Category Archives: philosophy

Beautiful life project, with heavy books.

After a brief introduction to Japanese literature and culture for a few months of 2019, when I joined a Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided to leave behind the aesthetic vision of Japan, so to speak, and explore the reality and idea of Beauty in a less specific and encultured way.

My remodeling project and accompanying disorder are the reason, I believe, that I haven’t been able to concentrate on this extended philosophical reading project. It could be also that the topic is just too out-of-sync with the situation in my (indoor) living space. The chaos results from having none of the planned-for storage finished — that’s closets and cabinets in six or seven rooms — and that situation is abetted by the pandemic shutdowns of various sorts. The pandemic itself taxes the mind and emotions, and lately I’ve been reading more children’s books than anything.

But, the planned exploration looms large in the background, and its bulk has increased in a physical way, by means of big books. (I consider The Book of Tea to be about beauty, and it was by contrast such a slim and elegant item!) I’m not going to tell you about all of my Beauty books yet. Goodness, I haven’t begun anything in earnest. But the last one that came into the house was only recently published, and I may be most excited of all about it.

It’s The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, and it “weighs in” at over 700 pages. Professor Patitsas explains in the first sentence of his Preface what he is about: “…to recover a lost way of doing Ethics, one in which love for Beauty played the central and the leading role.” He shows how the definition of contemporary ethics, when seen in terms of Socrates’ three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (ethics being the study of Goodness), is biased against Beauty. A little more from the Preface:

“The central text about Orthodox Christian prayer life, The Philokalia, itself means ‘the love of the beautiful.’ The Ethics of Beauty is best conceived as a prose companion to that spiritual collection — certainly not on the same level as that classic text, but hopefully recognizably in the same family. Where The Philokalia is an aid to the pursuit of the Beautiful Way in prayer, The Ethics of Beauty is a discussion of why the Beauty-first Way is preferable, and an examination of the Way within as many areas of life as possible.”

“I would never have set out upon the journey that led me to The Ethics of Beauty had I not read Jonathan Shay’s observation in his Achilles in Vietnam that contemporary analytical psychotherapy has been largely unable to heal the suffering of the soldiers afflicted most severely with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have slowly come to see that… the initial focus of soul-healing must be on Beauty rather than on truth, on a living vision of a loving and crucified God, rather than on an autopsy of the broken self.”

Hmmm… I wouldn’t be surprised if Dee Pennock talks about this healing effect of Beauty in her book that I recently mentioned.

But, going back to the beginning of my vague plan, about a year ago I brought a fat book about Beauty and Truth into the house. The priest who lent it to me said he’d been unable to penetrate it. I knew it would likely be as heavy for me intellectually as it was in poundage, but it seemed a work I should at least have at hand when I began my study of Beauty.

This one is The Beauty of the Infinite, by David Bentley Hart; I had never yet opened it to read a line, but it’s been sitting on my mobile bookshelf in the kitchen/family room. When the Patitsas book arrived, I took Hart’s book off the shelf behind me and set it on the table so that the two could meet. And a few days later, avoiding some work, I’m sure, I opened Hart randomly in the middle, and my eyes landed here:

“…theology owes Nietzsche a debt: I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself — of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity….

My own philosophy and theology were settled already on this source of Beauty: the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A few years ago Jonathan Edwards put me in mind of it in his thoughtful way, and maybe I should go back and read the extensive quotes I transcribed on the subject. But if I never get around to reading all these pages of words that are waiting for me in books, it’s okay. My heart knows the story.

Gathering of things new and again.

The newly opened plum blossoms are the sweetest thing this week:

In the house, the refurbished little half-bath downstairs and the all-new full bath upstairs saw major progress. The little one was torn apart last July when it was discovered that a drain had been leaking into the wall. The wall was replaced, and eventually everything else, but the painting hadn’t been done until this week, so I only now hung the mirror I’d bought many months ago. It’s such a small space I had a hard time taking a picture of that.

The mirror is a sort of champagne color and I was a little worried about it blending in with all the other tones. But nothing unlovely jumps out at me at this point. I want eventually to have towels in there that are bright and contrasting, maybe in the aqua realm?

I’ve made a couple batches of Sesame Flax Crackers that my former housemate Kit and I discovered a couple of years ago. They are so easy, I don’t understand why I couldn’t manage to make them again before now. But then, the last 15 months of demolition and construction have been pretty consuming of my mind’s juggling skills. I could read philosophical novels and sometimes write about them, but I couldn’t take the few steps to bake crackers.

When Mags and I met via our blogs many years ago (we have still not met otherwise), we were both interested in reading the philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I am pretty sure I’ve never read a book by him before, even though I somehow managed to write a term paper in high school comparing him to Sartre. It seems laughable now — or is it? Just now I’m feeling thankful for the confluence of people and events that made it possible for me to even hear about existentialism in my little high school out in the sticks. I wrote much more about this in a previous blog post that was a pre-book review: here.

Anyway, I bring it up again because neither Mags nor I ever got around to reading Kierkegaard — until now! We are reading “together” The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, which is short, and consists of what are essentially sermons, but because Kierkegaard was not an ordained minister he didn’t think it appropriate to call them that.

My friend with whom I co-taught the high school class at church for two years gave me other books by Kierkegaard and much encouragement in my philosophical readings. I read a lot more online about what would be good to start with, and chose this book because I was pretty confident that we could finish 90 pages, no matter how challenging, and maybe get some momentum going for more of Kierkegaard. You know I will update you!

Surprise – the freesias are opening. I never even noticed the buds. Two insects found this first flower before I did. And lastly, below, my dear, dear little azalea plant that was part of a flower gift when my husband died five years ago is blooming right now. It has never been so beautiful!

Die before you die.

The day after I wrote about feeling my mortality, I was prompted to think more on the subject, first by Father Stephen Freeman, in an article about hospitals vs. hospice, and the importance of visiting the sick. When he was chaplain on a hospice team:

“It was the first time I ever saw a doctor listening carefully to nurses and chaplains. There was nothing ‘active’ that could be done other than providing comfort and support. The team stood in awe before the reality of dying, inevitably sharing the knowledge that what a patient was facing would be our own lot in time.”

For several years I’ve had more of that awareness myself, that every moment I go on living it is only because of God’s will and sustaining power. This understanding was only heightened when I was weak and sick, and not distracted by all the “active” things of my typical days, and could be in awe of the fact of existence.

This morning, I have a further reminder of death, and the scripture that tells us, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints.” A woman about my age fell asleep in death this week and I will be helping to prepare her body for burial in just a couple of hours. We will pray and anoint her with oil and commend her to Christ, before she is moved to the church for her funeral. It is always a holy thing to join with a sister at this stage in her “journey to the kingdom.”

In the short movie linked below, the musings of a 97-year-old philosopher as he calmly and “philosophically” considers his own death show a sensibility much more deeply human and nuanced than what he wrote in his book on the subject when he was younger. Though he feels that he lost half of himself when his wife of 70 years died, at the same time he doesn’t want to die; he has just started noticing the beauty of trees the way he never did before. The intellectual history of his own mind tells him that “there is no point” to life, so it doesn’t make sense to him, he calls it foolish, that he should mind saying good-bye. But he does mind.

Maybe it was the death of his wife that shook up his life so that now he calls death “the one thing central to my existence.” And he doesn’t have it figured out. Though now he likely knows more than he did then, because he has actually crossed that river; the movie was made by his grandson in his memory. There is a short article with a little more information at The Atlantic.

Father Stephen: “The monastic tradition of the Church has the notion that we should always keep death before our eyes. In a culture where sickness and death are hidden from view, such a notion can seem morbid and wrongly formulated. St. Paul said of himself, ‘I die daily’ (1Cor. 15:31).

“More completely, he said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).

“These are not morbid notions, but remembrances of the truth. If you lived on the edge of a cliff, only disaster could come from forgetting that fact. We remember the truth of our existence (including its end) so that our life might be shaped by the conscious remembrance of the name of God. When we pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,’ we proclaim the futility and emptiness of our self-existence, while more profoundly proclaiming the goodness and kindness of God in Christ who, in us, tramples down death by death.

“There is a monastic saying in Orthodoxy: ‘If you die before you die, then you won’t have to die when you die.'”

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)