Category: From the Dead Thinkers

Who am I?

November 8th, 2015 — 4:39pm

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July 1944)

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Three quotes on boredom

April 27th, 2014 — 9:12pm

1. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself. . . .

2. Why is it no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep.

3. Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look – it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions – good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide – be a bore?

Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.

Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?


(Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, pp. 71–72)

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The mind and the world

January 27th, 2014 — 1:44pm

Our experience of things is not a confrontation with something utterly alien, but a way of absorbing, and being absorbed by, the world to which we naturally belong. The mind does not primarily depict, reflect or mirror the world; rather, it assimilates the world as it is assimilated to the world. . . . Thomas [Aquinas] takes for granted this non-subject-centred way of being in the world. We are inclined to begin with the mind, asking how our mental acts relate to the world; he begins on the contrary with the external objects which evoke intellectual activity on our part, and thus bring to fulfilment the capacities with which we are endowed.

We are inclined to assume that the objects of our knowledge remain totally unaffected. To be known, for an object unaware of it, is as if nothing had happened. This surely misses something. On Thomas’s view, articulating as it does the doctrine of creation in terms of the metaphysics of participation, the object, in being known by the subject, is brought more clearly into the light and to that extent its nature and destiny are fulfilled.

It is easy to see how our minds are affected, changed, enriched and so on, by absorbing what comes to view in the world. But for Thomas it makes sense to hold that, even if there were no human minds, things would still be ‘true’ – in relation, that is, to God’s mind (De veritate). He does not look at the world and see it as simply all that is the case, in itself; rather, he sees the world, and things in it, as destined to a certain fulfilment, with appointed ends, modes and opportunities. It is perhaps not too much to say that Thomas sees the way that things are in terms of the way that they ought to be. Certainly, he does not picture knowing as the subject’s projecting value and intelligibility upon raw data. Rather, we exist at all only by participation in being (the doctrine of creation), and, since minds are what we are, we participate, by exercising our intellectual capacities, and of course to a very limited extent, in God’s own knowledge of the world.

(Fergus Kerr, “Overcoming Epistemology,” in After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, pp. 31–32)

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Without a Bolshevist in the world

August 7th, 2013 — 1:03pm

The practical tendency of all trade and business to-day is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth – things that are at least collective if not collectivist. It is all very well to repeat distractedly, “What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?”  It is equally relevant to add, “What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?” The obvious answer is – Monopoly.  It is certainly not private enterprise. The American Trust is not private enterprise. It would be truer to call the Spanish Inquisition private judgment. Monopoly is neither private nor enterprising. It exists to prevent private enterprise. And that system of trust or monopoly, that complete destruction of property, would still be the present goal of all our progress, if there were not a Bolshevist in the world.

Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization.

(G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, 1926)

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More American nihilism

June 11th, 2013 — 2:32pm

Nihilism as a state of soul is revealed not so much in the lack of firm beliefs but in a chaos of the instincts or passions. People no longer believe in a natural hierarchy of the soul’s varied and conflicting inclinations, and the traditions that provided a substitute for nature have crumbled. The soul becomes a stage for a repertory company that changes plays regularly – sometimes a tragedy, sometimes a comedy; one day love, another day politics, and finally religion; now cosmopolitanism, and again rooted loyalty; the city or the country; individualism or community; sentimentality or brutality. And there is neither principle nor will to impose a rank order on all of these. All ages and places, all races and all cultures can play on this stage. Nietzsche believed that the wild costume ball of the passions was both the disadvantage and the advantage of late modernity. The evident disadvantage is the decomposition of unity or “personality,” which in the long run will lead to psychic entropy. The advantage hoped for is that the richness and tension present in the modern soul might be the basis for comprehensive new worldviews that would take seriously what had previously been consigned to a spiritual ashcan. This richness, according to Nietzsche, consisted largely in thousands of years of inherited and now unsatisfied religious longing. But this possible advantage does not exist for young Americans, because their poor education has impoverished their longings, and they are hardly aware of the great pasts that Nietzsche was thinking of and had within himself. What they do have now is an unordered tangle of rather ordinary passions, running through their consciousnesses like a monochrome kaleidoscope. They are egotists, not in a vicious way, not in the way of those who know the good, just or noble, and selfishly reject them, but because the ego is all there is in present theory, in what they are taught. (Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, pp. 155–56)

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American nihilism

June 11th, 2013 — 2:24pm

A few years ago I chatted with a taxi driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily he had undergone “therapy.” I asked him what kind. He responded, “All kinds – depth-psychology, transactional analysis, but what I liked best was Gestalt.” Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-class talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with any original sin or devils in him. We have here the peculiarly American way digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending. (Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, p. 147)

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Notes from across the pond

February 6th, 2013 — 2:50pm

Two quotes from T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society:

You have only to examine the mass of newspaper leading articles, the mass of political exhortation, to appreciate the fact that good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions. . . .

The tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – in all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.

Written in 1939. Remarkable.

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Crony capitalism?

April 27th, 2012 — 9:54am

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.” (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 10, part 2)

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Prayer over the scriptures

March 8th, 2012 — 8:44am

O Lord my God, hear my prayer,
may your mercy hearken to my longing,
a longing on fire not for myself alone
but to serve the brethren I dearly love;
you see my heart and know this is true.
Let me offer in sacrifice to you the service of my heart and tongue,
but grant me first what I can offer you;
for I am needy and poor,
but you are rich unto all who call upon you,
and you care for us though no care troubles you.
Circumcise all that is within me from presumption
and my lips without from falsehood.
Let your scriptures be my chaste delight,
let me not be deceived in them
nor through them deceive others.
Hearken, O Lord, have mercy, my Lord and God,
O Light of the blind, Strength of the weak –
who yet are Light to those who see and Strength to the strong –
hearken to my soul,
hear me as I cry from the depths,
for unless your ears be present in our deepest places
where shall we go and whither cry?
Yours is the day, yours the night,
a sign from you sends minutes speeding by;
spare in their fleeting course a space for us
to ponder the hidden wonders of your law:
shut it not against us as we knock.
Not in vain have you willed so many pages to be written,
pages deep in shadow, obscure in their secrets;
not in vain do harts and hinds seek shelter in those woods,
to hide and venture forth,
roam and browse, lie down and ruminate.
Perfect me too, Lord, and reveal those woods to me.
Lo, your voice is joy to me,
your voice that rings out above a flood of joys.
Give me what I love;
for I love indeed, and this love you have given me.
Forsake not your gifts, disdain not your parched grass.
Let me confess to you all I have found in your books,
Let me hear the voice of praise,
and drink from you,
and contemplate the wonders of your law
from the beginning when you made heaven and earth
to that everlasting reign when we shall be with you in your holy city.

(Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, trans. Maria Boulding)

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Don’t enjoy yourself

February 29th, 2012 — 5:05pm

“The phrase would probably be misunderstood; but I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves.  Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside.  So long as they have this they have as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood.  The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair.” (G. K. Chesterton, “If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach,” in The Common Man)

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