Intelligence

νοῦν δή τις εἰπὼν ἐνεῖναι, καθάπερ ἐν τοῖς ζῴοις, καὶ ἐν τῇ φύσει τὸν αἴτιον τοῦ κόσμου καὶ τῆς τάξεως πάσης οἷον νήφων ἐφάνη παρ᾽ εἰκῇ λέγοντας τοὺς πρότερον.


Indeed, when someone said that there was in nature, just as in animals, a mind, a cause of the good, cosmic order and of all the arrangement of things, he seemed like a sober man compared to those before him, who argued otherwise.

-Aristotle, Metaphysics 984b

For the Love of God

Dear Ernest,

As, in my shameless, Victorian manner, I bemoaned and bewailed your long absence from our dialogue, in my lowest state of bereavement, when all hope had very nearly drained out from my lifeless heart, I began to imagine, though the very thought seemed to harrow me with an insurmountable consternation and perturbation, what would inevitably become of our nearly forgotten deliberation if, little by little, in small degrees, our letters became less and less frequent, less thoughtful, and altogether less interesting.  I quickly realised, as I evaluated this nightmarish fantasy of mine, that the whole situation would, without a doubt, be your fault entirely.  This was only a matter of elementary reasoning, for after all, you were the one who, in my imagining, stooped to writing a letter about the proper cultivation techniques for growing eggplants, and to so dully penned an expository, I could hardly be blamed for responding with a comment, however lengthy or tedious, on the economic and culinary benefits of owning a refrigerator.  I need hardly mention your spiritless droning on over the superiority of the colour blue to all others, and my response, a mere ‘sup’, was simply the best answer that I, or even the most masterful and creative intellectual, could ever muster.  In short, the gradual decline of standards, and the incremental deterioration in quality, while perhaps expressing itself in my letters just as much as in yours, was solely and unmistakably the fault of your own failure to provide interesting content, which, while bad enough in itself, also accounted in full for my own demise into an unending literary lifelessness.

In your last letter, when quoting a very clever gentleman: ““How can an earthly purpose point to a heavenly one?””

Anyway, now that so much is cleared up, I’d like to discuss something else: the love of God.  I recently had a conversation with someone about the theological doctrine of Penal Substitution (Jesus dying from the sins of man).  In an attempt to point out how ridiculous the whole idea is, my philosophical friend said something along these lines: “If John Somebody steals a cup of tea from Don Quixote, and for that offence, you sentence Sancho Panza to thirty years in prison, then you’re not upholding justice and mercy at the same time, you’re just being a jerk to Sancho Panza”.  In retrospect, I realise that the best response would have been to point out that everyone is a jerk to Panza, even Don Quixote.  But since this is an intellectual blog, and at that, one of certain standards, I’ll offer a more thoughtful response:

The problem with this quixotic situation is simply the choice of third-person narrative.  Penal Substitution is a doctrine based on the circular reciprocity of requited love.  By this I mean that if, for example, Romeo loves Juliet, then one of his greatest objectives in life is to keep her happy and healthy.  However, if Juliet requites Romeo’s love, then a large part of serving her means, for Romeo, taking care also of himself.  In this way, love is a lot like writing letters back and forth: the better one letter, the better its response, and if Romeo is well off, then Juliet will be also, which is the lover’s greatest concern.  By loving Juliet, Romeo has not taken away resources from himself—though it may seem like this at first—but rather, he has increased the over all purposes that he and Juliet collectively possess for staying alive.  Obviously, Shakespeare is a bad example, seeing that Romeo and Juliet were never actually in love, but it serves our philosophical purposes just fine.

Between God and man, there is a very similar drama, only man is not well off, and therefore, God will suffer.  And He does.  Penal Substitution doesn’t mean choosing a third-party at random to suffer for the crimes of another; rather, it means that, when man has turned from God, such that either he or God must pay, Jesus chooses Himself.  After all, in the third-person, it doesn’t make much sense that one man should need to die in order that another might live, but the situation does in fact arise, and the Christian answer to the conflict is different for each narrative.  In the first-person, the crucifixion illustrates that the proper answer is, ‘I die’, and in the second person, the resurrection tells us to answer, ‘you live’.  But if, as humans, we respond gratefully to both of these divine answers, saying back to Jesus, ‘I am dead in my sins’ (Ephesians 2:1), come, ‘you live’ inside of me, then the third-person narrative will have no mention of death at all: ‘He lives’.

I propose that pointing earthly purposes to heavenly one’s is all a matter of Imitation Christis.  If on Earth, we can experience this drama in the first person, not just reading about it in books and obscure theological doctrines, but actually knowing Jesus in the second-person—as a You, not a Him—then having been so deeply loved, we will find it difficult to respond in any other way toward others.  We are the recipients of an incredible letter, to which, if we offer any reply at all, everything we write thereafter will bear a resemblance, and gradually, by small degrees, our Earthly story will be transformed into something very near a Heavenly one; we will understand other characters in the text more thoroughly and love the more fully than ever before—and indeed, this entire literary revolution, the demise of the old and rise of the new, will be entirely and unmistakably His fault.

 

Your Servant,

TWM

The Rebirth of the Author

My Dear and Idle Ernest,

What follows is a brief thought-piece that I humbly put forth as a response to Ronald Barthes’ infamous essay, The Death of the Author.  Let it be clear to everyone reading that I do not mean to suggest, by publishing this during such a fallow period in your output, that you are somehow dead or lifeless–in a literary sense or otherwise–but I rather intend this merely as a bit of ‘intermission-music’, as it were, something to entertain us all philologically and philosophically while we await, with a psychological eagerness, your next philomathological letter.  Pardon my Greek.

While I don’t think you have to read Barthes in order to understand and enjoy what follows, I have provided a link to his essay above for those who are interested.  If you get bored, skip to the last paragraph.

Your Servant,

TWM

The Rebirth of the Author

In any act of reading, listening, or conversing, there is always entailed, whether in the foreground or background of thoughts, an ongoing exercise of information management, a process wherein the raw material passed from orator to auditor, or from writer to reader, as the case may be, is instantaneously converted into something else, some extracted object of greater relevance to the personal interests of the receiving agent than the mere words presented—that is to say, an interpretation.  And it is this interpretive process that we rightly regard as the ultimate source of all human rhetoric, the faculty alone responsible for our capacity to assign any significance whatsoever to the language of other people—a faculty, without which, every external exchange of words would be utterly inconsequential, a futile production of sounds or symbols that has no effect on the observer beyond a mere stimulation of physical senses.  Indeed, if we imagine a world without this normative process of interpretation, we quickly see the greatest philosophical pitfall of strict Empiricism, finding ourselves in a place where all objects, persons, words, and sounds, deprived of their corresponding Platonic Forms, immediately lose their entire meaning upon entering the mind of an observer, for the receiver of all such information, if lacking in this capacity, will be unable to do anything more with it than to remember how it was presented ‘word for word’.

But it is the profound enablement of the true cognitive model, this inevitable habit of the human mind, that it allows for endless possible linguistic choices to express a single idea, so that the abstract object of an ‘interpretation’ may be realised in whatever one concrete manner is most fitting to a particular context.  As a result, a reader may discuss wisdom found in books without direct quotation, a teacher may instruct his or her pupils based on knowledge rather than on words, and a student may be properly equipped, by virtue of a purely normative education, to solve real-world problems that never even arose in the theoretical realm of the classroom.  This is all due to the remarkable and unequaled paradigm of human communication: any given exchange of words in any given context may bear future consequence precisely because, for all parties involved, the corresponding ideas transcend and stand apart from every mode of expression by which they are put forth.

But we must also appreciate the equally profound danger of this paradigm.  The moment one interpretation has been extracted from a text, countless other possibilities, along with all their corresponding ideas and consequences, have been lost.  If after such has taken place, a single reader puts forth his or her interpretation as ‘the correct reading’ or the ‘authoritative perspective’, that is to say, the precise meaning that the author has intended, he or she will utterly miss all of those other abstract possibilities, which stand, while perhaps not in contention with the reader’s own, at the very least, as an invaluable elaboration or extension to what a single person can interpret alone.  It only stands to reason that any object extracted from another is always but a subset of the whole, so that the whole meaning of a text is always larger and more complicated than that of any extracted interpretation.

It is in light of this enablement and this danger that I hereby propose ‘a verbatim doctrine of philology’, that is, most generally, a methodological philosophy of literature wherein the text is always preeminent to the interpretation.  Indeed, the text is held as a dictionary of its own meaning, such that any rewording of its ideas or translation of its content, while valuable in a particular context, is yet understood as something short of the full situation presented by the author verbatim.  As may be deduced from the doctrine’s carefully chosen title, I regard this methodology as itself an interpretation of the omnipresent axiom found verbatim in John i, 1 of the Latin vulgate: In principio erat Verbum.

By this philosophy, I mean to suggest that upon each reading of a text, its author is born again, becoming once more like a living person and speaking to the reader in a very intimate and humane manner.  The living author is able, thanks to the process of interpretation, to address the unique concerns of an individual reader or a foreign culture in a way that is deeply vivid, real, and novel, even without loosing all of the wonder and mystery that comes with a regard for authorial intent.  The full scope of a text, like the full scope of a human being, remains forever unconquered by analysis.  Just as a biography written of an author will never be tantamount to an encounter with the real person, so will no work of criticism ever suffice to substitute a work of literature itself—for the meaning of which one must always turn again to the source.  But both the immeasurable, personal influence that the Author yet holds over the reader, as well as the ongoing, universal consequence that He still bears on the future, remain irrefutable intimations that, in the mind of every reader, this so-called Author and Creator of all His work is indeed fully alive once again.

“Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας·”

“For the word of God is living and working continuously; it is more sharp than any double-edged sword, piercing even as far as the partition of the soul and spirit, and of joints and of marrow.  It is critical of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

 

Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM

I eat dead fish for breakfast

Dear Ernest,

Suppose you knew, before you began reading this sentence, that all material in this post will be the subject of an upcoming multiple choice test, on which, if you do well, you will be entitled to free tea for a month and whatever book selections might strike your fancy, but if you do poorly, you will be permitted, for the same duration, neither to read whatever you please nor to drink your daily Earl Grey, forced instead to memorise the phone book line by line while drinking three full cups of mystery tea, a horrifically pungent concoction of all the most repulsive herbs and leafs that can be found on God’s green earth.  With so much at stake, you will, of course, read what I have written a lot more carefully than you otherwise would, picking up nearly every subtle detail and turn of phrase with just as much attention and reverence as you would ordinarily extend to those pleasures I have wagered; indeed, your passion for understanding this piece will, by virtue of the agreement, immediately equal, and perhaps even surpass, the immeasurable zeal you already hold for choice literature and for those beverages that are somewhat less mysterious to you.  In short, you will subject yourself to so much psychological pressure, out of both a fear of consequences and faith in the prospective reward, that you will leave your mind with almost no degree of malleability, holding it instead to an absolutist regime of strict focus, discipline, and a refined sense of purpose.

In your last letter: “And what should we fear? Perhaps passivity of mind, for only dead fish swim with the stream.”

By agreeing to my wager, you will force yourself to do something that you already intended to do: to think.  But strangely, you will not accomplish this through any lofty intellectual exercise, but by a very simple, earthy means—a means by which we often tame animals—that is, by controlling what prospects lie directly ahead of you.  If you and I have both decided that we want to dedicate our lives to God, then at least in theory, we have a clear purpose in mind behind every thing we do—we always act purely out of love for Him—however,  as we wander this little planet of ours, miles below the heavens, such a purpose can often seem very far away from us, and pursuing it from where we stand at present can be like trying to follow, from the first letter to some distant period, one of my savagely magniloquent turns of phrase.  When reading a long sentence, we need to recognise smaller goals, such as parenthetical clauses, which are closer to the present word than is that long hoped for period at the end.  In the same way, when living life, we need to develop a hierarchy of purposes, where riding God’s grace to heaven is the ultimate end, within which, we include smaller, simpler things, like writing a blog, studying for a multiple choice exam, and reading a sentence for the sake of that very same exam.  If we want to achieve some lofty end with our writing—perhaps, to escape from the school of dead fish—then maybe we should begin with more obvious motivations, like entering an imaginary school of bloggers.

Ernest, I’ll be grading your letter on Tuesday.

 

Your servant,

TWM

Wandering out of Paradise

Dear Ernest,

When I consider how often I have, in light of careful observation, esteemed with high regard the astucity of your character, I then hold little doubt that you have noted, with equal wonder as have I, the astounding level of passivity with which many people appear to wander through the world, conducting their lives, it seems, as one heedlessly roams the streets of a darkened city, tending neither toward any purpose nor sense of destination.  Such people, we can only assume, are by no means exempted from the existential worries and struggles of an active mind, nor from any like burden, I imagine, that we ordinarily associate with an intellectual life style, for these supposed symptoms of the philosopher are really nothing more or less than the universal agonies of the human condition, and we find them inescapable in all modes of living, regardless of whether they are illuminated by the words of a scholar.  Contrary to what the new agers and postmodernists would have us believe, it seems that human nature is quite the same in any and all realms: the moment we engage with people, we find ourselves at war with them in some manner or another, but if we then retire to the secret worlds of our own minds, we will be equally at war with ourselves—move society from the physical plane of existence to a mode of being on the internet and shortly you will have the same defects pulsing through cyberspace as formerly infected the oceans and seven continents.  In short, there is no diversion from adversity, no respite from the enduring pains of human life, and no clever way out of the many problems and questions that are imposed on us from the moment we are born; all people are at all times and in all manners subject to the concerns that naturally come with being human.

In your last letter: “How are we to know about matters of ultimate faith?”

Commonly, faith is thought of as a kind of alternative to reason, a net to break the fall of a weary philosopher, or a blanket to gently conceal a difficult question from view, and by virtue of this cure for the disease known as philosophy, one is suddenly freed to rove the dark roads of this world without a care for reason or thought.  But such purposeless wandering seems to me neither desirable nor even feasible, for it is impossible to escape from the prospect of destination—as even wanderers end up somewhere else than they begin—and there must also exist a reason why any given destination is achieved.  So mustn’t faith be something more than this?  We seem to often lose the rich meaning of the original Greek whenever we talk of merely ‘believing’ in Jesus; the real issue is a matter of πιστεύειν, ‘trusting’ or ‘relying on’ him, which has less to do with determining that he should be trusted and more to do with the act of trusting itself.

Adam, the lover who follows his mate out of paradise, and Thaddeus, the fool who follows his mates off a cliff, have one thing in common: they are both forced to choose between two limited alternatives, to either satisfy their desire to live or else appease their fear of living without their mates, but they are no longer afforded the option of both.  When we meet Adam wandering out of paradise in the ninth book of Milton’s poem, we are confronted by a man who has already made a sacred covenant never to abandon his bride, so the moment Eve turns from him and from God, there is no longer such a thing as paradise; if Adam remains, he breaks his covenant and looses his integrity, but if he leaves, we already know what happens.  So considered, the decision is philosophically arbitrary—there is no intellectual reason that one kind of death should be preferred to another.  Adam is not deciding, at this point, where to place his faith, for he has already chosen, and wisely so, to entrust it in whole to a creature of perfection—Eve as she once was, but now this perfect being no longer exists, and the decision remains for him not as a question of what to trust, but whether he ought to trust at all.  He chooses πιστεύειν.  And this he does not as way out of relying on his own intellect, but even as the very exercise of that faculty.  Wandering out of paradise, very much like falling off a cliff, is something that people do reluctantly; no one marches forth from the garden of Eden with any show of confidence, nor do we often see people leaping from the tops of towering crags with great command—these are duties performed with a dragging of the heals or a covering of the eyes, not in the least with great zeal or assurance, but there is much reward for whoever is true to a good purpose, even if this means giving up everything or dying on a cross.

Whoever has found his life shall lose it, but he that has lost his life for Christ’s sake shall gain it.

 

Your servant,

TWM

 

Faith, Fear, and Fiction

My honourable Ernest,

By whatever trifles of insight my fastidious, observational nature has profited me over the years, I have come to regard the dealings of nearly all mankind as some composite exercise of no more than three essential virtues or vices, which may server either one’s honour or shame, summarising the human experience as a response to the prospective unknown, an artful compilation of but three elements, namely, of faith, fear, and fiction.  Of these, perhaps only the first strikes us quite evidently as being a virtue, while the latter two seem to be either vices or mere misfortunes, but I find myself convinced that these may follow, just as does faith, directly from the most universally recognised virtue: love, on account of which is it not but a show of prudence to fear on behalf of the beloved, or of grace to envision something better wherever there may be a deficiency?  And yet it seems that love, by which name we are apt, in modern parlance, to call nearly any form of deep affection or attachment, may serve just as well as a virtue or a vice—consider the ‘love’ of Romeo for Juliet, Dido for Aeneas, or perhaps even Adam for Eve.  For many, the handling of such cases is a simple matter of refining one’s definition of the word, ‘love’, whittling it down until it lacks all such splinters and no longer allows for these uncomfortable notions of self-destruction and depravity, but the fact that an ideological carpenter finds himself with so much sanding to be done demonstrates a complicated feature of human nature; there is a fine line, as it turns out, between love, the highest virtue, and hate, its utter opposite, which is the lowest vice.

We are left puzzling over just such a paradox when Milton depicts for us the role of love in losing paradise; I am referring mainly to the drama that unfolds in book nine of the Paradise Lost, the apex of which we might explore at line 896 and following.  Adam has yet to partake of the fruit, when he somehow finds time to unravel an entire speech to consider Eve’s demise and the human condition, doing so—quite miraculously it seems—without Eve hearing so much as a single word.  Our present focus lies in lines 904-8:

… Some cursed fraud

Of enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,

And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee

Certain my resolution is to Die:

How can I live without thee?

It is difficult to regard Adam’s love for Eve as a virtue, when it seems so distinctly, in this fictitious depiction, to serve as his hamartia.  Adam has invented a fiction, a beautiful, quixotic dream, that perhaps even the fallen Eve is the same woman whom he so loved from the start, perhaps he may yet find all the former beauty and splendour of the divine paradise even among its ruins.  Along with this fiction, which by an uneasy inclination we are tempted to consider a display of grace, he fears, and prudently so, what the future may be apart from Eve.  Ultimately it seems that for better or for worse and by virtue of his connubial duty to Eve, he has no choice but to invest total faith in the judgment of his beloved.  He is like the charismatic man who follows his friends when they all decide to jump off a cliff—for whom we may hold a certain admiration, regarding him, perhaps, as a charming and credulous fool, but more pragmatically, we must also fear for his own safety and well-being.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Milton’s drama is the way it ends.  Paradise is in fact Regained, and in some very bizarre sense, it seems the whole drama of all mankind is ultimately to be so reconciled.  On the other side of death, we know there is a resurrection, where by virtue of Adam’s vice, his absurd and inappropriate faith, he lives once more.  By God’s grace all that has been broken is redeemed to something better still than it once was; as if even the fall of man itself were in His plan.  In this way, it seems that something evil in itself may be used for a good end.  The crunching of an apple echoes throughout all eternity as an object of universal derision, but God has harmonised this disgraceful memory with sweeter tones than we could ever imagine, reworking the whole chorus of angels in heaven so that it may be all the more beautiful yet again.

 

Your servant,

TWM

The Atrocity Fallen

A crag that threatens not the heavens,
Towers atrocious over man, where brutal
The ridge extends as violent glory
Over-stands the conquered.
And he is like a haughty beast
That thunders horrendous the stone—
Still stands,
Firm the wretched peak,
While wandering zephyrs and down falling
The waters rushes; so run off the roughest pass
Hasty angst and idle labours;
Sediment falls like tears from the eyes,
And a precious child weeps alone;
Gradual, aggravate—
The gradient smooth.

“I am the resur…

“I am the resurrection and the life; even if he that entrusts himself to me were ever to die, he would live. And anyone that lives and trusts in me will never die into the age.” -John 11:25

A comment on my translation: My use of the restrictive pronoun for a personal agent is archaic but not improper.  It is more clear, even if it may be aesthetically displeasing.