Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reclaiming Metaphysics from the Mushy-Headed

One of the "problems" with a UD education is that the UD graduate likes to use certain "fancy" words that not many other people necessarily understand. (I write this as a UD graduate, but I'm sure anybody with a decent liberal arts education has encountered this problem too.) When he leaves "the bubble," he sometimes forgets that these words are not in everybody else's vocabulary. The careless UD graduate in his conversations occasionally lets drop a word which for him is rich in associations and encapsulates his point nicely but which only confuses his interlocutors; pretty soon he finds himself re-formulating his entire argument in order to make himself understood. One such fancy word is "metaphysics," and I recently ran up against the problem of trying to use the word in a conversation with someone from "outside the bubble."

After a lecture event sponsored by a certain libertarian-conservative student group, I went out for a drink with some other members of the group. In the ensuing discussion, I told a libertarian that one of my disagreements with libertarians is that they draw too rigid a distinction between the individual's private life and the public realm, and that this stark dichotomy has its roots in libertarians' arbitrary distinction between ethics and politics, on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other. I thought I had made my point relatively clear, but when my libertarian interlocutor heard the word "metaphysics" come out of my mouth, he looked at me as if I had just grown a nose in the middle of my forehead. He was under the impression that I was referring to old ladies with crystal balls charging me a few dollars to read my fortune, or maybe to some New Age fad. He thought I had a head full of mush!

When I saw his face, I hastened to explain that I was talking about a branch of philosophy. He replied, "I have zero background in philosophy. Why don't you just say 'reason' or 'logic'?" For half a second I entertained the idea of explaining that logic and metaphysics are distinct branches of philosophy, and for another half-second I considered mentioning something about "the study of being," but then I remembered that I had a train to catch. So, I just answered, "Yes, reason!" Of course, his conception of reason was probably a purely modern, instrumental conception of reason...but that was a discussion for another night.

Do so few people understand what "metaphysics" really means? What will happen to public discourse when members of a "learned profession" (yes, I actually am referring to lawyers) who believe they have a special calling to study and resolve the most pressing questions concerning men's relations with one another have no clue what "metaphysics" means?

It probably was always the case that the majority of lawyers were not familiar with philosophy. But, to hear such an open avowal of ignorance from someone who appeared to be interested in larger questions of philosophy was frightening. It wasn't so much his ignorance that frightened me, though, as his lack of shame at his own ignorance.

This ignorance and this lack of shame do not bode well for public discourse. We are left, then, with only one choice: We must reclaim the word "metaphysics" from the mushy-headed!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Tarantino Is Doing

Around the third grade I took to writing a series of short stories set during my favorite conflict, World War II. They were all written in the first person, and although I knew that the exploits of the protagonist were not exactly my own, this form of narrative had an extra thrill for me. And thrilling these stories were. Their protagonist was a sort of super hero of the conflict, seeing action in all theaters, on land, at sea and in the air.

In one of these stories, the narrator, while flying his fighter plane, encountered a flight of Nazi aircraft. He engaged them and shot down the flight leader, who managed to bail out. As the enemy pilot bailed out, the narrator recognized him as none other than Adolf Hitler!

When I submitted this particular story to my father for his comments, he said he was nigh certain that Hitler was not a pilot, and even if he was, he would not have been flying patrols along the front. At the time I thought this a rather unnecessary fixation with historical detail. Moreover, I found this bit of information about Hitler rather disappointing: we all know he was the leader of the Nazis, a fearsome band of warmongers. So why wasn't he out front personally warmongering, like a modern-day Alexander?

When I recently saw Quintin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized what he was doing. The film, about which I have written here and here, centers on a group of Jewish-Americans who operate behind enemy lines, scalping Nazis. Their plans to kill all the top Nazi leaders - who are in Paris for a film debut - merge with the efforts of the French Jew who owns the cinema in question.

Not only does the visual style of the film hearken back to an earlier age of pulp comics and movies, but the basic notion of over-the-top pseudo-history is something I think you can find in the childhoods of most little boys. Why do we dream in this kind of way? I have not yet definitively answered this question to my own liking, but I have some theories.

The kind of super pseudo-historical character I created as a child lends a certain clarity to the historical narrative. No single historical individual actually served in all theaters, fighting every enemy, engaging in every form of combat; thus, to tell the story of the war as a whole we are forced to tell the story of vast forces, of military committees and other impersonal bodies which waged this global conflict. By creating a decidedly unhistorical character, my third grade stories were able to capture the entire war in a single person's experience. The other day I was reading an essay from a collection in honor of M. R. D. Foot, which noted that Foot enjoyed writing the history of the resistance during World War II precisely because it placed the focus on individuals rather than the divisions, corps and army groups of the conventional forces. I suspect that Tarantino's unhistorical tale accomplishes something similar: we know that Hitler was the single most important element in the Axis bid for power, so why not put him in the sights? We know that the Jews were some of the most hounded victims of the Nazis - and vigorously hunted them down after the war - so why not makes Jews the Nazi's face-to-face enemy? And why not tell this story with roughly a dozen characters, to keep things neat?

I think a second reason I wrote counterfactual stories as a child was that I wanted to be able to change things. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to have a role in the victories and reverse the defeats. But in writing historical fiction of the usual sort, characters' actions have to fit within the framework of what actually happened. They are prisoners, in a sense, of history; their actions are not allowed to change anything significant. Hitler may not have been a pilot who was shot down, nor was he ever ambushed by Jews in a Paris cinema, but these kinds of stories allow their authors, readers and viewers to partake in new outcomes, not simply reading about the defeat of evil in the past, but defeating it in new ways in the present. For a child in the third grade, the present age has rather few evils; if there are dragons to be slain, Nazis make excellent candidates. But even for adults, the evils of the modern age can be quite complicated. A story like Tarantino's may not provide detailed programs for solving modern ills, but it does provide moral clarity and the possibility that evil can be defeated again and again, in ever new ways. And that's not such a bad lesson, now is it?

On a related note, Sally Menke, Tarantino's editor on every film he has ever made, passed away the same day I happened to watch Inglourious Basterds. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Joseph the All Comely

No, this is not another post about Joseph, the husband of Mary, one of my favorite saints. No, this is about a different Joseph, Joseph the Patriarch, otherwise known as Joseph the All Comely.

The other day I stumbled upon this intriguing image, and clicked through to find this Orthodox priest's blog.

Joseph, the son Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and rose to be a major official in Egypt, is venerated in a number of branches of Christianity. Eastern Catholics and many Eastern Orthodox commemorate him on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (two Sundays before Christmas) and on the Monday of Holy Week (known as Holy and Great Monday). The Armenian Apostolic Church venerates him - along with the other Holy Forefathers - in July, whereas the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church does so on 31 March.

The title "the All Comely" refers to Joseph's good looks - which got him in trouble with the wife of an Egyptian official - but even more to the beauty of his interior life. Similar images of him can be found here and here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

He Had the Right Stuff - 63 Years Ago

On this day in 1947, Chuck Yeager set one of the most tantalizing aviation records, becoming the first man to travel faster than sound. Yeager had the good sense to name his rocket-powered plane, the Bell X-1, after his wife, the "Glamorous Glennis". (Unfortunately her parents did not have the good sense to spell her name with a Y, but neither she nor her husband can be held responsible for that.)

Two days before the flight, Yeager broke two ribs while riding horseback. Fearful of being pulled from the mission, he told only his wife and another pilot, Jack Riley. Riley cut a broom handle for Yeager to use to close the plane's hatch, since raising his arm that high over his head resulted in excruciating pain. For his achievement, Yeager won the Mackay, Collier and Harmon Trophies. Breaking the sound barrier on 14 October 1947 was but one episode in Yeager's long and distinguished career.

On a personal note, my father had been born just days before. I like to think of Yeager's flight as a kind of good omen, like being born under a lucky star.

The Right Stuff's depiction of Yeager's accomplishment can be seen below.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two Anniversaries

On this day in 1571 the combined Christian forces of Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy, the Holy See and the Knights of Malta defeated the Ottoman Turkish fleet at Lepanto. The victory was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the Christian sailors had appealed by praying the rosary. Pope Pius V declared the day the Feast of Our Lady of Victory (later changed to Our Lady of the Rosary).

This feast of interest to me for two reasons. First, Our Lady of the Rosary is the patroness of our parish here in College Station, St. Mary's. Second, when the University of Dallas was founded by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, the junior college they ran in Ft. Worth - Our Lady of Victory College - was rolled into the new school. (Incidentally, I think Madonna Hall should be renamed Our Lady of Victory Hall, in honor of this history.)

Today is also the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Since that October day in 2001, the Taliban has been toppled from power, but not defeated. Over 1,200 Americans have been killed, along with another 800 or so coalition forces and more than 6,000 members of the Afghan security forces. Countless civilians have lost their lives.

US Special Forces riding with the Northern Alliance early in the conflict. Photo courtesy of of The Virtuous Republic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Brief Note on the Social Utility of Religion

In most discussions about the role religion should play in public life in America, there seem to be two basic positions. Conservatives generally argue that religion is essential to a healthy society because it instills in citizens good morals, a love of order, and a spirit of obedience toward authority. This conservative argument based on morals can trace its lineage at least as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and the argument for religion as a guardian of order and obedience certainly extends as far back as Martin Luther. Most liberals, on the other hand, argue that religion is bad for society because it leads to social conflict in the form of clashes between rival orthodoxies. In making this argument, modern liberals are drawing, whether consciously or unconsciously, on the more radical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Paine and Voltaire.

Underlying both these arguments is the idea that religion removes doubt and encourages unity in action. The difference between the two lies in the extent of the unity: conservatives favor religion when it encompasses an entire society, while liberals fear religion in the form of a sect. Nevertheless, both positions seem to assume that religion is a tool for giving answers and providing unity. Conservatives support religion in society because it gives good answers to ethical problems for all of society, while liberals oppose religion in society because it gives bad answers and encourages factiousness, pitting unified groups against each other.

But, is that assumption right? Not according to Christopher Lasch, who had this to say in his essay on "the soul of man under secularism" in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair.

Interestingly, Lasch includes this essay on the soul of man under secularism in a section of his book entitled "the dark night of the soul." There is a reason why this expression comes not from Voltaire but from St. John of the Cross. Catholic mystics interpret the dark night of the soul as a purification of the soul, a training in faith, hope, and love--not as a final overcoming of all life's problems. If the dark night of the soul is one of the most profound and authentic experiences in religion, perhaps religion is not as socially useful as so many people think.