Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Five stages?

"One begets the idea, another is godfather at its baptism, the third begets children by it, the fourth visits it on its deathbed, and the fifth buries it."

So writes G.C. Lichtentberg in notebook H, aphorism 24, printed in the collection titled The Waste Books. As Roger Kimball says in a good appreciation of the man, he is not a household name, but something rarer: a writer loved by those who are household names. The latter would include Goethe, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, Oakeshott. Often it's difficult to hear Lichtenberg well, for a reason given by Kraus: "Lichtenberg digs deeper than anyone ... He speaks from the subterranean depths.  Only he who himself digs deep hears him."

The fivefold scheme given by Lichtenberg seems implicit in the "ideal eternal history" proposed by Vico in 1725, in the first version of the Scienza Nuova. This ideal history is traversed in time by every nation in its "rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall." At times, Vico is no less aphoristic than Lichtenberg.  He too is not a household name, and probably never will be. 

As I was thinking about this fivefold scheme, a section of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols came to mind: "How the 'Real World' at last Became a Fable." Nietzsche gives us five stages that seem related to those of Lichtenberg and Vico.

1. The real world is attainable to the wise. "Plato" - the philosopher who is also a creator par excellence, begetting the idea. 

2. The real world is unattainable for the moment, but is promised to the wise. "It becomes Christian" -- Plato baptized, made more enticing, more appealing, but perhaps also more incomprehensible.

3. The real world is unattainable, but it's consoling to think about, and we have a duty toward it. "K√∂nigsbergian."  A Copernican revolution in thought, with plenty of heirs.  

4. The real world is unattainable and unknown, so that it gives us nothing, either by way of consolation or obligation. "Cockcrow of positivism." The real world is dying, but it's not quite dead. The voice that speaks the world sub specie quantitatis, without quite abolishing the real world.

5. The "real world" -- useless, superfluous, worthy of abolition. "Free spirits run riot." To bury something that has been dying for quite a while -- this can be an occasion for cheerfulness, as it so clearly is in some moods. The real world having been abolished, so too is the apparent world.

Where next?  Are we at the end of history? Or is there a sixth age? Nietzsche thought there is, or at least he did when he was still communicating with us. He presumes to mark it by the fateful words "Incipit Zarathustra."  Would such an age be something new? Or would it be a return to the first?  The safest answer is probably "yes."  Zarathustra is not entirely new, so far as he is an archetype of the wise old man, as Jung points out. What from one perspective is a radical break, is from another perspective a return to something old.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Art Garfunkel Wrestles with Plato?

Garfunkel Defends His Art

In the Apology, Plato has Socrates offer the following dim report of his encounter with the poets:

"I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them."

This brief interview (see link above) with Art Garfunkel presents a nice challenge to the suggestion that artists are unlikely to comprehend--let alone articulate--the meaning of their art. Of course, Simon was arguably the poet behind Garfunkel's most famous work. But it hardly makes Garfunkel's insights less impressive to note that he was the voice, not the wordsmith.

Part of what is nice about the interview is that it belongs to a genre we are seeing more of these days: the reconciliation story of parties to a once-acrimonious musical divorce, who have gained the maturity that sometimes comes with age. But beyond this sentimental comfort, we find some genuinely reflective insights.

Consider, for instance, Garfunkel's description of the power of collaborative friendship:

"How about the very mentality of Paul Simon? This is a very interesting Paul Simon with a mind that can reach into the future, and I am a spiritual partner. When you sing with a partner and he has a very pleasing sound, and he's your friend and you laugh a lot, you soon start making music with the heads very close to each other, the noses almost touching. And you study the diction, and you create over your two heads a little bubble of reality and sound. When I work with Paul, I go into that dome, that invisible, small circumference dome. And when you visit that place, it's apart from life on Earth, it's its own very pleasing soundscape."

One might have to go back to Montaigne to find a better description of the way that friendship, through intense intimacy that might appear small, can actually offer a magnanimous gift to the world.

In another link with Plato--here, the Plato of the Symposium--we find the suggestion that there is some relationship between eros (broadly understood), friendship, and beautiful productions: recording by oneself is not the same. "You miss the electricity that lights up the recording session and makes it all fun and games and makes the night go on for many extra hours because partnership is juicy."

Or how about this description of singing itself?

"To me, the act of singing is an expression of love. You form it in the vocal cords. When you love your song and you lose yourself into the song . . .  it's very tough to analyze the act of singing."

Here we have intensely personal love giving rise to that unique overcoming of the person as self-consciousness: the song expresses the love, and the love allows oneself to let go of the self. And there is even a Socratic recognition that the topic is difficult to understand--worthy of contemplation, but resisting analysis.

But what struck me most about this conversation was Garfunkel's unabashed ambition for excellence--and for recognition of his excellence. He is not satisfied with being known as "the guy with the silver voice." He wants to be "a virtuoso singer," and to be seen as a virtuoso singer. And he wants people to remember that they were good--the "real thing"--that they "recorded as if a record was an important thing," a thing that, when done well, was a masterpiece. He wants, he says, "to be in that world of a real artist."

Perhaps this is also a challenge to a Platonic thought. One can glean from some of Plato's dialogues that, while one ought to strive for excellence, one should scorn the opinion of the masses who presume themselves to be good judges. This thought offers something important and useful. But how are we to inspire a generation to fight and claw for greatness, if we are ashamed to say that we want to be great ourselves? Garfunkel does not seem to desire recognition for the sake of the goodies it brings--fame, money, etc. He seems to desire it as a kind of assurance that he has achieved some of what he strives for. And that, I think, is an innocent and admirable desire.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What One Learns in loco parentis.

George Eliot’s Silas Marner is in part the story of a broken man, repaired by love of a child. From the moment that these two “lone things” find one another, the spidery existence of the miser expands as she forces his vision out and forward, warms “him into joy because she had joy.”

It is a beautiful story, though parts of it seem wildly implausible to me. But I am interested in this benign portrait of a kind of stepparent—a man who takes care of little Eppie simply because she is there, and because they both need love. For Eppie and Silas, there are no “real” parents in their story, at least not for quite a while. Yet Silas is still in that odd boundary position that we stepparents know too well: loving without the biological ground of love, without the recognition of bonds afforded to other parents, and without the security of the indestructible love that most children naturally feel for the parents they have known since birth.

Those of you who are parents of transitional children—those strange beings on the cusp of adulthood that we too innocuously call “teenagers”—may question that last part. Attempting to love these sometimes moody and narcissistic little beings can feel like a thankless, hopeless task. But—to generalize irresponsibly from my own and a few other cases—I can say that these little beings still love their parents, even as they are saying and doing things that break the parents’ hearts. And there is even hope that they may grow up, remember those ugly moments, and feel truly remorseful and grateful that you put up with them nonetheless. The tragic case of abused children who still cling to their abusive parents shows the power of this love. This is a horrible basis for security, but I maintain that there is security there to be had.

Such security is less available to a stepparent. Not only must she fight against the lack of early bonding, she must also overcome a cultural history full of stories of wicked stepparents, and perhaps the hostility that often results from divorce and remarriage. She must love in full knowledge that the love may never be returned. There is consolation in one’s spouse of course—who, if he is worth loving, will love you all the more for loving his children. Nonetheless, the stepparent’s love can never be rooted in the promise of strict reciprocity.

And now that I have mentioned the difference, I wish to do it away. The truth is that no parent’s love should be rooted in such a promise. It simply is not good for the parent, who is in a position of greater strength and therefore must exhibit greater magnanimity. We must love because we have the strength to love, and because others have given us that strength through their own love. This, I believe, is called grace.

So does this let those of us who were or are narcissistic little beings off the hook? By no means. As I recall from somewhere, the proper response to grace is unceasing gratitude. Expressing it is an excellent way to enlarge one’s own soul, thus making future magnanimity possible. We were all once lone things: if someone saved you from that, you owe them everything—at the very least the acknowledgement of their gift.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On "spirit" and "spirituality"

One hears a lot of talk—a lot of loose talk—about the "spirit" and "spirituality." But such loose talk may be indispensable.  Certainly it's preferable to one way of dismissing the spirit.  This is the brutal attempt to reduce everything worth talking about to a mechanism.  Such a reduction is tasteless, because (as Nietzsche says) it betrays the wish to “divest existence of its rich ambiguity” (more literally, “its multi-aspected character” [seines vieldeutigen Charakters]).  Nietzsche invites us to imagine a critic who judges a piece of music according to how much of it can be counted, calculated and expressed in formulas.  What would such a critic grasp in the piece?  “Nothing, really nothing of what is ‘music’ in it.”  Similarly, those who try to grasp a person purely in terms of mechanism will grasp an aspect, but only an aspect, of the human being.  Like existence itself, human beings are multi-aspected.  If the facets in human beings that do not reveal themselves to mechanistic analysis are to be seen, we must continue to use categories that are not at home in materialistic natural science.  To suppose otherwise—to think that everything “real” about human beings can be understood mechanistically—is a “faith with which so many materialistic natural scientists rest content nowadays.”  To call it a faith is not a compliment (at least, not from Nietzsche).  The faith’s directive to permit “counting, calculating, weighing, seeing, and touching, and nothing more” is, Nietzsche says, “a crudity and naivet√©, assuming that it is not a sickness of the spirit, an idiocy” (Gay Science 373).

It is vital to see that Nietzsche has no interest in making the world safe for the “materialistic natural scientist.”  Equally important is to grasp that he is not a dualist.  We should continue to speak of “spirit”—but not as though it names an entity that exists, or can exist, apart from the body.  When Nietzsche speaks harshly of “spirit,” he means to criticize a particular notion of “spirit.”  He means spirit conceived as disembodied, a ghostly thing that hovers above the body.  For this idea of spirit, Nietzsche has nothing but scorn.  “Pure spirit is pure lie,” he says in one place.  But spirit is not “pure spirit.”  The despisers of the body speak of “spirit.”  They do not succeed in speaking of spirit.  What, then, does Nietzsche understand by spirit?  If spirit is not to be confused with “pure spirit,” what is it?

To tackle this question swiftly, to quickly get into it and then out again, one cannot do better than to examine two aphorisms, both from the Gay Science.  Aphorism 329 begins by noticing the “breathless haste” with which Americans work.  This haste, the “distinctive vice of the new world,” has “begun to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality (Geistlosigkeit) like a blanket.  Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience.”  To rest and to reflect are two activities proper to spirit. Rather than genuinely reflect on a question, giving it as much time as it requires, “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand.”  Instead of resting with companions over a well-prepared dinner, “one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.”  If one is drawn to these counterfeits of rest and reflection, it is because “one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something.’”  Those dominated by such anxiety simply have no time or energy “for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for any otium at all.”  Moreover, the time-crunched chase for gain does not promote genuine virtue: “Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else.”  Nor does it reward honesty: “hours in which honesty is permitted have become rare.”  When efficiency trumps virtue and honesty, the natural consequence is a deflation of the spirit, notwithstanding any corresponding inflation of bank accounts and multi-story houses.  “Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others.”  Such a life, while perhaps diverting, cannot be called joyful.  Those educated to excel in the chase are becoming “increasingly suspicious of all joy!  More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a ‘need to recuperate’ and is beginning to be ashamed of itself.  ‘One owes it to one’s health’—that is what people say when they are caught on an excursion in the country.”

From Aphorism 329, one learns what Nietzsche deems bad for the spirit, along with he takes to be good for it.  Here's a quick table.  On the left, the good; on the right, the bad.

Leisure                                     Exhaustion
Reflection                                Thought bound to a schedule
Ceremony                                Dismissal of ritual as “pointless”                       
Indirect helpfulness                  Restriction to what is obviously of service
Conversational esprit               Plain, witless speech
Honesty                                   Pretense
Contentment                            Overreaching and anticipating others (cf. pleonexia)            
Desire for joy                           Temporary respite from weariness
Good conscience about joy      Bad conscience about what is useless for gain
This table does not pretend to be exhaustive.  It could be expanded by analyzing other aphorisms that use “spirit” as a key term.  It suffices, however, to show that when Nietzsche speaks of “spirit,” he talks about nothing detached from the body.  He intends, rather, to convey something about the activities and qualities of embodied human beings.  Those who despise the body, but claim to value spiritual activities and qualities, can be reminded that we never do encounter these activities and qualities in separation from bodies.  Against the reductive mechanist or materialist, we can observe that these qualities and activities are but minimally illuminated by approaches that reduce body to what can counted, calculated and expressed in formulas.
Nietzsche picks up the intrinsic connection between the spirit and joy in Aphorism 359.  “There is a human being who has turned out badly, who does not have enough spirit to be able to enjoy it but just enough education to realize this.”  Such a human being, who is “fundamentally ashamed of his existence,” is joyless and therefore less spiritual than his joyful counterpart with a good conscience.  He will at some point seek “revenge against the spirit.”  He will seek “to give himself in his own eyes the appearance of superiority over more spiritual people and to attain the pleasure of an accomplished revenge at least in his imagination.”   By what means?  By morality—not higher morality, but exploitation of the “big moral words.”  Nietzsche lists “justice, wisdom, holiness, virtue."  To this list, we can and should add “spirituality.”  Those who love to describe themselves as “spiritual” tend to have little of what Nietzsche would regard as genuine spirit.  More likely they are “born enemies of the spirit”; they fear genuine spirit and seek to revenge themselves against it.  Even philosophers are subject to this harsh judgment.  It applies particularly to the kind of philosopher who continually speaks about “wisdom.”  To talk about wisdom about the time will perhaps impress the inexperienced as “spiritual.”  The more experienced, however, will not be misled.  All too often, the rhetoric of wisdom functions as a kind of screen.  It is a “screen behind which the philosopher saves himself because he has become weary, old, cold, hard.”

The aphorism concludes with a question: “Wisdom as a screen behind which the philosopher hides from—spirit?”  This ending strikes me as brilliant.  It suggests what I've discovered from my own experience.  The very people who are quickest to attribute spirituality to themselves, who most pride themselves on spirituality, are actually the least spiritual, at least in any sense that counts.

Or it seems to me at the moment.  I'm in the middle of working on a chapter, and I would love to hear your criticisms and insights.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Psychology of Conviction

"What's wrong with our politicians these days," one hears often, "is that they have no convictions."  This familiar complaint gets at a real problem.  So many politicians are unprincipled, in the sense that what drives them is exclusively their own short-term interest.  They will say anything to get elected, no matter how outrageous, or how little they believe it themselves.  We can and should detest this.

We should not, however, let our justified indignation mislead us into thinking that we simply want politicians who are "principled."  Why not?  It's easy to think of people who are sincere and "principled" in a sense, but who hold utterly wacky views, and refuse to subject these views to examination and evidence.  Such types might in fact be more dangerous than their unprincipled counterparts.  

"After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them."  This line from Montaigne should not be forgotten.  Nor should these ironic words from C.G. Jung: "Even the holy Christian church, which is the incarnation of divine love, burnt more than a hundred thousand of her own children alive."  There is little or nothing admirable about the mere fact of having convictions.  The problem with Anders Breivik is not that he has no convictions.  It is not that he is unprincipled or insincere.  Nor is it that he is insane, in the clinical sense (if there is such a thing).  That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point well.  

Nietzsche speaks to the issue: “This is our conviction: we confess it before all the world, we live and die for it.  Respect for all who have convictions!  I have heard that sort of thing even out of the mouths of anti-Semites.  On the contrary, gentlemen!  An anti-Semite certainly is not any more decent because he lies as a matter of principle."  One might take Nietzsche's point to be that content is more important than sincerity.  Someone who does something good, whether on principle or out of expediency, is preferable to someone who does something wicked but on principle.  Sincerity, if it is a virtue at all, is not the highest virtue.  Insincerity, though almost certainly a vice, is yet not the worst vice.

Nietzsche’s emphasis, however, is a little different.  He seems to think that one can be fully sincere, fully convinced or “convicted” (as some like to say), and yet fundamentally dishonest.  For Nietzsche, honesty is not really a function of subjective sincerity.  It has to do, rather, with one’s willingness to resist not only deceiving, but also being deceived.  Positively, it requires one to continually ask hard questions and to subject one’s answer to those questions (and indeed, one’s formulation of the questions themselves) to the most probing tests.  No matter how sincere the anti-Semite is in holding his anti-Semitism, he is guilty of a fundamental kind of dishonesty, because he is lazy with himself.  He is willing to deceive and to be deceived.  He holds anti-Semitism out of conviction, but not out of intellectual honesty.

What's the alternative?  Something like this: views based on an examination of things which proceeds according to what Nietzsche calls the “intellectual conscience.”  (See the second aphorism of the Gay Science.)

Nietzsche combines an attack on the “psychology of conviction” with a strong affirmation of the intellectual conscience and its attendant virtue, honesty or probity (Redlichkeit)  That alone prevents him, I think, from approving of politicians who are simply unprincipled.  It also enables him to distinguish between the ersatz honesty of subjective sincerity and the genuine article. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Should we chase superstition and fear from our hearts?

"We should chase superstition and fear from our hearts, if we're going to survive and take levels of sanity higher."  This won't win any prizes for beautiful poetry, though it does scan perfectly well when sung by Andy Partridge.  At any rate, as I was listening to "Merely a Man" the other day (it appears on XTC's 1989 double-LP Orange and Lemons), I started to think less about the music (not their best, not their worst) and more about the sentiment expressed.

These questions took hold of me and refused to let go: Why does this sentiment seem particularly associated with self-proclaimed atheists and "free-thinkers"?  Why do we so rarely hear it expressed by the self-identified religious?
One possible answer: Religious folks share the sentiment, but simply don't think it gets at a serious problem.  While superstition and fear are not good things, godlessness and atheism are much worse.  We don't need to worry too much about the superstitious and fearful.  We can assume they're OK, as long as they're saying their prayers, receiving the sacraments, or whatever.  Even those who have a bad diet overall simply can't help but provide themselves with the nutrition they need for the general well-being of their organism. Superstition and fear, while not exactly praiseworthy things, pose no real threat to spiritual well-being.  The intellectual conscience is fine for those who want it.  But ultimately, it's optional.  It's not integral to piety.

This answer strikes me as hard to defend.  Consider the analogy to bodily health just invoked.  To slowly poison yourself through bad food and drink means that you will not feel as good as you should feel.  It entails that you will probably die an earlier death than you would like.  In matters of the spirit, things are much worse.  Any approach to God infected by superstition is likely to be a form of idolatry.  It will cause one to miss the mark altogether.

Some penetrating religious observers see the point. Pascal, for one, insists that genuine piety is different from superstition.  He notices that there are many who claim to believe, but do so out of superstition.  Indeed, he does not merely notice this, but uses it to support his claim that "there are few true Christians."  Or, as Nietzsche says in one place, in every religion the religious person is an exception.

So Pascal and Partridge agree (if only on this): we should chase superstition from our hearts.  But my original questions seem to re-emerge: why do religious folk seem generally not to be inspired by the sentiment?  Why do we so rarely hear it coming from them?  Why might an impartial observer conclude that those who concern themselves with superstition and fear as problems are more likely to be anti-religious than religious?

A second, darker answer suggests itself.  Many religious folk have a bad conscience about the whole matter.  In their quiet moments, they suspect that their own faith adds up to little more than fear and superstition.  The cry to "chase superstition and fear from our hearts" does not resonate, because it would mean to empty their own hearts.  Easier to go after other people, rather than worry about one's own darkness.

Is this answer correct?  I don't know.  Perhaps it applies to all of us some of the time, and some of us all of the time.

Here's a third possible answer (really a variant of the first): smart religious folk don't think too much these days about superstition, because they see that the alleged imperative to rid ourselves of superstition and fear is a bit old-fashioned.  However worked up those quaint Enlightenment folks might have been, we occupy a different historical moment.  For the most part, we've managed to let go of the worst superstitions, including the superstition that reasoned opposition to superstition will produce a more humane society.  As for the superstitions that remain, what harm do they do?  It's nice to have a bit of enchantment in our lives.  The real threat to our humanity, in any case, does not come not from the superstitious.  It arises from those who would mercilessly debunk anything and everything.

The last strand of this answer derives from a certain reading of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.  Lewis is right, I think, to take aim at a certain kind of "debunker" who, whatever his intention, does not exactly succeed in producing better thinkers or better human beings.  Moreover, when Lewis calls for the "irrigation of deserts" against the tendency of the debunkers, he does not mean to suggest that deserts should be watered by superstition.  I can follow Lewis a good way down this path.  Nonetheless, the sense that in our present times, credulity and superstition are not much of a problem strikes me as mostly an error.  We have little interest in chasing superstition and fear from our hearts.  But is it really because there is nothing to chase away?

I don't pretend to have exhausted the possibilities.  I'm still wondering.  Feel free to wonder with me in the comments...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Snobbery and Playing God

Rick Santorum has accused Obama of snobbery for wanting every American to go to college. Much of the negative response concerns his rhetoric. The governor of my home state reflected the general mood with his "I wish he'd said it differently."

Perhaps, but I'm more interested in asking about the matter than the manner of what he said. Is it snobbish to want everyone to go to college?

Obama's plan for universal higher education would have been unthinkable in past centuries--for many reasons. Among those reasons was the widespread belief that not everyone belonged in the university, because it was in people's best interest not to quit the sphere into which they were born. Pretending that this system promoted a separate-but-equal system would be the height of bad faith, as separate-but-equal claims generally are. If any views about higher education qualify as snobbish, this one certainly does.

For the most part, such views are--thankfully--no longer live options. But how could their apparent opposite--the idea that everyone belongs in college--then be snobbish?

Because the truth of the matter is that some people go to college and some do not, and the desire for everyone to do so seems to imply that the first group, at least at the completion of their formal education, is somehow better or better off than the second.

By some standards--particularly those that are easy to measure--it is clear that college graduates are better off. Their lifetime earning is higher; their rate of unemployment is lower. Because these goods appeal to everyone, their value is difficult to question. But we do run into dangerous territory if we mean that college graduates are morally better, more excellent human beings, or members of a higher class defined by something other than earning potential.

Obama attempted to respond to this criticism by insisting that he did not mean that everyone needs a four-year degree. He intended his remarks to apply to technical training as well--the kind that might help those "decent men and women who go out and work hard every day," in Santorum's words, earn and keep gainful employment. He did not mean, in other words, that everyone needs the traditional liberal education associated with the four-year degree and that earlier, snobbish class system.

Fortunately, one is increasingly unlikely to acquire a liberal education at most four-year colleges.

It is worth asking, however, what such an education might liberate one from. At its best, it might liberate one from the kind of sentiment expressed in Santorum's following sentences, much neglected by the news reports:

"Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."

This religious allusion is particularly odd. If we are already made in God's image, as I presume Santorum believes, do we need remaking in the image of fallen human beings instead? Putting that aside, ought parents to see their goal as reproducing images of themselves? Isn't the more loving and properly humble thing to hope and strive that your children might overcome your weaknesses, escape your faults, and excel your achievements?

Certainly, it is frightening to allow one's children to learn. Hoping for and encouraging their education raises the very real possibility that they may come to believe and embrace things that are foreign or even anathema to their parents.

There is nothing wrong with wanting your children to share your standards and convictions. There is something wrong with prioritizing sameness in itself over their development, or with closing oneself off to the possibility that they might grow to teach you that your standards and convictions are misguided. There is something more wrong about resenting your children if they choose to follow those standards in ways that you did not. The child of a lawyer may choose to pursue justice by living with the poor, and the child of a steel worker may choose to mold the world through the quite different honest hard work of a heart surgeon. Neither child would be the image of the parents. But if either parent responded to this situation by resenting her child's choices, the accusation of snobbery would be apt indeed.

One does not, indeed, need a formal education to come to these insights about human development. My father, who does not have a four-year degree, possesses them to the highest degree of anyone I have ever known. But again, liberal education at its best makes such insights available to some not so parentally blessed. Can everyone benefit from such an education? Is everyone capable of it?

This is a genuinely difficult question. I can only respond with the remark of one of my students on this topic:

"We have to hope so."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On Lenten Observance and the Labyrinth of the Heart

In Nietzsche's too-neglected essay, "Schopenhauer as Educator," he observes that "wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated; for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart."

This is a mournful, beautiful sentiment. Here is a man who knows that philosophy can indeed console--and a man whose forced solitude has often made consolation necessary.

It is, perhaps ironically, a sentiment appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Christ offers us the deepest consolation--a joy that can only be had after the cutting engagement with sin. And, at its best, the church provides the means for such consolation--forms and rituals that help bring our hearts, minds, and bodies into the necessary receptive stance.

I grew up in the Baptist church, and there are many things about that formation for which I will always be grateful. But my worship experience as a child lacked a deep sense of such rituals. And it lacked altogether a sense of the liturgical year beyond Christmas and Easter. Advent was a children's game involving calendars and festivity, and Lent was missing entirely.

Like many with this formation, I have treasured coming to know more liturgical traditions. The liturgy, at its best, provides words when words fail us. It is a sanctuary in the true sense--an asylum into which tyranny cannot force its way.

At its best. But it is all too easy to forget--perhaps because it seems so obvious--that forms can also be empty shells. Worse still, they can be sources of pride, thus contradicting everything this day is supposed to remind us of. Those of us walking around with ashes on our foreheads must ask ourselves: is this really humbling, or do I want people to know that I have observed the appropriate ritual today?

The form, the asylum, the sanctuary are all open spaces with walls--or perhaps cradles--around them. They are nothing unless filled with the inwardness of the labyrinthine hearts who realize how much they need them.