventually they either abandon it or amend it to account for human nature, which (1) ties people together in tight bonds more likely as families rather than as societies and (2) takes into consideration that individuals have varying levels of talents, ambitions, energy, and responsibility. In short, though the worth of each may be acknowledged by God, humans tend to judge one another by characteristics, some inborn and some developed, that set one person apart from another. The answer given by the Dodo bird in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland about who won a competition that no one kept track of was, “Everyone has won, and all must have prizes.” This works especially well with small children and those who listen to Dodo birds. Most adults abide more closely to St. Paul: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Fascism, though, is another case entirely. Because it intertwines the rules of the state and the private economic entity (in modern times, we call it the corporation, though we can see this way of governing thousands of years ago, before the age of corporations), because, we might say, it creates accomplices from private people for the benefit of the state (and, of course, themselves), it creates a living and growing cadre of the powerful to dominate society. These people offer what could be called secondary benefits to a vast and perhaps unwashed populace, who together manage a force of numbers to enlarge and direct a center, a state, in which Mussolini’s dictum is enshrine.

Soon bread and circuses will suffice to keep the secondary beneficiaries loyal. Extricating ones way out of fascism must be much more difficult than doing so from socialism, if the record of man’s history is any proof. Socialisms come and socialisms go, like the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Fascist societies, on the other hand, fall by their own internal greed and corruption or change through violence.

Both socialism and fascism hitched their wagons to the state, but in quite different ways. Marxist socialism was supposed to witness the disappearance of the state. It never quite got that far, of course, though we were left with the unmentioned understanding that the state lived on as the party. Though Soviet Communism was always much more controlling of the personal lives of their citizens than was the Nazi Party, the Communists never had more than a small number of people attached to the party whereas the Nazis virtually demanded that all those whom they thought were not sub-human become attached to the Nazi Party.

Unlike Soviet Communism, Nazi and Italian fascism were more honest about the centrality of the state. They allowed what we could call private ownership, but it is not the kind of “private” that we speak of in America. It is ownership by trusted functionaries (oddly enough, perhaps the best current example of this is Putin’s Russia).

Even more important than the differences in internal control is what happened after the demise of Nazi fascism compared with the end of the Cold War and the fall of Soviet Communism. Solzhenitsyn (and many others too) wrote about the way in which the Germans sought to restore their country by fully admitting the horror that had occurred, punishing the worst offenders, seeking forgiveness from others and working toward aiding countries and peoples they had harmed, passing laws to condemn remnants of the Nazi followers, making sure that young people understood the terror that had occurred and did not look upon the crimes of the Nazis as heroic.

No such thing occurred at the end of the Cold War . . . no admission of the evil that was brought about, no aid to the millions that were killed, no prohibition of the Communist Party. The KGB lowlife billionaire who heads Russia now said that “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Excuses for Soviet crimes continues not only in Russia itself but throughout the West. Without confessing the horrors of Communism, without taking responsibility and seeking forgiveness, there will be no growth, no honor, no renewal. Fascism allowed this; Communism has not.

I bring up these points about the difference between the end of fascism and the end of Communism (assuming that there is an end) because we are living through a period in which the truth is itself on trial, where the admission of error is the exception, not the rule, where, to once again quote Solzhenitsyn, “we never make mistakes.” Indeed, in a quote from The Observer (29 December 1974), he wrote, In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.”

Is this to be our fate too? By ignoring the lie, we become complicit in the lie. No great society has ever been sustained by lies. 

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The Nativity - December 29, 2014 - By James V. Schall, S.J. - (Originally published at aleteia.org)

I.

A Filipina lady whom I know told me that her mother was born on Christmas Day—La Natividad. So naturally her parents named her “Natividad” or shorted “Navidad. Jose Feliciano’s now famous Christmas song, Feliz Navidad, remains one of the most popular and widely enjoyed of modern Christmas songs. “Happy Nativity”—“Merry Christmas”—“Feliz Navidad”—at Christmas, my sister plays this song on her piano.

The Mormon church in Palo Alto has an annual display of crèches from around the world. Evidently, the Mormon world-wide mission endeavor resulted in many missionaries bringing home artifacts from various places on the globe. In the general Palo Alto area, moreover, many people have crèches that they have collected over the years. In total, there seems to be some fifteen hundred elaborate, multi-figured scenes of the Nativity, from Mexico, Peru, Cambodia, Africa, Germany, Switzerland, American Indian tribes, Portugal, and just about anywhere. There was a lovely dark blue Murano glass Madonna. Each year some 350 of these different Nativity scenes are displayed in a lovely setting in the church halls. Striking figures of Joseph, Mary, and the Child, the Wise Men, the shepherds, the animals of all sorts, and even carved breads and eggs are displayed. The dress of Mary and Joseph, as well as their facial features, usually reflects the time and country of origin of the artist.

The Nativity—what is it? It comes from the Latin, to be born. What is the origin of any child born into this world? We really must recall that any born child is already a conceived child, with a nine-month inner-worldly record already in place. At the moment of his conception, all that he is, his unique being, is already present. What is left for this child is simply to grow, to become fully what he already is, a human being, male or female. No parents know ahead of time just what this child begotten of them is like. Though x-rays can follow his development, they have to wait to find out by seeing the child once born. They then see him grow, develop into what he already is. The birth of a child is, at the same time, both an astonishment and a lesson in the responsible care of another, as if to say that the latter, the care, flows from the former, the amazement, that such a new thing could exist as it is at all.

Yet, no child is understood if he is considered to originate in absolutely nothing, if he is held to be a total product of chance. His very body is related to the genes and looks that belonged to his grandparents and ancestors on both sides of his family. His soul, what makes him to be human as such, originates in God. It is, though related to a body, itself immaterial, hence immortal. Human life, moreover, has origins in the Godhead. Before we were in our mother’s womb, God knew us. But He did not know us apart from our parents or them apart from their parents. We are always individual persons, yet related to others and them to us. His interchange constitutes our lives.

Such reflections have two implications. Our very being is ultimately found within God’s intention to create the world in the first place. In doing so, each of us is included. We do not have any choice about whether or not we will be given existence. If we did have such a choice, it would logically mean that we existed as we are before we existed as we are at birth. Our parents do not engineer us. All they know is that children can be born of them. They never know which ones until they see them. Our conception and birth, in other words, are best understood as a gift, not as something “due” or constructed. Yet, once we are conceived, our growth, which needs love, help, and attention, proceeds by the necessity of our being what we are. We will reach infancy, youth, middle age, old age, and death. The only way to stop this subsequent flourish as a human being is to kill it, though such a killing does not prevent that which is killed from reaching the purpose for which it was made in the Godhead.

The second consequence of our having an origin in the Godhead is that, while we are related to others of our kind—we are familial, social, and political beings--we are also present to God who sustains our being in its very existence. Something inexhaustible is discovered in each human being reflecting back on himself. As we proceed to know one another, we always find some inexhaustible depth in ourselves and in our neighbor, something that we did not put there, something we cannot fully fathom. Our being reaches the Godhead in which the idea of our existence first resided. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, guides us to the understanding that God is not only in the world but also within us, sustaining us, loving us. This divine presence is the source of our dignity, of the fact that even God treats us after the manner of His creation, after the manner of what we are. This truth is why our relation to God is both indirect through the things that are and direct through our reflecting on the divine presence sustaining us in being, in loving us.
 

II.

We can, of course, refuse to be what we are. This refusal explains, in part, why we have “The Nativity” of the Child of the Holy Family. “Nativity” here means, not just the birth of any given person, but the birth of the Son of God into this world at a definite time and in a definite place, when Caesar Augustus was Roman Emperor. Early Christian heresies are largely complicated efforts not to admit that Christ, the Child born in Bethlehem, was both true man, hence born of woman, and true God, hence the Son of the Father within the Godhead, the Logos, the eternally begotten Word who fully knows the Father. But this Christ was born in the City of David. He is Christ the Lord. This Nativity of the Son into the world is sometimes called by Church Fathers His “second” birth, since He was first born, begotten not made, of or from the Father within the Trinity before all ages, a phrase that does not imply a time when the Word was not.

But like all births, Christ’s birth was also a looking forward. Simeon warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. And it did. The Nativity of Christ begins a relatively short life of only thirty-three years, much of which was “hidden”, as they say. Looking back on Christ’s life, the evangelists began to consider what they knew of Christ’s birth and the town he lived in. Subsequent generations recalled what they knew of Christ’s birth in the light of his subsequent life. They often tried to reproduce or narrate its setting. Simeon, on seeing this Child in the Temple with his parents tells us that “my eyes have seen the salvation of Israel”. Imagine saying this! “My” eyes have seen, not thought about, the “salvation” while he was looking at an Infant.

“Salvation” first had to do with a person, then, on His maturity, on His explaining what it is He knew of His Father, of His plan for our salvation. The Nativity of Christ is not an abstraction; it is not just a nice idea. It is a real birth. And who is this Child? Why bother about Him? If He were just another child born into the Roman Empire, we would not need to pay so much attention to Him. But if He is indeed the Word, the Son of the Father, made man, the whole world is changed. But we can find reasons not to accept this fact. We can find reasons to deny that it is a fact. What we cannot do is change the fact. The Christian calendar calls each year after this birth “in Anno Domini­—in the Year of the Lord. Hence, this year lies in Anno Domini, 2014.

Has the full reason why Christ became men been completed? Evidently not. Why not? No doubt, it has much to do with “the day and the hour known only to the Father”, with the purpose of this Incarnation, with the constant re-presentation to mankind in the Nativity that, yes, this was the Son of God sent into your world. There will not be another. All needed evidence has already been presented. Each year this Nativity is celebrated again. Its story, its songs, its lore are known to us. We notice an increasing rejection of it, a wanting not even to hear about it. “Why is this?” we wonder. In spite of the evidence, many want it not to be true. They build their lives and their polities on this premise. Two kinds of “silent night” exist. One is rooted in awe and glory; the other in the rejection of the two gifts, the two nativities that constitute our being and our salvation.

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The Party of Yes - December 22, 2014

For years on end, the captive media has termed the Republicans the Party of No. But the latest talk is that perhaps the Democrats will soon be considered the Party of No. I will leave that to the back-and-forth of political punditry. What I want to talk about here is our understanding of “yes” and “no.”

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, spoke of the care we should take in ascribing fault or praise in matters of opinion. He suggested: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:37)

I bring this up only to point out that the central matter in this is who is saying “yes” or “no” and, perhaps even more important, to whom is that person saying “yes” or “no.” But if your “yes” is said without conviction or, worse, as a falsehood, then it matters little to whom you are speaking. Your word is meaningless and your “yes” is worthless and demeaning.

Then Jesus continued with his Sermon by advocating “yes” in all means: yes to friends but also to enemies, yes to reconciling with people who hold grudges against you, yes to purity that is difficult to follow, yes to giving beyond what you can afford, until he ended the Sermon with these words, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) “Yes,” it seems, asks for everything, leading us to believe that “no” asks for little.

The “yes” that is the centrality of Christianity must certainly have been with Jesus’ mother. Frightened by the appearance and introduction of the Archangel Gabriel, confused by what was asked of her, in wonder of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, Mary is told that “with God nothing will be impossible,” (Luke 1:37) and her answer to Gabriel is the very essence of “yes”: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

From those words of submission, Mary assured the world that what came to be Christianity is the Party of Yes. The nature of “yes” is always difficult, demanding, even dangerous. We see it shown so well in the tragedies associated with Christmas: the Massacre of the Innocents, the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the first of so very many martyrs to come, those who said “yes” out of love.

Life surely is easiest with “no,” but we were not promised ease. 

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A Little Child - December 15, 2014

Christians are a strange lot compared with other religious people. Their two greatest celebrations involve an innocuous birth of a child in a manger, among domestic animals, and the dispiriting and horrific death that that child suffered some 33 years later. That’s it: no great heroics, no kings bowing to his greatness, no impressive victories, no scholars amazed by his knowledge. In all his life, except for one escape as an infant, that young man lived a life wholly within a small area of perhaps 75 miles across in a relatively unknown and inconsequential part of the world. He never wrote a word, except in sand, never roused enormous numbers of followers to fight for his views, never defended himself against lies and cruelties. Just as his birth was isolated and insignificant, his death was just as lonely and just as seemingly unimportant.

This is hardly the stuff of greatness in the typical run of things. Most of us can assume that after death, we will be forgotten in a matter of a generation or two. But this young man had no wife or children to remember him, had no employees to praise his name for decades. In fact, of his dozen principal followers, all but one died early, killed by enemies and presumably forgotten. The other moved far away and lived the life of a hermit. Even many of the nicknames given him are not particularly powerful and awe-inspiring: Ancient of Days, Bread of Life, Comforter, Consolation of Israel, Counsellor, Door of the Sheep, Firstfruits, Lamb of God.

The work to create a religious sect was made after his death, not by him. In life, he constantly bowed to his father as the one whose work was the guide to his life, giving his father all the glory and honor. He asked nothing for himself, even life, and when the time came for him to die, he did so despite his love of life, despite his fears, despite the abandonment he was subjected to, despite the beatings and the ridicule and the cruelties that were inflicted on him.

Although he never backed away from his principles and his calling, he was kind and sweet to friend and foe alike. He loved animals and children, the weak among the strong, and he used their example for others to see and to grow.

Most of his disciples were not learned men, but after his death these men gave up their lives for him, preached the great lessons they learned from him, followed him as models and, for most, as martyrs. They created the most enduring religion in all of history, created out of their hopes. And in dying, they made it possible for him and for us to survive. We use “miracle” too easily in this life, for we too have hopes. But in Christianity the greatest miracle made by men was achieved. How much is owed, how much is given.

 

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11:6

“a little child shall lead them”

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Who Are You Going to Believe, Me or Your Lying Eyes? - December 8, 2014

You may think that we have enough problems living in a dangerous world, with enemies, it seems, in every corner of the globe, at a time when you do not need a massive, well-equipped army to cause terrible chaos and destruction. Nowadays, some juvenile genius can create havoc using a computer, a third-world tyrant can oversee mass murder on a scale that only a few decades ago we would never have suspected could be achieved, or a small gang of thugs can poison our drinking water or attack an electrical grid that, if successful, could harm literally millions.

There have always been bad actors, but nothing so easily accomplished as today. In the worst of times, there were still at least a few leaders who were stalwart and strong. Now Western Europe, at one time not long ago the central power in the world, has no one who is willing to stand tall. If you think about the strong leaders in this world who are not themselves beasts, they indeed exist, but in smaller countries (such as Australia and Canada for starters) who are unable, by themselves, to make the world a safe place. One is reminded of the famous lines in W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In times of trouble from the past, what we found lacking was gumption and valor, which we see well enough in Europe. Now, no one on earth expects Europe to lead us out of this growing nightmare. We look for someone who is believable . . . at least enough so that we can dare to close our lying eyes in the hope that another will seem credible.

Three centuries ago, we were so isolated that we could ignore the evil in the world. Two centuries ago, we saw the possibility of becoming a power in our own place, strong enough to outlast a foreign invasion. One century ago, we became first one of the powers and then the power in the world. But now we are led by one who is indifferent to our place in the world. It is not fear, it is not misunderstanding, it is not stupidity that we see everywhere now. It is indifference. Things fall apart and our leader asks “who are you going to believe?”

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Why is there something rather than nothing? - December 1, 2014

Generally attributed to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the history’s most intelligent men, this question has been used by many people with various ideas about what the answer to this question should be, starting with Leibniz and down (and I do mean “down”) to Richard Dawkins.

I have had occasion before to speak of the benefit of questioning as superior to the benefit we may gain from answers. Indeed, questions, even questions that presumably have answers that are universally accepted, are not supplanted as though they had no further use for us, whereas answers, no matter how universal they are agreed to, are never completely free from reworking, rethinking, and rejecting. What we can count on are questions, important questions, questions that demand our thinking, questions that do not change irrespective of the brilliance of the answer.

Whereas answers come and go, like the women in the room talking of Michelangelo, questions stay even when we think they are passé, or child’s work, or of little importance. In fact, it is because they are sometimes the work of children that we may be wise enough to realize that questions are the very beginning of true knowledge; what is amazing, though, is that they are often the ending too.

For example, we all know that there is a time in every child’s live when he or she asks and asks and asks questions. Sometimes these questions are easy to understand,  but many times they are not, even though we may be foolish enough to give quick and thoughtless answers to these questions. This period of life is not put on this earth to confound parents, even if we think so. It is instead an introduction to the reality of the world, a reality full of questions that will never be fully answered but always be available for our growth, for growth comes with questioning and only rarely in answering. Each of us will have answers occasionally that we are proud to have understood, but a quick thought will give us the realization that most, if not all, of these answers will be supplanted sometime in the future. We say that having new and updated answers means we are learning more, and perhaps that is true, But the real knowledge may well be in the acceptance that some thoughts are permanent and others are temporary.

It is by no means the case that those clinging to the permanent are more appreciated than those aiming at the temporary.  In the political world we live in, for example, there is a widening gap between what we attribute to be conservatism and liberalism.

I was born into the Democratic Party, and gave up my birthright in grad school many years ago. It was then that I first heard of Richard Weaver’s description of conservatism as “a paradigm of the essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”

What Weaver was saying is that conservatism was about what is. It is not about what we want life to be, what we hope it will be, what we want to change, what we are working to change. It is about what exists.

Another way of saying this and noting the differences between conservatism and liberalism is that conservatives aim at process, and liberals aim at product. I won’t be so nasty as to say that conservatism is for philosophers and liberalism is for ambulance-chasing lawyers (well, maybe I will say it). But say it or not, the difference is, on the one hand, between how things are brought into being and what result we want from bringing them into being. By aiming at results, liberals are often (well, more than often) more successful in political life. Conservatives often find themselves arguing over how we should do this or that, whereas liberals argue over getting this or that done. For the most part, this latter viewpoint is more consonant with the American can-do spirit. Another way of looking at this is that conservatives have questions and liberals answers. When the populous wants results, it is natural to look to liberals, even if their answers are disastrous over and over again, because so many think that politics is doing something, not necessarily learning something.

No matter how much people complain about ambulance-chasers, very many yearn for the goodies that being aided by an ambulance-chaser will bring. How many really desire to know the reasons for doing something rather than the results of doing it, irrespective of how successful were those results?

I know that many of the answers to life that I would like to know will not be evident to me during my lifetime. Many, if not most, of the answers I think I know may well be wrong or will change sometime in the future. What won’t change is the importance of the questions I know.

Now, back to Leibniz, here giving us, first, the central question and the means to discover the answer, followed by his own answer:

“. . . now we . . . make use of the great . . . principle that nothing takes place without a sufficient reason; in other words, that nothing occurs for which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is and not otherwise. This principle having been stated, the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ . . . Further, assuming that things must exist, it must be possible to give a reason why they should exist as they do and not otherwise.

“Now this sufficient reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found in the series of contingent things. . . . Although the present motion . . . arises from preceding motion, and that in turn from motion which preceded it, we do not get further however far we may go, for the same question always remains. The sufficient reason, therefore, which needs not further reason, must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which . . . is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself; otherwise we should not yet have a sufficient reason with which to stop. This final reason for things is called God.”

 “The Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason” (1714)

Why is there something rather than nothing? Think about it.

 

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Thanksgiving in a Time of Need - November 24, 2014

As President, on October 3, 1789, George Washington made the following proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Reading the words of our most obvious giant should give us hope that our present and our future will not always be subject to pygmies.

The history of what came to be Thanksgiving is usually thought to have begun in 1621 with Pilgrims at Plymouth (in present-day Massachusetts), 168 years before President Washington’s Thanksgiving Day dedication.

It has become common these days for people to question the term “American Exceptionalism.” Our present president once famously explained American Exceptionalism thus: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Let me try to explain briefly what is at hand here. During the period leading up to, and eventually establishing, the United States of America, our country was graced with a most amazing group of leaders in various colonies with various ideas (by no means was there always agreements among these men) and talents. But even today, to study the history of any of these dozens of patriots is spine-chilling. I have long stood in wonder how it was possible that one relatively small city, Athens, gave birth to three of the greatest men of all times at more or less the same period. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were each a genius of all time, not simply the greatest genius of his time or his city or his lineage, but all lineages and cities and times. Yet they walked the streets of Athens at the same time. How is this possible, I asked myself.

Well, second only to that miracle, in my mind, is that of our Founding Fathers. How did one small area, an area that was a colony to a great country, and not even a sophisticated place of note, give birth to such men at the same period? How can we make sense of this? How could this be? Has anything like this ever occurred in history ever before? We have been blessed with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and, most amazingly, literally dozens of other greats, all coming together at one time to create a great country out of their own will and promise. Even among the many lesser figures, there was greatness and honor. Being from Maryland, I was especially impressed with Maryland’s only signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (to distinguish himself from his father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis). It is said that when someone asked him why his name alone among the signers listed a place, Carroll said that if their declaration was to fail, he wanted the British to know where to find him.

From the very beginning, the United States was a country largely of immigrants, of people who chose to leave their own homes and settle in what was then a rugged and sometimes unforgiving land, but one that offered people everywhere two great gifts that has never changed: opportunity and abundance.

Opportunity, American style, has always been associated with freedom, for in America, at least, without freedom, there is no true opportunity. And abundance in those early years is absolutely tied to another form of opportunity, since abundance was only there as a result of the work and creativity, then and now. Abundance is not simply sitting around waiting for goodies to fly our way, it is the result of hard work on the one hand and their great belief on the other. Indeed, in my mind, abundance without the benefits of God’s will, to use the expression of Washington, is just a lucky moment that will pass into oblivion, as it has for one great society after another in all history. This opportunity, this freedom, and this abundance, this loving protection in the arms of God . . . that is our continuing American Exceptionalism.

In our beginnings Giants walked the earth, but the very words and deeds of these giants of those days lead us to the certainty that God has granted us giants to this day.

Happy Thanksgiving

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