Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ortega y Gasset & Newspapers

Writing in December 1937 from exile in Paris, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset addressed his essay "With Respect to Pacifism" to the English people, in an attempt to explain to that nation how wrong their foreign policy between the wars was. And this affected him personally because of the attitude many Englishmen were adopting towards the civil war raging in Spain at the time. One of the problems that worried Ortega most was that the Englishmen he read and spoke to thought they knew everything they needed to know about Spain from the newspapers, without knowing much about Spanish history:

The quantity of news that one people is constantly receiving about what it is happening with another people is enormous. How will it be easy to persuade an Englishman that he is not informed about the historical phenomenon that is the Spanish Civil War or another similar crisis? He knows that the English newspapers spend huge sums of money to maintain correspondents in all countries. He knows that, even though there are not a few correspondents who carry out their duty in an impassioned and partisan way, there are many others whose impartiality cannot be questioned and whose grace in relating exact facts cannot easily be beat. All this is true, and because it is true, it turns out to be very dangerous.

What's dangerous is the resulting mix of ignorance and influence. Ortega specifically cites Albert Einstein as an example of the type of European intellectual who, while he may be a genius in his own field, feels that he has a right to speak about other fields, even if he possesses none of the necessary background knowledge. How could anyone, even a man as smart as Einstein, dare to judge an event as messy as the Spanish civil war when he knows nothing about Spain's history?

Ortega cites in a footnote one more frightening example of a journalist for The Times of London reporting all the current events up to the minute, but then constructing an entire analysis on the premise that all Spaniards were descended from the Moors!

What Ortega's complaint about newspapers shows is that without a knowledge history one cannot even properly understand the newspaper. The dispassionate study of history is the only thing that can cast the proper light in which to understand current events. The danger of newspapers, then, is that by feeding the masses lots of information about current events, they give them the illusion of understanding those events.

Or, as Nietzsche might have said, without a knowledge of history, all newspapers do is load us down with "indigestible knowledge-stones."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Goethe & Newspapers

Earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit Goethe warns of the danger of withdrawing from political life. Goethe’s own life and his own characters show that Goethe wrestled with the question of how to balance the responsibilities of an active life and the need to withdraw into solitude.

Yet, in the fourth part of Dichtung und Wahrheit (published after his death), Goethe recommends reading newspapers as a way for ordinary citizens to become involved in politics, even if they do not hold office. He suggests that newspapers serve two important functions. First, they allow citizens to view current events as one would watch a play at the theater; they can enter into the partisan spirit of events, but “in an innocent way.” For Goethe, newspapers can play a role similar to that of catharsis in Aristotle’s Poetics. Second, reading newspapers helps citizens learn how to make moral judgments, so that they will praise what is good and condemn what is bad.

But, do newspapers really encourage prudence and catharsis? Perhaps they did in Goethe’s day. Reading newspapers was once a much more genteel and leisurely activity than it is now. In the mid-nineteenth century Schopenhauer every day (after playing the flute and walking his poodle) would leave his apartment to stroll to a nearby café to peruse the foreign dailies in order to collect more evidence for his pessimistic worldview. Schopenhauer taking a break while reading the paper projects an image of thought and not mere gossip-mongering.

Today, though, it is much harder to agree with Goethe’s positive assessment of newspapers. In the internet age, it is difficult to appreciate just how influential newspapers became in the decades after his death in 1832. But, back in the day when newspapers competed for readers in every major city in America and Europe, a breaking news story was like a video going viral today; newspapers were the catalyst for mass enthusiasms. Becoming too involved with newspapers, then, would seem to represent exactly the danger that Goethe was warning against earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The partisan spirit would not be innocent, but would lead to rash reactions, and there would be little catharsis but much anxiety from attending to current events. Indeed, newspapers then and today often contain shoddy fact-checking, shallow analysis, and pure sensationalism, which, instead of cleansing the reader’s emotions, make the reader keep returning for updates. Newspapers can inflame the partisan spirit, as Goethe said, but they hardly produce catharsis or prudence. This partisan spirit becomes a passion as base as any other.

To avoid arousing the partisan spirit and to develop an aesthetic experience of politics, the simple solution is to stop reading newspapers so much and to start reading good histories. If writing history is an art, much of the art consists of telling a story about a specific crisis. In English, the word "crisis" can be used to indicate any important moment, usually involving stress for the actors involved. This definition, though, does not fully describe what a crisis is. The original Greek meaning of the word--"judgment"--gives a better idea of how reading history can lead to catharsis. A crisis is an important moment because it gives us the necessary opportunity to pass judgment on the character of a person; how the person deals with this moment in his life reveals more about his character than other moments because life is lived more intensely at certain moments than at others. Witnessing the intensity of a crisis through the eyes of a sympathetic historian can produce catharsis in the reader, who participates in the character's actions. History draws the reader deeper into the action, while news stories are content to leave the reader at a superficial level. And it is the depths of history which can teach us about politics better than any newspaper story.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Of Men, Angels, and the Incarnation

Several years ago, while studying in Rome, I had the opportunity to attend several events with Bl. Pope John Paul II.  On one occasion several large choirs were in attendance, and filled the first quarter or so of the audience hall.  Each of these choirs was just a tad smaller than the block allotted to it.  Somehow the organization Regnum Christi ended up with the tickets to these few extra seats, and one of my classmates, a Regnum Christi member, acquired half a dozen shortly before the audience began.  They were spread out all over the hall, one here, a couple there.  And so I ended up seated, along with another classmate, in the midst of an Italian men's choir singing for the pope.  I am sure that, as a blond American, I stuck out, but at least my black coat more or less blended with the choir's uniforms; my female classmate, with Irish-American red hair, no doubt seemed even more out of place.  Our neighbors, who did not speak more than a word or two of English, were good-natured about our presence and shared their music.  We had a grand time.

I was reminded of that experience when reading the sermon of St. Bernard which I posted a couple weeks ago.  In it he contends:
The angels, we know, sinned through malice, not through ignorance and frailty; wherefore, as they were unwilling to repent, they must of necessity perish, for the love of the Father and the honour of the King demand judgment. For this cause He created men from the beginning, that they might fill those lost places, and repair the ruins of the heavenly Jerusalem.
I find this an arresting notion. If Bernard is correct, we will stand alongside the heavenly hosts as we share the beatific vision.  In the justice of God, we will merit this, of course; He will make sure that we are worthy of our new places, by His grace.  But I cannot help but chuckle, and then tremble, at the idea that I might be placed alongside archangels and cherubim, dropped there as randomly as I arrived in the midst of my Italian choir.  If this is the future that awaits us, by virtue of Christ' incarnation, we indeed have cause to celebrate Christmas!

But is Bernard correct?  This idea of mankind replacing the fallen angels is not one we often hear, in Scripture or in preaching.  I am no theologian, but I know a few, and they confirm that Bernard's suggestion, if not doctrine of the Church, is at least well-attested.

In Book 22 of The City of God, Augustine argues that God willed that
...from this mortal race, deservedly and justly condemned, He would by His grace collect, as now He does, a people so numerous, that He thus fills up and repairs the blank made by the fallen angels, and that thus that beloved and heavenly city is not defrauded of the full number of its citizens.
Is mankind merely a place-holder?  This sounds rather unlike our loving and personal God. Augustine further notes, however, that the heavenly Jerusalem "perhaps may even rejoice in a still more overflowing population."  Thus, humanity both fills the places left by fallen angels, as well as adding to the numbers of the heavenly choirs.

Writing nearly 700 years later, Anselm follows Augustine's thinking.  In Cur Deus Homo, he  contends,
Intelligent nature... was foreseen by [God] in a certain reasonable and complete number....  It was proper that God should design to make up for the number of angels that fell, from human nature which He created without sin.
Like Augustine, Anselm suggests that redeemed humanity may exceed the numbers of the fallen angels, according to the perfect design of God:
If that [perfect] number [of heavenly beings] were not found in all the angels together, then both the loss and the original deficiency must be made up from men, and more men will be chosen than there were fallen angels. And so we shall say that men were made not only to restore the diminished number, but also to complete the imperfect number.
He goes on to explain:
Human nature was either made to consummate this perfection [of the original creation], or... it was superfluous, which we should not dare affirm of the nature of the smallest reptile. Wherefore, then, it was made for itself, and not merely to restore the number of beings possessing another nature. From which it is plain that, even had no angel fallen, men would yet have had their place in the celestial kingdom.
In other words, the choir of heavenly angels, like the Italian choir I encountered so many years ago, is not quite as big as its allotted space, leaving open seats whether the full choir is present or not.

More than a century after Bernard, this idea was again raised by Thomas Aquinas, although he demurs of any concrete knowledge:
Concerning the number of all the predestined, some say that so many men will be saved as angels fell; some, so many as there were angels left; others, as many as the number of angels created by God. It is, however, better to say that, "to God alone is known the number for whom is reserved eternal happiness."
 In any event, the Church clearly teaches that, whatever our precise relationship with them, we shall spend eternity in the company of the angels and saints around the throne of God.  Thus does God become a little Child, that we might share in the everlasting life of God.

Today's image by Gustave Doré of Dante, Beatrice and the Heavenly Host of Angels, from Canto 31 of Paradiso, is brought to you via Artsy Craftsy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why the Immaculate Conception Is the Patronal Feast of the United States

A very short lesson regarding tomorrow's solemnity.

AMERICA [1792/1846]: Yes, the love of God is that ridiculously superabundant.

CRITICS: No, it's not quite that wildly awesome.

ROME [1854]: Actually, it is.