There be dragons!

Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Study of History

An exchange with one of my recent grads.

You told us the importance of studying history and it's significance in every knowledgeable persons education. I was recently asked by a fellow student why I would major in a study which is not about true "facts". He went on to say that the winners write the history books therefore we are given skewed and twisted accounts of what actually happened. Basically we cannot read a primary historical text and know for sure if what is said happened or if we are getting a distorted version. I knew this was dangerous logic and that just because you do not witness an event does not mean you cannot be sure it happened but I was not entirely sure what to say at the time. I tried to remember what you had said to us way back in the dark ages of 11th grade but alas, my memory grew clouded.
Your friend is essentially dodging the issue. It isn't that the logic is poor (which it is) but that is a pseudo-intellectualism that borrows the trappings of logic in order to avoid addressing the issue. Sure history is written by the winners. To say otherwise is assinine. How could losers write history? They're all dead!!! One might just as easily ask why study music since we only know the music written by musicians, or why study math since only mathematicians show it to us. Foolishness. But if we say "oh, the winners write history" we can effectually avoid having to memorize dates, names, events, avoid studying the scope and drama of human existence, avoid the rigor of getting our facts right. Essentially your friend is acting like a lazy slob who chooses to look smart instead of being smart. (Tell him I said so).
It isn't important that the winners write history but that there be around winners who can write at all. It is a consummation much to be desired that those same winners who can write take interest in the passing of human events enought to chronicle what happened.
Why should it be important?
Well, first see my blog entry on Anselm and the nature of education.

In brief, every study we engage in is really a study of ourselves. We learn about ourselves (gnothi seauton) so that we might know more about that which we most closely represent; namely the divine. The study of any discipline is only superficially about the subject matter (numbers, or history, words, or notes). Primarily it is a study of who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Simone Weil states that studying anything teaches us to be aware of our surroundings, to "pay attention." Indeed, the strictness of history forces the student to look at what really is there, not what they want to be there. Did Custer really get slaughtered by the Indians? Were the Crusades really against the Muslims? Was the potato famine really a disaster for the Irish? By doing so we learn the discipline of looking at things around us and letting them speak to us. We learn our own capacity for error, insight, accuracy and sloth. These things are important no matter what course of study we choose, but history particularly teaches us these things.
Second, sure there are bad historians; twisters of facts, fabricators of data, charlatans of academia; but ought that not be more incentive instead of less for good men, honest and intelligent to enter the field? Every story is an interpretation and as history is story it too is interpretation. But interpretation does not imply falsehood. I interpret that the sun is rising in the morning. Is the sun rising? Yes. I interpret that the ground is hard when I slip on the ice and fall down. Is it hard? Yes. Just because our interpretation corresponds to reality doesn't mean that the interpretation is erroneous. Good historians do all they can (barring the limits of their cultural background, personal predilections, and natural comprehension) to convey the meaning of the events accurately. In fact, one who does interpret the events is normally a better historian than one who purportedly does not because he can more thoroughly convey to his audience the sense of what really was. Everyone interprets events. As soon as we open our mouths we are interpreting by the mere act of choosing this word and not that one. So those who claim to not interpret history really are interpreting and should be watched, very carefully.
Third, "the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." Churchill was correct in this. The man who knows history v. well knows that what is happening currently, and what might happen eventually, are events that follow a pattern. Lack of knowledge about how the Nazis gained power only hobbles a man into believing that expediency outweighs legality. Knowing that appeasement has never ever ever ever ever worked against tyrants prevents one from thinking that Sean Penn has a rat's chance in Hades of stopping Saddam Hussein. "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat" says Tocqueville, and he was right. Moreover, to paraphrase Boethius, the insight into the patterns of history allows one to see the workings of the Pattern Maker. How does God operate in the carnage and joys of human life? Historical study grants a window into the mind of the Maker.
Fourth, historical study ought to be engaged in because it's simply so much fun. Essentially those who do not acknowledge history as worth while have failed to make the effort to see what is good in the study. Essentially, history is a lot of fun; all those slaughterings, torturings, diseases, empire-buildings, marriages, betrayals, skullduggeries, survivals, struggles, journeyings, oratoryings, artifactings, partyings, and livings that people have done for who knows how long are a riot to read and think about. It gives delight to see and makes one happy to think about and as such makes one a little bit more godlike; as God delights in watching us scuttling betwixt heaven and earth, so too we delight in seeing the panorama of history laid out before us. Your friend has not only denied himself a real joy, he has denied himself the opportunity to become more like God.
Yes, history does repeat itself but why do we really study history? Why is it so essential for every humans education? Was Winston Churchill right when he said "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see"? What does really mean? I think it was Boetheus who said that we do not realize the true worth of our goods until they are gone. ... Please remind the current students of how blessed they are to attend their school and to really take advantage of the rich education which can't find anywhere else. You and the other teachers are such an invaluable resource and so kind share your knowledge with your students even when they are hundreds of miles away.
Ah... you tell them and you tell them, but do they listen? No. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spirituality and Religion

So the question to ask is, what is the difference btwn religion and spirituality?
Spirituality has to do with the spirit; it is the innate quest in every human for the source of being in which his own being, or spirit, participates. Spirituality has to do with the desire of becoming seeking Being. Thus everyone by nature engages in spirituality and this engagement is identical in every person. Spirituality is always the search for the source of Being. Thus the phrase "authentic spirituality" as used by the Church means an honest desire to find the source of our being (as opposed to going through the motions).
Religion has to do with the manner in which the individual expresses that search. Thus religion is an outward visible sign of an interior and invisible desire. Religion comes in different forms, each form either more or less conducive to the spiritual quest natural to man. Catholicism is the most authentic religion b/c it most readily facilitates that quest innate in every human being.
The weakness lies in the fact that spirituality without religion has no form or expression to it; it's just longing and good feelings. But another weakness exists in the forms of religion, some of which strangle the authenticity of the quest, others give little or no direction to the search and some obfuscate the search with too much doctrine and legalism.
The solution seems to be a balance between orthodox fidelity to the doctrine of the Church and honest desire for the good which frees one from becoming a guardhouse lawyer for the Church.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Books on Islam


Here's a great book on the problems in the Islamic world. Author is David Pryce-Jones. Probably the most thorough treatment of the issue I've yet come across. Also look at "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis. Also try Fouad Ajami's "Dream Palace of the Arabs." When finished read also Dore Gold's "Hatred's Kingdom." Necessary reading. Or you could read the much touted recent book by Karen Armstrong which proclaims Islam to be a religion of peace. Right. "What big teeth you have, Grandimam."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Anselm and the aim of education


In his Monologion Anselm states
The name “wisdom” does not suffice to show me that through which all things were made from nothing, and through which all things are preserved from returning to nothing. The name “essence” cannot express that which is far above...and beyond...all things. ...The supreme nature is ineffable, because it simply cannot be made known as it is by means of words. But a claim about the supreme nature, if one can be made that is dictated by reason and is stated indirectly –in a riddle, as it were- is not false.
On must work through something other than it. ...what one gets closest to knowledge of it through, is that which most closely resembles it...and the greater the resemblance and excellence, the more it helps and teaches.
Now... every essence is simliar to the supreme essence in so far as it exists... and...the rational mind (is) that which comes closest to the supreme essence in virtue of its natural essence. So then, the rational mind may be the only created thing that is able to rise to the task of investigating the supreme nature, but it itself is... that through which it may come closest to finding something out about it. ...the efficacy of the mind’s ascent to knowledge of the supreme nature is in direct proportion to the enthusiasm of its intent to learn about itself.
The mind, therefore, might be most appropriately called its own mirror. The mirror in which it
sees the reflection of that which famously, it cannot see “face to face.”
(Monologion 65 and 66)

Education is, then, like a mirror by which we see ourselves. Each study, whether it be math or science, language or history is not primarily to learn the subjects per se. Nor is it simply a practical exercise by which we perfect our skill to earn more. Rather, each study, contemplation, struggle with a discipline shows back to us something of who we are. We study science or math and learn our own limits and successes; our connection to scientific or mathematic principles; our place in them amidst the greater plan of the universe. We study language or history and learn our own facility for or weakness in each; the cultures of other men which reflect back to our culture; the capacity we have for loving or not loving a language, people or event; our own comprehension or lack thereof for language and history’s representational power and approximation of the truth. When we study anything we study ourselves. “Gnothi seauton,” said the Greeks, “Know Thyself.” Man is a riddle; a metaphor; a circumlocutory means by which we discover who God is. When we study ourselves we learn more about the source of our own being who is God. Thus by the struggle with subjects, even subjects we dislike or for which we have no natural propensity, we acquire a knowledge of who we are as individuals, and when we do this we peer into a mirror in which we see the reflection of Him Whom we cannot yet see “face to face.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

On Mill Locke Hobbes Smith and the Founding of America

Last semester we read Mill's Utilitarianism and his On Liberty, and they seemed to be very problematic in their utilitarian views. I've also recently been looking into Adam Smith and David Hume and their utilitarian views. My problem with utilitarianism is that there's no way that it can prove a fundamental moral code, and degenerates into something entirely relative. Truth is in the intellect of the perceiver. It sounds far too much like the materialism of Protagoras and some of the other pre-socratics. What I was wondering is doesn't this seem to pose a problem for America, because this was the major line of thinking at the time, and I know these thinkers influenced the founders of our nation. And if these are the principles that our nation was founded upon, then wouldn't it make sense that we have a very strong tendency towards relative morals with the removal of religion from the state? Also, utilitarianism seems to be supposed upon the idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Mill seems to try to reconcile this idea with an absolute good by being very careful in how he says things, but it seems that he fails. If this were true, it would seem to explain the ideas behind capitalism and America's tendency towards, although not entirely, greed and selfishness. I was wondering what you would have to say about this, because it seems that these ideas somewhat undermine the notion we have of our own country. I'm not sure what I think about it, and I was curious to see what you would have to say.
Let's not be too hasty (as the ents would say). Sure John Stuart Mill of his own free will after half a pint of whiskey was particularly ill; he did influence the framers of the Constitution who saw, clearly I think, that the majority of people are in fact utilitarian. Most people operate in terms of the cost/benefit analysis (how much will this cost me? What will I get out of it?). Most human beings weigh their lives in terms of the credits and debits and how much pain they will have to suffer. That's a fact. But that fact doesn't negate the fact that there is a greater reason for doing things. Nor does it negate the goodness of a system of government that takes into consideration this fact of human nature. The founding fathers did read Mill, and Hobbes, and Locke and many others (they were quite well read; fortunately for us. Imagine a nation being formed today by the Kanye Wests and Barbara Streisands among us). So our system of government does account for the utilitarian aspect of human nature; "if men were angels no government would be necessary" and attempts to incorporate that profit analysis as a motivating factor for doing the good. People will do the good when they perceive some benefit from doing so. Create a system of government that accounts for that and you've got a good thing.
Similarly Adam Smith with his economic views had something when he claimed that wealth promoted virtue. He was, of course wrong, b/c the wealthy and powerful can be just as dastardly as the poor and squalid, and they have more ablty to do so. But wealth and prosperity can be great motivating factors for achievement, production and self-analysis. Moreover, as most every philosopher has noted, it is easier to be good when you don't have to worry about grinding poverty (think Cephalus at the beginning of the Republic). Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but absolute poverty is a bitch. Capitalism, therefore, keeps people happy b/c they have access to the basic needs that support life and allow for pursuits that are conducive to happiness. As Michael Medved pointed out yesterday, those in poverty in America are in poverty b/c they have made certain choices about their lives, not b/c jobs and wealth are unattainable. That's a remarkable observation about the capitalist system; that it allows the individual to choose poverty or wealth rather than having poverty or wealth thrust upon 'em. The Founding Fathers recognized that the ablty to attain wealth and position in the world was an essential of freedom, and thus a staple of democracy. They made a point not to disenfranchise the children of criminals and traitors, they broke up the laws of primogeniture (wherein the first born gets all the inheritance), they secured the ownership of patents, property, and trade, they allowed communities to set taxes and fees for themselves. Radical stuff, that! And all based on the idea that wealth nourishes freedom which allows happiness.
The Hobbesian effect on the Constitution is that "oceans of blood" have been spilled. They did not discount that there are among us violent, mercenary, savage men who will use everything at their disposal for self-promotion and domination of others. Considering this, though, they created a governmental system very unHobbesian; no king, no terror police, allowing popular vote. What they did incorporate was a strong nod to law and a system of law that could best reduce the violence of which men are capable.
The Lockean influence is that they saw rights as inherent, or inalienable in men due to their mutual creation by a Being superior to them. They also held that those rights are forfeited by the depriving others of their rights. Thus a system of law was needed. But more importantly a system of government was needed whose purpose was not to increase cost/benefit security (like Mill) or decrease human nastybrutishshortishness (like Hobbes) but to secure the rights of individuals. I think that's a pretty radical turn considering the way they could have gone (rampant atheistic materialism or totalitarian authoritativism). Furthermore, Locke, being the practical thinker he was, saw rights of individuals as tied up most closely with the access to property. Thus the government that secured property beyond the grip of even the ruler of the country was the best form of government and the most free (which is why I hate this new business of eminent domain).
In sum, the founding of the United States is based on Mill, but also on Hobbes, Hume, Smith, Locke, the Bible, English Law, Roman precedent, and Greek philosophy. In some ways, it is the product of a philosophical system distinctly American; the melting pot of ideas. Mostly, though, we as humans have always had a tendency to consumerism, relativistic thought, atheism, self-indulgence, violence, and vice. That's just how we are. We are also capable of great good, generosity, happiness, thought, art, politics, creation, and fructification of joy. The Europeans , the Asians, the Native Americans, and the Africans are no less (and perhaps more) guilty of this than we are. The American system of government is great, not b/c it makes men into angels, but because it minimizes our destructive tendencies as much as possible and appeals "to the higher angels of our spirit" as Lincoln would say.