It is a commonplace of hagiography to extol the saint whom one is writing about to such an extent that the saint is turned into something almost but not quite human. There are, for example, various lives of saints which record the various miracles the saint performed while still an infant, including healings, preachings, and conversions performed while the saint before the average person would even be able to utter a meaningful sound or take a single step. There are the accounts of saints having conversations with animals, of saints transcending the laws of nature, and of saints evincing such love and courage in the face of dire circumstances that everyone for hundreds of miles around is converted to faith in Christ. And then there is St. Augustine and his Confessions.
As the most influential figure of the Western Church perhaps in all of history, Augustine would, no doubt, have been the victim of these mythologized and eulogized hagiographies to which so many other important saints have been subject. He, however, did the work himself of ensuring that we remember him as the deeply flawed and altogether normal human being that he was.
As Augustine traces his life, inner and outer, from infancy to adulthood to conversion to Christianity, the reader is allowed an insight into a man much like himself. What we see is a man driven by lust and tossed about by doubt. What we see, in short, is a man — a real, living human being like ourselves who shared in the same passions in which we share. And who, through the grace of God, conquered them all and became one of the greatest saints of the Christian Church.
If St. Augustine can be a saint, anyone can be saint. And that, in short, is what makes The Confessions one of the greatest of the Great Books.
The anonymous fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a member of Arthur’s Round Table who is faced with certain death at the hands of an incredibly large and diabolical Green Knight. As the knights are celebrating the Feast of Christmas one New Year’s Day, the Green Knight enters the castle with a challenge: he will allow one of the knights to strike him with a battle axe, but the knight must allow himself to be struck with it by the Green Knight in return. After some hesitation, Gawain rises to the challenge. He takes up the axe and, with one strong swing, decapitates the Green Knight. The Green Knight, however, promptly picks up his head, mounts his horse, and rides way. Gawain, to keep his end of the bargain, must come to the Green Knight’s chapel on New Year’s Day the following year to receive his blow.
A year later, on his way to the Green Knight’s chapel, Gawain is taken in by “another” knight who lives in the woods near the chapel. The knight agrees to host him for the week from Christmas to New Year’s and, on New Year’s Day, to lead him to the Green Knight’s chapel. At the castle, however, Gawain undergoes a series of temptations from his host’s wife and plays a game of exchanging gifts with his host, all of which eventually leads Gawain to sin in an attempt to save his own life from the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines a great many elements that make for an outstanding story: there is an element of mystery and fear, an element of action and courage, an element of sex and love. Perhaps most importantly the story is a human one. It is not, as some may be tempted to believe, merely a story of chivalry. If virtue and sin are things that really do exist and so really apply in all ages and places, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a story that is, at heart, about virtue and about sin, has a perennial quality about it. As a story of man (not justa) facing inevitable and ineluctable death, it is a story for and even about each of us. In his attempt to escape from death, Gawain falls into sin, demonstrating the truth of St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:12. The lesson being taught is not merely for the chivalrous knight of the fourteenth century; it is also for the man who desires to live a virtuous Christian life in the 21st century.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a great story with an inexhaustible wealth of timeless wisdom to be derived from it.
After the death of Moses, Moses’s disciple Joshua took charge of the Hebrew people. He led them into the Promised Land and helped them to conquer it from the nations that were in control of it at that time. He established the nation of Israel. After Joshua’s death, Israel was ruled by a group of people called judges. The judges decided who was right and who was wrong in disputes between individuals and made sure the law was followed.
The people of Israel, though, wanted to be like the other nations around them. While Israel was ruled by judges, the other nations were ruled by kings. They asked God for a king. A man named Saul was selected for the job. Saul then became the first king of Israel. Saul did a terrible job as king, however. He used his power for his own good instead of the good of the people.
At that time, the Israelites were at war with another group of people called the Philistines. There was a Philistine warrior named Goliath who challenged all of the Israelites. He mocked their nation and their God. He told them to send their best warrior and he would defeat him. All of the Israelites were afraid except for one teenage boy named David.
David was angry that Goliath had insulted Israel and its God. He decided to fight Goliath. David was so little he could not even wear the armor Israelite warriors usually wore nor could he lift a sword, but he decided to fight Goliath anyway. As he stepped forward to challenge Goliath, the tall, muscular Philistine laughed. “I challenge you to send your best warrior,” he said,” and you send me a boy!” Goliath was big and strong. He was sure he was going to win in a fight against David. When the fight began, however, David took his slingshot, put a rock into it, and shot at straight at Goliath’s head. The rock hit Goliath in the forehead and killed him instantly. Goliath fell to the ground dead. All of Israel praised David as a great warrior who had saved their nation.
Saul, however, was not happy. He was very jealous of David. He knew that the people of Israel hated him and loved David. Saul tried to kill David, but David led his own army of followers who fought back against Saul. After a long fight between David and Saul, Saul was killed in battle and David became the next king of Israel.
David became king of Israel in about 1000 BC and reigned as king for 30 years. During that time, he led the Israelites to many victories over their enemies. The Israelites enjoyed a long period of prosperity with David as king.
Although David was a devout worshipper of God and a great king, he is also remembered for a horrible sin he committed while he was king. One day, while he was on the rooftop of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba taking a bath on the rooftop of a house nearby. David fell in love with her when he saw her and wanted her to become his wife. After asking around, however, he found out that she was already married. There was a war going on at the time and her husband was a soldier. David ordered that her husband be placed on the front line of soldiers in an attack and that the other soldiers leave him to die. After the death of her husband, David took Bathsheba as his own wife.
One day, the prophet Nathan came to King David and told him a story. “There was a poor man,” he said, “who had only one little lamb. This lamb was his only lamb and he loved it very much. He loved this lamb so much that he took care of it in every way, feeding it at his table and allowing it to sleep in his bed. A rich man then came and took this little lamb away and murdered the poor man.” After telling this story, Nathan asked David, “What should be done to this rich man?”
David jumped up out of his seat in anger and yelled, “Bring me that rich man so that I might send him to be executed!”
Nathan the prophet looked up at the king and said, “You, King David, are that rich man.”
David knew that he had done something terrible. He cried, prayed, and fasted for days, asking God to forgive him. One prayer that he wrote during this time was Psalm 51, which many Christians and Jews still pray today as a prayer of repentance.
The first child that Bathsheba gave birth to died not long after it was born as a punishment for David’s sin. The second child that Bathsheba had, however, was a son named Solomon. Solomon became king of Israel after David’s death and is still remembered today for his great wisdom.
1. Who was the first king of Israel?
2. Who was the second king of Israel?
3. What psalm did David write after his sin?
Prophet – a person who receives messages from God
Psalm – a religious poem, often written in the form of a prayer
Philosophy is the primary pursuit proper to man. I have no use, however, for either pies in the sky or for their ostensible opposite in pessimistic pontifications on the utterly hopeless situation of man. While rejecting philosophy as too heady, too complex, or too impractical is the mistaken notion of those who have rejected philosophy, the greater sin against philosophy has been committed by those who have professed to adopt it and to nurture it. It is the greater sin because it has been committed by those who have been the most intimate with philosophy1 and because the commission of such a sin by these intimates of philosophy has driven away so many who would have been among its greatest lovers.2
Throughout the greater portion of its history, nearly since the Socratic spirit entered it, the proponents of philosophy have engaged most frequently in the former abuse, focusing their intellectual endeavors upon the utterly transcendent and the entirely theoretical, and therefore the ultimately meaningless. Perhaps the most notorious instance of this concern for the superfluous which has become nearly synonymous with philosophy in many modern minds is the infamously medieval debate over how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin.3 Philosophy, however, is not synonymous with conjecture about the unknowable and the unnecessary, no matter how adamantly some may insist that this must be the case.
Modern philosophers, by which terminology I hereby designate those of and since the Enlightenment, have tended to view themselves as having transcended their predecessors’ concerns for such matters. On the contrary, however, rather than replacing superstition with reason moderns have instead substituted reason as their greatest superstition. The modern mind has trained itself to see past what scientist Carl Sagan famously referred to as “the demon-haunted world” of so-called “primitive” man, but has instead cultivated new blind spots and new beliefs without foundation (i.e. superstitions). Perhaps the most obvious modern superstition is really a continuation and modification of the old and human, all-too-human, habit of assuming that one’s own viewpoint is the most natural and the default viewpoint. This, of course, breeds the kind of incredulity that leads nearly in a straight line to the spirit of the Holy Inquisition. Just as the medieval Christian could not fathom how the Jew, equipped with the Sacred Scriptures and the Mosaic traditions, could possibly fail to see that Jesus the Christ was undoubtedly the Messiah foretold in the Law and the Prophets, the modern secular man cannot understand how anyone anywhere could believe differently than he believes about the world, about himself, and about the nature of things. “What is the matter with you? Can’t you see it? It is so obvious! – to me.” It is so obvious that one could only miss it if one is either altogether stupid or if one is not missing it at all but is in fact in active and conscious rebellion against it. Through this reasoning, the Jew becomes insidiousness incarnate, the Christ-despising deicide who abducts and consumes Christian children for his Passover motzah and poisons wells with the bubonic plague. Through this reasoning, the man of ardent faith who refuses to concede to the program of eugenics, to the possibility of concocting a workers’ paradise, to the inherent desirability of “progress,” to whatever agenda happens to be fashionable among men without chests who build their houses on sand, becomes the misguided, the ignorant, the obnoxious, the dangerous, the one upon whose blood the architecture of the future can be built. This spirit, the spirit of the Inquisition, pervades the minds of modern man. Sometimes, it leads to concentration camps and gulags. In tamer periods, such as our own (at least within the confines of the so-called “First World” as well as large portions of the former “Second World”), it makes dialogue often arduous and sometimes impossible. One need only read the comments section on nearly anything published online as evidence of this.
Simone de Beauvoir saw to the root of the superstitious pseudo-reasoning in man’s assumption of the masculine perspective as natural and default and the feminine perspective (that is, the perspective of nearly any female whatsoever on nearly any subject whatsoever in any instance whatsoever in which said female’s opinion happens to run contrary to that of any given male whatsoever) as inherently subject to and circumscribed by her femininity. What he fails to realize, de Beauvoir aptly points out, is that he too has “glands;” he is, in other words, equally a body and equally subject to the influence of hormones, equally trapped in a subjectivity that can never be escaped and that perpetually governs his consciousness and his interactions with the world and with others. No one has a direct connection with the world; the world is, rather, experienced through the lens of each individual’s perceptive and cognitive faculties; there is no escaping our own subjectivity.4
An appreciation of this fact-of-the-matter is the first step toward a meaningful dialogue across intellectual paradigms. Modern man must no longer indulge in the superstitious belief that his assumptions are the most natural assumptions. On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton, David Bentley Hart, T.S. Eliot, and many others of a similar bent – men and women with a good knowledge of history, a keen eye for observation, and an even keener mind for drawing the necessary inferences – have pointed out and exhibited time and again, there is no post-Christian society that was not first a Christian society. There is hardly an idea regarded with admiration or interest in the modern world which does not have Christianity as its parent or at least its grandparent. The political institutions, the social ideals, the ethical predispositions – all of these smell like Christianity; it is often a watered-down, heavily sedated Christianity, but it is Christianity nonetheless.
Let us take up the case of equality, an idea – even an obsession – beloved by modern man. It is the idea that has led to most of the great revolutions of the last several centuries, including the American and French revolutions, with their disdain of the monarchical and aristocratic orders of the so-called colonial and feudal eras; the movement against slavery which became the movement against racial segregation and inequality; and all of the great movements of feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries. All of these movements have taken as their motto and underlying basis the idea most succinctly expressed by Thomas Jefferson that it is “self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal.” But is this really “self-evident”? Not at all! Clearly, the very opposite assertion is the more self-evident. What about the great mass of humanity makes each particular member of it ontological equals? Human beings are of greatly varying intellectual, physical, artistic, musical, etc. (ad nauseum) abilities; there is no natural or observable equality among them. Early generations “knew” this as much we “know” the contrary. Plato, Aristotle, and the Twelve Tables of Roman law – in short, all of the great authorities of the ancient Western world and those outside of the so-called West as well – stand as authorities on man’s inherent inequality and on the necessity of destroying or at least making marginalized and castrated subjects of those that are so unequal as to make a society itself weaker.
Erudite intellectual historian Thomas Cahill offers succinctly the reason for the modern man’s love of equality: “There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.”5 At its root, this modern notion of and emphasis upon equality has entered the realm of ideas through the influence of a specific system of thought, namely Judaism via the Hellenic-Jewish synthesis achieved in the medieval Christian Church; in shorthand, it is the biblical worldview which has given birth to and placed emphasis upon this idea. Separated from this context, the idea lacks foundation and quickly crumbles when subjected to the slightest interrogation. In the perpetually poignant words of Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the keenest observer of and thinker on the state of the emerging post-Christian world,
When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth — it stands or falls with the belief in God.6
In order to achieve a real and meaningful dialogue across paradigms, in order to achieve any meaningful thought whatsoever, modern thinkers must conquer, subdue, and eliminate the spirit of the Inquisition which begins with this superstitious belief that one’s ideas can be taken for granted. All ideas must be subject to question, all ideas must be interrogated, and no idea can be safe from this investigation. Our first step must be to uncover and expose the genealogy of all ideas.
Included in this investigation and exposure must also be the very reason which modern man depends upon as his primary tool for the investigation and exposure. In other words, man must doubt his own doubting and very rational faculty which he uses to doubt. What reason is there for man to rely upon his reason that is not itself given by reason? But any logician knows that a thing cannot justify itself; this is circular reasoning, this is question-begging. Yet man must have faith in reason. Detached from reason man is no longer man; apart from reason, man becomes an animal. Faith in reason is essential not only to the possibility of dialogue, but to humanity itself. We must, however, be aware of the limitations of reason, aware of our own bodies (our “glands” and “hormones,” as De Beauvoir phrased it), and aware of the trust we place in reason. The implicit must be made explicit.
The next step in overcoming the errors of others, past and present, in this our grand process of restoring life to philosophy and philosophy to life, will derive naturally enough from this process of making the implicit become explicit. In addition to specific ideas, modes of thought and movements of concept must also be discovered and exposed. A modern thinker who has done much in this direction is Jacques Barzun. One example among many is his discovery of the roots of genetic determinism in earlier Calvinistic conceptions of predestination.
In this single example we find a clear demonstration of perhaps the greatest sin against philosophy committed by modern thinkers. In a nearly equal-and-opposite movement against the pies in the sky and angels dancing on pinheads of the medieval philosopher, the modern philosopher has adopted a pessimism he imagines to be more “realistic,” a more accurate description of the reality of things. But we have seen already the flaw in this sort of thinking; in his belief that his negative assessment of the way of things is closer to how things really are, modern man is committing the sin of believing himself to possess a closer and clearer connection with the world than did men of earlier times. In fact, he is assuming that his connection is closer and clearer than it actually is or is capable of being – he is forgetting about his perpetual imprisonment in subjectivity.
He is also committing the same sin as those medieval philosophers who insisted on debating the numbers of angels who could dance on a pinhead. He is committing perhaps the greatest sin that can be committed against philosophy, the sin of irrelevancy. It has absolutely no relevance to the life of any particular human being to insist, as does scientist Steven Weinberg and so many along with him, that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”7 It is, in fact, less than relevant, because it is a distraction that has the potential to depress and even destroy the mind which is not trained to recognize it as irrelevant. Any deterministic scheme, whether that of the Calvinist or that of the geneticist, also belongs to this category. If the way of things really is predetermined, if man’s free will really is an illusion, it does not need to be stated. It is really quite absurd to think it at all, much less to say it. It is irrelevant. Whether anyone believes it is true or not makes no difference to anything at all. If you believe it, you believe it because you were predestined to believe it; if you disbelieve it, you disbelieve it because you were predestined to disbelieve it. Even if you argue it and debate it and try to convince others of it, you are merely doing what was predestined. All activity becomes useless on this theory; all determinism inevitably becomes fatalism. I have no use for what is useless. I want only what is relevant, what is human.
It is only once the sins of philosophy are recognized and overcome that we begin to approach philosophy properly.
1 “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” – Luke 12.47 (New King James Version).
2 “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” – Luke 17.1-2 (NKJV).
3 Although I mention this subject as an example of meaningless debate in philosophy, the particulars are in fact fictitious. The charge was brought against the scholastic philosophers by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who saw their own movement away from the superstitions of religion as the adoption of a more reasonable stance and saw fit to therefore mock the unreasonableness of their philosophical predecessors. In reality, historians have been unable to uncover any evidence of this debate aside, perhaps, from a few scattered comments by various philosophers of the High Middle Ages which yet bear strikingly little resemblance to the charge as filed. In fact, the entire debate seems to run contrary to the spirit of scholastic and medieval thought on angels, which insisted upon their being incorporeal and intellectual bodies lacking altogether the possession of the gross, the material, and the carnal. Interestingly, this is itself an example of a point in philosophy which may seem superfluous at first gander and yet reveals itself, when finally considered in depth, to possess a startling relevance.
4 This has bearing upon the previous footnote concerning the incorporeality of angels; as incorporeal and intellectual beings, angels lack the organs of perception and cognition and therefore interact with the world in a more direct manner than human beings.
5 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, p. 249.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” 5.
6 This is the same man who has insisted elsewhere that “religion is an insult to human dignity”! This is a stunning example of precisely the lack of context and depth of thought which results from the lack of knowledge of the origins of one’s ideas. He has accomplished a true feat in dearth of self-awareness by coupling his ignorance of the history of ideas with an appalling amount of compartmentalization.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book, like all of Dostoyevsky’s work, is, of course, a classic and, I believe, a must-read for the modern reader. In this book, Dostoyevsky explores the themes that run throughout his work, including sin and redemption, the meaning of modernity, and the search for meaning in modernity, and, in another typical Dostoyevsky move, all in the midst of a novel about a murder mystery and family drama. Like all great novels, this book provides another means by which we can understand ourselves and others. Dostoyevsky’s insights into the human mind precede and surpass those of modern psychologists. The introduction and afterward to this version of the book are also very interesting and insightful.