August 2008

The sign I am going to put up in my office.

Imagine having heated arguments (no, no: discussions) on Truth, certainty, etc., with a friend up to 1:30 a.m., and, after five hours sleep, have your colleagues leading you into similar discussions on a train journey before it is even 9 o’clock? Ah well, I know, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you”, but let me have one more coffee first.

(And as soon as it was 10 a.m., of course, another topic (antroposophy, who would have guessed!) came up.)

Later on one of my colleagues was asked whether we found our way all right to the conference venue. Of cource I knew how to get to the hotels and to the university- mostly no-one else knows, which gives you a pleasant sense of power over your colleagues. So, after a glance at me my colleague said:

“Yes, of course. We had Notburga to show us the right way.”

“As I always do”, I replied.

And yet, though I continually strive to diffuse the depths of my wisdom amongst my neighbours, a little review showed me that so far, my successes in influencing my friends, colleagues and family for their own good have been meagre:

  • My parents now buy Scottish (or Irish) Whisky instead of a spirit distilled from maize in the USA “misleadingly called by the same name” (quote from an employee of a Scottish Whisky distillery)
  • A very pious but so-far very anti-organic friend of mine now buys organic cheese and other foodstuff (though that is probably more due to the example and arguments of my Still Nameless Friend and a vet of my acquaintance).
  • A colleague (after I gave it to him as a gift show him that such a thing exists) likewise buys only organic tobacco now.
  • My mother, when doing an English course in case her daughter made true of her saying that she would emigrate to the UK steadfastly refused to learn any vocabulary of the colonial dialects.
  • An agnostic relative of mine can pretty well tell by now, when she comes to Mass with me, whether I will be “pleased” with the way the priest said it or not.
  • My supervisor at least apologises for making his posters using Powerpoint

I may have forgotten one or two items; nevertheless, good as they are, one can hardly call these changes I effected essential. More and more I feel reluctantly convinced that the inconvenient truth should be taken into account – that if you really want to do something good for the spiritual welfare of your fellow humans you ought to – pray very much.

Deary me, somehow even discussions seem easier to my slothful self!

Portrayal Of Obama As Elitist Hailed As Step Forward For African Americans

Our esteemed readership may be of the opinion that I am somewhat overdoing it with citing Chesterton recently. However, just the day after my exasperation about German Idealism and all its connected evils I came across this passage to greatly comfort me:

I am not, like Father D’Arcy, whose admirable book on St. Thomas has illuminated many problems for me, a trained philosopher, acquainted with the technique of the trade. But I hope Father D’Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers. Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. Above all, his wide reading in metaphysics has made him patient with clever people when they indulge in folly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. “A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible.” Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the “remarkable difference” seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand.

G.K. Chesterton: St. Thomas Aquinas

As the generation of pious grandmothers worrying about and praying for their more or less lapsed children and grandchildren is more and more being joined by a generation of pious (or at least orthodox…) younger Catholics worrying about and praying for their unbelieving parents and grandparents, St. Monica, patron saint for the conversion of relatives, remains one of the more busy intercessors in heaven, I believe.

Alas and alack! I am a woman of little philosophical learning, and yet I find my way littered with anthroposophists, gnostics, relativists, and so on, all relying on me to be led from the darkness of error to the luminous splendour of truth. I had a little triumph yesterday, after racking my brain through my whole British holiday, walking through moors, along cliffs and over mountains wondering under what definition of freedom a thinking person (and not an atheist either) could come to the conclusion that religion could restrict one’s freedom. Yesterday then I finally traced down this and many other opinions of this person to Rudolf Steiner’s “Philosophy of Freedom”. “Aah!”, you will say, “Steiner. But that is not philosophy, not even erroneous philosophy, but simply esoteric humbug.” I agree in general, yet the “Philosophy of Freedom” was written before he ever turned to theosophy, being, as Wikipedia informs me, strongly influenced by Fichte, Schiller and Franz Brentano.

And again I had the well-known experience of having to agree with Aelianus after all: Good as it certainly is to understand the thinking and the arguments of your opponent, it is not worth one’s time trying to understand German Idealism or anything that springs from it when its errors lie right at the foundations of the whole intellectual building.

For what would you make of this:

We can easily recognize that our natural being, that part of us we share with the animal world – our physical body, drives and desires, prejudices and habits – tends to determine our deeds and soul life. Just as constraining, however, are the dictates of conscience and abstract ethical or moral principles. Freedom, he says, is only possible because these various constraining factors work in contradictory directions. Between the impulses of our two natures, neither of which is individualized, we find the freedom to choose how to think and act. By overcoming the dictates of both our ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ sources of experience, by orchestrating a meeting place of objective and subjective elements of experience, we become true and free individuals.[1] Freedom for Steiner thus does not lie in uninhibited expression of our subjective nature, but in the conscious unification of this with the objective constraints of the world. [...] [W]e need to forge a new synthesis of these at every moment in a situationally-appropriate, free deed. Steiner coined the term moral imagination for this act of creative synthesis. He suggests that we only achieve free deeds when we find a moral imagination, an ethically impelled but particularized response to the immediacy of a given situation. This response will always be individual; it cannot be predicted or prescribed.

Futile where my attempts to identify the elements of which these statements – building on the thoughts of evil Schiller – are made up. The categories are all wrong, even the terms we have in common, like “will” or “reason” mean something entirely different. Dimly as I perceive these things, it really appears to come down to nominalism in the end, and to a reaction to the error that the morally good and the subjectively desirable are different things. (Whatever little I have read of Kant, I always feel inclined to sympathise with anyone who, like Nietzsche, felt the need to thrash the whole horrible system. How am I to explain to the person mentioned that what I understand under the term “moral law” has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea Kant had of it.)

Not long and I was so frustrated that, had I read what I read in a book, I would have flung it into a corner, an impulse urgently to be resisted when you are reading things on your laptop. And it dawned upon me that the greatest historical guilt of Germany lies not in the deeds of the 20th century (atrocious as they were), but in German idealism, completely messing up European philosophy ever since.

From – who would gess it – yes, Chestertons “Ballad of the White Horse”. The setting: The beginning of the battle of Ethandune where, through the help of Our Lady the Christian army under King Alfred of Wessex won victory over the pagan Vikings under Guthrum, who far outnumbered them. Harold, a young and boisterous earl under King Guthrum, had sneered at the ragged Celts under Colan who fought with Alfred, thinking them so despicable that he refused even to fight them in manly combat and rather, in a rash movement, tried to shoot Colan with a bow. Colan had no defence weapon save his one sword, which he threw at Harold and thereby killed him, thereby being left weaponless himself. But, if you never have done so before, you should read the whole thing. It’s a very encouraging reading.

And all at that marvel of the sword,
Cast like a stone to slay,
Cried out. Said Alfred: “Who would see
Signs, must give all things. Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”

Then Alfred, prince of England,
And all the Christian earls,
Unhooked their swords and held them up,
Each offered to Colan, like a cup
Of chrysolite and pearls.

And the King said, “Do thou take my sword
Who have done this deed of fire,
For this is the manner of Christian men,
Whether of steel or priestly pen,
That they cast their hearts out of their ken
To get their heart’s desire.

“And whether ye swear a hive of monks,
Or one fair wife to friend,
This is the manner of Christian men,
That their oath endures the end.

“For love, our Lord, at the end of the world,
Sits a red horse like a throne,
With a brazen helm and an iron bow,
But one arrow alone.

“Love with the shield of the Broken Heart
Ever his bow doth bend,
With a single shaft for a single prize,
And the ultimate bolt that parts and flies
Comes with a thunder of split skies,
And a sound of souls that rend.

“So shall you earn a king’s sword,
Who cast your sword away.”
And the King took, with a random eye,
A rude axe from a hind hard by
And turned him to the fray.

Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.


“Those two bright lights of the world, St Dominic and St Francis, were together in Rome once with the lord of Ostia, who later became the supreme pontiff. And after they had spoken affectionate words in turn about the Lord, the bishop finally said to them: ‘In the primitive church the pastors of the church were poor and were men of charity, not men of greed. Why,’ he said, ‘do we not in the future make bishops and prelates from among your brothers who excel all others in the learning and example?’ A dispute followed between the saints to which one should answer; they both strove not to anticipate each other but to give way to each other; what is more, each was urging the other to make the reply. Each one gave preference to the other, for each one was devoted to the other. But in the end, humility conquered Francis, lest he put himself forward; and humility conquered Dominic, so that he would humbly obey and answer first. Therefore, replying, the blessed Dominic said to the bishop: ‘Lord, my brothers have been raised to a high station, if they only knew it; and even if they wanted it to, I could not permit them to acquire any other dignity.’ After he had replied thus briefly, the blessed Francis bowed before the bishop and said: ‘Lord my brothers are called minors so they will not presume to become greater. Their vocation teaches them to remain in a lowly station and to follow the footsteps of the humble Christ, so that in the end they may be exalted above the rest in the sight of the saints. If,’ he said, ‘you want them to bear fruit for the church of God, hold and preserve them in the in the station to which they have been called, and bring them back to lowly station, even if they are unwilling. I pray you, therefore, Father, that you by no means permit them to rise to any prelacy, lest they become prouder rather than poorer and grow arrogant towards the rest.’ Such were the answers of these blessed men.

What then do you say, O sons of the saints? Jealousy and envy prove you are degenerate, and no less, ambition proves you are illegitimate sons. You bite and devour one another, and your conflicts and strifes arise only from your concupiscences. Your wrestling is against the hosts of darkness; your battle is against the armies of devils, and you turn the points of your swords against each other; your fathers filled with wisdom and their faces being turned towards the propitiatory, looked familiarly upon one another, while their sons, filled with envy, are grievous even to behold. What will the body accomplish, if it has a divided heart? Certainly, the teaching of piety would progress more fruitfully throughout the world, if the bond of charity joined the ministers of the word of God together more firmly. For what we speak or what we teach is rendered greatly suspect, because a certain leaven of hatred is made evident in us today by evident signs. I know that the good on either side are not at fault, but the bad who I think should be rooted out lest they infect the holy. What then shall I say then of those who set their minds on high things? The fathers came to the kingdom by way of humility, not by the way of loftiness; the sons, walking about in the circle of their ambition, do not ask the way of a city for their habitation. What is left, that we who do not follow their way should not attain glory? Far be it from us Lord! Make their disciples humble under the wings of their humble master; make kindred spirits kind; and mayst thou see thy children’s children, peace upon Israel.

When the answers of the servants of God had been given, as what narrated above, the lord of Ostia was much edified by the words of both and gave great thanks to God. But as they left, the blessed Dominic asked St Francis to kindly give him the cord he wore about his waist. St Francis was reluctant to do this, moved by the same humility to refuse as the other was moved to ask. Finally, however, the blessed devotion of the petitioner won out and Dominic very devoutly put the cord that was given him about himself beneath his inner tunic. Then the two joined hands and commended themselves to one another with great kindliness. The one said to the other: ‘Blessed Francis, I wish that your order and mine might be made one and that we might live in the church according to the same rule.” When at last they left one another, St Dominic said to several who were there at the time: ‘In truth, I say to you, all other religious ought to follow this holy man Francis, so great is the perfection of his sanctity.’” – Thomas of Celano ‘Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul’ cix-cx

In the few posts of the past weeks I have repeatedly referred to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s book “Predestination”. When I started to read it I was quite resolved to find one of the more lenient opinions within the teachings of the Church to hold onto (rather than going to the extremes, i.e. the Thomist view.) F or the first time of my life I experienced what I had been told by others before: You may try, but what St. Thomas writes is so lucid you cannot disagree if you would. Here he is, summing up the whole problem up in one reply to an objection to the proposition “Foreknowledge of merits is not the cause of predestination”.

DISCLAIMER: I directed the attention of the intrepid Aelianus himself to this passage. After reading it out, he only commented “Ouch.” And yet, as a comfort: Humbly asking God for the gifts of understanding and wisdom, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes, “the great believers realise that in the mysteries of faith, what is more obscure about this translucid obscurity is what is more divine, the Deity itself, in the inaccessible eminence of which are reconciled mercy, justice, and liberta. What is more obscur in the mysteries then appears as supremely good, and whereas the intellect is incapable of assenting to them as evident by the light of reason, the will, actuated by the very pure love of charity, gives its supernatural and immediate adherence to them.”

The reason for the predestination of some, and reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God. Thus He is said to have made all things through His goodness, so that the divine goodness might be represented in things. Now it is necessary that God’s goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe. That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as was said above (Question 22, Article 2). Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others. To this the Apostle refers, saying (Romans 9:22-23): “What if God, willing to show His wrath [that is, the vengeance of His justice], and to make His power known, endured [that is, permitted] with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction; that He might show the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He hath prepared unto glory” and (2 Timothy 2:20): “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver; but also of wood and of earth; and some, indeed, unto honor, but some unto dishonor.” Yet why He chooses some for glory, and reprobates others, has no reason, except the divine will. Whence Augustine says (Tract. xxvi. in Joan.): “Why He draws one, and another He draws not, seek not to judge, if thou dost not wish to err.” Thus too, in the things of nature, a reason can be assigned, since primary matter is altogether uniform, why one part of it was fashioned by God from the beginning under the form of fire, another under the form of earth, that there might be a diversity of species in things of nature. Yet why this particular part of matter is under this particular form, and that under another, depends upon the simple will of God; as from the simple will of the artificer it depends that this stone is in part of the wall, and that in another; although the plan requires that some stones should be in this place, and some in that place. Neither on this account can there be said to be injustice in God, if He prepares unequal lots for not unequal things. This would be altogether contrary to the notion of justice, if the effect of predestination were granted as a debt, and not gratuitously. In things which are given gratuitously, a person can give more or less, just as he pleases (provided he deprives nobody of his due), without any infringement of justice. This is what the master of the house said: “Take what is thine, and go thy way. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will?” (Matthew 20:14-15).

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia, q. 23, a. 5 ad 3um

The real difference between Francis and Dominic, which is no discredit to either of them, is that Dominic did happen to be confronted with a huge campaign for the conversion of heretics, while Francis had only the more subtle task of the conversion of human beings. It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians to Christianity.

G.K. Chesterton: St. Thomas Aquinas


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