Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking Forward

Each December as a part of my annual routine, I review the closing year by rereading my notes from the past twelve months, and I start to look over the next year's book list with anticipation.  This year I think back over the fun and learning and even the disappointments of 2010 with great satisfaction and no regrets, and 2011 promises to be another pleasurable, fulfilling year.

Each year begins with Greek classics, and 2011 begins with a return to some favorites.  The three plays by Aristophanes are among his most accessible for the reader of 2500 years later.  Many college students of today read Lysistrata and discover great troves of humor.  I can't help but think that the name of Thesmophoriazusae is all that keeps its sneaking and crossdressing and silliness from entertaining today's youth.  And The Odyssey tells one of the world's greatest stories.  I talk about it at least once every year to my music classes as an iconic model of a plot that works well in music also: the journey is full of adventure, and more dangerous surprises await even after we get home.  Beethoven and Homer are not all that different.

The philosophical selections always require a lot of pondering and note-taking, but I love getting stumped on some given day's six-page assignment, pondering and wondering during the rest of the day, having a moment of clarification the next morning, and then reviewing the notes of the last few days to see how much clearer the whole thing seems – including passages that I was too clueless about even to be stumped on.  Sometimes the moment of clarification comes, not just a day, but years later.  Reading Aristotle's Topics for the first time made much in his other works clearer.  (It will probably have this effect again this year.)  Reading Aquinas often makes Aristotle clearer and vice versa.  And Kant is nearly indecipherable on first reading, so I know rereading a crucial part of his most important treatise will light a lot of bulbs.

I don't know if I'm going to enjoy Hegel or not; I'm hoping to understand him at least.  Having read his Philosophy of History, I recognize some of the ideas when his name comes up in other (usually academic) reading.  But I don't get it – and not just because it's not the kind of philosophy I'm not going to agree with.  Plato talks of a world soul, and I get it.  Spinoza talks of the universe as a unity, and I get it.  Darwin talks about all life forms evolving through undirected variation, and I get it.  I don't believe any of these ideas, but their authors make the ideas clear enough that I know what it is I don't believe and can see why others do believe it.  But Hegel talks about a single universal consciousness that evolves, and I don't get it, perhaps because he seems to write in terms that made sense only to him, not to me.  I'm hoping that both the variety of selections and the editor's notes in the anthology I chose will help.

Most of the fiction and history for the year is fated to give me great pleasure and understanding.  David Copperfield is one of the world's very greatest novels, and my second favorite book by my favorite author.  If there were fewer books in the world, I could read David Copperfield once every year for the rest of my life and not get tired of it.  O'Brian, Plutarch, Thackeray, Durant, Williams, Catton, Trollope, and Waugh have all entertained me greatly in the past, and I'm sure the books of theirs that I've picked for 2011 will please.

Then there's Richard Blackmore's Lorna Doone.  Both names are rather famous today: the first as the name of a member of the rock band Deep Purple, and the second as a cookie.  Neither is a household name in reference to literature, though, so I don't have high expectations in this quarter.

The most wondrously glowing item on the reading list for 2011 is the beginning of Orlando Furioso.  Twenty years ago or so, I was reading something or other by C. S. Lewis, and he mentioned Orlando Furioso as an example or analogy that he assumed was familiar to every reader.  My heart ached as I read the passage, and I had my last really angry regret about my weak, space-age education.  Just after thinking, "Why weren't my schools better?!" I thought, "You can read all the classics you want to.  Just start reading."  Soon afterwards, I began my search for the right set of books and the right reading plan.  I settled on the Britannica set and its ten-year reading plan, and I loved the experience so much I drew up my own second ten-year plan, some of the fruits of which you are enjoying (or at least experiencing) now.  But as much as I felt I was finally getting the education in classical lierature I had always wanted, it occurred to me that I had not read the book that started it all.  This year, I go back to the beginning and start Orlando Furioso.

It will be a great year of great literature and the first full year with my blog.  Happy New Year, and thanks for sharing part of the experience with me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

And the Winners Are . . .

While Hollywood studio execs rush to get out all the movies they hope the Academy will remember long enough to give awards to, I'm enjoying the calm and quiet of the week between Christmas and New Year's and remembering all the reading I've done for the last twelve months.  I think I'll give some awards as well: the ex libris magnis awards for 2010.

So Good It Wouldn't Be Fair to Include Him in the Running for Any Other Awards
Charles Dickens.  Dombey and Son was twice as good as I remembered it, and his delightful but little-known Christmas stories taught me a lot about Dickens and about Christmas.

Best New Read: Fiction
George MacDonald, Sir GibbieWhile I loved the first two MacDonald novels I read (by which I mean adult, nonfantastic novels: Robert Falconer and Thomas Wingfold), the last one was a bit of a disappointment (David Elginbrod).  So I was glad to find another one that worked for me.  Chapter 6 is amazing, with little Gibbie learning last lessons from his dying, drunken father.  Through Gibbie's eyes (and MacDonald's) we see that an alcoholic can love and be loved even while his addiction horrifies us.  Many other characters also mix good and bad traits like real people; MacDonald's narration scolds the Sclaters, for instance, for their religious humbuggery, and yet they end up doing good things for Gibbie.  Have they truly met God?  We aren't told.  The book is full of quotable quotes, like this one for instance: "There is no forgetting of ourselves but in the finding of our deeper, our true self -- God's idea of us when he devised us -- the Christ in us.  Nothing but that self can displace the false, greedy, whining self, of which, most of us are so fond and proud.  And that self no man can find for himself; seeing of himself he does not even know what to search for."  Having read Sir Gibbie, C. S. Lewis's reverence for MacDonald finally makes sense to me.

Best New Read: Religion
Tie: Upanishads and Barth's Dogmatics in Outline.  The challenging and helpful central idea of Dogmatics is that the Church is here to proclaim, not to prove; that people have the message to proclaim is proof enough.  It does no good, Barth says, to look at the world and try to prove God as a Creator; right thinking starts with God and sees the world as the amazing thing.  What we read in the newspapers and in history -- especially Church history -- is bad.  Only God is good, so proclaim Jesus, and learn to see the world his way.  For a bit on the Upanishads, see an earlier post.

Philosophy Most Likely to Pop into My Mind from Day to Day
Wittgenstein.  I love Aristotle and Aquinas and can barely wait to read more of each of them each year.  They probably quietly influence my thinking more than any other philosophers, but Wittgenstein's analysis of language and communication will come vividly to mind many times over the years to come.  (For more on my adventure with Wittgenstein, see an earlier post.)

Best Reread
Tolkien's Silmarillion.  This book is like a cathedral in a prairie.  It offers truth whose stony solidity cannot be ignored, boisterously teeming images whose beauty fascinates, dizzy heights that raise hopes, and tragic tombs whose silence evoke shame and humility.  And it does it in a form that is unlike anything else around it.  (For more on Tolkien's fantastic history, see the previous post.) 

Best Recommended Offroading
I read quite a few things not on The List this year.  One of the greatest surprising treats was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.  In this cross between magical fantasy, science fiction, and literature review, people can jump into and out of fiction.  When one steps out of a novel (or is taken out against his will), every copy in the world of that book changes to reflect the absence.  In order to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the novel), heroine Thursday Next (not the wackiest name in the book!) must enter the fictional realm, get into Rochester's house, and alter the course of events before Grace Poole starts the fire.  Mix Harry Potter, Peabody's Improbable History from Bullwinkle, and TV's Eureka, and you have Jasper Fforde's weird, wonderful world.  If only Mr. Fforde would match nouns and pronouns by number ("If anyone forgets their instructions . . . ." AAARRRGH!), I could say I loved every word.

Biggest Disappointment on The List
The Education of Henry Adams.  The book starts great; in telling of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, walking him forcibly to school, Adams writes, "He violated the inalienable rights of boys and negated the social compact," thus dismantling the New England spirit of rebellion and the sacred words from his great-grandfather's time all at once.  But the book quickly becomes a series of confusing metaphors and unexplained topical references.  "His [the historian's] object is to triangulate from the widest base possible to the furthest point he thinks he can see, which is always far beyond the curve of the horizon."  Does that sentence actually make sense?  "The interference of the German and Russian legations, and of the Clan-na-Gael, with the press and the Senate was innocently undisguised."  Huh?  None of this -- none of this -- is explained.  I wish someone had told me to read the first few chapters, up to where he explains the first part of his point -- that eighteenth-century education did not prepare him for twentieth-century capitalism -- and then jump to chapter 29, which finishes up his point: that all previous forms of education taught the student to seek unity, while Adams's experience had shown him only multiplicity.

So that's a brief look back at 2010.  Like Janus, in the next post I'll look forward.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Mingling of the Lights

In March of this year, I read The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien for the fourth time.  One of the few books I had ever reread before the start of this ten-year plan, The Silmarillion was Tolkien's great, central, yet unfinished tale, nothing less than the history of the first two ages of Middle Earth, beginning with creation.  The project began with his invention of two languages, Quenya and Sindarin.  But since Sindarin was supposed to have derived from Quenya, he needed a history to go with the languages.

Tolkien worked on this history for decades, expanding and revising at various times, and eventually interrupting his work to try his hand at a commercially viable tale about one year-long adventure in his imaginative world.  He called the tale The Hobbit, and publisher Stanley Unwin put it out because his ten-year-old son read the draft and approved it; thank goodness Master Unwin liked fantasy!  When The Hobbit proved commercially viable indeed, Tolkien followed up with The Lord of the Rings, complete with tantalizing timelines, glimpses of ancient battles and heroes, and poems in constructed languages.  Totally unaware of the author's plans for a greater history, readers wondered what it all meant and longed for more detail.  A few years after Professor Tolkien died, his son, Christopher, studied the notes, filled in some gaps, and at last published the history that fans had been waiting for.

The stories in this masterpiece make up one of the most realistic fantasies I know of.  They may tell of Valar, elves, and dwarves, but the beautiful pain and the devastating glory they relate are the ones we are all too familiar with.  Because it is a realistic book, Tolkien begins with God: "There was Eru, the One."  Just as Genesis tells the creation story in a couple of ways, so too The Silmarillion.  The second part begins, "In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him."

Many of the images of the book are familiar and unique all at the same time.  My favorite occurs early in the book.  The world created through the great Music is dark at first, but then Yavanna, one of the Ainur, the Giver of Fruits, thinks a new thought and asks Aulë, the great smith, to realize her idea.  Together, they build two great pillars, one at the extreme south of Middle Earth, the other at the extreme north.  (Later, when these towers tumble through the treachery of Melkor, the Enemy, we learn that their fall stirred the oceans to a frenzy and changed the shape of the land forever; these were tall towers indeed!)  On top of the each pillar, Yavanna places a great light, and the whole world begins to bud forth: grasses and moss at first, and then immense trees with their feet planted firmly in the ground and their heads soaring above the clouds.  Their growth is greatest in the center of the world, where the lights mingle.

Now for these two lights to mingle and yet illuminate the whole land, the world must be flat.  Suddenly the image coalesces in my mind.  A giant land mass lies before me; like our world yet flat like a map, I see it all in one comprehensive glance.  It is as big as Eurasia, yet every detail of every blade of grass seems clear.  Lights atop two pillars perhaps thousands of miles high shine through atmosphere clearer than any post-Industrial Revolution human has ever breathed.  I have never seen such a sight, and yet I know the exact shades of green, I feel the warmth of the great lights, I smell the soil, and I see the magical twilight that hovers beneath the leafy canopy.

The world is made brokenly beautiful by the catastrophe of the pillars, beautiful but unbearable to the Ainur.  So they retire to the realm of Valinor, where Yavanna again makes two great lights.  Only this time, rather than trees coming from the light, the light comes from two trees: Telperion with its dark green leaves shedding silver light and Laurelin with its spring-green leaves and golden light.  The luminescence of each tree slowly pulses, and the darkness of one coincides with the full brightness of the other; the greatest glory comes every six hours when, again, the lights mingle.  Before Melkor spoils this wonder, the elf Fëanor crafts silmarils: exquisite jewels that capture the light of of the trees.

In the years since the first publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien has published many of his father's working notes, earlier versions of the history, and unfinished tales.  Recently though, he published a polished, book-length version of the story of one of the chapters (The Tale of the Children of Hurin) and announced that it was one of three stories from The Silmarillion that his father deemed great enough to flesh out.  Another Tolkien trilogy?  If MGM can recover from bankruptcy, they will put out Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit in the next couple of years, his second monumental attempt to bring Tolkien to film.  But since Jackson's screenwriters have announced that they believe Professor Tolkien made mistakes in his stories that they need to correct, I pray that this announcement of a trilogy of Silmarillion chronicles doesn't lead to yet another series of Peter Jackson films.  If he and his friends didn't understand Aragorn and Faramir, how could they begin to comprehend the profound wisdom and beauty of The Silmarillion?

Whatever Peter Jackson does or doesn't do with Tolkien's history of Middle Earth, I will always have the books.  Like Fëanor, Tolkien captured some of the light of Ilúvatar and crafted it into his literary gems.  The light of Ilúvatar shines in our world, as well.  And the beauty is greater when the lights mingle.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wittgenstein Was a Beery Swine

Suppose a friend points a finger and asks, "What is that?"  Do you answer, "A finger"?  Of course not.  You look in the direction of your friend's finger at something else.  But what exactly do you look at?  Your friend doesn't know what it is and can't name it.  Nevertheless usually you find the same thing and can converse about it.  Maybe you don't know what it is, either, but you know it is an it.  And after all, your friend has a name for it: he called it that.  You both have some idea that an object exists to point at, but that primary idea cannot be communicated.  Somehow we simply already know it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote of this unlearnable knowledge that comes before communication, wrote for years on the philosophy of language, and in fact defined philosophy as an examination and clarification of language.  Significant things are not as they appear, he says, and yet traditions in language keep us from seeing things clearly.  Philosophy must find these "grammatical knots" and untie them; the exercise, he says, is both as urgent and as difficult as getting a hair out of your mouth.

As far as I know, Wittgenstein was not a beery swine, although the Monty Python song that claims it is extremely funny.  Earlier this year I read a collection of excerpts from his works (Wittgenstein's works, not Monty Python's) and found them far too thoughtful to be the product of a dizzy sot.  These anthologies (the Blackwell Reader series, the Portable series from Penguin, etc.) generally contain writings from throughout a thinker's life, and critical notes to help make sense of it all.  This way, the fellow who wants to understand one philosopher's ideas doesn't have to get entangled in the details of a large book, only to find that he doesn't understand the work and doesn't know how important the ideas in that particular book are to the writer's entire philosophy or whether the thinker ever changed his mind.  I found out in this anthology, for instance, that, after having laid out in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus a systematic philosophy showing that every conceivable state of affairs in the world should have a clear parallel in language, Wittgenstein later rejected the idea.  I've read similar anthologies for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in recent years, and in each case, I ended up glad I had not read just one of the books excerpted.  I plan to read one for Hegel in 2011.

Like William James, Wittgenstein believed there is in us no will to move, say, an arm apart from actually moving the arm.  Unlike James, he said that we cannot even think without speaking or at least imagining speaking.  (Try it!)  On the other hand, we have feelings, experiences, and interpretations that we cannot communicate in speaking at all.  I don't know if the sky looks the same to you as it does to me; I only know that we both say it looks "blue."  But your blue could be my red, and we could never know it; your saying it doesn't really convey to me the image you get.  Similarly, we do and should help someone who appears in pain, but we can never know if his feeling of pain is the same as ours; no amount or precision of language can ever convey the exact impression.  You can be sure that blue looks like blue to you, but to try to explain it to me, you have only one source to draw on: your experience.  How could you ever check one source for accuracy, Wittgenstein asks.  That would be like looking in the same edition of a newspaper over and over to check the veracity of a story.

In passages on religion and faith, Wittgenstein says that all religious statements are similes, and that we can't find what they are similes for.  This view seems right to me; God's true nature is ineffable.  We say He is everywhere, but we know that as spirit, He does not occupy space (if anything, we should say that space is in Him rather than that He is in space), and that when incarnate, He occupied one particular tiny part of space at any given moment (in a manger, in a tax collector's home, on a cross).  So God is not actually everywhere the way air is all around us, but God is not nowhere, either.  What exactly are we trying to say?  Wittgenstein says that faith is possible in spite of our inability to voice precisely the ideas we believe in, and that these problems only show the limits of language, not the limits of God's existence.

Solomon said that God has placed eternity in our hearts.  Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God.  Pascal said the human heart has a hole in it like a lock and that only Jesus is the perfectly fitting key.  I think Wittgenstein must have seen the soul's restless abyss and asked, "What is that?"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol

Obviously, I read things that aren't on The List: academic books and articles, student papers, detective fiction, children's books, things friends recommend.  Lately, like millions of others, I have been reading Christmas carols.  Or am I like millions of others?  I suppose many people sing them every year without much thinking about the words except as markers of happy memories and pious feelings, and I have no agenda to denigrate this function of language.  But I actually sometimes just read the texts, without singing or hearing the melody, and ruminate on their lessons.  (Such a pre-postmodern thing to do!)

I think "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" might really be the greatest song in existence.  With lyrics by Charles Wesley and music by Felix Mendelssohn, the song is bound to be beautiful.  But in this instance, each artist produced something especially good, and their separate contributions fit together like key and lock.

Wesley's original hymn begins, "Hark! How all the welkin rings!"  This effective figure of speech (a metonymy, I believe) raises the singular image of an entire sky filled with the sounds of celebration.  But "welkin" has become unfamiliar, and some helpful person has taught us instead to refer directly to the angels and their function as messengers.  After this change in the opening line, what we sing annually is almost pure Wesley, and the great hymn writer packs into the tableau the theology of redemption and the entire history of Christ's relationship to mankind: after a long war between God and sinful humans, the Desire of Nations has come, the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace, born of a virgin and completely righteous, the fullness of Deity born in human flesh after humbly emptying Himself of glory in order that we may have a second birth and avoid the Second Death.  If the nations truly understood this news, they would surely rise to join the welkin's triumph.

Mendelssohn's music combines the classic stateliness appropriate to a congregational hymn with the loveliness of the Romantic musical language.  In giving us a second key, its proper modulation in the phrase leading up to the midpoint presents a picture of two warring worlds (just in time for us to hear that these two worlds have been reconciled!), and its accented embellishments ("angels SI - ing," for instance, and "glory TOOO the newborn King") raise in us a longing to partake of this reconciliation.

But Mendelssohn's extraordinary contribution comes just after that midpoint, with the repeated unison D's ("JOY - FUL  ALL").  I remember playing this song soon after I learned to play a keyboard instrument (with a method that emphasized chords) and puzzling over the lack of harmony on these notes.  I tried a G major chord; it didn't sound right.  I tried a D major chord; it didn't sound right, either.  And of course nothing more exotic would fit at all.  These notes taught me something new under my dim sun: a melodic figure that truly had no harmony, either explicit or implied.  I'm accustomed now to all the pop-flavored recorded versions, with their tepid tonic harmony at this place.  But Mendelssohn's bold genius offered something infinitely better.  These insistently repeated, unison D's sound a clarion call that seizes our full attention and focuses it on the King.  Eminently suitable to the joy and triumph of verse 1, the regal fanfare befits even better the commands of verse 2: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!  Hail th'Incarnate Deity!"
Meditating on the same scene and urging us to listen to the same angels, "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" nevertheless portrays and evokes a completely different emotional spectrum.  Like many of Dickens's Christmas stories (see a post from earlier this month), this sweet song portrays a world of "solemn stillness."  Far from filling the welkin with noisy triumph, the angels in this carol sing so quietly, we must block out all the inner noise and listen hard in order to hear them.  (Check the little-known third verse here.)  And instead of proclaiming joy, the tender lyrics recall the pain of our lives and provide some much-needed talk therapy; it seems that every year I need to hear again its sympathetic urgings: "O ye beneath life's crushing load, . . . rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."

They are bending near the earth still.  One is there, just at your shoulder.  Step off the weary road for a moment, and listen to the song.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Periodical, Episodical, and Methodical

Every fan -- probably about half the population of New York City, although it seemed like everyone -- every fan, as I say, wanted to know: Is Nell Dead?  The story's followers had been left with a cliffhanger and had to wait two months to learn the outcome.  They discussed the topic with friends and strangers, on the street and at dinner; they read the reviews and prognostications in the newspapers.  You ask: was Nell a character on a nighttime soap?  Was this suspenseful interruption a ratings-boosting trick by television producers that the public just doesn't remember as well as they remember wondering, Who shot J.R.?

No, this happened in the winter of 1841, and Nell was a character in a book.  Throngs of fans went to the piers in New York harbor looking for British ships and calling up to passengers and crew: "Is Nell Dead?"  The scene repeated itself each day until the new copy of a periodical called Master Humphrey's Clock showed up on one of those ships, and the Americans at last found out the answer to their question.

The book was The Old Curiosity Shop, and it was published (as were all of Charles Dickens's novels) serially.  Master Humphrey's Clock presented two of his early novels and a handful of his stories in its monthly numbers.  Later, after his popularity and wealth were secured, Dickens started his own journals: Household Words in the 1850s and All the Year Round in, roughly, the 1860s.  Each issue of these periodicals offered the subscribers a new portion of the current Dickens novel; portions of one or more other novels by, say, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame); various vignettes; and short stories, sometimes even just one part of a short story.

Now, in some of his novellas, including several of the lesser-known Christmas stories I've been reading this month, Dickens let Collins and others write some of the interior chapters.  As we've seen recently on television series with single overarching plots -- X-Files, Buffy, or LOST, for instance -- the story, characters, tone, and theme can remain coherent and consistent even if the creative genius who starts the story lets others write occasional installments, always stepping in again at crucial episodes, especially the last.  For nineteenth-century subscribers, "Dickens's" novellas appeared as seamless as these television series seem to us.  But for any reader since the 1890s, when these novellas were first collected and published in book form, giant gaps appear; the chapters by other writers simply aren't included, not even in online sources of the books such as Project Gutenberg.  My response to the predicament has always been divided: part of me wishes I knew how the story got from point A to point D, and part of me remembers that I'm reading these stories for Dickens's special style -- for everything he could do with or without a plot.

But a great, blessed event has occurred in just the last couple of months.  The University of Buckingham has completed its labor and given birth to Dickens Journals Online.  Every issue of Household Words and All the Year Round has been scanned and posted online.  These lovely, clear reprints are probably available in multiple places, but the most convenient entryway I've found is at  (Just search there for "Dickens Journals Online.")  Now I can read all the missing parts to these novellas, all the stories by other writers.  If I wanted to, I could log on once a month (both in the sense of "sign in" and in the sense of "put a log on") and read a novel the way it was first read.  Maybe for my third ten-year reading plan!

By the way, Nell died.  (I know, it's really not nice to give away plots.  The next thing you know, I'll be telling you that Rosebud is a sled.)  Twentieth-century critics have denounced the scene of Nell's death as sentimental, and so did I on my first reading of TOCS, in the early 1980s.  But when I reread the book a couple of years ago, the scene struck me as beautiful and completely justified.  First, sentimental looks different at 50 than it does at 25.  Having children and grandchildren probably contributes to that change.  Second, I know more about Dickens's method now and what he was trying to say with his death scenes.  In almost all that he wrote, and especially in those scenes, Dickens tried to inspire each reader to examine his life, to find the points at which he had strayed from the path, and to let go and give over to sanity again.  To Dickens, every person is Scrooge.  Third, after Nell walks with her grandfather through the fires of Hell and then leads him into the safety and rest of the Church, what else was a good writer supposed to do with her?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pleasure and Sorrow and Heads of Pins

I have heard people say that medieval philosophers spent pointless time arguing about pointless questions and should therefore be ignored.  You all know the supposedly pointless question about heads of pins.  In reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica over the last fifteen years or so, I suppose I must admit I have read a question or two whose point did not jump out at me.  But mostly I see discussions (based on reason, observation, and authority) about vital and interesting issues in theology, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, law, and other point-full fields.

My section of Aquinas for 2010 included a series of questions on pleasure and sorrow.  According to Thomas, a human is a composite of body and soul that has a faculty, called appetite, that operates in both parts of the composite.  Our body has desires, preferences, pleasures, and pains, and so does our soul.  Pleasure can and does result from two related events: (a) attainment of a good (a good object, a good feeling, knowledge, etc,) and (b) knowledge of that attainment. 

Now right from the start we have a terribly interesting proposition.  If Thomas is right, my life can be better because of some factor of which I'm not aware, and then my life can be even more pleasant if I become aware of that pleasant factor.  (He calls this second pleasure, the pleasure of knowing about pleasure, enjoyment.)  I might even know something that benefits me without knowing that I know it, and then find joy in learning that I know it.  It sounded a little confusing at first until I started thinking of examples.  I grew up not knowing that I had what seem a king's riches when my middle-class suburban home was compared to the way most humans have lived (and still do).  My life was undoubtedly pleasant because of the warmth, food, toys, entertainment, books, and travel opportunities that I grew up with.  But as I continually become aware that I have no right to take these privileges for granted, they become even more valuable.  As another example, I might watch a movie, see a painting, or read a book that seems good even if I can't explain why; the experience brings me pleasure.  But how much more pleasure do I derive when someone explains the lighting technique, the organizing form, the hidden reference!

Pain, conversely, comes from a lack of good and from the perception of that lack.  Some pleasures bring a kind of pain by being incomplete.  If I'm simply not satisfied with the riches I have, that pain is a bad thing; but if my pain is sorrow from the knowledge that not everyone can enjoy the riches I have, that pain can be a good thing -- especially if it leads to a good, charitable action.  (The only complete pleasure, by the way, is union with God and knowledge of -- or enjoyment of -- that union.  Remember the Westminster Catechism: "The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."  And see the post called Happiness with Aquinas below.)

If you still think Thomas's questions sound pointless, consider his section on the remedies for sorrow and pain.  (1) Any kind of pleasure assuages any kind of sorrow, as bringing rest to weariness.  Think of a backrub after a hard day.  (2) Tears assuage sorrow as a release.  Practical!  Give yourself time to cry; you'll feel better.  (3) A friend's sympathy can assuage sorrow: the display not only seems to bear some of the burden; it also demonstrates love, which itself is pleasant to think about.  So talk to a friend.  (4) Think about God.  Or in fact, think about anything else but the pain.  Meditate.  Do Lamaze breathing.  Listen to music.  Go to a movie, and get your mind off the pain for a while.  (5) Go to sleep.  (6) Take a bath.  Does this sound like a fussy, ascetic monk arguing abstruse, pointless questions?

Thomas Aquinas's great book has a section on angels.  I read that section last year and did not find anything about heads of pins.  Knowing that people complain about Thomas in ignorance causes me sorrow.  I'm going to assuage that sorrow now by going to a friend's house and having a good meal.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dickens's Christmas Encounters

It would be a gross understatement to say that Christmas is my favorite day.  "One man regards one day above the rest.  Another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind."  I am fully convinced that I am One Man and not Another.  Christmas celebrates the birth of God on Earth, his appearance in flesh, his encounter with all humanity.  And in that celebration -- with the church services, the greenery, the lights, the candles, the decorations, the four weeks of anticipation, the food, the beautiful music, the cheesy music, the presents, and the prayers -- I most sense God's encounter with me.

It seems Dickens thought the same way, and his pious giddiness for Christmas transformed our world.  He wrote a special book or story for Christmas almost every year; his most famous story is only the pudding in a copious feast of Christmas dishes (although the "Christmas Carol's" bright rum-drenched blaze rightly remains the focal point of the meal).  In any one of those years, many an English family eagerly paid two shillings for the Christmas number of Dickens's current periodical, closed the doors and shutters against Winter's icy onslaught, sat around a glowing fire, and read aloud the latest story, which often featured a family taking refuge from Winter's icy onslaught and sitting around the fire glowing with familial love and Christmas cheer.  As natural as it seems to us now, Dickens practically invented this association of warmth, family, and cheer with Christmas and through his beautiful tales spread it around the English-speaking world; his description of the Ghost of Christmas Present shedding Christmas joy from a cornucopia was autobiographical.  When Dickens started his career, the Christmas card was virtually unknown; by the end of his career, the exchange of Christmas cards was as standard as it is today.

I'm in the middle of two of the Christmas stories right now: "The Haunted House" and "Tom Tiddler's Ground."  Neither has anything obvious to do with Yuletide; the first recounts the adventures of a couple who can't keep servants in the house because they keep hearing noises in the night, and the second tells of a man who has dropped out of society and everything that comes with it, including windows and bathing.  Why on earth did Dickens publish these stories in December, and how on earth did they contribute to the cultural pervasiveness of Christmas and the popularity of Christmas cards?  I believe at least part of the answer lies in the sounds of nighttime and solitude.

I haven't finished the first one, so I don't know if any actual ghosts show up; so far all the noises arise from interactions of wind and gutter.  The wind can blow in any of the twenty-four hours, of course, but the servants only hear the sounds at night.  These sounds, in conjunction with rumors about the house, raise in the servants' minds thoughts and even visions of spirits.  The second tale (a novella) contains a chapter about a girl left completely alone at her boarding school one day.  Kitty finds that she hears every tick of the clock, every click of her sewing needle.  Her loneliness leads briefly to false doubts about the affection of her friends and of her father, but Kitty then makes inspection of her soul and discovers different thoughts both happy and true.  Each story reminds us that certain hushed circumstances heighten both our sense of hearing and our awareness of the spiritual: ghosts in the one and love in the other.

Darkness, winter air, and a blanket of snow provide another such set of circumstances.  The silence amplifies every rustling bird wing, every snap of a frozen twig, every drip from a pendulous icicle.  But the experience, especially to a lone observer, is spiritually awakening as well.  Every crunching step through the crystal crust seems a violation of the sacred.  Of course, December 25 is a cultural convention, and of course cold air and abundant darkness on that date come from an accident of geography and cosmic mechanics.  Christmas is warm and sunny in Sydney.  But we work with what we have, and Dickens confronts his readers again and again with these scenes of solitude, silence, and snow to remind us that numinous encounters can and should happen at Christmas.

To address a spiritual crisis I experienced one winter a few years ago, I listened for months to the same piece over and over in the car: Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium." The CD offered this translation of the text:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia! Lord, I heard your call and was afraid.
I considered your works, and I trembled between two animals.
When I think about that last line, I imagine myself a blessed goat in the cave on that blessed night.  When I look at a creche, a gaily lit tree, or a Dickens Christmas story, the noises disappear, a sacred hush settles on the world around me, the Word of God suddenly becomes audible and clear, and I tremble.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Increase Your Word Power with Dickens

Reader's Digest used to have (maybe it still does) a vocabulary quiz each month called "Increase Your Word Power."  Any time I read an issue, I always take the quiz, always do well, and almost always learn a new word.  I like sesquipedalian words and have a proclivity for learning them.  That dilatory sentence had two; I hope their inclusion has not given this post a prematurely soporific effect.

I have learned many words from Charles Dickens over the years; I keep a list that currently stands at 127.  Dombey and Son proved a veritable catalog of this vocabulary and renewed my joy for the words.  Some of these words I now notice in general (if infrequent) use: assuage, diurnal, mollify, and voracious, for instance.  But others I still associate only with Dickens, and because I like to use them, some of my friends associate them only with me.  Here's a matching quiz on some favorites:

a. large; roomy
b. fawning; falsely agreeable and complimentary
c. commandingly loud (said of a voice)
d. an expression of warm praise
e. cheerful eagerness
f. a fit or attack of bodily symptoms
g. intensive study
h. wise
i. obnoxiously ill-behaved
j. shame

___ alacrity
___ capacious
___ encomium
___ ignominy
___ lucubration
___ obsequious
___ obstreperous
___ paroxysm
___ sagacious
___ stentorian

e, a, d, j, g, b, i, f, h, c

Why does Dickens use these words?  Why not just say "wise" rather than "sagacious"?  I can think of three reasons.  First, both the length and the rarity of the words seem to intensify their meanings.  A sagacious person sounds much more wise than a wise person.  "Capacious" is a bigger word than "big" or "large" or "roomy," so it sounds bigger.  Imagine a misbehaving boy.  Which sounds more expressive of your reaction: "You bad child" or "You obstreperous child"?  And "ignominy" is such an awkward word, it hardly looks like English at all. Where is the accent?  Does it really only have one n near the end?  The word is so misshapen, it surely feels shame in the company of the other words in the sentence and therefore expresses more shame.

Second, these words almost always appear in the narration, not in dialog, and Dickens often uses the tone ironically.  Captain Cuttle, who views all problems as nautical issues, is called sagacious.  What can this mean but that Captain Cuttle is not the quintessential wise philosopher or ethical guide?  His simple remedies are almost always invaluable, though, and the narrator's affection for the kind-hearted mariner shows through the word "sagacious" in a way that "wise" could not match.  When little Paul Dombey's schoolmates see his pretty sister, Florence, the narrator tells us they heap encomiums on her.  Again, the word is funny because we know the eight-year-olds' compliments are not eloquent or original enough to deserve the high-toned word.  And yet, doesn't the use of the word suggest that Florence herself would deserve every poetic praise of the most passionate adult admirer?

Third, I imagine that Dickens enjoyed the words even more than I do and just couldn't resist using them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Happiness with Aquinas

"Why are you holding that pencil?" I ask a student.  "To take notes," she replies.  "Why do you take notes?"  "So I can learn better."  "Why do you want to learn these things?"  "To do well on the test."  (*sigh*)  "Why do you want to do well on the test?"  "To pass the class."  "Why do you want to pass the class?"  "To get a degree."  "Why do you want a degree?"  "To make money."  Yes, money always finds its way into this process.  In any case, I cut to the chase: "You wouldn't take up the pencil unless you wanted to take notes, and you wouldn't have taken notes unless you wanted to learn.  Every reason you've given for an action supposes a prior reason.  But that chain of reasoning can't go on forever, or you would never act from will at all.  You must have an ultimate desire.  Philosophers have long acknowledged this ultimate goal as Happiness, although they have not always agreed on what Happiness is.  But whatever it is, no one ever says, 'I want to be happy because I want to use happiness as a means to this other desire.' "

At the beginning of "Part I of the Second Part" (otherwise known as I-II) of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, after rehearsing this argument from infinite regression, defines and analyzes Happiness in a beautiful, pleasant, and useful way.  Happiness cannot consist of wealth, honor, fame, or power, he points out, for these are fleeting, do not always relieve care, and can be found in evil men as well as good.  Neither does Happiness for man lie in bodily good; we are more than bodies.  Happiness is held in the soul, but the object of Happiness must be outside the soul, greater than ourselves, nothing less in fact than the Universal Good.  Now we may not understand what the Universal Good is (indeed, we don't), so we miss the mark often through mere ignorance.  We can identify the Universal Good as God, but we still don't know exactly Who He is (although reading the first part of the S. T. will get you a little closer!).  We can have imperfect Happiness here by knowing Him as well as we can know Him, but perfect Happiness requires seeing his Essence and resting or delighting in that vision.

The distinction between the knowledge and the delight is important in Aquinas's view.  The first is an act of the intellect, the second an act of the will.  The first is directed outside ourselves to God; the second is an internal pleasure.  Because God Is Who He Is, Happiness as the Object of our Vision is the same for every blessed soul who sees Him.  But our Happiness, as the internal delight, can differ even in Heaven; the "extent" of our delight can differ depending on, he says, our resurrected bodies and the number of friends we have with which to share it.

Aquinas's distinction between knowing God and delighting in Him seems to solve some riddles.  Where some eastern religions teach that enlightenment or Nirvana annihilates individuality, Christianity has always valued individuality.  But how can we all reach the same goal and remain unique?  Aquinas's view provides a way for unity of Heavenly worship without uniformity of worshipers.  I should like to think that the extent of our delight will differ also depending on our knowledge of what He has saved us from, what tasks He has equipped us for, and the name He writes for each of us on a white stone.

Near the end of this treatise on Happiness, Aquinas says that, while sanctifying grace is given without previous works, works must precede final Happiness.  Man was designed to move toward Happiness; only God has no need to move toward Happiness, for with Him, Being is Happiness.  The temporal move to Happiness requires a right will, so it requires works that flow from that good will.  "God is at work in you both to will and to do his good pleasure."  Ultimately, the best reason to take those notes is that God wants you to study those things.

Why am I writing this blog?

Why are you reading it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Half a Plan for 2011

I've finished my reading plan for 2010 (except for the Dickens Christmas stories), and I've bought all my books for next year.  So now it's time to start working on the calendar for 2011.

I always want to have two books going at once, so to make the calendar, I first divide the books on my list into two categories: (1) things that work best with a disciplined plan of a few pages a day, and (2) novels and other books that I think I can read in longer stretches whenever I find time.  Then I count the pages in the first category and start a calendar.  This morning I finished that first half of the calendar, and here's the basic outline (more detail on selections is found under the tab marked "The List": 2011 is year 5, so I'll read selection no. 5 in each category on the list):

The year starts with Greek plays: three hilarious romps by Aristophanes and Euripides' Medea.  Even Medea is a little silly, so this group should make for a fun beginning.  But then the work begins, with Plato; much of this year's selection is new to me, and I'll take time for careful notes.  Next is a selection of Buddhist scriptures from the old Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Classics, and then a month of more note-taking with Aristotle's Topics and Politics.

I have learned to divide the Aquinas reading each year, and I know Hegel is going to be dense, so I decided to split him up as well.  Between these two heavy philosophical sessions, I'll go through more wars and Roman expansion with books 6-10 of Livy's history.  Then comes Calvin, and then Euclid, whose theorems make up the year's last of the selections I take systematic notes on.

I should take systematic notes on Kant, but I'm never sure I know what any given day's six pages mean.  In any case, his is the last difficult read of the year.  I think I'll enjoy Spengler, and I know I'll walk through Plutarch, Durant, Augustine, Boswell, and James with a spring in my step.  I always save these tried, comfortable favorites to read during my busy fall semester.

The full 2011 calendar will go up soon under a new tab.  But for now, here's the schedule for this half of the plan.  Again, detail on each selection is found under "The List" next to each (5).

(1)   Greek plays: 1/3-1/14
(2)   Plato: 1/17-2/1
(3)   Buddhist: 2/2-2/15
(4)   Aristotle: 2/16-3/17
(5)   Hegel I: 3/18-4/5
(6)   Aquinas I: 4/6-4/22
(7)   Livy: 4/25-5/20
(8)   Hegel II: 5/23-6/8
(9)   Aquinas II: 6/9-6/27
(10) Calvin: 6/28-7/11
(11) Euclid: 7/12-7/20
(12) Kant: 7/21-8/1
(13) Spengler: 8/2-9/6
(14) Plutarch: 9/7-9/30
(15) Durant: 10/3-10/31
(16) Augustine: 11/1-11/17
(17) Boswell: 11/18-12/1
(18) James: 12/2-12/14

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sitting at the Feet of Indian Masters

The journey through sacred writings of various religions takes the reader across many types of terrain.  He finds stories and parables, prayers and dialogs, visions and moral advice, instruction in piety, and teaching about the ultimate nature of existence.  He finds the miraculous and the mundane, the promising and the perplexing, the insipid and the inspiring.

Earlier in 2010, I read two Penguin collections of Hindu scripture: the first containing 108 passages of the Rig Veda, and the second passages from the earliest and most revered of the Upanishads.  I found all of it fascinating, most of it beautiful, and some of it quite inspiring indeed.

The Rig Veda, written approximately 3,000 years ago, contains hymns to the gods and songs to be sung during rituals.  Its circular metaphors (which is the meaning, and which is the message?) link the world and an egg, milk and rain, the sun and cows, and move the reader to see patterns and connections everywhere.  Its inclusion of so many gods and rituals urge the reader to treat every moment as sacred.  I was reminded of a passage from Walden in which Thoreau takes a dead branch from the woods and puts it in his fire in the cabin because, he said, it had served the god Terminus long enough and must now serve Vulcan.  Whether worshiping many gods or only One, we should all learn to wonder more regularly at the miracles of wood, fire, rain, breath, perception, memory, and life.

While the Rig Veda points to the sacred in the many, the Upanishads (written about 500 B.C.) show the many subsumed in the sacred, teaching that the panoply of the world is created and guided by one holy spirit, Brahman:

  • "God upholds the oneness of this universe: the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal.  The soul of man is bound by pleasure and pain; but when she sees God she is free from all fetters."
  • "Matter in time passes away, but God is for ever in Eternity, and he rules both matter and soul."
  • "When a man knows God, he is free."
  • "He rules over the sources of creation.  From him comes the universe and unto him it returns.  He is the Lord, the giver of blessings, the one God of our adoration, in whom there is perfect peace."
The Christian can sing all of these verses sincerely, so devoted are they to the one all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator.  Of course, the Christian must give up singing (or give up sincerity, or his Christianity) when he gets to verses teaching him that his true self, his Atman, is God, that Brahman is in all things and is all things.

Reading these two books of Hindu scripture has added depth to my view of the Hebrew Psalms.  It is so easy to get used to the Psalms and fly the eyes or lips over their words thinking something like, "Bible language, Bible language, good things, happiness, Bible language, war, tears, Bible language, God, Bible language."  The last few months, the Psalms have appeared to me not only as the Word of God given to people, but as the words of people seeing God in the storm, in the battle, in the sea, in the stars, and in the feeling of guilt after a sin, and trying to convey the mystery.

Reading these books has also given me new appreciation for the miracle of creation as taught in the Bible.  God gave to his thoughts existence -- existence depending on but separate from his own existence.  How marvelous to contemplate thankfully the knowledge that all things were made by Him, that all things are sustained by Him, that all things exist for his pleasure, that all things point to Him, and that all these things are not Him.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saluting Captain Cuttle

I place one of the brightest highlights of each year's list in the early, winter months: a Dickens novel.  Although I know it might be wise to delay gratification and save Dickens for dessert, as a reward for getting through tough philosophy and bleak twentieth-century works, I use him as a palate cleanser instead.  The searching, numbing cold of his fogs and the restorative, glowing warmth of his hearths, the deep, rich colors of his prose, and the full, romantic symphony orchestra of his casts of characters bring me comfort and joy like no other novels do.

Like LOST's Desmond Hume, I love every word the Great Man ever wrote.  Unlike Desmond, I didn't save one novel to be the last book I ever read.  I started rereading all the Dickens novels a few years ago, starting with Pickwick, and in 2010, I made it to Dombey and Son, an unjustly forgotten classic.  I could write a year's worth of posts on the glories of this book, but for now, let me just sing in praise of one of the Great Man's greatest comic inventions: Captain Edward Cuttle.

First of all, how perfect is the name "Cuttle" for a good-hearted, bulbous-nosed mariner who has left the sea but not its ways and its cant?  "Stand by!" he says, and "Fetch up with a wet sail!"  The not-quite-omniscient narrator does not know what Cuttle was captain of: we're told that he "had been a pilot, or a skipper, or a privateersman, or all three perhaps."  On his head, he sports a "glazed" hat -- glazed, the reader is left to suppose, with the sweat, dirt, grease, tar, and salt water of decades.  In the place of his right hand is a hook, and with this hook Ned Cuttle unselfconsciously salutes his social superiors, combs his hair, touches his lips to signal silence, and lifts ladies' hands to kiss (it is uncertain whether the shock that generally ensues comes more from the hook or from the impertinence).

Besides the hat and the hook, Captain Cuttle's possessions consist of a watch, two teaspoons, and a set of sugar-tongs.  All sailors depend on reliable timepieces; "Put it back half an hour every morning," the Captain says, "and about another quarter towards the arternoon, and it's a watch that'll do you credit."  The teaspoons and sugar-tongs he is ready to pawn in order to save his friend Sol Gills from ruin; surely his precious treasures will bring in enough to keep Gills's shop in business!

But what Captain Cuttle does not realize is that his courageous, generous heart is his most precious asset.  He is afraid of no man (although the appearance -- or even potential appearance -- of Mrs MacStinger, his former landlady at Number nine Brig Place, sends him cowering in the shadows).  And he will do anything to help and protect young Florence Dombey, whom he calls "my beauty" and "Heart's Delight"; he even cheerfully assists the much younger men whose hearts also take delight in Florence.

Captain Cuttle's most endearing habit involves prodigious demonstrations of his mastery of civilization's foundational literature.  "Wal'r," he says to Sol Gills's nephew, "Look at him!  Love!  Honour!  And Obey!  Overhaul your catechism till you find that passage, and when found turn the leaf down."  Captain Cuttle himself has not read (or heard) the catechism (or the wedding service from the Prayer Book) in many a turn of the glass, but he quotes from memory as a model and counsels his young friends to laborious lives of moral scholarship.  "In the Proverbs of Solomon," he promises, "you will find the following words, 'May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!'  When found, make a note of."  Captain Cuttle urges his friends to overhaul Doctor Watts, Rule Britannia, and Stanfell's Budget: any work which shines light on the path of youth.  And speaking of teaching the young, the good Captain quotes, "Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it.  Overhaul the -- Well, I ain't quite certain where that's to be found, but when found, make a note of."

Captain Ned Cuttle, I do not have a hook, but I have a crooked hand, and I raise it to salute you!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why Does Aristotle Keep Moving?

Every once in a while, someone actually taught me something in high school.  Don't get me wrong: I learned a lot of math, I learned that  Volts x Amps = Watts, and of course I learned useful, interesting things every day in Mr. Ammerman's music theory class.  But these facts, formulas, and patterns I could have learned from a book.  I'm talking about thought-provoking lessons about life and connections between ideas.  Lessons of this kind came so rarely, my memories of them twinkle like stars against the sable blanket of public-school night.  My health teacher taught me, for instance, that television commercials are carefully worded so as to seem to promise more than they actually do; that lesson nurtured an analytical eye that continues to serve me today.

One of these rare lessons seized my interest by its immense scope and all-explaining power.  For centuries, one teacher told me, western culture believed Aristotle just because he was an authority.  They passed his ideas down from generation to generation, never thinking to test the ideas for themselves.  Then one day we invented the Scientific Method.  Aristotle's theories were tested and found to be crazy!  The collective shoulder of the West shrugged off the degrading burden of Authority, we spread our wings, and climbed the exalting zephyr of Reason and Experiment.

Wow!  Aristotle taught that a heavy ball fell faster than a light one.  How much happier we are now that Galileo showed that the balls drop at the same speed!  (Never mind that we learned later that the heavy ball actually does fall infinitesimally faster than the other.)

Another day, I learned that Aristotle believed that an arrow continues to fly after it leaves the string because the air pushed aside from in front of the arrow rushes back in behind it and gives it a shove.  How much better life is now that we know to credit Inertia instead!  The sky is bluer, the flowers sweeter knowing that Aristotle was wrong.  How could people have been so foolish as to believe him on Authority?  Isn't Reason grand?

These ideas truly inspired me.  History made some sense, and I felt happy and privileged to be living in the Age of Progress.  But I had learned about this comic fellow Aristotle twice, and I had it in the back of my mind that I would read some of his writings someday just for a laugh.

In 1988, I finally got around to reading Aristotle and found out that the old crackpot was actually brilliant.  He thought clearly and deeply about and wrote systematically about almost everything he came across in the world: logic, the psychology of perception and learning, effective speaking and writing, life and death, material nature, immaterial nature, the heavens, the weather, emotions, how we should live, and how different types of governments work.  Was he right about everything?  No, but then his predecessors debated whether the world was all made of fire or of water.  Aristotle's body of writings constitutes one of the premier intellectual achievements in all of history.

This year I read his Physics and found some amazing things.  For instance, in bk. IV, ch. 8, Aristotle says that in a void "a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way."  This sounds suspiciously like inertia to me.  And in the last chapter of bk. VIII, he says that the theory of air replacement is not sufficient to explain the continued motion of a thrown object: the flying stone or arrow also has a principle of motion within itself.

Of course Aristotle's science all needed refinement and correction.  And of course I acknowledge the value of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and others.  But it occurs to me now that in giving me that simplified view of history, my teachers made an ironic mistake and inadvertently taught me yet another lesson.  For they were passing down a faulty story about Aristotle that they accepted on authority, without checking it for themselves.  It seems our culture hadn't cast off authority after all.  We, like all generations before us, learn by observation, trial, reason, and authority.  The methods and emphases change, and our collective knowledge indeed grows, but these four remain.

So, yes, Aristotle's ideas are only partly true, but I have learned a lot from him.  And my teachers' history lessons were only partly true, but I have learned a lot from them, as well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Character of the Nation

Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War have fascinated me for almost as long as I remember.  Somewhere around 1966, my parents took me to Springfield, Illinois, and I remember buying at least one book on Lincoln and reading it then.  The interest has grown as I have.  I've paid all the usual dues: visited several battlefields, visited Ford's Theater, watched the Ken Burns film more than once.  And for quite a while now, I've read something about Lincoln or the Civil War each year.  The profundity of the monumental events, ideas, emotions, and consequences of this story seem to inspire good writing, and the best works take the reader through a sublime experience that puts just about everything into perspective: family, God, government, love, duty, gender, race, money, land, technology, comfort, health, organization, life, death.

In July of this year, I reread Bruce Catton's Glory Road, the second of three books in his history of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war.  It was the first adult book I ever read about the war.  I remember taking it to the high school to work as a substitute teacher when I was about twenty.  A few pages during lunch or planning hour would tell me of young men killing and dying for principles or for their friends or for a few dollars, and then I would watch, with my mind in that epic place, as young people walked into the room generally not caring about much except the relief of not seeing their regular teacher.

Catton's poetic writing can break the reader's heart.  These are not the books to read if you want to know all the details of place, person, and time during major battles.  The battles are there: this volume tells about Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the grandest of them all, Gettysburg.  But Catton uses these stories to teach lessons about the Army, the country, and the human condition.  The book begins, for instance, with the observations of a Pennsylvanian chaplain home on furlough, who noted that the town of York had grown and prospered in spite of the constant flow of men and money to the front in Virginia.  War, as a mother of necessity, is a grandmother of invention, and mass-production factories had risen up to bless her.

Later in the book, in the prelude to Gettysburg, Catton tells about the Union V Corps marching towards the town.  Less interested in directions, supplies, and strategy than in the interaction between the army and the locals, he writes this:

     "There was the long white road in the moonlight, with the small-town girls laughing and crying in the shadows, and the swaying ranks of young men waving to them and moving on past them.  To these girls who had been nowhere and who had all their lives before them this was the first of all the roads of the earth, and to many of the young men who marched off under the moon it was the last of all the roads.  For all of them, boys and girls alike, it led to unutterable mystery.  The column passed on through the town and the music stopped and the flags were put back in their casings, and the men went marching on and on."

Catton makes the road so much more than a road.  It is life and fate.  The whiteness of the road comes from the moonlight but also invokes both the purity of the wedding gown and the pallor of the dead soldier's face.

Lee and Lincoln, Pickett and Grant all make their appearances.  But the main characters of Catton's story are the Army of the Potomac itself and the Nation as a whole.  Having learned it can survive the costly stupidity of Fredericksburg and endless changes of command, the Army acquires, in time for the decisive battle in Pennsylvania, self-confidence and a grim determination. And the United States, through the centralization of government (the draft ended states' rights in the north), the rise of mechanism and the railroads, and the passage of the Homestead Act, begins to accept the idea of a modern state, even though it be bought at the price of the blood of a generation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hardening and the Dark Night

Every year of my ten-year reading plan contains -- in addition to passages from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Lewis -- at least two other Christian classics.  Earlier in this year (the fourth of the plan) I read Origen's On First Principles and John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul.

Neither Origen's work nor his reputation is easy to understand.  He is both a Church Father and a heretic; in other words, his teachings (from the third century) are both revered and suspect.  I think the early Church declared his belief in a potential universalism (the doctrine that all rational creatures, even demons, may eventually be reunited to God) anathema, but I'm not sure.  In any case, I found his work full of both useful and weird ideas.

The systematic nature of On First Principles surprised me: the Trinity, angels, creation, the end of the world, and salvation are all treated in order here.  In other words, Origen outlines the structure of existing things and of the plan of time.  I didn't realize such a work existed before early medieval works by Augustine and Boethius, for instance.  His teaching that temptations can come from wrong ideas, amoral bodily desires, or direct demonic suggestion corresponds with the traditional phrase "deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil" (found, for instance, in the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer) as well as with the three temptations Satan offered to Christ in the wilderness.

His ideas on free will get pretty strange, though.  Taking "God is no respecter of persons" as a bottom line, Origen believes all differences between people must arise from merit.  "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" can only be explained by acts committed in a previous (unembodied?) life by these two.  On the other hand, he says, God continues to work for the good of every soul.  Even the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was temporary and for his good; who knows how Pharaoh ultimately responded to all the miracles and the safe exodus of the Hebrews?

The sixteenth-century work by John of the Cross, also speculative, seems less bizarre than Origen's.  John wrote his treatise to encourage people he counseled who all seemed to go through the same problem: at some point in the progress of their Christian life, they lost joy in worship.  John teaches that God gives us this dark night of the soul in order to take our hearts off the things of worship -- the building, the music, the candles, the decorations, the language of the prayers -- and fix them on Himself.  Christians who go through the experience, he found, come out of it having a more mystical relationship with God, that is, a devotion to God steadier than before but less able to be put into words.  What is not in our senses, he says, Satan does not know, so he cannot hinder this progress in the inner realm.

One of the niftiest ideas in the book has to do with the transformation of our minds.  John of the Cross holds a classical view of three faculties of the mind: understanding, memory, and will.  Each of the three Christian virtues corresponds to and renews one of those faculties.  Faith, teaching us right doctrine and giving us belief in it, overcomes our human understanding.  Hope, pointing us to the future, overturns our dependence on memory.  And love, placing the desires of God's heart into our own, directs our will.

Both authors talk about painful experiences God puts people through for their greater good: a hardening in one case, and a dark night in another.  The encouraging ideas of these two books came at the right time for me.  It's been a rough year, one in which the things of worship, especially music, have been less joyful than usual.  Something similar happened about nine years ago, and I did not react well then.  This time I'm much more at rest in the knowledge that He provides for me.  Besides Himself, and other things I can't put into words, his provision includes the right reading plan devised four years ago, a counselor's advice written four-hundred years ago, and a systematic theology written seventeen-hundred years ago.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Just a couple of days ago, I finished my reading plan for 2010.  Or almost.  I have a few Dickens Christmas stories that I'm saving for December.  But as the days get shorter and cooler, I'm already working on the schedule for next year's books, and I'm starting to go back through my notes to review what I read over the course of the last ten months.

Back before the long, hot days, back at the beginning of January, I reread The Iliad.  This beautiful poem provides the centerpiece, of course, for one of the greatest epic tales ever told: tens of thousands of men sail across the sea to fight for ten years to win back the most beautiful woman in the world, only to find she wasn't worth fighting for.  I love to think of Homer, whoever he was (or whoever they were), sitting by the fire with his harp enchanting his listeners with his woeful saga.  If his Greek audience thought the story would establish their superiority over all other rivals, they were sorely disappointed.  The leading Greek hero, Achilles, spends most of the poem angry about a girl, while all the listener's sympathy is drawn to the doomed Trojan hero, Hector.  (As Chesterton points out somewhere, the superiority of the Trojan is seen in the comparative popularity of the two names over the last 2500 years.)  As foreign and distant as some of scenes seem, Hector's poignant farewell to his wife and son is as familiar as the conversation you had yesterday.

It is so grim, though, this picture of cruel, senseless life, shaped fatefully by cruel, senseless gods, leaving men no choice but to worship them and then make good in spite of the gods.  The best they can do is embrace the most grievous divine decree – war – and show courage and take honor in it.  Every torn and bruised limb, every broken skull, matted and encrusted in dark red, declares to the residents of Olympus: "I did not stay in my tent sulking over a slave girl.  I did not cower in fear.  I looked your pitiless decree in the face and crushed it in the dust with the power of my last heartbeat.  I was better than a god.  I was a man."

For Homer's men are indeed more virtuous than his gods.  It's easy to dismiss the Greeks' religion with its petty, vindictive, fickle gods.  Socrates and Plato seem to have dismissed it, or at least to have held it at arm's length, and the heavens declared a much more reasonable God to Aristotle.  The temptation for the Christian is especially strong: how could the Greeks not see, one might ask, that God is One and Good, that the problems of life stem from human weakness and sin, not divine bickering?

But at least two considerations should prevent the Christian from answering this question too quickly.  On the one hand, the Greeks' religion wasn't all that impotent.  The ancient Greeks tried to address all the great dilemmas of the world: fate and free will, chaos and order, beauty and death, goodness and evil.  These conflicts keep the world from making total sense, and yet we can't help thinking that it must all mean something. The gods, they reasoned, must be crazy -- or at least flawed in familiar, human ways.

On the other hand, the Christian doesn't have clear, simple solutions to these problems, either.  The book of Job, the book of Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms (number 90, for instance) all tell us that we just have to trust God while we watch evil and death happen.  After teaching that time and chance happen to all and that sinners, saints, and animals all go to the same breathless death, Solomon cannot give us reasons.  He can only say that God has made the world in such a way that man cannot find out what He does.  The wise king concludes his book with simple advice to fear God, keep his commandments, and look in hope for his righteous judgment.  And herein lies a great difference between the Christian religion and the ancient Greek religion: the Christian can trust in God's righteousness, even though he doesn't understand it.  I'm grateful for both sides of that coin: if either the ruler of the universe were unrighteous or I could comprehend him, then I, like Hector or Ajax, could be greater than god.  But I would rather be humbled by Jehovah than be better than Zeus.

Friday, November 5, 2010

History's Mysteries

At Saratoga battlefield a few weeks ago, my family saw a monument erected to "the bravest officer of the Continental Army," but no name was given.  What war hero deserves a monument but cannot be named?  The tour pamphlet explained that the monument celebrated Benedict Arnold.  Everyone knows he was a traitor, but the details of Arnold's history are hard to find.  He didn't show up at all in the American history books I studied in school.  Was he again unnamable because of his perfidy, or had his story just become too insignificant to compete for space with the succeeding two centuries of events?  I tried finding his story in American history textbooks from earlier in the twentieth century, but I only found lines like "Benedict Arnold's treachery did not seriously impede the American war effort."  These earlier books were written with the assumption that every reader would already know the story.

In a similar way, I've had a hard time learning some details of the history of England.  American authors, it seems, generally don't know enough to explain the details that intrigue me, and English authors know them too well to have to explain them.  For instance, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, somewhere around the end of the seventeenth century, Churchill starts talking about Whigs and Tories.  I knew these terms, but I didn't know what they meant, when they started, whether they represented organized parties or just general political inclinations, or what ideas either a Whig or Tory believed in.  Sir Winston simply assumed his readers understood (forgetting for just a moment that the English-speaking peoples include Americans).

Three years ago, I got Simon Schama's three-volume A History of Britain as part of a new-member package with the History Book Club.  Hoping to find a different perspective and more answers, I read the first two volumes soon after receiving them and loved the experience.  The set is full of beautiful illustrations: maps and charts, as well as photographs and reprints of locations, documents, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings.  The first two volumes tell interesting stories about monarchs, statesmen, clerics, authors, warriors, explorers, and builders, and they answered some of my questions.  Tories and Whigs, for instance, came about after the Glorious Revolution that put William II on the throne and represent the two responses to the turmoil of the seventeenth century monarchy, Whigs favoring Parliament, the commercial classes, and several Protestant denominations, and Tories favoring the Crown, the landed classes, and the established Anglican Church.

I just got to the third volume recently, though, and I'm finding it much less satisfying.  I can buy his desire to let the Napoleonic Wars serve merely as background to the story he really wants to tell: the history of liberalism.  But does he really think Mary Wollstonecraft's hunt for a menage á trois plays a role in the drama comparable to that of Catholic emancipation, increased suffrage, and the end of slavery?  Apparently, considering the number of pages he devotes to it.

What I've read the last couple of days about the Great Exposition and the debates of the Victorian Era is much better.  The tensions between progress and the revival of the good old days of Merrie Olde England, between labor and capital, between helping the poor through philanthropy and helping the poor through business, and between industrial efficiency and the health of workers and their families all seem central to that story as well as being pertinent to today's America -- even to Tuesday's elections.

By the way, Benedict Arnold's story is readily available on the internet today.  But in pre-www days, I finally found out more about him in two unjustly forgotten novels by Kenneth Roberts: Arundel and Rabble at Arms.  I'll have to get back to Roberts in my next ten-year reading plan.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where Books Come From These Days

I just finished ordering the last book I need for next year's list.  By the luck of the draw, I needed to buy an unusually high number: ten books.  Most years I have to buy only about five.  Of course, I could get almost all of them from the University library, but I like to have them in the house.  I like to look at them over the course of the weeks and months and think about reading them.  I like to have them ready when the day comes to start them.  And I like being able to mark in them if I want to without feeling bad about it.

I own most of the books on my list already.  The Greek plays, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Euclid, Kant, Shakespeare, Boswell, and James are all in the Britannica set.  I've bought all the Lewis books over the years, and I have a copy of Calvin and of Boccaccio.  Of course, I've spent a lot of time in used books stores: my favorites are the Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City and the Cranbury Bookworm in Cranbury, NJ.  I got the whole Durant set for free once for joining the Book of the Month club.  I have a whole shelf of Chesterton from Ignatius Press.  They've been working gradually on publishing his complete works, and I once subscribed to the project, but I only received one volume from that agreement.  Most of them I just ordered.  I have multiple copies of most of Dickens's novels; a couple of years ago I got a bunch of them as Oxford paperbacks in return for doing a prepublication book review for Oxford Press.  The Oxford Classics always have a scholar's introduction and lots of notes (which are usually really helpful).

But I still needed quite a few books for next year.  So where do I get them all?

1) Become a member, and other members will send you books for free.  To get credit for more books, you post books you want to get rid of and agree to pay the postage when other members request your books. A typical paperback book costs $2.17 to mail.  So you could say each free book you receive costs $2.17.

2) Once used bookstores started selling through Amazon, life got so much better!  I usually look for the cheapest price on a book in "very good" condition, and even with postage, I normally end up saving over 50% off the price of a new copy.  And sometimes you get bonuses.  I got a book once from Key West, and the seller had wrapped it in a map of the island.  I bought some used movies once from a place selling through Amazon, and they tossed in an episode of Poirot.

3) Alibris is another internet mall for used bookstores.  It seems to specialize in rare books, so while prices here are usually higher than they are on Amazon, they sometimes have books Amazon doesn't.

4) The Christian Classics Ethereal Library has all the Christian classics online for free.  I've read some of them online, but I also bought their CD, which has everything on it for not very much money.  I can read the CD on the computer or convert the files to read on the Kindle.  Which leads me to three places to download text files, html files, or Kindle-ready files of copyright-free books:


If you don't have a Kindle or Nook, you can still read books from these sites on your computer.  (I think you can read them on a smart phone, but I'm not smart enough to understand smart phones.) 

Here's a sample of what I got where for the 2011 list:
Livy: Project Gutenberg, free
Eusebius: Amazon, used and cheap
Hegel: alibris, used (about $25)
Morrison, Christ in Shakespeare: alibris, used (about $10)
Orlando Furioso: Amazon, used and very cheap
Wordsworth: Amazon, used and cheap
Spengler: Amazon, used and cheap
Blackmoor, Lorna Doone: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Thackeray, Henry Esmond: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Trollope, Doctor Thorne: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Waugh, Men at Arms:, $2.17
Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall:, free

If you have a few minutes right now, stop reading my blog, go to, and start reading something else!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Heart of Volition

I mentioned recently how excited I was about finding out what William James has to say on the diseases of the will.  James has not disappointed!  His view is interesting, helpful, compatible with the Bible, and -- as a result -- inspiring.  This later portion of the chapter on will strikes me as the heart of the whole book.

The will involves the positive and the negative: desires and inhibitions.  A healthy will balances these according to custom and wisdom, whereas a diseased will finds one or the other dominant.  James outlines two main diseases (or categories of disease) of the will: the explosive will and the obstructed will.  The first he sometimes calls "unchecked passion"; the second he once calls "sloth."  The first phrase reminds me of Biblical passages such as this in Titus: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world."  Of course,"sloth" carries Christian connotations because of its place as one of the seven deadly sins.

The Bible teaches us that knowing a law raises in us the temptation to break it: the story of the garden teaches it, and Paul's letters repeat the observation.  Our lives confirm this principle, and every episode of I Love Lucy depends on its truth.  James tells the story of a student who had a morbid, irrational temptation to throw himself out a window as a fellow student had done in order to commit suicide.  "Being a Catholic, he told his director, who said, 'All right! if you must, you must,' and added, 'Go ahead and do it,' thereby instantly quenching his desire.  This director," James says, "knew how to minister to a mind diseased."  He also knew, I think, Romans 7:7-8.

The "heart of our inquiry into volition," James says, is the understanding that effort of the will means "to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind."  Reading this reminds me of Paul saying, "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind," and "Remember the gospel by which you are saved, if you hold it fast."  Pay attention, says James, to the right things, even though your mind with its instincts and habits (the flesh, Biblically speaking?) keeps wanting to pay attention to the wrong things.  Very similarly, Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

James again: "What constitutes the difficulty, for a man laboring under an unwise passion, of acting as if the passion were unwise?  Certainly there is no physical difficulty.  It is as easy physically to avoid a fight as to begin one, to pocket one's money as to squander it on one's cupidities, to walk away from them as towards a coquette's door.  The difficulty is mental."  So, he says, we must make the effort to keep the wise end in mind at the expense of the unwise temptation that constantly begs for attention.  "Set your minds on things that are above," enjoins the Apostle, "not on things that are on earth."

James says that reasonable ideas will win over others ("Come, let us reason together," says the LORD through Isaiah) if we let them take hold, but first we have to give them a hearing.  "Passion's cue is always and everywhere to prevent their still small voice from being heard at all."  His wording invokes one Biblical phrase and makes me think of others -- of Solomon's Wisdom, for instance, crying in the streets and lamenting that no one listens.

Now, I'm not saying that the good Christian life is just a feat of psychology.  For one thing, I know the effort to keep the good, the just, the true, the wise, the beautiful at the center of my mind's attention requires the power of the Holy Spirit.  But I am saying that the old formula I learned as a kid, that Christianity is a matter of the heart and not the head, is a lot like saying that one half of the scissors is the important half.  The heart of the matter may be a matter of the heart, but just as the Son and Holy Spirit agree and work together for good, so must my mind and will.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A New Kind of Used Book

The main character in Annie Dillard's An American Childhood describes an interesting way of enjoying the library.  Before the days of computers, you'll remember, the back of every library book had a pocket that held a sign-out card.  A patron borrowing a book would pull out the card, sign the first open line, and trade it in at the desk for a date-due slip.  Dillard's character (whom I take to be a barely fictionalized version of Dillard herself) likes to pull down every book on some shelf and read the names on the cards.  In this way, she learns a little history of the book's life in her community: she sees how many people have taken the book out, how they write their names, how many times in a year the book gets checked out, and the like.  But she also learns about the people.  Sometimes she sees names of people she knows; sometimes she recognizes a name only from the cards in other books.  Either way she gets an idea of what books a given person likes and how much he reads.  For books that she likes, she contemplates the bond that links her to the other readers whose hands have cradled the book she now holds.

The days of the sign-out card are over.  But I enjoy owning and reading used books for a reason similar to Annie Dillard's.  I suppose the dearest object in my house is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities once owned by my dad.  It is my favorite book, but that copy of it is particularly special.  When I hold it and read it, I sense my dad as a teen-ager sitting beside me -- or actually inside me, reading with my eyes.  The flyleaf bears a diagonal stamp:

Board of Education

I like to think about how Dad got the book.  Did the school give it to him?  Did he borrow it and forget to bring it back (or "forget" to bring it back)?  Did he ever compare his time in school to Dr. Manette's stay in the Bastille?  (Why didn't I ask him these questions?!)

I also have an old volume of Tennyson with a hand-written inscription:

Flora H. Wanier
Carthage, Ill.
Merry Christmas

Flora fascinates me.  Did she write "Merry Christmas"?  Did she receive the book or give the book?  I know the owner must have enjoyed the book or at least respected its contents: inside the volume when I bought it was a clipped newspaper column defending Tennyson as worthy of enrollment with the very greatest of the English poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.  The column includes a recommended list of poems to read in three successive sittings, and I like to think that Flora took three evenings to read the three poems.  The column bears the signature "Prof. J. H. Gilmore."  I think this is Joseph Henry Gilmore (1834-1918), who taught logic and English at the University of Rochester and wrote the hymn "He Leadeth Me."  I like to think of Tennyson inspiring Gilmore, who inspired Flora, who inspires me.  But I couldn't think of this grand path of influence without the used book, the palpable thing that once lay in the hands of another and now lies in my hands.  That kind of human connection doesn't arise with a new book.  And it could never, ever happen with an electronic copy of a book.

Or so I thought.

Last week I read a Kindle edition of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines.  It was a bit of fluff to read while walking, but it came with the recommendation of no less than C. S. Lewis.  Imagine my surprise when I reached the 3% mark and found an underlined passage marked "5 highlighters."  I think it means that five other readers of the Kindle edition decided to underline that passage.  Do my highlights also get stored and counted by the master Kindle computer?  Will they show up on other people's Kindles if a few other readers also decide to highlight the same passage I did?  Who are the people who highlighted King Solomon's Mines?  When did they read the book?  I want to know so much more!  But for now, I only know that five readers responded to an urge to highlight this sentence.  Speaking admiringly of Royal Navy officers, Haggard's Allen Quatermain says, "I fancy it is just the wide seas and the breath of God's winds that wash their hearts and blow the bitterness out of their minds and make them what men ought to be."  Were they sailors who marked the passage?  Sailors' wives?  Non-sailing men who wished they were real men and now knew why they weren't?  Or were they just deconstructionists finding evidence to indict the language for preserving and promoting sexism?  (I'm hoping for option 3.)  I feel almost connected and definitely intrigued by the potential.

Two follow-ups on the previous post:
(1) I thoroughly enjoyed today's reading in James about diseases of the will.  A favorite passage involved the conflict between the impulse to serve a good cause and the caution that prevents us from doing something dangerous.  Both urges are strong, and either urge might win out, but our evaluations of the two possible outcomes are far from evenly balanced.  No coward, explains James, ever says, "After a difficult struggle, I finally overcame my heroism."
(2) I finished the post with a trilemma.  I had three desires and wondered which I would fulfill.  As it turns out, none of the three.  I got up and washed dishes.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Want" Is Such a Tricky Word

Two magnets rush toward each other only to hit a wall that lies between; they remain pressing against the wall.  Romeo and Juliet rush toward each other only to meet a wall that lies between; they soon look for a way around the wall.  The latter pair have demonstrated the presence of minds, entities capable of holding an end in view while seeking indirect ways of reaching that end.  That vivid illustration comes up early in chapter 1 of William James's masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, and typifies his knack for accessible analogies and examples. 

As it happens, William James and his talent for writing came up in something else I was reading the other day.  This other author in fact pointed out how much better a writer William was than his more famous brother Henry.  I couldn't agree more; while I revisit Henry only every decade or so, I enjoy a yearly meeting with William.  (My very first post, Suspense in the Hands of Henry James, says a little about obscurity in the more famous James's writing.)

Mortimer Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books set, pointed out once that the foundational books by the greatest minds tend to be accessible since they were generally addressed, by necessity, to laymen.  Lavoisier's book on chemistry comes readily to mind as an example.  The man who discovered hydrogen couldn't share his accomplishment with other experts in chemistry; there were no other experts.  His discovery changed the understanding of the elements and made every expert alchemist a novice in a totally new field.  While James's contributions weren't so revolutionary as Lavoisier's, his work speaks to the same audience: generally but not specially knowledgeable people willing to do a little work to educate themselves by means of a book.

So in chapter 26, "Will," James, making himself clear to the layman, locates human will in the familiar problem of the cold morning.  We want to get up, and we don't want to get up.  We think about getting out of bed, but our legs don't move.  Normally we think about what we want, and we do what's necessary, without any apparent effort of will.  I want food, for instance, and a fork with a piece of meat ends up in my mouth.  But waking up in bed on a cold morning presents a more complex situation--a situation with two conflicting ends in view: stay in bed and be warm, or be cold and start the day.  We have a myriad guiding principles, James tells us, some from instinct and some from acquired habit.  Some of these principles impel us toward goals (hunger, understanding the benefits of going to work, duty, etc.), and some inhibit us (ethical boundaries, knowledge of the pain touching the stove will cause, etc).  Several times a day two or more of these many principles come into conflict, and then we have to recognize, wrestle with, balance, set aside, or otherwise deal with the conflicts.  People with diseases of the will, he explains, have either impulsive desires that are unusually strong or inhibitors that are too weak and don't ever come to terms with conflict of the will.

I get excited when I read an explanation like this one of the will as a complex thing.  People sometimes ask me what I want, as if the question is simple, but I often answer, " 'Want' is such a tricky word."   At one level, I want several things.  But which option represents the lesser of two evils, or which is the greater of two goods?  The Christian has to recognize the complexity of the will.  We are told that a war is going on in our minds, that our will is being conformed to God's, that we do what we do not want, that we must control our desires and passions, and so on.  And this complexity seems obvious to me.  But apparently it's not obvious to everyone.  Plato, who was, shall we say, smarter than I, said that we always want the good, and that if we only know the right action, we will do it.  (So much of current educational theory is Platonic: just tell kids about the dangers of drugs, and they won't use them!)  He says it over and over, but I just can't see how it can be right.

One night in the '90s, I turned on a show I had never seen before: The Wonder Years.  About five minutes in, a junior-high English teacher (looking curiously a lot like my seventh-grade English teacher) asks young Kevin Arnold if he would like to be in the play.  While young Kevin twitches nervously and looks around the room, his adult self, twenty years older and remembering the story, tells the audience all the reasons he had for not being in the play.  Yet after this explanation, young Kevin looks at his teacher and says, "Sure."  I was so excited!  The show became one of my very favorites, partly because it shows an understanding of the will as a complex proposition.  The writers of The Wonder Years were smarter than Plato!

So William James also sees the complexity of the will, and again I'm excited.  After a slow start with this chapter last week (see the previous post), it has come alive to me.  I'm eager to read more tomorrow about diseases of the will.  When is the last time you talked with someone who could take that phrase seriously?  And yet we must if we understand that knowing the good doesn't mean that our will points directly to it without any competing desires or inhibitions.

I want to write more, and I want to return to my family, and I want to get ready for bed.  Which will I do?