Monday, April 6, 2020

Some marginalia on the first four sections of the first book of the Ethica Nicomachea

These very rough notes are a somewhat expanded transcription of handwritten marginalia I set down for my own use. They are tentative, often inchoate, impressionistic, and speculative musings, rather than theses to defend. The focus throughout is on quarrying material useful for my own reflections on contemporary Catholic integralism. If the reader finds them useful, too, in some very small way, then so much the better.

[1094a1--The Bekker numbers in brackets are approximate--I was going to look them up and specifiy them more precisely, but honestly I can't be bothered.]

Politics is the "most authoritative art, and indeed the master art" (κυριωτάτης καὶ μάλιστα ἀρχιτεκτονικῆς). Note the Greek here: κυριωτάτης, reminiscent of "lordly" (compare "Κύριε ἐλέησον" or "κύριος Ἰησοῦς") and μάλιστα  ἀρχιτεκτονικῆς, "most architectonic" (compare Mark 6:3, "οὐκ οὗτος ἐστιν ὁ τέκτων, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς Μαρίας?" [Isn't this the Carpenter (ὁ τέκτων), the Son of Mary?"]). Taking admittedly unwarranted liberties with the text, we might say:
Politics is the Lord's art, the Maker's art. 
Aristotle has just begun his discussion, and already whispering between the lines of the Greek we find not only the connection between politics and God in some general, Deist sense, but a politics always already haunted by a very specific God--the Lord, the Carpenter.

[P]olitics... (πολιτικὴ) ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state (πόλις), and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them . . . .
This is the reason why politics is "the most authoritative art and that which is the master art." Moreover, this means that, rightly understood, politics just is integralism, and integralism just is politics. Politics orders our education. But education orders our souls--rightly or wrongly, depending upon what is taught, how, and by whom.

Since... [politics] legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end (τέλος) of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a πόλις, that of the πόλις seems at all events something greater both to attain and to preserve; for though it is worthwhile to attain the τέλος merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike (θειότερον) to attain it for a nation or a state (ἔθνει καὶ πόλεσιν).
Here, of course, we already have the superiority of the "common good" over that of the individual person insisted upon by Charles De Koninck.

Perhaps more surprisingly, here we also have not merely πόλις, but ἔθνος. So although a certain cosmopolitanism is doubtless demanded by the catholicity of the Church, we find in the order of nature as described by the Philosopher a place for the common good of an ἔθνος. Perhaps one wishing to protect the common good of an ἔθνος (nation) might be called a "national conservative." It may be doubted whether any national patriotism ought to survive in the order of grace, where there is "neither Jew nor Greek." But since grace perfects nature, it would seem that the City of Man may have its nations. just as the City of God, even, has not merely its clerics, but its laymen, too.

Here we are told that politics doesn't admit of mathematical precision. Aristotle gives us Burkean humanism, not Marxian economism. The attempt to substitute mathematics for prudence in modern political economy is folly.

[1095a1] Here we are told that the "young and rash" don't benefit from instruction in politics. The young lack the knowledge that comes from experience. The rash fail to benefit from knowledge, like the morally incontinent. A possible implication would be that neither the young nor felons (who have proven themselves rash) should enjoy the franchise.

We must begin with what is familiar to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and generally, about the subject of political science, must be brought up in good habits. [1095b1]
First note that the "noble and just" are "the subject of political science." This has direct application for whether Catholic Social Teaching is an authoritative teaching on faith and morals: the "noble and just" are moral matters. If politics just is a quest for the noble and just, then it is necessarily within the purview of the Magisterium.

Second, note that education--viz., a virtuous upbringing--is indispensable to right political deliberation. (Virtue ethics is premised upon the importance of habit.  We must continually cultivate virtue, which is a characterological condition, not an evaluation of discrete acts.) Two caveats: 1. Some few are able to reform and acquire some of this education of their moral sentiments in later life after a bad upbringing. 2. This education is not a matter of some gnostic technocratic meritocracy--it is a matter of the cultivation of virtue. In that regard, most of our present elite of "merit" is very maleducated indeed.

 [1095b1] Here, we are told that there are three types of life--the life of pleasure, the political life, and the contemplative life. The "life of pleasure" looks suspiciously like the sinful life of the prodigal. Then the latter look like the lives of laymen and vowed religious, respectively. But to leave it there is too bourgeois-republican and Protestant (but I repeat myself) a view. Aristotle also gives us this Dalrymplean sentiment here:

Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts. 

So consider the philosophers, warriors, and producers in Plato's Republic, corresponding to the intellect, will, and appetite in the soul. Nietzsche was right in some ways when he called Christianity "Platonism for the masses."  And the three estates of medieval society--clergy, nobility, and commons--gave the world a practical Platonic republic, presided over by the Philosopher-King in Rome.

Aristotle's "mass of men" here are the farmers and mechanics, and perhaps the merchants as well. Experience tells us that most men do prefer low entertainments, junk food, and vice. The Tao Te Ching tells us to keep the peasant masses fed but ignorant. Mencius tells us every man is innately good. The sane middle ground is to acknowledge original sin, but strive to cultivate virtue. Plato emphasizes the productive mass's need for temperance. Jeffersonian democracy tried to create a temperate republic. It was succeeded by Jacksonian democracy, which more often let the demos run riot. Perhaps the mass of men are innately--viz., genetically--such. Perhaps education in virtue, tutelage by the Church, can indeed bring Platonic temperance to the masses. Reality is likely a mix of both--the Church ever striving to broaden and deepen the virtue of the mass of men, and succeeding in making sturdy yeoman saints some of the time, and failing with other men.

Because the Church will not make every man a saint--to think otherwise is utopianism--there will always be not only contemplation for our philosopher-king clergy, and politics for men educated into habits of virtue enough that they deliberate aright, but a massa damnata of poor in faith we shall always have with us, living a life of pleasure. For them, the statesman can and should take Lao Tzu's advice--leave them to their folly, and don't try to make New Soviet Men of them. But for the Church, such men--and they are not at all limited to the stupid or the penniless--are a continual mission field. We cannot hope on this side of purgatory to bring every man to virtue--perhaps least of all me--but we strive nonetheless to fulfill Our Lord's Commission. If we do not make allowance for the existence of this group whom I'll call (with the Heraclitean distinction between wet and dry souls in mind) the massa inebriata (who will ever choose moonshine and sloth over temperance and uplift), then we are in a continual cycle of Protestant Reform, oscillating between Roundheads and  Jacobins and  Red Guards, and then Jacksonians and Restoration rakes and an amoral commercial republic of consumers, over and over again. Every deviation from a mixed polity has its characteristic failure modes. Democratical polity degenerates into ochlocratic democracy, and then into tyranny.  The Roundhead congregationalist and the democratic republican (but I repeat myself) make no allowances for the fact that not every man in the masses will be a Praise-God Barebone or a Stakhanov. So their Jeffersonian politics is like universalist theology--it ignores reality, and runs into madness.

A proper polity will balance the three estates, and so keep the pleasure-seeking of the masses politically in check. In our time, the soldiery isn't a proper estate anymore, and we see that fascism has failed, running into hideous follies of its own by letting not the serf, but the soldier run riot. Moreover, any Ibero-fascist vision of a state of humble producers, Spartan soldiers, and Catholic priests is a foolish utopianism of its own for us, not least because of changed material conditions from not only the agrarian city states of Plato's and Aristotle's time, but from the societies transitioning from farming to Fordism that embraced fascism.

Against the utopian urge to immanentize the eschaton, I would propose an oddball mixture of Dorothy Day and Michael Oakeshott: Think apocalyptically; act incrementally. Through attempts to re-integrate religion into public life, and to make some men more fit for political deliberation, we can attempt to forge a mixed polity from within our consumerist ochlocracy, by incrementally adding more of the contemplative and the truly political--the noble and the just--to today's pleasure-seeking Anglo-American liberal democratic republic.

[1095b1] Here we are told that honor is "roughly speaking, the τέλος of politics."  Again, we see that while a Gelasian dyarchy presiding over three estates concerns us all, the "political life" is neither the life of the massa inebriata, nor specifically that of the contemplative clergy, but most properly that of the will to the noble and just, the warrior guardians standing between the philosopher kings and the idiocy of the crowd. The restriction of the franchise (or at least the franchise for some upper house) to men who've served in the military--Heinlein's old chestnut--is perhaps implied by this. However, the illusion that the soldiery--either the fascist thugs of yore or the PowerPoint jockeys of today--is free from vice is itself a dangerous one. Indeed, the old Tory preference for the militia over the military, perhaps an indirect ancestor of the Second Amendment of our admittedly Whiggish Constitution, is probably a better seed for further reflection here than a jejune utopia of starship fascists.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Divine Poverty, Divine Helplessness

We have a newborn at home. I've been thinking a lot about Dr. Harvey Karp's idea of the
"fourth trimester": the brain cannot complete its development prior to birth, because if it did, the baby's head wouldn't fit through the birth canal. Or, alternatively, according to some researchers, because human brain development needs to occur in the context of hearing speech and observing the environment. In either case, human infants are uniquely helpless among mammals: a newborn foal, for instance, will start walking within hours, whereas for neurological reasons, a newborn human cannot.

God, on the other hand is omnipotent, impassible, and characterized by aseity: almighty, not prone to harm or suffering of any kind, and utterly, utterly independent. God as He Is in Himself could not suffer, and could not die. To suffer and die for us, St. Athanasius explains in his classic On the Incarnation, God had to take mortal flesh. Only we mortals can suffer and die.

At the nativity, God Almighty was born as a "fourth trimester" human infant: the most helpless of all the mammals. From limitless power, invulnerability to suffering, and complete independence, Our Creator was born a tiny creature powerless, oh so fragile, and completely, helplessly dependent upon His Mother.

The Third Joyful Mystery of the Rosary is the Nativity, in which we pray for the virtue of being Poor in Spirit. And what greater poverty of spirit could there be than this--to surrender power over for the whole whirling cosmos for powerlessness, to surrender invulnerability for fragility, to surrender painlessness for pain, to surrender independence for helplessness, to surrender the form of God to put on the form of a slave?

Christ told the rich young man to give away all he had to the poor. This was no idle bit of sanctimony. Jesus Christ, God in suffering flesh, knows more than any of us can ever fathom what it is to have all the cosmos, and surrender it all. To give away infinite riches, and be poor and helpless as only a human infant can be. He did this. For you. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire: Disqus.

I'm trying out Disqus comments, since the lack of subthreading in typical Blogger comments strikes me as an obstacle to the potential for good conversation.

It would appear that no one's avatar from the old comments I imported survived unscathed--including even my own. Instead, all of us have had our avatars in the pre-Disqus transition comments replaced by the "default" avatar I selected for commenters without Disqus accounts. Sorry about that. I hope for those of you already using Disqus accounts that the system will recognize them going forward.

(In case you're interested: that default image is of a scribe I imagine to be writing marginalia of his own, and in keeping with the "Christ Enthroned from the Book of Kells" background theme of the desktop version of this blog, the image is taken from a manuscript of Giraldus Cambrensis' Topographia Hibernica.)

If you do happen to comment here or on any other post, I'd be grateful to know if the Disqus system is causing any aggravation. If it's a pain, I'll scrap it. Thanks.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Burning zeal--but not for God's House

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”   --John 2:13-17
In a recent thread on a (thankfully unrelated) Catholic clergy sex scandal, Rod Dreher had occasion to comment regarding the pederasty scandals that:
One of the enduring mysteries of the sex abuse scandal is why some men in these parishes — cousins of the abuse victims, somebody — didn’t take these pervert priests out and teach them a hard lesson. I’m not remotely a tough buy, but anybody who harmed one of my kids in that way would count themselves fortunate if they weren’t permanently crippled by what I would do to them.
I am just the same.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Steel Rule of St. Benedict

{Content warning: This post is ridiculously long.}

Today, let's mash up the Benedict Option (BenOpt) Dark Ages and the neoreactionary (NRx) Dark Enlightenment (DE).  Not that I'm a fan of the DE: I'm not at all a "theonomist" in my traditionalism, but this NRx admission rings true to me: When theonomists scrutinize ethno-nationalists and techno-commercialists they see evil heathens. That's about it. But let's compare notes anyway, and see what spoils we can cart away from Egypt, for as St. Augustine advises, "whatever has been rightly said by the heathen," even the evil heathen, "we must appropriate to our uses": 

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,--that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,--we must take and turn to a Christian use.
De Doctrina Christiana, II, xl.

So, first, where are we Catholic trads coming from as we slog through our culture's descent into a decadent dark age?  Well, here's the BenOp urtext:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

So, our hopes are not in the Empire anymore. And neither are those of NRx blogfather Mencius Moldbug. Instead of political participation of any kind, Moldbug advocates a Steel Rule of Passivism as demanding in its limited way as the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability demanded by the Rule of St. Benedict. NRxer Warg Franklin introduces Moldbug's turning away into Passivism in the context of Moldbug's tripartite Procedure for accepting (not seizing, accepting) power:
In his Gentle Introduction, Part 9a, Mencius Moldbug introduces a neat little political methodology he calls "Passivism", and a Procedure to replace the current political machinery, which rots evilly in the Potomac swamp and stinks up this entire half of the world, with some shining and efficient New Structure fit for the 21st century....
The core of The Procedure is a three step general purpose program for solving problems of inadequate or rogue political machinery:
  1. Become Worthy
  2. Accept Power
  3. Rule
It sounds facetious. It's not. Let's unpack.

Yes. Let's.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Newman Options

One of the reasons Rod Dreher often cites for the necessity of a Benedict Option is the way that secular universities have become in some ways actively anti-Christian. And, indeed, there's much to be said for encouraging one's Catholic children to attend the sort of supportive, faith-nurturing universities highlighted in the Cardinal Newman Society's recommended colleges. But not all the college-bound will attend rigorously orthodox, welcoming and warm Catholic colleges. Many will--and should, for whatever reason--attend secular universities, whether public or private.

In contexts like that the campus Catholic chapel, often called a Newman Center, can be an oasis. Indeed, the Newman Center at UMass Amherst (where I was then taking posbacs for my erstwhile career as a math teacher) played an irreplaceable role in my own journey home to Rome.  So I was delighted to read that some Newman Centers are taking things to a whole new level, essentially creating a BenOp not of separate colleges, but of Christ-saturated life within secular universities, through the creation of "Newman Halls," that is, Catholic-focused dorms centered on Newman Center chapels.

This is a very, very promising development. I learned of it through a great story in the National Catholic Register, and I hope you'll take the time to tolle, lege, especially if you're an academic in a position to help build something like this at your own school. 

Murphys' Law

An early form of Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer runs:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
The courage to change what can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the one from the other.
We cannot, in the present political moment, pass gun sensible control legislation in this country. However advisable it would (indeed) be, it cannot, in any case, presently be done.

However, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.) are attempting to move mental health legislation through the Congress that looks like it might do a great deal of good, and, what's more, looks like it might actually have a chance of passing. The Murphys' law not only contains much that would help the mentally ill in a variety of contexts, but also contains much that could help prevent the mentally unbalanced from being untreated and likely to engage in a mass shooting.  This is not, sadly, sensible gun control. But it's still a really big deal in its own right.

I enjoy my potshots at Vox, but Michelle Hackman of Vox has a very fine rundown of this very worthwhile American initiative:  take it up, and read.

Abortion is (not first degree) murder

In the same post at Rod Dreher's about abortion rhetoric, I attempted to explain to a friendly pro-choice interlocutor why our intuitions differ about the rhetorical propriety of the phrase “abortion is murder.” A lightly edited version of my comment follows below the fold:

Jesus loves Mengele

Rod Dreher had a post up recently about the rhetoric in America's interminable abortion debates. I had been commenting to defend the typical pro-life statement that "abortion is murder" (which it is), and the propriety of comparing abortionists to Nazi medical experimenter Josef Mengele (since both, despite many admittedly salient differences, are examples of vivisectionists). Meanwhile, a fellow Christian pro-lifer intervened with what I took to be a distressing callousness regarding the deaths during the recent Planned Parenthood clinic shooting in Colorado Springs. 

I humbly propose that what follows is worth reading not only as an intervention in the abortion discussion, but more so as a reflection on how we ought to think about the infinite compassion of Our Incarnate Lord.

What follows below the fold is a lightly edited transcript of my comments in response to this fellow Christian, beginning with a quotation from his remarks:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Discourse on method

A while back, Rod Dreher had a post that led to a discussion in the comments about scientism and related matters. One of my comments ended up being a sort of book report on Gilson’s Methodical Realism (“MR”), which I excerpt below the fold with light edits:

Friday, October 16, 2015

Something for the Synod on the Family to mull over

From today's Office of Readings:
[Y]ou cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and wailing, because He now refuses to consider the offering or to accept it from your hands. And you ask, "Why?"
It is because the Lord stands as witness between you and the wife of your youth, the wife with whom you have broken faith, even though she was your partner and your wife by covenant. Did He not create a single being that has flesh and the breath of life? And what is this single being destined for? God-given offspring. Be careful for your own life, therefore, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.
For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and I hate people to parade their sins on their cloaks, says the Lord of Hosts. Respect your own life, therefore, and do not break faith like this.
--Malachi,  2:13-16

So those who betray their one-flesh union ought not to parade their sins before the altar of the Lord in expectation that the Lord will find their participation in the Sacrifice on the altar acceptable. The pastoral application regarding reception of the Holy Eucharist by the divorced and remarried is left as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nomenclatural housekeeping note

I finally got around to creating a gmail address as "Irenist," because almost everyone I interact with online knows me under that handle, so signing my posts as "Tom" (my IRL name) felt odd. Future posts and comments will (assuming I remember which account I'm logged into) be posted as Irenist.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Prattle of Tours

I've been reading the "History of the Franks" by the sixth-century chronicler, Bishop Gregory of Tours. Gregory has a number of interesting things to say, and I'll keep adding to this post as I notice things. To start us off, Gregory's first book, as so often with medieval annalists and chroniclers, begins with the history recounted in the Bible and classical sources, in order to situate the local and recent within the context of the universal and ancient. Gregory makes two Biblical points that, although perhaps not original to him, were new to me (or if not, I had forgotten them) and quite interesting:
[As Adam] slept a rib was taken from him and the woman, Eve, was created. There is no doubt that this first man Adam before he sinned typified the Redeemer. For as the Redeemer slept in the stupor of suffering and caused water and blood to issue from his side, he brought into existence the virgin and unspotted church, redeemed by blood, purified by water, having no spot or wrinkle, that is, washed with water to avoid a spot, stretched on the cross to avoid a wrinkle.
This analogy (Adam's rib:Eve :: Christ's side: His Bride the Church) is delightful, and for me novel. Indeed, much as the aqedah (Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac) really makes sense only in light of God's sacrifice of His Own Son (on the same mountain, some say), so the conjugal union of Adam and Eve as prefigurement of Christ and the Church makes sense of what otherwise seems a rather odd and unmotivated part of the Creation story. In both cases, what looks arbitrary and absurd in the Hebrew Bible taken alone looks artful and profound when placed in the Bible's key context: Christ.
For forty years... the Israelites dwelt in the desert and familiarized themselves with their laws, and lived on the food of the angels. Once they had assimilated the Law, they crossed the Jordan with Joshua and were given permission to enter the Promised Land.
St. Paul often inverts Old Testament dichotomies so that, e.g., instead of Isaac standing for Israel and Ishmael for the gentiles, Paul, contra the literal genealogies, has Ishmael stand for Israel, and Isaac for the Christian Church. Something similar might be in Gregory's mind here. As we know, of all the Old Testament figures from whom Christ might've taken His name, He chose to be born with the name of Joshua (identical to Jesus when both are in the Aramaic or Hebrew). And Joshua is the conqueror, who, like Christus Victor, leads the people beyond what Moses can give them and into the Promised Land. And so in Gregory, we see that the Law had to be assimilated before the people were ready for Joshua to lead them into the Promise. And this is precisely how Christianity views Jewish monotheism: as a legalistic particularism necessary to build up enough awe of the One God distinct from pagan idols, such that when Christ came, His identity would be a Trinitarian shock, and not merely assimilated to some local pantheon like a Dionysus or Krishna figure. And thus, we have the long years of "assimilating the Law" identified, in Pauline fashion, not with the Promised Land, but with the wandering in the desert that needed to precede it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Back in June, over at Charles Stross' blog, guest blogger Hugh Hancock asked why Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is so popular a setting for "shared universe" fiction, and answered:
The Cthulhu Mythos is almost 100 years old. [But] it's the most modern part of our mythology that we're allowed to access....
It's not terribly uncommon -- to put it mildly -- to see articles complaining about Hollywood's unoriginality. Hollywood puts out sequel after sequel, and when the studios do vary things by starting on "new" material, it's usually material that has been proven in another medium, from the Hunger Games to Guardians of the Galaxy....
I think Hollywood's onto something, and has been for some time. And that thing is mythology.
From Star Wars, to the Marvelverse, to - well, every other thing with a "-verse" after it - the biggest movies are those which tap into a mythic quality. Often they'll simply hint at other parts of the universe, at mythic heroes or elements of their universe with powerful resonance....
As storytellers, we want to interact with the myths of our age. They have a meaning beyond just the stories, serving as filters for universal archetypes. And they need to be **set* before they can be used: a new character in a new world doesn't have the power of myth, but a character we've grown up with as a god-like figure in our stories does....
But most of our myths are locked up beyond our reach.
Thanks to various intellectual property laws, notably copyright, any mythic figure created after approximately 1920 has a unique custodian. That's an incredibly powerful position, and it's responsible for the positions of most of the nobility of storytelling today. In the film world and the comics world, in particular, there are sharp deliniations between the studios -- the myth-holders, the nobles -- and everyone else.
The former can make far more money than the latter. Why? Because of their hold on our myths. The public hungers to see tales of their mythic heroes, as they have throughout history. It's an incredibly powerful draw, and possibly the only thing sustaining the top-heavy world of moviemaking as it is today.
But the result is that storytellers can't access most of their mythworld. We reach for our mythic figures, but we can't touch them; at least, not without risking legal battles that we'll almost certainly lose. And we definitely, definitely can't do what storytellers have been doing for the rest of humanity's existence, which is tell tales of our myths for money....
And so we reach for the most recent myths we can access: things that still have some mythic resonance, even if that resonance is faded in comparison to James Bond, Star Wars or Middle Earth.
And the most recent mythic tales with any great power? The Cthulhu Mythos. Reaching further back, there are a few more; vampire fiction supplies a few, of which Dracula is by far the best known, and Sherlock Holmes is another.
We can also attempt to tell tales of more recent myths with the serial numbers filed off. The wave of fantasy fiction in the '80s and arguably the rise of D&D both demonstrate that. But it's not as powerful, nor as satisfying.
And we can create our own mythic figures and attempt to rise to the nobility. That's been the path for most really successful novelists, from Charlie's Laundryverse (there's that -verse suffix again) to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, to Iain M. Banks' Culture, George R. R. Martin's Song Of Ice And Fire, and so on....
Of course, there's a real danger here. As time marches forward, thanks to the magic of ever-extending copyright terms, the list of myths that we've got access to remains static. They become steadily less useful as myths for our current culture. For example, it's been noticable over the last couple of decades that the Cthulhu Mythos' original obsession with secretive, backward cults of non-white people has become more and more of a problem.
But there's no real prospect that anything's going to successfully change that status quo in the near future....
Will Cthulhu ever become less popular? Only if copyright terms stop extending, and Disney's prevented that so far.
So, oddly enough, the fate of Cthulhu rests with Mickey Mouse.

Hancock points to one of the many serious problems with Disney's lobbying of Congress for ever longer copyright terms (as long as it takes to keep Mickey Mouse, first introduced in the 1928 silent film Steamboat Willie, out of the public domain), terms likely to go nigh-irrevocably global soon in the wake of successful negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement

Of course, long before modern I.P. law, artists were already forced to forge their own myths. And this is a new situation, and one that comes with secularity. As Charles Taylor explains in the tenth chapter of A Secular Age:
The creation of this free space has been made possible in large part by the shift in the place and understanding of art that came in the Romantic period. This is related to the shift from an understanding of art as mimesis to one that stresses creation. It concerns what one could call the languages of art, that is, the publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters draw on. As Shakespeare could draw on the correspondences to make us feel the full horror of the act of regicide, to recur to the case I cited above. He has a servant report the "unnatural" events that have been evoked in sympathy with this terrible deed: the night in which Duncan is murdered is an unruly one, with "lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death", and it remains dark even though the day should have started. On the previous Tuesday a falcon had been killed by a mousing owl, and Duncans horses turned wild in the night, "Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would / Make war with mankind." In a similar way, painting could draw on the publicly understood objects of divine and secular history, events and personages which had heightened mean¬ing, as it were, built into them, like the Madonna and Child or the oath of the Horatii.
But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us. Few now believe the doctrine of the correspondences, as this was accepted in the Renaissance, and neither divine or secular history has a generally accepted significance. It is not that one cannot write a poem about the correspondences. Precisely, Baudelaire did. It is rather that this can't draw on the simple acceptance of the formerly public doctrines. The poet himself didn't subscribe to them in their canonical form. He is getting at something different, some personal vision he is trying to triangulate to through this historical reference, the "forest of symbols" that he sees in the world around him. But to grasp this forest, we need to understand not so much the erstwhile public doctrine (about which no one remembers any details anyway) but, as we might put it, the way it resonates in the poet's sensibility. 
To take another example, Rilke speaks of angels. But his angels are not to be understood by their place in the traditionally defined order. Rather, we have to triangulate to the meaning of the term through the whole range of images with which Rilke articulates his sense of things. "Wer, wenn Ich schrie, horte mich, aus der Engel Ordnungen?", begin the Duino Elegies. Their being beyond these cries partly defines these angels. We cannot get at them through a mediaeval treatise on the ranks of cherubim and seraphim, but we have to pass through this articulation of Rilke's sensibility.
We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility. Earl Wasserman has shown how the decline of the old order with its established background of meanings made necessary the development of new poetic languages in the Romantic period. Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelley, this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable. As Wasserman explains it, "Until the end of the eighteenth century there was sufficient intellectual homogeneity for men to share certain assumptions ... In varying degrees, ... men accepted ... the Christian interpretation of history, the sacramentalism of nature, the Great Chain of Being, the analogy of the various planes of creation, the conception of man as microcosm.... These were cosmic syntaxes in the public domain; and the poet could afford to think of his art as imitative of 'nature' since these patterns were what he meant by 'nature'.
"By the nineteenth century these world-pictures had passed from consciousness. The change from a mimetic to a creative conception of poetry is not merely a critical philosophical phenomenon ... Now ... an additional formulative act was required of the poet. ... Within itself the modern poem must both formulate its cosmic syntax and shape the autonomous poetic reality that the cosmic syntax permits; 'nature', which was once prior to the poem and available for imitation, now shares with the poem a common origin in the poet's creativity."
The Romantic poets and their successors have to articulate an original vision of the cosmos. When Wordsworth and Hölderlin describe the natural world around us, in The PreludeThe Rhine, or Homecoming, they no longer play on an established gamut of references, as Pope could still do in Windsor Forest. They make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no established words. The poems are finding words for us. In this "subtler language" — the term is borrowed from Shelley — something is defined and created as well as manifested. A watershed has been passed in the history of literature.
There are many far more important benefits to being a Catholic Christian. But among the fringe benefits: at least our mythos isn't copyrighted!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tea Theodicy

God is perfect. Indeed, He is Perfection.

What would be interesting for a Perfect Artist to create? The imperfect:

He is an Artist:

Hath not the Potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
--Romans 9:21

The imperfect does not fail to please Him:

He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 
--2 Corinthians 12:9

What sort of art is this?

Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental. 
--Leonard Koren

Wabi sabi is an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly the tea ceremony, a ritual of purity and simplicity in which masters prized bowls that were handmade and irregularly shaped, with uneven glaze, cracks, and a perverse beauty in their deliberate imperfection. The Japanese philosophy celebrates beauty in what's natural, flaws and all. The antique bowls above are prized because of (not in spite of) their drips and cracks. What if we learned to prize the drips and cracks in our messy lives? 
--Gretchen Roberts

Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly. Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.
--Robin Griggs Lawrence

The tea-room (the Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage—a straw hut, as we call Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving some thing unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.
--Okakura Kakuzō

But what if this imperfection is something more? Okakura tells us that "Perfection is everywhere if we only choose to recognise it."

Evoking the perfection in imperfection the tea master Sen no Rikyū often used to quote a poem by Fujiwara Ietaka:

Show them who wait
Only for flowers
There in the mountain villages:
Grass peeks through the snow,
And with it, spring.

Perhaps everywhere we look we see agony and death, we see the Cross. But of such does God make Easter, of such cracked tea cups does the Potter make perfect art. By His grace, in our weakness is His power.

Do you see snow? Look again: a field of white lilies.