From the last several posts, it may appear that I am somehow against modern times, against science, or want to revert to a mythical pre-modern golden epoch. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love living in a society where millions of people are saved from basic bacterial infections by penicillin. I also recognize the impossibility of ever turning back the clock. While we can learn valuable lessons from our ancient and medieval forebears, we can never wholly see the world through their eyes because we cannot unsee all that has happened in the last four hundred years. Even if we one day forget the World Wars, we would still be a people who have forgotten something that has happened rather than a people who simply live in ignorance of what will happen. Our perspective on the world will always be conditioned by all this that has happened even when we fail to notice it.
No, there is no going back, only going forward.
What I oppose is not the modern epoch, but modernism. And by this I do not mean just any philosophies that happen to have flourished in recent times. By modernism I mean to indicate a particularly destructive strain of thought which militantly seeks to evacuate the world of all transcendent sources of meaning (they would say, “liberate mankind from superstitions”).
I had an interesting conversation with a friend on Discord about Platonic realism. So we decided to dress it up as a Platonic dialogue.
DT Sheffler: Did I tell you, Philomathes, about the encounter I had the other day with a bright young philosopher?
Philomathes: No. I am glad, however, to hear that such encounters are still possible. Is he one of your students at the College?
D: No, I do not believe I have ever seen his face. That wasteland, the internet, among its many evils also makes possible this good, that philosophical dialogue can take place across great stretches of space.
P: Indeed it does, but I wonder whether that good is worth the cost.
D: Perhaps not, but let us savor the good at least. It happened like this: We were discussing the distinction between poetry and prose, and noticing the sometimes vague boundary between the two. In light of this vagueness, this philosopher Kincaed was skeptical that the distinction between the two kinds of language was real or meaningful. As always—you know well my inevitable bent of mind—I resisted the move to do away with, reduce, or subjectify the distinction, arguing that even in the case of a smooth spectrum, such as that between hot and cold, the spectrum itself could only exist if there were first a real distinction between the poles. I don’t think that poetry and prose have such a smooth spectrum between them, just a fuzzy boundary, so the necessity of a real formal distinction between them is all the stronger, a fortiori as they say.
P: And how did he respond?
D: Well, I’ll tell you. The conversation went like this..
This essay was originally published as “A Vocabulary for Worship” in the January/February 2019 issue of Touchstone .
If any people in history knew it, the Romans knew how to be serious over serious things. Next to the cultured poets and philosophers of Athens, the Romans saw themselves as a race of soldiers and farmers. The religious rites that Numa instituted early in Rome’s history cultivated a deep reverence for ancestry and custom, for bonds between neighbors, and for those boundaries that designate and hallow sacred ground. Roman law reflected a concern for those spaces that must not be violated, whether they be in a temple, a city, a house, or a man’s soul. This gravity, admittedly, came along with an almost unbelievable degree of cruelty, and when the Romans did violate that which they knew to be sacred, they were capable of a kind of blasphemy which Anton LaVey only childishly imitates. As Rome turned to the light of the gospel, however, that old Roman spirit with its old Roman language bequeathed to the rising Christian civilization a vocabulary of religion. Indeed, the word religio can scarcely be translated anymore because what it signified to the Latin mind—a whole nexus of ritual and feeling that binds a community together—will strike modern secular society as nothing but a silly costume party. This society knows how to be flippant over serious things, but where it sees its flippancy as characteristic of enlightenment, its Roman forebears would have seen it as characteristic of nothing but barbarism.
I wanted to briefly share a favorite passage from near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s beautiful novel, Helena. The first time I listened to this passage, I can still recall where I was on the highway from Lexington to Louisville. It spoke so directly to me that I wept.
The novel follows St. Helena (sometimes known as St. Helen), the mother of Constantine. Much of the novel is a meditation on the conversion of the Roman Empire, especially the transition from Christianity being a marginal affair to something possible for the upper classes.
Toward the end of the novel, Helena makes a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, and here she makes a prayer to the three wise men, a moving expression of the paradox we find in St. Matthew’s gospel that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” and yet, “…with God all things are possible.”1
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”
“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.”
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the simple; it is their kingdom. And yet…the grace of God may extend even to the rich, the powerful, the sophistocated, even to an emperor like Constantine and a queen like his mother. What a happy inversion! What a hope! That humble barn of Bethlehem has room enough for the whole world, and the only hope of the great is, like Constantine, to find before the end “kneeling-space in the straw.”
There is also here a hope for classical culture, “the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.” This culture receives some redemption not on its own merits, but because it, like Constantine, finds some “kneeling-space” by the grace of God.
I have been thinking for a while now about the etymological connection between Arete (“virtue” or “excellence”) and Ares (the God of War).1 A similar connection exists in Latin between Virtus and Vir (“man” in the sense of “masculine”).
I think there is something in the history of the idea of virtue that relates to the idea of martial nobility that is almost entirely absent from high culture after the World Wars, or rather I should say that the connection has become almost entirely negative: “dulce et decorum est” and all that.
Here we see Arthegal, the ideal knight of Justice, from the court of Spencer’s Faerie Queene (1590), with his sword Chrysaor, painted by John Hamilton Mortimer (1778).
On Facebook, one of my scholarly friends called this etymology into question. My source is the entry for Ares in the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon. I confess that am unqualified to comment on the linguistics here and for all I know the etymological derivation may be different. My interest, however, is not really linguistics but philosophy. The entry in the lexicon simply got me thinking down these lines.↩︎
In my last post, I focused on what we might call the “objective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with the arrangement of elements into structured wholes “out there” in real objects in the real world. In this post, I would like to focus on the “subjective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with rational consciousness. Philosophers frequently refer to the objective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligibility” of structures or patters that we find in the world, there to be discovered. Conversely, we frequently refer to the subjective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligence” of rational beings who go around doing the discovering. Understanding the distinction between intelligibility and intelligence and especially the causal interaction between the two will prove essential for understanding the Christian Platonic tradition.