Pope_John_Paul_II_memeImage courtesy of http://www.memegenerator.net

Orpheus_EurydiceUndoubtedly one of the saddest myths of the ancient world was that of Orpheus and Eurydice.  After charming his way into Hades to find the soul of his deceased wife (Eurydice), Orpheus is promised that he can have her back from the dead as long as he does not turn around and look at her until he has reentered the Land of the Living.  Alas, he looks back too soon, and loses his beloved forever.

Orpheus is a sort of shadowy Christ-figure (albeit a failed one).  I imagine him walking forward towards the light with his beloved bride behind him, relying upon him to show him the way.

In my mind, there are a couple of analogies that could work here: Jesus Christ is the Orpheus-figure, and Eurydice represents His Bride, the Church.  And unlike Orpheus, Christ leads His Beloved unfailingly toward the light of the Kingdom.

Alternatively, we could look at it this way: Christ is the light at the end of the tunnel; mankind is Orpheus; and the remainder of creation is Eurydice.  And it is our “Orphic” duty to lead creation to its fulfillment in the Sabbath Rest which is the coming of God’s Kingdom.

But what happens when we turn our backs to the light?  What happens is we forfeit life — for ourselves, and for the creation subjugated to our dominion.

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_ApesOkay…so what does any of this have to do with Matt Reeves’ recently released film “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?”  A decent amount — but what I have to say bears on the recent “Apes” franchise in general.

Rise-Planet-Apes-TrailerThe 2011 film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Rupert Wyatt, shows us the genesis of the apes’ takeover of the earth.  Basically, the apes develop their human-like intelligence as a result of being the subjects of experimental drug testing.  Clearly, this is an example of human science and technology gone awry.  Good in themselves, they are divorced from a moral and ethical framework and subjugated to the modern technological hubris of man — or the idea that we should do something simply because we have the capability.

It is interesting, in this case, to note the ancient sense of the word “hubris.”  Blogger Alex Jones brought this up in a comment he made on my most recent post:

The opposite of wisdom is the ancient word “hubris.” Hubris in the ancient sense is belief in an opinion that is contrary to how it is in reality. (Bold mine)

Not that science and technology are the only areas of human endeavor that can be affected by, and in turn affect, this impulse; but they are particularly strong in conveying to man a degree of control over reality, and therefore take on a particular danger if not handled carefully.

Original Sin

In any case, this understanding of hubris is the essential aspect of the sin of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace.  By eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — that is, by arrogating to themselves the uniquely divine prerogative of determining right and wrong — they presumed to make themselves the masters of reality.

So from the very beginning, we have been guilty of the “sin of Orpheus.”  We have abandoned our “Light” (God), and we have failed our “Eurydice” (creation) — and with disastrous consequences.

I’ll talk more about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — though without spoilers — in part two.

Still from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia



Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Do you know people who struggle with common sense?  And these might be otherwise highly intelligent people who, when it comes to the latter, either don’t have it or don’t use it.

Sound familiar?

Don’t be too hard on them.  Common sense is a lot like language.  It’s easy to use (in fact, it’s a basic, everyday thing) when you’ve done so without hindrance your whole life; but when you look at its complex structures and presupposed points of reference for meaning, you understand why only the super-elastic brain of a very small child can easily appropriate it.  If it isn’t mastered at that early stage, it becomes much harder.

One has to admit that common sense deficits seem to be popping up more and more nowadays, at individual and institutional levels…and with not-so-nice consequences.

This is why I think we need a renewed sense of the importance of philosophy in our society, and in our education.  Granted, this is not going to be very popular in a society that estimates the value of a field of study primarily by how lucrative it is, or by its strictly utilitarian aspects — in other words, how useful is it in the immediate context of the professional world.

But to regain the “love of wisdom” (the meaning of the ancient Greek root of the word “philosophy”) may just be of more use than we think.

Whether we are studying formulas for logic, learning the intricacies of Socratic dialogue, or weighing the merits of the categorical imperative vs. the cost/benefit analysis, the proverbial wheels are turning in the direction of critical thinking, creativity in problem-solving, and methods of situational judgement.

True, no one is going to stop in the middle of a circumstance that requires immediate action, carefully scrutinize it, consider it from various philosophical positions, etc.  But philosophical reasoning is a lot like working out: No one is lifting dumbbells or doing push-ups in the everyday situations that require physical fitness, but these methods prepare for the latter by exercising the necessary muscles and getting one’s “juices” properly flowing.

One caveat, though: Philosophers in the world of academia need to make sure that they are actually teaching their students philosophy.  Rather than let their classes devolve into mere debating societies or institutional “Oprah Winfrey Book of the Month” clubs, philosophy professors concerned about promoting the value of their field should ensure that their students get the most out of what it has to offer.

It’s only common sense, after all.

Image of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” from Wikipedia

Today is July 5.  You can charge me with waiting past the last minute if you like; but I prefer to think I prudently chose to wait for the holiday happenings to die down :)

john_adamsI’ll take this opportunity to return to one of my favorite films, the HBO miniseries “John Adams.”  Adams (Paul Giamatti), even before becoming part of the Continental C0ngress, frequently alludes to the “great men” of the past in his discourses as a lawyer.  His wife and dearest confidante, Abigail, warns him this makes him come across as pompous and erudite; he defends himself on these grounds: Men of various times and places have throughout the ages agreed on certain universal principles, and therefore their “witness” is important for his defenses.

brad-pitt-12-yearsThen there’s the Best Picture for 2013, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”  In the film, an itinerant abolitionist (Brad Pitt) confronts a tyrannic Louisiana plantation owner with the possibility that the laws of the state protecting his supposed right to own slaves just might not be enough.  He points out that the laws of times and places change, while “only universal truths abide.”

He adds: “What’s true and right is true and right for everybody, black and white alike.”

Media references aside, you can certainly go to the horse’s mouth and read the Declaration of Independence.  As much of an enigma as Thomas Jefferson was as a person, we can hardly accuse him of being a relativist when it came to  principles.

Far from suffocating people’s freedom and keeping them in thralldom, absolute truths are actually what liberate them.

Intimately related to absolute truth/principle is virtue, which pertains to the human ability to live up to the aforementioned high and noble principles.  Out of this comes heroism, patriotism, love, sacrifice, courage, compassion, and the many laudable qualities that make for a happy life and a prosperous society.

Not all of America’s Founding Fathers were Christians, but they were all inspired by the principles of the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage.  Underlying their defense of independence and liberty were two basic assumptions:

1) Man is capable of virtue, and therefore of self-governance; and
2) There is a natural law ingrained the fabric of the universe that guarantees and protects mankind’s liberties.

St._Gregory_of_NyssaIn the fourth century A.D., fourteen centuries before the Founding Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa had this to say:

[T]he best Artificer made our nature as it were a formation fit for the exercise of royalty (…) for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed (insofar as its relations among humankind are concerned)

[T]he King of all, made as it were a living image, partaking with the archetype both in rank and in name, not vested in purple, nor giving indication of its rank by sceptre and diadem (…) but instead of the purple robe, clothed in virtue

(From “On the Making of Man,” Chapter IV — bold and parenthesis mine)

Human beings need governance and authority, of course. But all governance and authority must operate with respect for the dignity of each person, and with a view to the rights of persons as individuals and as meaningful groups (the family most of all).

But again, all being held equal in rights and dignity also implies all being accountable to the same standards.  To the extent that we ignore or stray from virtue, we become less fit to govern ourselves and more vulnerable to tyranny.

We Americans celebrated our independence yesterday.  Hopefully, we take a moment each day to consider the privilege of living in a country so free and so great.  But let us not forget the role of principles and virtue in the very foundation and history of this great nation, and of our freedom.

Movie images obtained through a Google image search; other images from Wikipedia

Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life with fear.  Rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God to whom you belong will in his love enable you to profit by them.  He has guided you thus far in life.

Do you but hold fast to His dear hand, and He will lead you safely through all trials.

Whenever you cannot stand, He will carry you lovingly in his arms.

Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow.

The same Eternal Father who takes care of you today will take care of you tomorrow, and every day of your life.  Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace then, and put aside all useless thoughts, all vain dreads and all anxious imaginations.

St. Francis de Sales

-St. Francis de Sales

Image from Wikipedia

The PenitentI started this post yesterday, but didn’t manage to finish it — though it would have been more apropos if I had, since Friday is a day of penance for Catholics and other Christians.  Nevertheless, every day is a good day to ask: “Is penance still relevant?”

All right — we need to first establish what penance is not.  Forget about familiar images of shirtless monks flagellating themselves with heavy whips until they are nearly half-dead and bathed in blood (there is a practice of mortification involving a rope, but it is much milder than that).  We Catholics do not hate our bodies, and I cannot emphasize that strongly enough.

Apart from religious reasons, I would argue that penance (prudently undertaken, of course) has tremendous benefits for the human person in general, and for today’s society in particular.

First, it encourages patience.  Without a doubt, we live in an instant gratification society.  We want what we want when we want it.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersWe often complain (rightly) that our society is too busy, and that the professional world moves too fast and demands too much of our time and energy.  But what we tend to forget is the reason for this.  Our jobs and culture allow us so little leisure precisely because we are an immediate-satisfaction society.  Satisfaction of this desire demands that our industries, businesses, and other providers be constantly at the grindstone.

A spirit of penance encourages us to delay satisfaction and gratification, to say “no” to ourselves in the moment so as to build discipline and pave the way for greater, deeper rewards.  If 25 people in our society embraced a spirit of penance, imagine what effect that might have on our “go-go,” “get-get” culture.

The second benefit penance has for our society is related to this point.  Like I said, we modern Westerners have the tendency to move way too fast.  When we fast, when we deny ourselves certain legitimate pleasures for a time, or when we impose rigorous disciplines on ourselves, we then give ourselves occasion to grow in gratitude.  We come to realize that all good things are gifts from God, on Whom we depend for our every need.  This realization helps us to slow down and appreciate even the little things in life that we take for granted.

I could go on longer, but enough said for now.  Hopefully, this illustrates how even those aspects of traditional Christian teaching that are counter-intuitive are, in the last analysis, life-giving, and meant only for the good of humankind.

Images from Wikipedia


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