Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Singing the Creed

Just the other day, I heard the Nicene Creed from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and asked myself the question: How often is the creed sung at an American parish? I’ve heard it sung once in the last year and a half; normally the priest and the congregation just recite it without much enthusiasm. All this is in stark contrast to the gusto of Bach’s setting. Just listen to the words “et resurrexit.” These are the most joyful words we have. If we do not say them--no, if we cannot sing them--then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). Nowadays everybody speaks about putting our words into action; it’s a shame we don’t put our words into song.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the Subversive Use of Language - Part II

Continued from Part I

Machiavelli’s ability to take “control of the language of the discussion” and change “the terms in which people think,” was viewed as highly subversive and dangerous in a civilization where Christianity was the established intellectual and cultural framework.1 But Christianity did not always enjoy such a position and was itself once viewed as subversive.2 Indeed, many Christian thinkers took up the language and symbols of their pagan counterparts, but substantially changed their meaning in the process.3 In this regard, these thinkers’ work could be characterized as Machiavellian, not because they advocated amoral power politics (which they did not), but because they won their intellectual battles by subverting pagan terminology and concepts. They anticipated Machiavelli’s means, but applied them to other ends.

Today, in a world where Christians and others who believe in a transcendent cosmic order find themselves on the intellectual outside, Machiavelli’s lessons regarding the use of language as a weapon can be very instructive. Linguistic battles need not be fought in costly set piece engagements, but can instead be waged deep in enemy territory, if the practitioner is attentive to context, connotations and the subtle forces of language. Those using Machiavelli’s own tools against him, reestablishing a harmony between human actions and the transcendent order by altering the very terms of the debate, can take courage knowing that if their cause is true, they are not doing violence to language by ripping it from its moorings, but instead returning it to them.

1. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” xxxi, xxii.
2. Idem, introduction, xiii-xiv.
3. See, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Boniface’ reinvention of the Germanic sacred tree as a Christmas tree, the appropriation of the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus for the date of Christmas, or the very use of the cross – a Roman symbol of terror – as the symbol of Christ.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On the Subversive Use of Language - Part I

Machiavelli has given his name to a certain style of cut-throat politics characterized by intrigue, backstabbing and the unbridled pursuit of power, though he was neither its first advocate nor its most adept practitioner.1 More unique to Machiavelli’s thought is the use of language as a weapon: instead of employing language in the head-to-head combat of traditional arguments, he deploys his words on deep flanking strikes that take his opponents in the rear. “He gradually alters [words’] meaning by changing their context,” playing with double meanings or creating new meanings altogether.2 The Prince “presents evil as if it were neither evil nor good but merely useful or counterproductive. By the end unwary readers find themselves agreeing that both good and evil have their worthy places in a new ethical framework structured by the concepts of necessity and usefulness.”3 It is a linguistic coup d’etat accomplished not by force of argument but by slight of hand.

Machiavelli’s Christian contemporaries were appalled by his work, “not as virgins shocked by political horrors they did not know existed” – for medieval Christendom had its share of assassinations, intrigues and the like – but because his work is at odds with the Christian world-view. Whereas Machiavelli contended that this present world alone matters, and framed political actions accordingly, Christian political philosophy acknowledges that there are norms which transcend this world and ought to order it. Thus, Augustine and others articulated the concept that the City of God, though present in this world, will only be fully realized in the life to come. The greatest political actions undertaken by medieval Christendom, the crusades, amply illustrate this Christian world-view in action. Jonathan Riley-Smith points out that “the most characteristic feature of crusading was that it was penitential. Crusaders had engaged themselves to fight as an act of penance in which they repaid God what was due to him on account of their sins.”4 The crusaders were not any more or less calculating than Machiavelli; the difference is that their calculations included a final judgment before the Almighty and the possibility of eternal life at His side. “The last thing most sensible crusaders would have expected was material gain,” but they had much bigger matters in mind.5

For the Christian, this desire to make life conform to the highest truths extends to the use of language.
For Dante [an exemplar of the Christian position], the function of language is to describe the nature of things. To the extent that men understand the place of everything in a divinely ordered natural hierarchy, they may attune themselves to reality. Words express men’s best understanding of how every piece of reality fits with every other. Therefore, although words are not quite the means of grace, they have much to do with steering men toward saving truth or damning error…. [Machiavelli’s] thesis is that languages are essentially particular articulations of the universal struggle for primacy.6
Machiavelli’s Christian critics see that he undermines the connection between human behavior and transcendent truth and they fear for the salvation of souls. While their concern may be well-founded, these concerns need not result in a rejection of his methods out of hand.

Part II coming soon...

1. See Angelo M. Codevilla, introduction, The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), x.
2. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” The Prince, xx.
3. Ibid, xxv.
4. Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, 3rd ed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) 3.
5. Ibid, 72.
6. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” xxiii.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Political Consciousness

What is it about the term “political consciousness” that I dislike so much? I think I first noticed that I hated the term when I realized that the people who asked the question, “When did you become politically conscious?” really meant: “When did you become liberal?” It’s the liberal equivalent of an evangelical asking: “When did you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

This has been my experience. I would be interested to know whether my experience matches others’ experience.

So, what specific reason do I have for disliking the term “political consciousness”? To begin with, the term seems to me to be intimately connected to the ideals of protest, revolt, and outrage. It’s taken to mean that rejection of authority is the sine qua non of growing up. I am not really human unless I am outraged about something. In other words, a good liberal needs to mount the barricades and support the revolution—at least in spirit.

This is an attitude I have to reject in principle. How can it be true that I am not happy unless I am outraged? The two ideas seem to exclude each other. Now, I do not deny the need, in some circumstances, for outrage. However, I cannot base my life on outrage; I will only be unhappy in the end.

My observations are, of course, not original. They first crystallized in my mind when I recently read some of Thomas Manns’ “Reflections of an Apolitical Man.” In one essay, Mann identifies “politicization” as “training for rebellion.” This also bears some relation to Alasdair MacIntyre’s remark in “After Virtue” that democratic discourse today is marred by our obsession with “unmasking” hypocrites, i.e. proving that all authorities are hypocrites. In other words, we only seem to be happy if we are outraged about an authority’s misfeasance.

I have a suspicion, though, that here in America much of this rejection of authority is mere posturing; just as the hypocrite plays a role (υποκριτης), so too does the unmasker. Why do I think this? Just look at all the idiots who wear Che Guevara T-shirts imagining that they’re antiauthoritarian. They revere Che for trying to spread the Communist revolution throughout the world, with absolutely no risk to themselves. They are protected by the most liberal free-speech laws in human history, yet they feel that spouting their support for a murderous thug transforms them into daring transgressors. Their outrage is nothing more than self-indulgence in their alleged moral superiority.

I also dislike the term because it reeks of democratic superciliousness. What do I mean by that? I mean the conceit that we must all be good liberal democrats in order to be good men. This can be traced back to Kant’s idea, found in “What Is Enlightenment?”, that enlightenment is the human race’s coming of age. Until the Age of Enlightenment, mankind had been suffering under the cruel yoke of benighted authority—ecclesial and political. One of the key aspects of our coming of age, therefore, was rejection of traditional authority, thinking for ourselves in matters of religion, and demanding democracy. Kant believed he was helping usher in a new golden age of humanity, when all men would be free and autonomous. In short, Kant maintained a rather questionable philosophy of history.

What can I propose in the stead of “political consciousness”? Do I reject the term outright? No, of course I don’t. There is a time in most people’s lives (including my own) when we start to care much more about politics than we did as children. Unfortunately, though, I only have time for a quick rejoinder, which might come across as a mere “I told you so” argument. Be that as it may…

Any adolescent has to face the question of authority. In that sense it is an essential part of growing up. I would suggest that what we need to do is “grapple” with authority, perhaps in the same way that Jacob “grappled” with the Lord (Gen. 32:23-33). Without confronting authority, we do not know our true place under it. After confronting authority, though, we should prove more humble. I see no reason why I should be forced abandon all authority as a matter of principle merely because of inevitable conflicts with authority.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why Invent Tradition?

Yesterday, while biking to school, I took up singing one of my favorite songs, Gaudeamus igitur, the alma mater of the University of Dallas. And that got me thinking... Texas A&M, a school known for its traditions, is not really that traditional, in the scheme of things. The Aggie War Hymn dates from the Great War. Gaudeamus dates from the 18th century, at least, possibly as far back as the 13th century.

At a place like UD, where one has the entire Western Tradition upon which to draw, things can fall into disuse and be revived again with relative ease. They are not exclusively UD's traditions, but the traditions of the West.

In contrast, everything at A&M is contrived and has been invented since the founding of the school in 1876. I suppose this is better than most schools, where traditional customs have been abandoned all together, but it seems like a lot of effort. Why not just pick up the traditions of your civilization?

Granted, UD has some non-traditional traditions too, like Groundhog and the Charity Week jail. But I think there really is a different quality, akin perhaps to Dr. Roper's observation that students at other schools throw far more serious parties than at UD, trying too hard. UD seems to play with tradition, knowing we won't break it, in a way that schools like A&M are not so comfortable doing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Words Inspire Action

This past Friday I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro, in the U street section of D.C. Besides being a play of considerable wit and physical comedy which took the edge off of a long week, it is also cited to have aided inspiring the French Revolution. Watching some of the subtle cues that spurred for independence of underlings and listening to equally caustic lines that spurned the hierarchy, I certainly grasped the revolutionary themes of the play. What was harder to understand is how a play could really move people to such dramatic (irony intended) action.

As I reflect, staring at my computer and browsing from news pieces to blogs to social networking, I have a minor revelation that has occurred to me before in various forms. Part of the reason that words no longer seem to carry as much import is that we are inundated with so many of them. Surveys (for what they’re worth) show that people barely read short blog posts through any more- merely skim. So while the information age seems to be progress, it also dulls our senses and our motivation (ref: Wall-E). While you may not agree with the French Revolution, you may at least join me in desiring that the sleek, yet powerful, weapon of words might again inspire man to action.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vonnegut's Reality vs. God's Presence

I recently managed to recover some damaged files off of my pen drive and thought I would share a short essay I wrote on Vonnegut...

As we rounded the corner we saw the group we were looking for. On the steps of the convent chapel stood clusters of old Italian women holding small red candles and baskets of flower petals. Young girls looked around curiously arrayed in their long white dresses from First Communion. Scouts, wearing their knee high socks and khacki shorts, struggled with megaphones which would inevitably broadcast the voice of an off-tune cantor. We followed the crowd into the chapel and with incense and the attendance of altar singers and loud Italian voices, the priest began the Corpus Christi procession.

I had surprised myself by deciding to venture downtown for the local Eucharist festival. A year ago I would have been the first to go, but things were different this year. In my head, I’ve never lost my faith- but the emotional certainty drifted through me as a passing wind.
I look around me, the crowd around me is more diverse than I would have first thought. Italians are traditional and, as one young Italian told me, being Catholic is simply part of your culture. One attends Eucharistic processions just as one grumbles about politics, buys groceries at the market, and cooks large meals. Some here have always accepted their religion, never questioning. They reverently kneel as the Benediction takes place, they know the Church hymns by heart, their son is the altar server.

In this last year I identify more with the people who did not come to the Eucharistic procession. Whether out of laziness or skepticism, they decided not to attend the traditional ritual. For them, this is pageantry. Can we prove that there is meaning behind these prayers, that a God really hears us? This disillusionment has been characteristic of the last century, where suffering has been transformed into skepticism.

I am in the middle of reading Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse Five. A talented writer, his images are vivid and recognizable to his reader. He portrays the mundaneness of life, the suffering and what he sees as the pointlessness of it all. For him, life has no climax, no depth. His book lacks a timeline, it jumps from one era to another. There is no suspense, we are told the fate of his characters as soon as they are introduced. He draws us into this listlessness he obviously feels about human existence.

Surprisingly, there is something strangely attractive about this sort of listlessness. The feeling that one can truly delve into the details of life, the suffering, because there is nothing beyond it. While there may be despair at the foundations, man is able to live a skeptical life. It becomes easy to be honest about the bad things in life while never finding true joy. The megaphone sounded in my ears throughout the procession, echoing the earnest yet off-key singer. It is easy to criticize this procession: the hypocrisy of some there, the lack of respect of others, the constant chattering. In fact, it is not only easy, it produces a dull sort of pleasure.

Yet, as I stared at the Host held high in the tabernacle, I realized once again that Truth is the only thing that matters. It is a life unlived to live in human failings without looking up to the heights. If the Lord Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, present for me to adore Him, then every suffering becomes a light burden. It is through worshipping Him that one is able to find joy. Yes, the situation that Vonegut depicts is poignant and realistic, but there is something more. Finding faith is a strange process. Even stranger is falling in love with God all over again. If the world that SlaughterHouse Five depicts is all there is, I want no part of it. In fact, I agree with him that there is no sense. Suddenly, I understand why people commit suicide, why so many people are depressed, why people have no hope. God is the only Hope. If He does not exist, then we are lost. I am lost.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Identity Issues

What shook me and put me to shame was the disparity between my personal rank and the resounding extravagance of world history marking the crisis of my fortieth year [the outbreak of World War I]. No doubt, it is fate to be so placed in time that the beginning of a new phase in one’s personal life coincides with a catastrophe of historic proportions. Happy—I often thought in those years—happy is he who for his entire life is allowed to feel the same cultural ground beneath him. Many an hour I spent with the writings, notes, and epigrams in which Goethe sought to deal with the French Revolution, and it was a comfort to me to see how this great man, who also imagined he would keep the same societal and intellectual ground under his feet, experienced such difficulty in coming to terms with the new, and to incorporate it into his world and his work.

--Thomas Mann, “Gegen Recht und Wahrheit,” in “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen”

Who am I, where do I come from, that I cannot make or wish myself to be different? That is the question to which one seeks an answer in times of spiritual anguish.

--Thomas Mann, “Die Bürgerlichkeit,” in “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen”

I just wanted to bring these two quotes to your attention. They strike me as unquestionably true, but I sometimes have a hard time saying why. The question of personal identity is of course deeply personal—but it can never be answered without relation to others around us.

When I learn to speak, I speak with “the other”; I address that other person (usually my father or mother) in the second person singular—thou. (This idea I owe to Martin Buber, of course.)

I think this observation can be extended a little further so that it sheds some more light on my question. Once I become aware of a “thou,” I also become aware of a “we.” I, even as a little baby, know that my mother and father are not completely separate from me, but are instead deeply attached to me. Just as I cannot define myself apart from a “thou,” I cannot identify who I am apart from a larger group, the “we.”

I hope you’ve stuck with me so far; I apologize for writing like a German philosopher. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: A change in the “we” necessarily causes a change in the “I.” Being human means being exposed to these changes and being changed by others. And, what is the price of that change, at least for most people? Anguish.

Nevertheless, the individual’s task is to make sure that change is for the better, even if society changes for the worse. Or, to put it another way, the individual must react to changes (and thereby change himself), and even suffer anguish in the process, but the individual is still free to choose how to react (and thereby change himself). He can react for better or for worse; he can change for better or for worse. In the end, though, I suppose that happiness is not possible without anguish.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sarah Smith of Golders Green

It has been many years since I read The Great Divorce, but a few months ago I happened upon a quotation of one of its scenes and I have been paraphrasing it to various people ever since. But I finally decided one Sunday morning to dig out my copy, dust it off, and share the scene with all of you:

First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers - soundlessly falling, lightly drifting flowers, though by the standards of the ghost-world each petal would have weighed a hundred-weight and their fall would have been like the crashing of boulders. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she was naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her innermost spirit shone through her clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer's features as a lip or an eye.

But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

‘Is it?... is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’

‘She seems to be... well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’

‘And who are these gigantic people… look! They’re like emeralds.. who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?’

‘Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.

‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’

‘They are her sons and daughters.’

‘She must have had a very large family, Sir.’

‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’

‘Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?’

‘No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.’

~The Great Divorce, Chapter XII

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Erik Mongrain - Eon's Illusion

Maybe y'all already know about Erik Mongrain, but I only learned about him a few days ago when I saw this video. Amazing...

Special thanks to Eric Harnisch over at The Trifector for bringing this video to my attention.