My travelogue “Seven Islands” has been revised and is now available under MY WRITINGS in the right column.
Full semi-final version of text from the last four posts now in ‘My Writings’ in right-hand column (or here: On Cenoscopy and Ideoscopy).
Abusus non tollit usum. Corruptio optimi pessima. Exceptio probat regulam.
These three Latin adages have helped me to stay sane more perhaps that the thousands of pages of philosophy I have read. In short, they remind me not to forswear use because of abuse; not to overlook excellence because of the horror of its corruption; and not to relativize rules just because the exceptions are so teasing. The easy slope of the mind into these betrayals is observable wherever one looks, particularly in this particularly abusive, corrupt and exceptional age in which we live.
First, let me translate – the need for this is itself a sad feature of a culture no longer conversant in its classical tongues: ‘Abuse does not preclude use,’ ‘The corruption of the best is the worst,’ and ‘The exception proves the rule.’
The first is rather simple. We continue to cut our baguettes with knives, despite the number of human necks that have been likewise cut with the same sharp instrument. Where would our culture be without knives? The principle of the adage here on display is that only things intrinsically good can be abused. You cannot really abuse trash, or mistreat garbage. But you can abuse a child, and we instinctively know the reason: because a child is the most precious thing our sad world possesses. We forget this general truth, however, when it is religion that is being abused, as many mentally slip into an illogical argument for its abolition. Abusive politicians and policemen are also a scourge, but a world without politics and policing is a world with nothing to order and nothing to defend. So the next time someone displays indignation over the abuse of this or of that, look quickly at the value of the abused item, and beware of the temptation to merrily cut off noses to spite faces you’ve yet to behold.
Partially overlapping with this principle is the second. As abuse is only of inherently good things, so is the abuse and corruption of the very best things productive of the very worst, as we saw with children – and, I repeat, with religion. We do not find a crushed mosquito revolting, but a dog corpse already makes us jump with horror and disgust. The better the body, the more repellent the remains. Late antiquity wracked its collective brain as it watched the magnificent Roman civilization slowly decay and putrefy, challenging historians and philosophers for centuries to come – from Augustine to Gibbon – to make sense of one the very best of human societies turning into one of the very worst. Whether or not you believe in angels, it is significant that traditional Semitic angelology has it that the very highest of the angels fell to become the very lowest; the initially quite lovely name of ‘Lucifer’ (‘Light-Bearer’) now sounds, well, luciferian. Another example is this: the closest and most intimate of human bonds are those of blood, the sacred family ties; however, the bloodiest of human conflicts involve fratricides and civil wars. Likewise, no enemy is as fierce as a friend turned fiend. The list of the best becoming the worst goes on and on.
The third adage is potentially the most controversial, although, in practice, it seems perhaps the most obvious. Without going into the more intricate philosophical or even scientific ways in which it might be questioned, I think we are justified in thinking, at least first of all, of its functioning in our daily affairs. Most people are right-handed and the world is full of acknowledgments of this statistical preponderance – from automobile production, road construction and classroom desks, the order of strings on most guitars and violins, and – on a somewhat darker note – all the way to ‘sinister’ allusions and left-handed compliments. Still, we make allowances for lefties wherever we can. After all, they are not guilty of their orientation. We would be over-accomodating, however, were we to insist that half of all classroom seats have left-handed desks. Clearly, the left-handed fact is an exception to the right-handed, and it draws attention to — ‘proves’ – the rule. Such proof does not, however, require us to extirpate the exceptions, or banish them to a ghetto. It just means the world is far more interesting, and beautiful, in part because it is not imperiously symmetrical.
As long as one fears that acknowledging an exception endangers the rule, living and life-nourishing norms and natural majorities will continue to harden into laws of Medes and Persians, with minds biting down on 100% rules as the only way to honor nature. But even modern science – once proud of its ‘laws of nature’ of necessary and universal validity – is now accustomed to conceding that it is dealing with statistical probabilities in most cases, and with tendencies and approximations that are simply thrown into clearer profile by the very exceptions that deny them universality.
If I have to swerve into the wrong lane in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian, that moment of exceptional behavior simply highlights with a touch of drama how important it is – 99% of the time – to stay in the right lane (and for pedestrians to keep off the street). I should like to escort this principle into more controversial territory, but I will leave that for another day.
Friends and students had asked me to indicate the authors who have had the greatest influence on my life and thinking. If ever my words have communicated light or touched lives, the credit is largely due to the wonderful teachers I have had and the books of a number of authors I have read. Since the teachers have all gone on to their reward, I was only too happy to indicate the authors. I restricted the list to authors of recent times; Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas are obviously on any intelligent person’s top list of philosophical influences, and the rest of the so-called Great Books – in drama, history, epic and poetry – will also be presupposed, and not included in the following list.
In the last few years (since I penned the above paragraph), a few new authors have entered into the exchange. Three of them, in particular, have proven to bring – as Confucius enjoined – such newness out of the preservation of the ancient, and in such a way that has caused multiple points in my own education to be connected in new ways and by more embracing perspectives, that I have needed some months to swallow, then ruminate, then swallow again, and then (hopefully) finally digest and escort their lights into a larger and more luminous view.
I bought the course of philosophy of John of St. Thomas in Rome in the late 1970s, in a lovely Latin edition. I studied his logic and theory of signs with great attention back then. I continued to ponder the issue of ‘signs’ until finally publishing my own modest synthesis on the matter at the turn of the new century (available among ‘My Writings’ as The Seven Signa). My concern, at the time, was more with the notion of ‘symbol’ (since I’d been struggling to make sense of the work of the perennialists), but as I was to see, there was far more in the mix than this. When in the mid-teens of the new century I happened upon the work of Charles Peirce, 1860-1914 (I’m rather slow in getting up to pace with contemporary thought) and the recently deceased semiotician, Thomas Sebeok, I saw that this whole matter had moved in new – and yet also ancient – ways in very recent times. Finding the works of my fellow countryman, John Deely, became the final puzzle piece to turn me into a true believer. His writing has rocked my world (as they say) more than anyone’s since G.K. Chesterton’s some 40 years ago.
Something analogous happened at the same time, though more on the less theoretical, and more practical (moral, apetitive, etc.) side of things, when I finally gave in to rumors that had assailed me for years and started reading the works of René Girard. His books are likewise deeply rooted in tradition, but also – and this is key – extremely aware of what is going on in contemporary culture, and thus productive of surprising, even shocking, new insights. Girard requires a lot of reflection, and his return to the Church of his childhood predictably made him less palatable for fashionable social science. Wiser folks than I, however, have spotted the fundamental importance of this expat Frenchman. One of the blessings of our digital age is that you can watch Girard on youtube videos and get a glimpse of the man in action. (Deely appears to have been more video-shy.)
I add a third thinker to my new family of influences (and again a Frenchman, which in itself is a proof that I am going on content, and not on tribal affections – I am anything but a francophile). The trilogy of Louis Dupré (one book on the beginning of modernity, a second on the Enlightenment, and a third on Romanticism) has not received the attention it deserves. As happens when I read Deely or Girard, something similar occurs when it is a text of Dupré on the page. I have the selfsame experience: multiple points of light from my past 50 years or so of study and reflection are suddenly connected and invested with new intensity.
Thus, I add these three newcomers to my list.
- G.K. Chesterton, in particular his non-fiction. Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man I have read multiple times, and each time I am freshly overwhelmed. Their effect on the mind is nothing less than tonic.
- Bl. John Henry Newman, whose Grammar of Assent, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and Idea of a University, with their novel but rooted takes on faith, history and education, respectively, bear all the permanent relevance of the writings of a modern, ‘après la lettre’, Father of the Church.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar – supplemented by Augustine and Aquinas – for my money, the greatest theologian of modern times (helpfully glossed and contextualized by Cyril O’Regan and Aidan Nichols, and, in certain matters, given a healthy shake by an eye-opening Orthodox corrective, courtesy of David Bentley Hart).
- C.S. Lewis, probably the most sophisticated Christian apologist of the 20th century, as well as a superb guide to pre-modern literature. For beginners, one might start with The Weight of Glory, The Abolition of Man, The Problem of Pain, and Discarded Image. Two worthy successors of Lewis are the American Peter Kreeft and the recently deceased Brit Stratford Caldecott.
- Max Picard: The World of Silence, Man and Language, and anything else you can find in translation (he wrote in German). An unsung contemplative genius, singularly fascinated by the endless universes of the human face. His detailed studies of the face are only in German – what a shame. His Flight from God should be available.
- Cornelio Fabro, the only Thomist I’ve found who managed to get truly inside of Aquinas’ mind and then to think his way valiantly through to the 20th century. Not for the faint-hearted. (His main works are finally being translated into English.)
- Mid-century Blackfriars in England and correlate Thomists in the USA: Thomas Gilby, Victor White (U.K.), Vincent Smith, James Collins (USA); also contemporaries E.L. Mascall, E.I. Watkin, Henry Babcock Veatch. These guys never let you down.
- R.C. Zaehner, the best surveyor of world religions I know of, who – though a convinced Catholic convert – refuses to “bear false witness” regarding other approaches to transcendence. His deep faith generates robust and adventurous thought. I should also include Raimon Panikkar, Wilhelm Halbfass and Huston Smith.
- Historians: Friedrich Heer, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, all of whom realize that – like it or not – the pursuit or neglect of transcendence sets the stage for history-making human choice. All else is secondary and tertiary.
- A.K. Coomaraswamy: in my view, the most consistently learned and insightful representative of the Asian Indian tradition in English, with encyclopedic scholarship and astute exposition regarding art, philosophy and religion in all their forms. Heavy on erudition and excessively foot-noted, but the insights are deep, bracing and unrelenting.
- Joseph Pieper: the best and most accessible popular interpreter of Western wisdom in the Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, especially in moral questions.
- Norris Clarke and Richard de Smet: only two of many who are now narrowing in on the Western, Semitic notion of person as the final linchpin in grasping not only Western, but also Eastern – and even non-literate – wisdom traditions in their most metaphysically, morally and musically mysterious dimensions.
- John Deely: he passed away in early 2017, but left us a large pile of texts. Start with his Basics of Semiotics, or even better: Semiotic Animal. Good Thomists should read first his Intentionality and Semiotics. (There is much, much more.) Of Girard, please begin with his later works, after 1977, beginning with Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Dupré’s most important works are probably the three books mentioned above.
That’s all (for the moment).