Tag Archives: David Bentley Hart

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.

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

He made comely poems.

I was so sorry to hear a couple of weeks after the event that the poet Richard Wilbur had fallen asleep in death. It’s interesting to read about the ambivalence within the community of literary critics regarding his work throughout his career and now at his passing.

The New York Times quotes its own reviewer David Orr who mused that “Mr. Wilbur had ‘spent most of his career being alternately praised and condemned for the same three things’ — for his formal virtuosity; for his being, ‘depending on your preference, courtly or cautious, civilized or old-fashioned, reasonable or kind of dull’; and finally for his resisting a tendency in American poetry toward ‘conspicuous self-dramatization.’”

Might it be that one’s opinion about Wilbur’s poetry has something to do with whether you appreciate his perspective on things? If when you read his poems you find they quicken your own love for life and the cosmos? In another quote from the New York Times: “’I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,’ he said in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.'” My favorite not-so-recent article on Wilbur draws attention to his Christian vision and is found in First Things.

Over the life of my blog many of Wilbur’s poems have shown up here — which you might find by putting his name in the search box on the right —  and I’ve been wanting to post his poem “Worlds” for a year or more now. I first read it when David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God was fresher in my mind, and I had some brilliant idea that linked the two philosophers… that thought has dimmed to the vanishing point. Now I offer the poem as a picture of two ways of looking at the world, represented by Alexander the Great and Isaac Newton. If Richard Wilbur imagined himself in this poem, I’m sure he would hope to be found serenely playing alongside Newton, another man of faith and great vision. May God grant him the Kingdom.

WORLDS

For Alexander there was no Far East,
because he thought the Asian continent
ended with India.
Free Cathay at least
did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more serene.
To him it seemed that he’d but played
With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
Of that profundity he had not made.

– Richard Wilbur

 

mythology of floating logic

It’s been a while since I picked up David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, and I was pleased to see that I’m a third of the way through the book, nearing the end of the first part, on Being. I wasn’t pleased to find myself struggling to follow his train of thought as he picked apart what is known as Anselm’s argument, and was relieved when he moved on after a few pages, saying that he didn’t want to get “entangled in needless complications on this matter.”

Though I am philosophical by nature, I’m woefully unschooled in the discipline and its fundamentals. How many times have I looked up words like phenomenology, ontology,  and epistemology? Whatever I read on the subject is an attempt to correct that lack, and I appreciate Hart’s clarity and organization; he does seem to be writing for someone like me.

When we say that God is Being or “the source and ground of all reality,” following in the tradition of centuries of philosophers and theologians, many contemporary thinkers say it is because we are “mired in sheer nonsense.” Hart tells what he considers an important source of this lack of agreement:

…The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably its greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

I enjoy learning about particular people of the past and of their contributions to the wealth of humanity’s philosophical legacy. Hart mentions Meister Eckhart and his idea of “Is-ness,” and that takes me back to when I was a college freshman and privileged to be in a tutorial course that was an introduction to Meister Eckhart. I certainly had no intellectual grid prepared to fit him into then! How nice to have him come around again when I can appreciate his place in history.

Hart’s book was on the table with my bowl of stew this morning, but now the breakfast philosophy session has come to an end and other tasks are calling; I will go forward with the prayer that the presence of Him Who Is will sustain me. Given my ignorance of that floating kind of logic, I shouldn’t have any trouble keeping my feet on the ground and my self in the flow of history, soon to close out the year twenty-fifteen.

Enjoy it while it lasts! Let’s be here, now.