Category Archives: philosophy

They lack nerves, and the tiny interior.

In this poem I recently encountered, the poet doesn’t say whether he himself believes in Platonic forms, only that “they” claim to know that this principle orders the minds of angels, and what the effects of its working is. It’s my understanding that Plato’s idea of forms is not in accord with Christian theology; one writer on the subject claims that “Maximus the Confessor remains to this day the single most important figure in Orthodox cosmological thought,” and that “his doctrine of the logoi of things can in no way be reduced to a static world of Platonic forms.” There is no Huge Principle, but there is Almighty God, the great “I am.”

Another thing I wonder about is the location of the “tiny interior” mentioned; I should think it is more in the heart than the brain, this place where the Maker shares His secrets. Both of my wonderings are based on my slight understanding of philosophy and theology; what I do feel more certain of is that angels are basically very different from humans. Christ took on human nature, because it was we humans who needed His solidarity with us, and His quickening of our dead spirits. But having been created “a little lower than the angels,” we were “crowned with honor and glory.”

Whatever all of the attributes of angel nature may be, it is given to us humans to enjoy the senses and their joys, which in the following poem by C.S. Lewis are seen as guards against the richer angel-type experiences that we could not in our earthiness bear. I see these sensory experiences as much more than that, and where the poet evokes the way they can fill our hearts to overflowing, such as when we “drink the whole summer down into the breast,” isn’t he describing more than a purely sensual experience? Quite possibly a thankful, prayerful heart can know mystical secrets of the trees and stones, as their secrets would be not other than whatever the Creator in kindness might reveal of Himself in and through them – and beyond.

ON BEING HUMAN

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know — the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
— An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang — can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
— An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

-C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.
(said Mr Homegrown)

Certain and deep green clover.

I drove more than an hour round trip to the dentist today and listened to A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton on the way. At the same time I was drinking in the information all my senses were sending me, especially the visual. Glory!

I stopped on the way home to take pictures, in the only spot that gave me room to pull over, and where there happened to be some fava beans growing in the field, maybe “drop-ins” (as my Syrian neighbor used to call volunteers) left over from a long-ago planting.

I was sad to hear on the recording about Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–270 BC) and how, according to this admittedly simplified and somewhat satiric introduction, he constantly doubted his senses and intuitions and even what common knowledge had been handed down through the ages. He focused on man’s inability to know anything for sure. Many funny legends — such as, his friends had to protect him from falling off cliffs, etc, because he couldn’t trust what his eyes were telling him, that he was on the cliff’s edge — are told about Pyrrho, who wrote nothing and probably was not as crazy as his Skeptic philosophy might have made him if carried to extremes.

I thought about what G.K. Chesterton said about modern skeptics: “It is assumed that the skeptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of skepticism.” 

As I was looking at the poppies and the green fields, the cows and blue sky and the clouds, yes, I was certain that I was not hallucinating. That was truly deep green clover and a purple flower. And I knew that God meant for me to receive all these gifts from nature and the Creator without doubting everything at the outset. We should protect our children from the skeptical mind which does pervade modern society in more subtle ways, so that their natural human receptivity to the world and inclination to believe are not deadened. The best way to guard their minds against error is not to teach them to doubt, but to nurture them in beauty and truth.

Kusamakura

Kusamakura is a complex novel, a small expression of the broad literary and artistic vision of its author, Natsume Sōseki; he said he took one week to write it. Sōseki was born in 1867, on the brink of the historic moment of the opening of Japan after its 250 years of isolation. This story written about 30 years later is a hearkening back to the classical and inward culture even as it portrays a protagonist in a world that has quickly changed and will never be the same.

The unnamed artist narrator, no doubt somewhat autobiographical, is not the sort who might move the action of the story. He doesn’t really do much but philosophize about beauty and art.

His plan for his holiday is to paint, and to maintain a detached, disinterested perspective on everyone he meets, so that he can fit them into the mental painting or poem he imagines, his artist’s way of seeing the world. There the humans might be on a plane with nature, which “…instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.”

You can hear how elevated his opinion of his own spirituality is, and his pride at knowing true art, as contrasted again and again with particular behaviors and with phenomena tangible or intangible that he calls “vulgar.” But he does truly have an eye and a feeling for beauty, demonstrated in many instances throughout the book.

He muses in detail about every aspect of the beauty of the the old woman who hosts him at a wayside inn. When he gets drenched by a rainstorm, he transforms the miserable aspects: “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast inkwash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment.” When Sōseki wrote that scene in Kusamakura I wonder if he was thinking wryly about the attitude he might have had toward his own miserable years that he later pictured poetically: “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Of such described scenes and experiences my favorite is this: “…times when the ineffable beauty around one, some presence one can scarcely grasp, mysteriously masters the heart….” For several pages he tries to capture with words this “ecstatic motion,” that “does not originate from outside,” and is tenuous only in that it is “ungraspable.”

With abandon the Painter describes pottery, landscapes, food and people, at times in such a way that a tea-sweet becomes food porn. Humans are considered, to use his image, heartlessly: “I shall aim to observe the people I meet from a lofty and transcendent perspective, and do my best to prevent any spark of human feeling from springing up between us. Thus, however animatedly they may move hither and yon, they won’t find it easy to make the leap across to my heart….”

This coolness is maintained even toward the forward and unattached young woman of the inn where he stays. They have occasional conversations and several provocative encounters, and she seems herself to be the sole element of potential plot, while he remains impassive. He is, however, very interested in her as a sublime object to be painted, if he could just figure out what is  missing from her face.

Elsewhere he muses over a question I had never heard posed before, and in the end I thought this dilemma was significant, too: “…whatever has motion is always finally vulgar…. Should we depict motion or stillness? — this is the great problem that governs the fate of us artists.”

I think that the Painter’s familiarity with the wider world and the culture of the West have made him a bit smug. He judges the West by the refinements of Japan, yes, but he also seems to have lost the modesty and restraint that are part of the Japanese expression of beauty, and can’t help revealing his arrogance to the reader.

Having recently read the reverent Book of Tea, written by a contemporary of Sōseki, I was shocked when the narrator ranted about this Japanese art form, the tea ceremony: “No one is more assiduously pompous than a tea ceremony master, who will fancy himself the quintessence of elegant refinement. Your typical tea master is deeply conceited, not to mention affected and fastidious to a fault. He ostentatiously clings to the cramped little territory he’s marked out for himself within the wide world of sensibility, savoring his bowl of foam and bubbles with a quite ridiculous reverence.” And then I realized that it was the Painter who “fancied himself the quintessence of elegant refinement.” He breathes deeply of the vapors rising from his bowl of peeves and perceptions, and is pleased. On the other hand, doesn’t ranting at least border on the vulgar?

And yet, Sōseki himself did write about this book that he intended it to be a “haiku-style novel,” and that “all that matters…is that a certain feeling, a feeling of beauty, remain with the reader. I have no other objective.”

I felt more confident of my idea that Sōseki intentionally imbued the Painter with these ironic aspects after I read on the Literary Hub site about the author’s stay in Britain, where the government had sent him as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” During his two unhappy years there he read constantly, and one tome he devoured and evidently thoroughly comprehended was the three-volume Tristram Shandy, which I have only read about, and doubt that I would be able to grasp the satire of it. In his first book, I Am a Cat, his cat narrator makes fun of the intellectual humans, speaking “with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused.” 

Kusamakura may be a book about the feeling of beauty, but the human relationships naturally get our human attention. My own philosophy and theology are that beauty originates in the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To try to know and appreciate another human by seeing them “objectively,” in a non-emotional or detached way, will never work. You will not see them truly. The Painter is perceptive enough in this case to realize what he isn’t able to do.

Indeed, that “something missing” in the face of the woman the Painter wants to paint, because she is so beautiful, he doesn’t discover until the very end of the story. Perhaps that is the plot, the character development and the problem solved, all on the last page. In a moment of emotion, a motion of the heart toward another person, if you will, he sees in her face the beauty that will make it worth painting.

Integrated into a large choreography.

Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of martial manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into large choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.

In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, principally because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is also always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational. Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is.

-David Bentley Hart, from Atheist Delusions