instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, October 31, 2005

Controlling anger

Waiting in Joyful Hope offers a suggestion on getting rid of anger:
So what must we do to get rid of this anger? We must learn to forgive.

The first process is to make the decision to forgive, remembering that forgiveness is a decision not a feeling.

Once we have made that decision, we must remember all the things that have caused this need for forgiveness.

Then we must list all the other points that have been blessings from this person we need to forgive.

The next point is the most crucial of all, when anger surfaces, we must not bring the list of hurts to mind, but only the list of blessings, and then the anger will subside.
The wonderful prayer (from, I think, Happy Catholic), "God bless them and have mercy on me," also diminishes personal animosity. (As I wrote before, the antidote to hatred is humble prayer; asking for mercy is the gold standard of humility.)

We are, of course, obliged to pray for our enemies, an obligation that would seem to extend to those who aren't our enemies so much as people we flat don't like. It is, I find, a very liberating experience -- animosity and anger being what we're liberated from -- to simply pray that God give them the graces they need to fulfill God's will for them, without reminding God what His will for them is. That is, to pray, "Fill his heart with Your love," without adding, "so that he'll finally stop being such an idjit."

This isn't to say you can't know what another person, even an antagonist, truly needs, nor that you can never pray for a specific intention for them. It is to say, though, that you can be wrong about what another person, especially an antagonist, truly needs -- and so be asking God to give him a scorpion thinking it's a fish -- and that at least occasionally leaving the details to God is a good exercise in humility.



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Sunday, October 30, 2005

A responsive chord

Let me answer Jeff's comments on my post below in four notes.

First, of agreement: Yes, absolutely, absence of anger does not guarantee presence of virtue. In my first post on St. Thomas's treatment of anger (both the passion and the vice), I pointed out his teaching about the vice that is the opposite of anger, viz,
Anger may be understood in two ways. On one way, as a simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason: and thus without doubt lack of anger is a sin... On another way anger is taken for a movement of the sensitive appetite, which ... cannot be lacking altogether, unless the movement of the will be altogether lacking or weak. Consequently lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, even as the lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason.
Second, of qualification: Zealous anger (i.e., the good kind) is not an absolute or virtuous good, something desirable for its own sake. It is rather a useful good, something desired as the means to another good. In itself, anger is a desire to correct injustice and vice under arduous circumstances; what makes it useful is that, as a passion, it keeps us moving toward the correction of injustice and vice in circumstances where we might otherwise give up.

As a means to an end, zealous anger can only be rightly demanded of us -- which is to say, its absence can only be a sin -- when both the end is demanded of us and such anger is a necessary means. I would suggest that, quite often, people demand zealous anger of others (and justify it in themselves) when one or both conditions aren’t met.

The first condition can fail when a person has no particular duty to correct the particular injustice or vice -- as when on-line Catholics get all spun up over poor liturgy in a parish far, far away -- as well as when what provokes anger is not actually injustice or vice -- as when a bishop makes a licit but unpopular decision.

The second condition can fail when the first fails, when a person's duty is not arduous (for example, giving moral support to someone in a diocese far away who is trying to correct his parish's music director), and when a person can meet his duty without growing angry.

The ability to correct injustice and vice without growing angry (in the "movement of the sensitive appetite" sense) has been commended as ideal by spiritual directors throughout the history of the Church.

A third note, of contrariety: I don't find "70% less evil than the other leading brand" type arguments very persuasive, and that's what comments like, "I think they may be doing BETTER than most people who AREN'T getting twisted in a knot," amount to. Sin has enough apologists in the world, and it's no act of charity to excuse sin in another.

Furthermore, the anger I see expressed on the Internet is, I'd say far more often than not, quite simply not anything like what might result directly from "[p]eople who keep abortion in front of their eyes -- what it is in its nature -- and all the disgusting excuses and prevarications engaged in by all sorts of people who ought to know better."

It's a metastasized anger, a reflexive hatred, a habitual posture of derision and spite directed at whatever doesn't meet someone's personal standards.

It's certainly possible that such habits, in any particular person, developed from zealous anger directed against real, radical evil. It's also possible they didn't. In any case, it doesn't much matter.

Fourth, of justification: I've been involved in on-line discussions on Catholicism for nearly fifteen years. In all that time, anger has been a ubiquitous feature. I am not, let me be clear, speaking of anger at abortion or child abuse, or at indifference to these grave evils. I am speaking of anger -- of sullenness and ill-will, and of hatred and derision directed at fellow Catholics -- over things like hymn selection, and whether a priest says "Good morning" at the beginning of Mass.

Faced with this anger, I have at times joined in; at others, reacted with an equal and opposite anger. Often I am still bemused and befuddled by it. Long ago, I learned it was best to ignore it whenever possible.

I stand by what I wrote in that post almost three months ago:
If you don't understand anger, you don't understand a lot of what goes on between people, including between Catholics discussing their Church.
I, of course, am one of those Catholics who discuss their Church, one who finds anger in the words of others and within my own heart.

So no, I don't accept "it's a bit much if we start lecturing them about how terribly they are missing their calling, etc., etc., how dreadful their failings are, and so on," as a relevant criticism of my posts on this subject, nor that they particularly contribute to the tendency of "marginalizing our consciousness of depravity and evil." If anything, I would say they heighten our consciousness of depravity and evil, by pointing out the ubiquitous depravity and evil of hatred and anger in the on-line conversations of Catholics.
Have we not all the one Father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?
Answering this last question is one of the things I am trying to do.



Friday, October 28, 2005

Diegos, Peters, and Arnolds

Peter of Vaux-de-Cernai was a Thirteenth Century Cistercian monk who wrote a history of the Albigensians, including the following description of the work of the Spanish bishop Diego of Osma:
In the year of the Incarnate Word 1206 Diego, Bishop of Osma, an eminent man worthy of renown, visited the Roman Curia with the intention of resigning his bishopric, so that he could be free to go among the pagans and preach the Gospel of Christ. But the Lord Pope Innocent was unwilling to grant the holy man's request and instead commanded him to return to his own see...

On his return journey from the Curia the Bishop of Osma reached Montpelier where he met the saintly Arnold, the abbot of Citeaux, as well as Brother Peter of Castelnau and Brother Ralph, Cistercian monks, all legates of the Apostolic See seeking to renounce the legacy enjoined upon them out of sheer discouragement, since they could attain nothing or hardly anything in preaching to the heretics. Whenever they began preaching to the heretics, the latter would taunt them with remarks about the scandalous lives of the clergy; so, if they wanted to correct the way of life among the clergy, they would have to give up their preaching.

The aforementioned bishop, however, offered them an effective solution to their dilemma by warning and counselling that, forgetting everything else, they should concentrate all their ardor on preaching. Moreover, to shut the mouths of their detractors, they should go forth humbly, doing and teaching according to the example of their Holy Master, go on foot without gold and silver, and thereby imitate the manner of the Apostles. However, since all this was something new, the above mentioned legates were not in favor of undertaking it by themselves. So they answered that if someone with due authority were willing to show them the way, they would gladly follow him. What else was there to do? The man of God offered himself, and soon, sending his carriages and his entire retinue to the city of Osma, he kept one companion and, with the two frequently mentioned legates, namely, the monks Peter and Ralph, he left Montpelier. The Cistercian abbot, however, returned to Citeaux, both because the general chapter of the Cistercians was to be held in the near future, and because, upon the completion of the chapter, he would return with some of the abbots of his Order who would help carry out the duties of preaching assigned to him.
In this story -- let's treat it as a parable, lest we do violence to the memories of holy men -- we have the figures of Diego; a bishop who could see what needed to be done and was prepared to do it himself; of Peter, a monk who would not do it himself, but was prepared to follow another; and of Arnold, who approved of Diego's way but attended to his own business first.

This story came to mind on reading a post at Sacramentum Vitae that identifies "a false sense of entitlement" among our bishops as a problem with the Church today.
...the solution is for bishops to do what all Christians are called to do, and begin to do, in baptism: conform themselves with the crucified Christ by dying to the old self. It should truly be said of each and every bishop what St. Paul said of himself: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Such an ideal is probably unattainable for many in this vale of tears; but a crucial step forward will have been made if the bishops understand what the ideal entails for them, value it above self-preservation, and strive accordingly. Only if the bishops as a whole take that step will the Church in this country be worth anybody else's taking seriously again.
Ah, but the bishops as a whole include Diegos, Peters, and Alberts; I would suggest they always have, and I would not be surprised if there have always been more Peters than Diegos, and more Alberts than Peters.

Any call for reform, then, should take this into account. As a rule, Albert will not become Diego, even if scolded. (Look to your own hearts for the truth of this, my fellow lay Alberts.) Odds are that any given person's bishop is not Diego, and the one after him won't be, either.

So as we pray for the reform of the Church, let's by all means pray for a miracle, but don't expect the one we get to be the straightforward, "the bishops get it" one.

As a matter of history, Peter, who remained with Diego, was martyred in 1208; he is now styled Bl. Peter of Castelnau, with a memorial on January 15. His death was the excuse for the crusade of the barons, more interested in gold than in God.

For his part, Arnold Arnaury of Citeaux rejoined the preaching field along with twelve other Cistercian abbots; they, with their companions, "came on foot without any display... in accordance with what they had heard about the Bishop of Osma." Their success was limited; as one report had it, "They reclaimed a small number; they instructed and confirmed in the faith the few Catholics whom they encountered." Within a year, the preaching had all but ended.

Not entirely, though. That "one companion" Bishop Diego kept when he sent the rest of his retinue on to Osma was, as you may know, the sub-prior of the canons of the Osma cathedral, Dominic de Guzman.

And Diego? He returned to Osma and died soon thereafter. He is remembered today largely as the MacGuffin that brought St. Dominic to Languedoc, which precipitated the founding of the Dominican Order.


An unquiet evil

Habitual anger is poison to the soul. If not countered by the antidote of humble prayer, it will surely lead to spiritual death.

Some, on hearing this, respond, "But we have good reason to be angry!"

No one would dispute that there is plenty going on today that could enkindle a zealous passion to correct injustice and vice. But where does that leave us? With good reason to do something that, if not countered by humble prayer, will surely lead to spiritual death.

This paradox can be resolved along two lines.

First, the action of another that constitutes our "good reason to be angry" is not really, by itself, a good reason to be angry. Such an action -- the injustice we desire to avenge -- is necessary to be justly angry, but it is not sufficient. Just anger must accord with reason, and the reason involved is not only, "This is a very bad thing!" but, "This is what I can do to correct it!" It is not in accord with reason to get angry at the burning of the Library of Alexandria, because that's an injustice that cannot now be avenged.

Even given an injustice that can still be avenged, the questions remain, "Can I avenge it?" "Can I avenge it in this way?" Only if the answers to these questions are yes is the anger that commits me to act in this way just.

The second line of resolution is the distinction between an act of anger and the habit of anger. I am not too concerned about individual acts of anger (my own aside); some aren't sinful, and those that are ... well, that's what the confessional is for (to say nothing of Matthew 7:3-5).

But the habit of anger is a different matter. The habit of anger is one of the Seven Capital Vices (a vice, remember, is simply an evil habit). Its daughters, per St. Gregory the Great, are quarreling, swelling of the mind, contumely, clamor, indignation and blasphemy. In my judgment, the habit of anger is a loudly sounded note of the Church in the United States at this time, and having its daughters running around freely makes it harder for the faithful to conform ourselves to Christ and to fulfill the Father's will for us in this life.

Moreover, too often this vice is regarded as a virtue. People fail to distinguish between necessary and sufficient causes to be virtuously angry. It's sort of the dual of the "ends justify means" argument, a "cause justifies means" argument that whatever I do must be good because I am responding to something clearly evil.

On top of that, they fail to see what habitual anger -- even and perhaps especially anger at true injustice -- does to a human soul, how it shrivels the heart and blinds the reason.

Many chemical solvents are poisonous, even corrosive. We know that, and we treat them with care. We store them appropriately, take them out only for a particular use, follow the directions on the label, clean up thoroughly, then return the solvents to safe storage when we're done. If we're not completely oblivious, we're well aware of what might happen if we get careless.

Yet there are those who pick up anger, as poisonous and corrosive to the soul as high molar acids are to the body, when they wake and never lay it down throughout the day. They clutch it tight as they fall asleep. What would we say to someone who slept with a bottle of concentrated sulfuric acid, who carried it about with him during the day in search of things to dissolve with it?



Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Church Tells its Own Story

In a comment below, Peter mentions Raphael's "Disputation on the Sacrament."

Fr. Timothy Verdon is working on a book on St. Peter's Basilica; an excerpt, on Raphael's painting, is found here.
For the sensibility of that time, the immediate impact, the primary message of the fresco, was of an eschatological character. It clearly showed the relationship between the Church militant upon the earth and the Church triumphant in heaven.

And then, in the apparent confusion of the scene, beyond the strange platform of clouds that divides the wall horizontally, the viewer would have noted the vertical axis defined by: God the Father above; Christ, who is displaying his wounds, in the middle; the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending in a nimbus of glory below Christ; and further below – on the altar placed upon three steps at floor level – the Eucharistic host in a monstrance.

So after the first impression, which would have been generally eschatological, or referring to the end times, the attentive observer would have made more specifically theological, even dogmatic, reflections: a central trinitarian structure and the sacrament as the visible extension of the life of the three divine persons, the object of attention for the figures gathered around the altar at the bottom.
The eschatological dimension and Trinitarian nature of the Eucharist are secondary notes of my Year of the Eucharist.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The second word


Last month, a priest spoke about what the faithful say just before receiving Holy Communion: "Only say the word and I will be healed."

The Eucharist is true food; It overcomes our weaknesses and makes us strong in the life of the Trinity, if we allow it. But how often do we really ask to be healed? Do we even expect anything from the Eucharist, beyond perhaps a good feeling and some bit of undetectable grace?

We can, if we like, come to Mass prepared to truly ask to be healed. Healed of a physical ailment, or an emotional wound, or a moral weakness. And what relic, what novena, what pilgrimage can add to the power made present at every Catholic altar in the world?


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The year in review

The Year of the Eucharist has drawn to a close. For me, it looks to be memorable chiefly for two words.

The first: Procession.

In a lecture on the Eucharist last spring, a priest mentioned in passing that we approach the altar for Communion, not in a line, but in a procession. And sure enough, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal speaks of "the procession to receive Communion" ("processionis ad Eucharistiam," n. 86).

The GIRM includes this Communion procession among the gestures of the people that "ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity" (n. 42).

There's not much I can do about how others process to receive our Lord, and I can only look so beautiful and noble myself, but since having this brought to my attention, I do try to keep in mind that I am not in a line, not in a queue, not in a parade or a march or a crowd, but in a procession.


Apropos of nothing,

the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza will be in Washington, DC, on November 2.


Monday, October 24, 2005

The mountains are just mountains

The Christian faith is not very sophisticated.

There's one God, Who made everything. He has one Son, Who became the man Jesus Christ to save us by His death. Jesus set up one Church, which is guided by His one Holy Spirit. Jesus will come again to divide everyone into the living, who will live in with God forever, and the dead, who will live without God forever.

A child of seven can understand this. Not as well, perhaps, as an adult of seventy, but I have a strong suspicion that little of the advantage of the adult over the child is due to sophisticated thinking.

Not that there isn't plenty of sophisticated thinking done by Christians. Some very clever, very elaborate, and even very profitable thinking has gone into Christian theology since the death of the last Apostle. But the Faith is faith in a Person, not in the thinking of even the best thinkers.

Many people who like to do sophisticated thinking, who relate to the world around them particularly through deliberate reasoning, have a hard time relating in a simple way to the Christian faith. The child-like faith Jesus commands is a real challenge for them. They want a mature faith that is qualitatively different from that of the child of seven.

There seem to be two ways of doing this. One is to preserve the simplicity of the Faith while building up the ancillary aspects of Christianity: the theology, the liturgy, the cult and culture.

The other way, which seems to have become common in the last couple of centuries (if it wasn't always common), is to deny that the Faith is really so simple. Jesus is God, Jesus is man: that's a simple belief with some very sophisticated (and, for the most part, provisional) explanations. But some thinkers want to import the sophistication into the belief, which happens to have the effect of destroying the belief. They want to say that Jesus isn't really God, or wasn't particularly God, or didn't actualize the deontology of Divinity until after the Resurrection Event, or whatever.

I say, that's what they want to do; that's the direction their habitual thought patterns lead them. Not all sophisticated thinkers actually do this, but some who do seem to be up front about what they're doing. The Christian Faith, as received from their forefathers, is too simple, too superstitious, too unenlightened, too backward, to be true.

Since God wants none to be lost but all to be saved, it follows that God wants the sophisticated thinkers to be saved, in addition to the plain thinkers and poor thinkers for whom the Faith is made simple. I'm toying with the idea that, to the sophisticated thinker who wants to destroy the Faith in order to save it from being too simple, Christ has given His mother, as a way to cut through all that sophisticated thought. Once past adolescence, all your fancy talk doesn't really cut it with your mother, and there comes a point when you shut up and listen to her, and of course what the Blessed Mother is saying to you is, "Do whatever He tells you."

I know more than one sophisticated thinker who appears to be grounded in the Apostolic Faith in large part, if not entirely, by being grounded in devotion to Mary.


My Met Calendar event reminder

This is the reminder you requested about the event(s) listed below.

Special Exhibition
Fra Angelico
October 26, 2005-January 29, 2006
Robert Lehman Wing

This first major exhibition of Fra Angelico’s work since the quincentenary exhibition of 1955 in Florence -— and the first ever in this country -— will reunite approximately 75 paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations covering all periods of the artist’s career, from ca. 1410 to 1455. Included will be several new attributions and paintings never before exhibited publicly, as well as numerous reconstructions of dispersed complexes, some reunited for the first time. An additional 45 works by Angelico's assistants and closest followers will illustrate the spread and continuity of his influence into the second half of the 15th century.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

No natural predispositions

Moniales OP draws attention to a fascinating observation by Fr. Thomas Philippe, OP:
In the case of a vocation to the active life, certain natural dispositions can be recognized; but for the contemplative vocation, which is the blossoming of the life of grace and of the theological virtues, there are no natural predispositions. Insofar as a call to the religious state is involved, one may speak of the absence of counterindications; but that is all.
This has obvious implications for how to go about (or perhaps how not to go about) directing people towards the contemplative vocation.

But I'd say it also has some implications for every Christian. If the contemplative vocation is, in fact, the blossoming of the life of grace and of the theological virtues, then it is a vocation each of us is called to -- or better, contemplation is a part of each person's vocation. And we can't use "But I'm not the type" as an excuse, because there is no type.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The devil laughs

Many of the comments on the post below focus (understandably enough) on the one post of Diogenes that Mark Shea linked to. Many people have asked what, particularly, I object to in that post. In one reply, I wrote, "This particular post implies the Cardinal committed an act of apostasy in exchange for a good deal of money."

But my point is larger than settling on the best twenty word paraphrase of that one post. And my point is that what Diogenes does at Off the Record is evil.1

This goes beyond mere isolated faults and failings. What Diogenes posts, habitually and as his stock-in-trade, is poison. And I don't mean "poison" as in "bad stuff," I mean it as in "stuff that can kill the soul and lead to eternal damnation."

It is a poison of hatred, of derision, of ill-will, of pride, of envy. It is a poison that will kill a person's soul dead, and not just the one who concocts the poison, but those who feed off it as it is doled out, those who bathe in it, those who carry it with them wherever they go.

The habit of hate kills the life of charity.

To those insisting on the demonstration of what I wrote could be objectively demonstrated: Read Diogenes. Read Off the Record. The hatred, derision, ill-will, pride, and envy are there, evident to anyone who can see.

Some people react to this poison by squirming, then trying to excuse it: he's a good priest2; he's addressing real abuses; sometimes he's right; he may be wrong other times, but that's not evil; haven't you ever heard of parody and satire?

You can't do evil that good may result.

You can't do evil because the other guys started it.

You can't do evil because the other guys are eviler.

You can't do evil because the other guys do it, too.

You can't do evil.

1. To say this is not to pass judgment on the state of Diogenes's soul. It is to make a judgment about the objective gravity of his actions.

2. That he is a priest seems to be the consensus of people who claim to know who he is; I don't know, but it does seem likely.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Deadly cynicism

Mark Shea links to a recent sample of the writing of "Diogenes" at Catholic World News's Off the Record blog.

Since fans of "Diogenes" seem to like plain speaking, let me speak plainly:

What "Diogenes" does at "Off the Record" is evil.

Gravely evil. Mortally sinfully evil. Putting his immortal soul at risk of damnation evil.

By their formal support for "Diogenes," the editors of Catholic World News are formal cooperators in this grave evil. Formal cooperation in grave evil is gravely evil.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Who knew?

Tyson Food, whose -- er, chicken products my family eats a couple times a week, has as a core value, "We strive to be a faith-friendly company." As a part of that, it offers on its website a "Giving Thanks at Mealtime" booklet (in PDF, or you can order a hard copy).
Some of us were raised saying thanks before mealtime and still do it regularly. Some of us have fallen out of the habit as we have gotten older. And some of us were never exposed to saying thanks at home. Whichever is the case with you, this Giving Thanks at Mealtime booklet is designed to help you discover (or rediscover!) the joy and power of saying a word of thanks before mealtime.
It's a pretty wide-ranging collection of graces, from
Benedic, Domine, nos et haec tua dona quae de tua largitate sumus sumpturi. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
Thanks for the grub.
I wonder how many other faceless American corporations -- however mildly, and with whatever accompanying business motive -- allow themselves such expressions of faith.


Friday, October 14, 2005

"And you shall call His name 'God'"

Have you ever noticed how sympathetically portrayed Christian characters on television never speak the Holy Name of Jesus?

It's not coincidental:
"It's a show about five people who run a church," said "Pastor Greg" creator and star Greg Robbins. "No matter what you do on Sundays, you'll be able to relate to them."

... Robbins met one television executive who bluntly said, "Take Jesus out of your show, and we'll buy it right now."

Other Hollywood executives expressed concern about "Pastor Greg" openly using the J-word.

"That's what they called it, the J-word - they couldn't even bring themselves to say Jesus," said Robbins, adding, "Satan has a stronghold on Hollywood in a big way."
I suspect saying "the J-word" rather than "Jesus" may have more to do with sham creativity than with demonic influence, but there's nothing like broadcast television to take the "Christ" out of "Christian."

Link via Christdot, via Relapsed Catholic.


Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just to be clear

I love the Chronicles of Narnia. I've read them myself, I've read them with my wife, I've read them to my children. We own DVDs of the BBC productions of four of the novels. A drawing of Aslan flying with Lucy and Susan is currently the background image on my computer display.

But: The identification of Aslan and Jesus does not bear much scrutiny, either artistically or theologically.

And: In particular, the "Deeper Magic From Before the Beginning of Time" bit is very bad art, and worse theology.

Notwithstanding: The fact that many people love Aslan and don't merely overlook the bad art, but actually insist it is good art, because (I suggest) they regard Aslan as Jesus, know what Jesus did for us, and supply what is wanting in Lewis's story from their own hearts.

However: I do grant that the "not a tame lion" line is excellent.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Deep spoilers from before the end of the book

A lot of Christians were concerned with whether the Christian allegory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would survive the translation to film. Time ran an article titled, "How to Tell if The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a Christian Film." (Link via open book.) The author wrote that if this sentence by Aslan, along with three others by the White Witch, made it into the released movie, that would "constitute a kind of evangelical sniff test":
The Witch knew the Deep Magic. But if she could have looked a little further back... she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.
Barb Nicolosi, who attended a preview of the movie, assures us, "All the lines the Christians are worrying about are in there."

So let me say that I think the "willing victim who had committed no treachery" line is the weakest bit in the entire book.

Yes, yes, it's the key to the story as Christian allegory, and without it Aslan wouldn't be a Christ figure so much as one of those magical lions that pop right back up after being killed. But it's a glass key, and if you aren't careful it will break right in your hand.

To take just two points: First, this "Deeper Magic From Before the Beginning of Time" makes the "Deep Magic" according to which the White Witch may kill any traitor an arbitrary and passing thing. Tough luck for the traitor right before Edmund, who gets it on the Stone Table; good luck for the traitor right after Edmund, who not only doesn't have the White Witch on his tail, but who doesn't even have to feel bad about anyone dying for him.

Second, the Deeper Magic seems to work for anyone. It's not who Aslan is that breaks the Stone Table. In a sense it's not even what he does, but what he knows. At any time, some mother Vixen might have offered to die in place of her son, and hey presto, the White Witch would have been out of business. And in any case, her power was already breaking before she agreed to kill Aslan. Aslan basically tricked her into making a deal that would ensure her own destruction.

So yeah, that the innocent dying for the guilty can be an act of great power is a Christian notion. But as it's found in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it's a pretty feeble version (also shown by the fact that it can be excised altogether by changing one single sentence), and Christians might be better off not pressing it too hard.

All this assumes C. S. Lewis meant the story to be allegorical. Other books in the Chronicles of Narnia, however, show that Aslan is not merely a Christ figure, he is supposed to be the Second Person of the Trinity Himself. That's a step, not mandated if we limit ourselves to this one book, that turns the Deeper Magic from a weak allegory to a cover-your-eyes awful theology.


The Curse of the Theatrical Length Motion Picture

Kathy Hutchins is a little more down on the Wallace and Gromit movie than I am, but I too was disappointed. I could have done without the scattering of vulgar jokes, but the whole thing simply wasn't nearly as clever as the W&G shorts.

Kathy writes: do realize if you're seeing a Wallace and Gromit film for the plot, you're a sad human being.
But it may be precisely the problem of plot that keeps this movie from living up to the shorts. And by "problem of plot," I mean they had to have one that would last an hour and a half. They wound up with one whose conventions outweigh its quirks.

Which is not to say it's not an entertaining movie; it has a 95% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting it's a nice palate cleanser for the critics. It's just not top quality Wallace and Gromit.


Monday, October 10, 2005

Zeal for the Lord's house

St. Thomas is something of a champion of human reason, which makes his answer to the following objection all the more interesting:
...according to Dionysius, "The soul's evil is to be without reason." Now anger is always without reason: for the Philosopher says that "anger does not listen perfectly to reason"; and Gregory says that "when anger sunders the tranquil surface of the soul, it mangles and rends it by its riot"; and Cassian says: "From whatever cause it arises, the angry passion boils over and blinds the eye of the mind." Therefore it is always evil to be angry.
You can see the strength this argument might have against someone who believes the image of God is in man only through his reason.

Here is St. Thomas's reply, with my glosses:
Anger may stand in a twofold relation to reason. First, antecedently; in this way it withdraws reason from its rectitude, and has therefore the character of evil.
Here, St. Thomas grants the truth of the objection -- and remember, in his treatment anger is a vice opposed to temperance, so it's not like this article denies anger can be evil, or even that it usually is -- by making a distinction in anger's relation to reason. A person can get angry before reasoning the circs. through, which is wrong ("has the character of evil").
Secondly, consequently, inasmuch as the movement of the sensitive appetite is directed against vice and in accordance with reason, this anger is good, and is called "zealous anger."
A person can also get angry after or as a consequence of thinking things through, and if this anger is directed at correcting vice, and accords with reason, it's good.

In other words, St. Thomas is saying that it is possible to be angry in accord with reason, in which case the argument that "anger is always without reason" loses its strength.

So, is it possible to be angry in accord with reason?
Wherefore Gregory says: "We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it overrule the mind, and go before it as its mistress, instead of following in reason's train, ever ready, as its handmaid, to obey." This latter anger, although it hinder somewhat the judgment of reason in the execution of the act, does not destroy the rectitude of reason. Hence Gregory says that "zealous anger troubles the eye of reason, whereas sinful anger blinds it."
First, note that he quotes the same St. Gregory the Great who was quoted in the objection saying that anger rends and mangles the soul. So the distinction between sinful anger and zealous anger goes back well before St. Thomas.

What St. Thomas has in mind is the case where someone observes some injustice or vice, determines that it can be corrected, settles on a means to correct it, then becomes angry -- anger being a "movement of the sensitive appetite" associated with arduous desires. Anger is, so to speak, what fuels the flesh to help the spirit attain its end of avenging vice.

It's true, St. Thomas admits, that even this zealous anger "troubles the eye of reason. What he denies is that it is contrary or opposed to reason. The reasoning is, in a sense, already done; the anger is directed at carrying out reason's plan.
Nor is it incompatible with virtue that the deliberation of reason be interrupted in the execution of what reason has deliberated: since art also would be hindered in its act, if it were to deliberate about what has to be done, while having to act.
I find this a fascinating comparison. For St. Thomas, art is right reasoning about a thing to be made. Art is a type of reason, yet when it acts it doesn't reason. It's the whole process that is governed by reason -- hence human, hence virtuous -- not each individual component of the process. In fact, to insist that each individual component of the process be interrupted by the deliberation of reason is to hinder the overall process, if not to wreck it altogether. There are times when reasoning is unreasonable.

If this is true of art, then it can in principle be true of other things. Of anger, for instance. To determine whether it's true of art, I suspect we're better off asking artists rather than relying purely on philosophy. Similarly, we may be better off asking the virtuous whether they can be angry without sinning than trying to resolve that question with a purely speculative argument.



Friday, October 07, 2005

Speaking of hobgoblins

I am, on the whole, insufferable, which is one reason many people who meet me socially get the impression that I am quiet and reserved. I know from experience that, once I start talking, no good will come of it.

I am, though, a rank piker compared to Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — "Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood." — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Let us pass the content by without a word, out of charity toward a man who can do no further harm. I think it's the confluence of an aphoristic writing style and the theme of the "great soul" that really grates.

I knew a college professor who, when he reached a key point in his lecture (i.e., something that would be on the test), would say, "No need to write this down. Just memorize as I go along." There's something of a "memorize this" attitude in aphoristic writing, by which I mean something like a series of general and categorical statements: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.... With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do... Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.... To be great is to be misunderstood."

Such writing gives the reader no foothold or purchase, no place to brace himself against the onslaught of the writer's ideas, or to rest while he weighs the previous general and categorical statement. It's forceful writing, yes, but who wants to be forced into accepting something merely because he reads it? And of course, once the reader steps out of the direction of the force -- as, in this example, by saying, "Well of course 'foolish consistency' is bad, but that's because it's foolish, not because it's consistent." -- the whole rest of the piece slides on by without effect, like a train passing a car that stopped in time at a crossing.

This "memorize this" impression is only exacerbated by the fact that Emerson is writing categorically about greatness of soul. It's hard to do that without implying that one is oneself a Great Soul, or at least greater than the majority of one's readers are likely to be, and that one's greatness is proved by the fact that one lives according to one's aphorisms. If he stuck to the alleged foibles of little statesmen, well, who but little statesmen would begrudge him his bit of grandstanding on that theme?

Of course, it isn't just that one is a Great Soul, as tiresome as that is, but that one's very greatness inevitably causes suffering. Poor dear! The one source of consolation in this, apart from one's own greatness, is that Jesus knows just how one feels.



An on-line feast

Today is the Feast of Blogging an Excerpt of "Lepanto." Traditionally on this day, Catholic bloggers do something poorly that is worth doing. One popular custom is to wear a cape to a pub, where a meal and a pint are shared with others after a ceremonial rattling of sabres that have been blessed by a priest descended from a Holy Roman Emperor.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Hobgoblins rare and common

I frequently come across the saying, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." As a debate-stopper, it's right up there with Whitman's wheeze from "Full of Myself"1:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Each is, for the most part, simply a somewhat literate way of saying, "So what if my arguments are invalid?"

Not that I deny there is such a thing as "foolish consistency." Insisting on the same prudential actions in different situations with obvious and relevant distinctions could be described that way.

It seems to me, though, that, on the list of all the faults we humans are heir to, "consistency" of any kind wouldn't rank very high. On the contrary, I'd say foolish inconsistency is far more common.

This thought came to me after reading a comment elsewhere that I took strong exception to. I ran through a list of the direct logical corollaries of that statement, picked out a particularly bad one, and began to compose a reply along the lines of, "Oh, really? If you think that, then you must think this."

I stopped myself before sending it. When people say such things to me, they're often wrong, because "this" in no way follows from "that." Before I fired off my unanswerable answer, I wanted to make sure that the this I had picked really did follow as the night the day from the that the other fellow had asserted.

That's when it occurred to me: It doesn't matter whether the this followed from the that. I was dealing with a human being, and human beings are perfectly capable of holding, in fact quite likely to hold, contradictory positions. The fact that P implies Q by no means means the fact I hold P implies I hold Q. "If you think that, then you must think this" ain't so.

One consequence is that devastating replies aren't always so devastating. "If you're right, then there's nothing wrong with pitchforking babies!" may be logically true, but it can be countered by a foolishly inconsistent, "Please, I'm not saying it's okay to pitchfork babies."

And if devastating replies aren't always so devastating, then perhaps they become cheap. "If you think that, then you must think this" is used, not to advance the debate, but to stoke up your side. It doesn't matter whether that really does imply this; no one's mind is going to be changed anyway. What matters is that "this" is Really Bad. And we wind up dulled to the presence of such arguments, meaning that when we run into one where "that" really does imply "this," "this" is Really Bad, and we happen to hold "that," we dismiss it without a thought about what it might mean for us to hold "that."

1. Seriously, the thing is almost 16,000 words. That's not a song, that's an opera, and almost twice as long as Verdi's longest.


Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Sour Grapes Blues

Speaking of music,
Let me now sing of my friend,
my friend's song concerning his vineyard.
Does anyone doubt that his friend's song follows a blues progression?
I built me a vineyard, I didn't mind the cost or toil.
In building that vineyard, I didn't stint at cost or toil.
I planted the best vines after tilling over all that rich soil.

When harvest time came, all the grapes I found were sour and small.
Yes, at harvest I found all those grapes were too sour and small.
It was like I hadn't done a thing for those vines at all.

What I want to know is what it was that I left undone.
Can anybody tell me just what it was I left undone?
I even made sure they got the right amount of rain and sun.

With a vineyard like this, I'll tell you just what I'm going to do.
You can probabaly guess what this vineyard's driving me to do.
I'm going to pull down the wall, let the briars and the cattle through.
According to the great Delta bluesman Son House, "Blues is between male and female that's in love, and one deceives the other." And brother, if that's not the story of God and man, I don't know what is.