On the abused, the corrupted and the exceptional

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Incoming Light (updated)

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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.

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John Deely (1942-2017)

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.)

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René Girard (1923-2015)

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.

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Louis Dupré (1926-)

Thus, I add these three newcomers to my list.

  1. 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.
  2. Bl. John Henry Newman, whose Grammar of AssentEssay 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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 GloryThe Abolition of ManThe Problem of Pain, and Discarded Image. Two worthy successors of Lewis are the American Peter Kreeft and the recently deceased Brit Stratford Caldecott.
  5. Max Picard: The World of SilenceMan 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Joseph Pieper: the best and most accessible popular interpreter of Western wisdom in the Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, especially in moral questions.
  12. 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.
  13. 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).

First Review of Kelly Anthology (link e tradução portuguesa)

tradução portuguesa (resenha em inglês publicado no The National Catholic Register, 12 de maio de 2018):

Bernard Kelly e o vigor do pensamento leigo

Gerald J. Russello

A CATHOLIC MIND AWAKE – The Writings of Bernard Kelly. Edited by Scott Randall Paine. Angelico Press, 2017.  (UMA MENTE CATÓLICA DESPERTA – Os escritos de Bernard Kelly) – ainda sem tradução para o Português.

Este livro é um bem-vindo e importante ato de recuperação. Bernard Kelly (1907-1958) foi um católico comum, que viveu em Windsor com uma grande família e trabalhou como bancário. Mas, Kelly tinha outra vida.

 Por quase três décadas, Kelly forneceu ensaios filosóficos sofisticados e resenhas, em primeiro lugar para o Blackfriars, o prestigioso periódico dos Dominicanos. Nessa coletânea, os escritos de Kelly são vistos pela primeira vez desde sua publicação original.

Não é claro, a partir da excelente introdução de Scott Randall Paine, um professor de filosofia da Universidade de Brasília, o que levou Kelly à sua estranha vida dupla. Entre as demandas de seu trabalho e de seus seis filhos – sem falar da tuberculose que o abateu por dois anos nos anos 1940 –, claramente alguma força motora o compeliu a escrever de modo a entender os desafios filosóficos e religiosos de seu tempo.

Kelly escrevia na esteira de uma grande série de convertidos católicos, desde John Henry Newman a Christopher Dawson, passando por G. K. Chesterton e Eric Gill, cuja apologética e outros trabalhos definiram o catolicismo inglês por um século. Kelly foi herdeiro e defensor dessa tradição.

Dado o período em que ele escreveu, seus escritos aparentemente mostram a confiança filosófica do tomismo de meados do século, antes das convulsões dos anos 1960 e 1970. Contudo, nesses escritos, veem-se mais do que exposições secas: Kelly tem lampejos intuitivos derivados de sua vivência nas finanças e como homem de família que conecta suas preocupações filosóficas com o mundo como um todo. Há muito mais aqui do que se pode suspeitar à primeira vista.

 O livro é dividido em quatro seções principais, cobrindo tópicos que vão desde Gerard Manley Hopkins (de quem Kelly foi um crítico astuto e sensível), à justiça econômica e àquilo que hoje seria chamado de religião comparada.

 Num ensaio de 1935, “The Bourgeois Position” [algo como ‘a atitude burguesa’], Kelly liga as falhas dessa atitude ao pecado da preguiça, que é como uma lassidão espiritual. Kelly não fala da perspectiva de um monastério ou reitoria, mas desde o mundo dos negócios. Ele sabe o valor do livre mercado e o que é preciso para cuidar da família, mas também conhece a tentação de pensar que o sucesso econômico é tudo o que importa. Mas, a despeito de tudo, ele conclui que um católico não pode ser inteiramente ‘do’ mercado. Desta crença “deriva o modo de sua espiritualidade burlesca… Deixa-o à vontade para ir à igreja. Buscador de conforto em tudo, ele impôs à religião… os limites de seus sentimentos relaxantes, preenchendo o corpo de sua fé com um caloroso brilho sentimental”.

 Kelly escreveu durante as perturbações econômicas dos anos 1930 e rejeitou a solução comunista em virtude do ateísmo e da natureza essencialmente desumanizante dessa solução; ao invés disso, “o impulso da ética cristã não pode bloquear a melhoria da natureza das atividades industriais e dos produtos industriais.”

 Atuando no pensamento distributivista, Kelly defendeu que o trabalho deveria ser belo e humanamente proporcionado; com isso, ele não era um nostálgico, mas procurou explicar os princípios sociais católicos no mundo real.

 O outro assunto que distingue Kelly é sua interação leiga com as religiões não cristãs.

 Kelly, por exemplo, correspondeu-se por anos com o importante filósofo indiano e historiador Ananda Coomaraswamy, que se tornou um interlocutor para Kelly entre as tradições filosóficas ocidental e oriental. Essa coletânea contém os resultados dessa conversação que perdurou por toda a vida de Kelly.

 Essa pode ser uma estrada perigosa; outros católicos que buscaram uma filosofia ‘perene’ sob as especificidades das diferentes tradições, por fim, perderam a sua fé. Mas, a interação com essas tradições não pode ser evitada no mundo moderno.

 Kelly se nos apresenta como um modelo de católico não temeroso de mergulhar profundamente em textos hindus (aprendendo Sânscrito para isso), a fim de entender os conceitos não cristãos acerca do divino, mas tampouco esquecendo-se de levar o Evangelho consigo. O seu discurso de 1956 à Sociedade São Tomás de Aquino de Cambridge, publicado como “A Thomistic Approach to the Vedanta” (Uma abordagem tomista do Vedanta) faz exatamente isso discutindo a metafísica tomista no contexto das escrituras hindus.

 Todo o conhecimento nos é dado para nos ajudar a chegar à verdade, acreditava Kelly, e outras tradições podem nos auxiliar a vermos Deus de nossa perspectiva. Que ele mantivesse sua fé, e até mesmo a fortalecesse, isto é óbvio, tal como se reflete numa profunda meditação sobre a Via Sacra em 1956.

 Como nota Paine, Kelly morreu antes que o Papa Joao XXIII anunciasse sua intenção de chamar o Concílio Vaticano Segundo. Não sabemos como Kelly teria reagido a esse evento marcante, apesar de que ele certamente teria recebido bem a ênfase renovada do laicato no desenvolvimento do pensamento da Igreja.

 Esse volume lembra-nos do vigor do pensamento laico quando aberto tanto às questões contemporâneas quanto ao pensamento da Igreja.

What “catholic” should also mean

καθ’ ὅλου

— there it is in its original form, dolled up in those adorable Greek letters (romanized it would be kath’olou, meaning something like ‘in a general way’, or ‘according to the whole’), and inspiring the Latin rendering that gives us the English word ‘universal’ (adding its own etymological twist, suggesting a ‘turning’ – vertere –  ‘to the one’ – uni).  Although appropriated by the Roman Catholic tradition as its special title, from the very beginning the Christian church considered itself ‘universal’, insofar as it bore a message for all. Here was no ethnic religion or tribal creed, and even less an esoteric club destined for a privileged few, but instead a global News Broadcast – both very old, and very new – and one addressed to the human race as such (past, present and future).

The Protestant observer – and to some extent the Orthodox – may view the Roman Catholic ‘usurpation’ of the term as betraying a kind of imperialist ambition, designing to lord it over all believers, and to exact its own exclusive version of the faith of all those who wish to adhere to ‘the whole truth and nothing but’.  Without addressing the inevitable controversies the competing claims of rival Christian magisteria generate, I only suggest it would be of service to those who call themselves Catholic (upper case) to consider another dimension of their aspiration to also being ‘catholic’ (lower case).

With catechisms and summas and (in closely defined cases) infallible popes, the Catholic Church could give the impression that it understands its universality to be only that of already including all truth within its scope, bar none. I would not dispute – I hasten to add – that the creed and the catechism do indeed possess a completeness of their own, in the sense that they establish the basic narrative, define the radical truths and point out borders within which alone the fullness of Truth can finally unfold, like a peacock’s tail, and shine. To what extent, however, it already fully and finally shines is quite another matter.peacock

We are told categorically in the Gospel that the Spirit of God will eventually lead us into all the truth – future tense – (John 16,13), and Bl. John Henry Newman made explicit what was always there in Christian revelation, but not always noticed, namely:  that there is indeed a development of Christian doctrine, that it is a living thing that matures and grows with time, and that flowers and fruits will later appear that no one suspected who only viewed the roots and trunk. Thus, my modest suggestion: today as never before, it would be salubrious if Catholics would emphasize not so much their claim to possess all the saving truth, but rather the far deeper and more adventurous claim to be open to all the truth.  The fact that the latter claim depends in a very important way on the first does not entitle us to overlook the other fact, namely, that the first is a threat to the very wholeness it professes if it does not open up its doors and windows to the second.

It is not just clever apologetics to point out that the Logos that became man in Christ is the same one about whom the philosophers had enquired since human enquiry began.  It was not without due reflection that the first great Christian philosopher, St. Justin Martyr (II. AD), insisted on continuing to wear his philosopher’s cape after his conversion. And try to downsize the following New Testament declarations to fit the mold of a simple, first-century sage, who just wanted us to be nice to each other, like: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He is before all things and in him all things hold together,” (Col. 1, 15-17); or: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it…” (1 John. 1, 1-2); or: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” (Heb. 1, 3). These are hardly throw-away verses.

And St. John the Evangelist knew perfectly well into which age-old philosophical lexicon he was dipping when he said: “In the beginning was the Logos (the Word), and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” (John 1,1). As he later states, that’s the Word that became flesh. Old Heraclitus would have perked up his ears, and Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon logikon (‘Logos-based’ animal) would find itself infused with new meaning.  And Jesus Christ himself, although he was given to understatement and was intent on gradual, pedagogical preparation – his whole coming, after all, was designed to provide a kind of ‘buffer’ between our obtuseness and his absolute power and glory, courtesy of the Flesh and Blood he received from the Virgin – he still let one show-stopper emerge from his otherwise so careful lips: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8,58).

The ‘Egyptian gold’ already abundantly mined from the Egyptians themselves, from the Greeks and Romans, and from the northern folks of Europe, built a Christian civilization unlike any other human construct of history. As it now fades from Europe, the still unmet challenge of stepping with a Christian mind into the Word’s other articulations – especially in India and China – will invite new rays of light to shine upon the Gospel, and draw attention to its overlooked corners and contexts. But also – in at least equal measure – we shall see unsuspected light from the Gospel shine into and upon the world of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, the Daoist and Confucian classics, and all the other configurations of the Good, the True and the Beautiful already outlined elsewhere, but still understated (or forgotten) in their explicit formulations.

Discernment of spirits, of course, will continue to be the order of the day, as it already is within the Christian tradition itself. And though the Lord commanded us not to uproot the tares, less we pull out the good grain with it, he did not forbid us to identify that grain, wherever it may grow. I look to the day in which being “Catholic” will also necessarily mean being “catholic”: that is, being one who holds up to all traditions that ultimate mirror, in which any truth can find its best station, any good its final bearings, and any beauty its unmistakable consummation – there where any human of good will and honest mind can witness the universality of revelation in a looking-glass that looks into eternity without distortion, in Him who said “‘Let light shine out of darkness’, [and] who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4, 6).

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