Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

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Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

Have yourself an avaricious Christmas

My friend Tom has had an article published on Mercatornet, examining how the sin of avarice became a virtue in the context of our modern consumer economy:

Cavanaugh notes that consumerism is thus a “spiritual disposition”. Its error is not in that it seeks the spiritual in the material, for this is a tenet of traditional theology. And nor is its error that people are choosing material goods over spiritual values. Cavanaugh’s insight is to see consumerism as a type of spirituality, “a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”

This spiritual dimension to consumerism is reflected in the nature of advertising which has come to say little about the advertised product but much about the identity attached to buying such a product. Buying a product becomes a means to attaining a particular identity or experience. In this process, the actual product is only instrumental and so we become detached from it.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/have-yourself-an-avaricious-christmas

Is Bruce Jenner now a woman?

Most of my regular audience at MercatorNet would have no difficulty answering such a question, so instead of writing something about essentialism and the possible philosophical intricacies of gender, I wrote the following:

If Augustine was objective enough to acknowledge the positive side of pagan Rome, perhaps we should do the same with the transgender movement and indeed to the associated identity issues of the wider LGBT movement. It is important for those of us with profound philosophical, ethical, and religious reservations to recognise that the LGBT narrative nonetheless instantiates or at least mirrors certain virtues, in particular a quality often referred to as “authenticity” in contemporary language and which could perhaps be interpreted as a variation on the virtue of honesty.  The alternative is to fail to understand why these narratives hold such sway among the general public.

Life without indulgent eating

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com confides the inner workings of my gluttonous hedonism:

That the pleasure of eating serves as a surprisingly rich and enticing escape from the dreariness and banality of everyday life proved to me that self-indulgence was not merely a physical dysfunction but a spiritual one. For someone who spends nearly every waking moment thinking about things, the uncomplicated enjoyment of some moreish snack or delectable home-made dish offers a kind of peaceful respite from the interminable whirring of cognition.  Or as the 4th Century ascetic monk John Cassian wrote in rather less affirming terms:

“nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts… but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation.”

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/life-without-indulgent-eating

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.

 

Easter vigil notes

Another reading that caught my attention over the Triduum was the Easter vigil Epistle from Romans I:

If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in the his resurrection. We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.

But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him; Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more.  When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has never made a great deal of sense to me, and it was not until recently that I learned he is not supposed to ‘make sense’ in terms of proposing a fully developed, explicit theological system. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of “union with Christ”, and in what sense we have “imitated his death”. How have we died with Christ? A friend explained it in the Catholic context of sacramental theology, which led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion. Coming from a more naive realist perspective, the key phrase would seem to be “you must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus”, with consideration and imitation the operative factors.

In this light, what struck me was another point of comparison from my reading in Daoism, specifically the work of Edward Slingerland – Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China – which includes an intriguing analysis of dyadic metaphors of higher and lower terms in the Laozi:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

In practice this spiritual ideal of embracing the lower half of the dyad and thus emulating the Way extends into some very familiar territory:

The Way does not discriminate between injury or kindness and choose its response accordingly, but nourishes equally all of the myriad things. It thus gives things life without demanding “justice” in the Confucian sense—that is, demanding to be honored and showered with ritual gratitude:

The Way gives [the myriad things] life, raises them;
Causes them to grow, nourishes them;
Perfects and matures them;
Cultivates and protects them.
Giving birth to them and yet laying no claim;
Acting, but not dwelling upon the action;
Leading without being domineering—
This is called mysterious Virtue [xuande]. (chapter 51)

So rather than discriminating—imposing human distinctions upon the world— one should emulate the Way and stick to the “lower” path: that is, to the element of dyadic distinctions (such as kindness in the dyad “sternness/kindness”) that is closest to the Way. Thus we read in chapter 79 that the sage “takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people,” The left-hand tally is the half of a contract held by the creditor, and “uprightness” in the Confucian sense would demand that this contract be fulfilled—that the debt incurred by the creditor be paid. The Laozian sage, however, is undemanding in the same manner that the Way is undemanding, understood in terms of the social metaphor of the mother: he gives to the people and yet asks for nothing in return, holding fast to kindness and discarding the sort of sternness that would demand a quid pro quo.

So much of this is reminiscent of aspects of Christ’s teaching, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, or the passage: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Finally, the promise of salvation in its various expressions, whether it be the remedial passages of the beatitudes (“the meek shall inherit the earth”), or Christ’s own reference to the book of psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes” likewise brings to completion this dyadic paradox in which “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”:

This method of sticking to the conventionally lower, more encompassing term—and thereby attaining in reality the higher term—is referred to by Laozi in chapter 22 as “holding to oneness” (zhiyi):

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not
idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness [quan guizhi]

 

 

The safeguard of virtue

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks briefly at the Germanwings disaster, and the problem of negative morality without any corresponding moral or spiritual ideal:

The British writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton identified this morbidity within modern ethics as far back as the 19th Century:

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/the-ultimate-safeguard

My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”

 

 

 

 

How to win an internet argument

Ever wanted to win at internet arguments? My latest piece on MercatorNet shows you how:

We would ridicule a sportsman who delights in devastating much weaker players, and for the same reasons we should ridicule in ourselves the temptation to interpret others’ arguments in their weakest possible ways.  And though many sportsmen are obsessed with winning within the rules, what we admire most of all is the kind of person who regards even winning itself as trivial – a mere by-product of a good game that pushes all players to do their best.