Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Prescription - Part 1

What do to about anthropocentrism – provided one wishes do to anything at all? That last qualifier isn’t just a quip, but a vital question. What’s so bad about being focused on the world and works of Men? Wouldn’t it seem that such focus could bring about all manner of goods, such as the elimination of various social ills such as racism and poverty? Hasn’t it been said that the proper study of Man is Man?

That question is worthy of a post in itself, but here is a brief treatment: such has been the argument of many for the past several hundred years, and especially in the latter half of the 19th Century, when so much hope was pinned on Man’s domination of the natural world through science and technology. Setting aside all the idealistic conjectures, one has only to look at the brutal harvest of the 20th century to see the results of that false hope. I know the arguments that still try to weasel around the evidence, and I also know that it is almost a cultural norm simply to look past the poisonous effects of anthropocentrism while continuing to swallow the arguments without question. However, to this simple observer, it seems clear that when Man looks no higher than himself for focus and guidance, he quickly drops to the level of a beast.

Granting, then, that anthropocentrism is a state which one might wish to get clear of, how does one go about that? It seems to me that two things are necessary for this; two “feet” to walk on, so to speak. The first of them grates on the modern ear: worship.

Realizing that I risk losing most “non-religious” readers here, I ask you to hold fast for a bit to hear my explanation of that phrase (also, I’ve got a section for you at the end.) I realize that the popular perception of “worship” is either faceless nonentities bowing and chanting in the murk (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) or overdressed women shaking and dancing in ecstasy while the choir claps and the preacher hollers “Hallelujah!” If you can, set aside both these caricatures, as I have been forced to. You see, I was once outright offended by the concept of worship, and not primarily on aesthetic grounds (though that was part of it – after all, who wanted to be like that?) I was offended by the idea of a god who would require his followers to worship him. I wouldn’t think much of a man who asked to be constantly told how great and powerful he was, so how much less a divine being? Especially one who was supposedly good and loving and all-powerful to boot. What did he need, some sort of ego boost?

I eventually learned that the Judeo-Christian God did not by any means “need” my worship, nor did my worship add anything to His existence, any more than my refusal to worship detracted from it. Reading Christian scholars on the topic, I learned that worship was for my sake, not His. This was hard to ignore, since at the same time in my life I was learning by experience that He was as good and loving as I had always been taught, which didn’t fit with the picture of a self-absorbed egotist. But this new knowledge just moved the question to another level: why was worship good for me? What was it about praising God that was beneficial? Wouldn’t that time be better spent learning good moral principles or apologetics?

Even my rather slow perception eventually discerned two beneficial effects of worship. One was that I was speaking true words. To say, “Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God; and we are His people, the sheep of His pasture” is not just pleasant poetry – it is first and foremost true. (In fact, it is several truths.) The older I get, the more I realize how important truth-speaking is. Not only is there a shortage of truth in the world, so that every addition of truth is precious, but we men so often speak untruth that it is worthwhile for us to speak clear and certain truth from time to time just to train our tongues to it.

But it was the second reason that fully reconciled me to proper worship. A man who worships is a man who takes his proper place in creation. He acknowledges who God is, who he is, and (ultimately) who his fellow creatures are. True worship, certainly worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition, does not abase man, but neither does it allow him to “put on airs”. He does not pretend he is God, but neither does he pretend that he is less than he is. By lifting his eyes to a greater Being and by taking that Being’s word about his own nature, man “fits in” to where he was designed to be.

Which brings me back to the question about anthropocentrism. Simply put, anthropocentrism is man focusing on himself where he should be focusing on God. It is man trying to assume a different place in creation than the one which was designed for him – which, ultimately, means that he tries to assume the highest place. Oh, any given man might start out in the name of some greater good, usually an abstraction like “the good of Man”, or “the party”, or “the downtrodden”, but almost inevitably it is the individual ego that ends up enthroned. (If the Judeo-Christian tradition is to be believed, there is a reason for this, but we haven’t time to address that right now.)

This is why I think that one solution to the problem of anthropocentrism is worship: it removes man from the center of his own life and puts God back there. That step alone would strike a major blow against anthropocentrism, though I don’t think it sufficient by itself. Since this post is already overlong, I don’t have time to unpack what I mean by “worship”, in the sense of what true worship is, and how it is done. (That will have to wait for another post.) But I do want to take time to address the concerns of those who “aren’t religious” – how do they connect with this?

I’ll set aside for now the questions I have for anyone who claims to not be “religious” (though you can expect a post on the topic), and offer the following suggestion: anything that takes you out of yourself is a move in the right direction. The best sentiment I can identify is something that isn’t commonly found in our world – awe. (One would not expect awe to be commonplace in an anthropocentric culture.) Whether it’s awe at a well-composed symphony, or awe at a natural wonder, or awe at the presence of a loved one in our life, or whatever – the root of awe is acknowledgement of some Great Thing that is other than yourself. To acknowledge that is to start driving a wedge into the hard, egotistical shell of anthropocentrism. The danger is that it is a sentiment, an emotion, and as such runs the risk of being turned inward into a self-absorbed introspection (“Wow! That was something – let’s see if I can get that feeling back again!”) But one has to start somewhere.

I’ll leave my non-religious readers with one last observation from a surprising source. One of the first (if not the first) Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan movie was a quirky film called Joe vs. The Volcano (details at It has a goofy storyline that centers around a loser named Joe who gets roped into a suicide mission and has to deal with Ryan (who plays many roles) along the way. At one point he and the Ryan character get shipwrecked and are floating on a makeshift raft. They are out of sight of land, running out of supplies, and almost certain to die a miserable death, particularly since Joe keeps sacrificing his water to keep the unconscious girl alive. He’s beginning to grasp the insignificance and futility of his life, and is facing the near-certainty that it is going to end soon. In the midst of this he gets to watch the full moon rise out of the still sea and is transfixed by its glory. He stretches out his arms and utters a heartfelt prayer: Dear God, whose name I do not know... thank you for my life. I forgot... how big... thank you. Thank you for my life. Unfortunately, from that poetic high point the movie descends back into goofiness, but that moment alone almost makes the rest of it endurable. That is awe at work, and Hanks is able to pull it off without cynicism or maudlin sentimentality. If you aren’t “religious” but wish to see the truth – reality as it really is – then be ready for those moments – and hope you don’t have to end up floating on a raft to find them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Anthropocentrism in Action

Back again, briefly, from my other responsibilites. I've got more to say about anthropocentrism, but re-reading my last post, it seemed to me a trifle abstract at points. What do I mean when I say "bowing down", and what does "focusing on our own works" look like?

Fortunately, I have an example near to hand. Last April, on the date of the funeral of the late Pope John Paul the Great, I was listening to an interview on a local radio station. The guest was a well-known American political commentator who had just returned from Rome, and the host was asking him about his visit there. I was intrigued that the man had gone over to Rome but was back in the States before the funeral took place, but as I listened to his comments, it became clear why he had returned when he did.

The first thing the commentator did was go on and on about the number of people who were in Rome. He directly attributed this to JPG's fame - that he had been "probably the most famous man in the world." He went on at length on this theme of fame, and made several speculations about whether the next pope could hope to attain that level of fame. When asked about the funeral, the commentator spoke of all the powerful and influential people who were in Rome for the ceremony, and how impressed he was by all these Big Names who had assembled for the event.

As this character nattered on, it began to dawn on me: this guy was missing the whole point. Not only was he not seeing what JPG's life had been about, he wasn't seeing that other people had seen it. That was what accounted for the throngs filing by in honor and the gathering of the leaders of state. He could not understand a life of sacrifice and devotion to God, and could not even see the aura of holiness which had clung to this man. This well-known political commentator had focused so long and so intently on the world and works of men that he was unable to see the impact of a Greater World upon this one - even when the evidence was staring him in the face. John Paul the Great's bright witness had been a reflection of heaven itself, and it drew people from around the globe to catch one last glimpse - but since this worldling couldn't understand that, he had to interpret it in terms he understood, i.e. fame. The gentle power of his humility and obedience had been used to topple one of the most powerful idolatrous empires in history, and the great of the world had come to pay respect to legacy - but no, those world leaders must only be here to rub elbows and do some behind the scenes moving and shaking.

That interview sticks out in my mind as a textbook example of anthropocentrism. This brilliant and successful political operative was so "stuck on" the works of men that he could not see what was obvious to a simple babushka - that through John Paul, heaven had touched earth.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

What's Wrong With The World?

Clearly I am an ill fit with the “blogosphere”, if that is the proper word. It has been weeks since my last post, but there has been nothing to do about it. I have been preoccupied with parish and other activities, not to mention family and job responsibilities. This has been the earliest I’ve been able to get back here. Hopefully the lag until the next post won’t be so long, but no guarantees!

One of the things about this web logging is that one gets a chance to answer questions that would never be asked - pontification without invitation, so to speak! This post, I’m going to take advantage of that, with the reassurance that any readers who get bored can stop reading.

I’ve often pondered what I might say if someone were to ask me, “In your opinion, what is wrong with the world?” I realize that many heavyweights like il maestro Chesterton himself have taken on this question, and a wise man would hesitate to follow in such prodigious footsteps. I, however, have done some thinking on the topic, and would have an answer ready. “Why”, I would respond, “it’s very simple. What’s wrong with the world is…”

{drum roll please}


{cymbal crash}

{suspicious silence}

That’s right, folks – in my humble opinion, man’s problem is that he thinks too much about himself. He also thinks too much of himself – a cause-and-effect relationship, it would seem. Modern – one might say post-Western – man is obsessed with the works of his own hands, besotted with his own wisdom, and engaged in a totally preoccupying conversation with himself. What matters to modern Man is what modern Man says and does, and everything is interpreted through that lens.

Years ago, I noticed something interesting about men – when they drop their eyes from Christ, they will focus on the greatest thing less than Christ that falls into their vision. Sometimes this greater thing is some aspect of the natural order, which explains everything from the ancient idolatries of nature worship and astrology to the more recent manifestations of the almost rabid obsession with ecology (eco-olatry?) This is not good, but at least the focus is still on something external. But history tells us that it is more common for man to focus on himself – either an idealized image of himself, or something he’s done.

Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures will recognize the phenomena. I remember when I was younger being mystified by the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. After all, why should God feel threatened? Even if the silly men thought their tower could reach heaven, God surely knew better. Why not just let them exhaust themselves in futility? They couldn’t reach, much less harm, God. But as I learned more, I realized that God wasn’t threatened at all – He was concerned for His people. The massive civil works project, center of a growing civilization in Mesopotamia, was neither a site of true worship nor a heavenly assault tower, but a monument to the work and power of men. In other words, men were forgetting the good world that God had for them (albeit cleansed by the waters of the Flood), and beginning to once again become obsessed with the work of their own hands. They were building cities, conducting trade, getting busy with their own affairs – in other words, getting distracted by all their makings and doings from the knowledge and worship of the true God. This shift in focus was having an immediate bad effect – according to rabbinic legend, the Tower was the first instance of slavery, of men forcing their brethren to work against their will – but it was the long-term effect that was most poisonous. The less men thought of God, the more they would focus on their own activities, which in turn would push God further from their minds – a vicious cycle.

This also explains something else that used to mystify me. At points in the Hebrew prophetic and wisdom books the authors would jet off on tirades against idols – that is, the physical images themselves. Isaiah 44 is an example – a moving and poetic section of prophecy is almost interrupted by a brutal satire on the efforts of an artisan to create an idol. The prophet heaps almost excessive abuse on the folly of the idol-makers. “All right, Isaiah”, I thought upon my first few readings, “I get the picture. Making idols is foolish – why are you beating this dead horse?” But eventually I began to get it – here was man, made in the image of God, the greatest thing on the face of the earth, bowing to a much lesser thing: something he himself had made. (This leaves aside the question of demonic activity behind idols, which is a legitimate consideration but not germane to this topic.)

If the phrase “bowing down to the works of our own hands” doesn’t typify modern culture, I don’t know what does. We may not be forging and carving like the artisans in Isaiah 44, but that’s only because our current mindset doesn’t run along those channels. We bow down to ideas and ideologies, and to almost anything about ourselves – our careers, our plans, our opinions, our everything. In our minds, it truly is all about us. Even our patterns of learning reflect this. Once the study of the Word of God (Theo-logos) and friendship with wisdom (philo-sophia) were considered the highest studies because they were concerned with the greatest things. Now they are ignored and scorned (“What you gonna do with a philosophy degree?”) The focus of philosophy and theology are things greater than man, and therefore cannot be accepted by the modern mind. Instead our studies focus on man and his works: sociology, psychology, economics, and (of course) politics. Our eyes are steadily wrenched downward, off of anything greater than us that might give us perspective on ourselves, until we spend days and weeks and years without ever looking beyond the world of man and his works. Let me ask any readers something: when was the last time you went out on a clear night and just looked up at the stars for a good long while?

This post is already far too long, so I’ll refrain from further discussion of the symptoms of anthropocentrism and its destructive effects on our lives. I’d welcome thoughts: do you think anthropocentrism is a good description of the root of the problems we face? If so, what solution(s) would you suggest? I’ve got a thought or two, but that will have to wait until a later post.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Halls of Harfang

I am a longtime reader of C.S. Lewis, and by that I mean that I have been reading his works for about 40 years (since I was about 8). I say this to assure you that I am not a johnny-come-lately fan, given that there is sure to be some “Lewis hype” coming with the imminent release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Given what Peter Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, I’m suspending judgment until I’ve seen the film.) Not only did I grow up in Narnia, but I’ve read Lewis’ Interplanetary Trilogy as well as almost every theological work he ever wrote, and a few of his “professional” ones (e.g. The Discarded Image, which was a wonderful view into Lewis the Scholar.) I say all this not to establish credentials, but to warn you that occasionally I will draw on Lewis to illustrate some point, and to assure you that when it comes to Lewis, I know whereof I speak.

I recently have been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and I can’t recommend them too highly. Even if you don’t like fantasy, or consider them too juvenile, or consider their symbolism crude, let me assure you that they are well worth your time at several levels. I know they aren’t the same grade of literature as The Lord of the Rings, and they aren’t strict allegory (how could they be, when Lewis had a pathological loathing of literature with a “message”?) They are simply stories of what Lewis saw when he opened the eyes of his imagination. But when someone like Lewis writes what he sees, it is wise to pay close attention, even to seemingly trivial details.

Here’s one example. This time through The Silver Chair (which I consider the best of the series), which I’ve read dozens of times, I actually stopped and thought about what seems a minor matter in the plot: the visit to Harfang. The two children from our world, Scrubb and Pole, are on a mission given them by Aslan. Their escort, a dour marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, is escorting them through the cold, barren northern lands to look for a ruined giant city. They had been traveling for some time through hard lands and bitter weather when, to their surprise and Puddleglum’s suspicion, they encounter a couple of humans on horseback. One of the pair is a beautiful woman who gives them seemingly comforting news: that the road they are traveling with take them to a hospitable house of “gentle giants” called Harfang. She explains:

And in Harfang you may or may not hear tidings of the City Ruinous, but certainly you shall find good lodgings and merry hosts. You would be wise to winter there or, at the least, to tarry certain days for your ease and refreshment. There you shall have steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times in a day.”

When asked if the giants of Harfang would welcome strange travelers, the lady tells them:

Only tell them that she of the Green Kirtle salutes them by you, and sends them two fair Southern children for the Autumn Feast.”

After the pair ride on, the Narnian travelers discuss the opportunity:

... Puddleglum didn’t want them to go to Harfang at all... Aslan’s signs had said nothing about staying with giants, gentle or otherwise.

The children, on the other hand, who were sick of wind and rain, and skinny fowl roasted over campfires, and hard, cold earth to sleep on, were absolutely dead set to visit the Gentle Giants.

In the end they decide to go there, but what is interesting to note is how the prospect of Harfang affects them in their travels:

... whatever the Lady had intended by telling them about Harfang, the actual effect on the children was a bad one. They could think of nothing but beds and baths and hot meals and how lovely it would be to get indoors. They never talked about Aslan, or even about the lost Prince, now. And Jill gave up her habit of repeating the signs over to herself every night and morning. She said to herself, at first, that she was too tired, but she soon forgot all about it. And though you might have expected that the idea of having a good time at Harfang would have made them more cheerful, it really made them more sorry for themselves and more grumpy and snappy with each other and with Puddleglum.

If you have read the story, you know that the travelers eventually do make it Harfang. There they find welcoming hosts, hot baths, warm meals – everything that the Lady of the Green Kirtle promised. They also find that the Gentle Giants enjoy eating man at their Autumn Feast. They narrowly escape with their lives, but because the story moves from there to more central and exciting themes, it is easy to overlook the “Harfang incident”. But this time through, it especially caught my eye and got me thinking.

After all, aren’t we all on a mission from Aslan, traversing the rough and often cheerless waste called life? And don’t we often long for a little respite – you know, “...steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong...”? After all, there’s nothing wrong with these, is there? Of course there isn’t – even in the story, the children were feasted at Cair Paravel upon their arrival in Narnia – but the issue is how we view these things. Do we let the prospect of earthly rest and refreshment eclipse our mission? Does the allure of what we could be enjoying plunge us into self-pity when we have to struggle with the hardships of what we’ve been given to deal with? Do we forget the instructions we’ve been given because we’re too busy grousing about what we’re going through, or dreaming about what we may soon have?

There’s a sense in which the modern secular world, especially in the affluent west, is Harfang. Sure, we have lots of creature comforts, and plenty of ease in which to relax and entertainment to fill our hours – but the Giants who rule the castle are man-eaters. Since the Enlightenment Rationalists of the 18th century and the Romantics of the 19th, they’ve been spinning a flowery tale of mankind leaving behind otherworldly superstitions and building an earthly paradise. Of course, we reaped the harvest of that folly in the 20th century, with the bloody deaths of hundreds of millions, and the carnage continues to this day (1.5 million aborted children a year in America alone.) Yet still we still allow the comforts of the castle to distract us from our mission, and find ourselves counting down the days to the Autumn Feast instead of reciting the instructions we’ve been told to memorize.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize – this may be a problem that I alone suffer from. I know how testy I can be if I’ve been planning on a quiet evening to read a book (or whatever), but it gets interrupted by a problem with one of the kids. I know how quickly I fall into self-pity if obedience causes me even the slightest inconvenience – after all, what kind of reward is that for doing good? Don’t I deserve those soft beds instead of this hard ground? But I suspect that this problem is broader than just me, and that the Church has recognized it through the ages. The allure of Harfang has always been with us. That’s one reason why, as I get older, I sympathize more with the classic mortifications like fasting. Some of my evangelical friends can’t understand such things – after all, it’s not like we can earn our salvation, or add anything to Christ’s work on the Cross, can we? Of course we can do neither, but that’s not the point. The point is deliberately, consciously turning out back on Harfang from time to time. Sleeping on cold ground instead of between warm sheets. Bypassing the sumptuous meal in favor of sparse rations, or none at all. Reminding ourselves that we are on a mission, and that rest and feasting will be most appropriate when it is complete. After all, that’s what made Mother Theresa who she was. For many of our brethren throughout the world, the allure of Harfang isn’t much of a stumbling block – they struggle just to make it through a day. But for those of us who live in the shadow of the giant’s home, we would do well to remember that we are on a mission from Aslan and should not be distracted by the prospect of fleshly pleasures – or we just might end up on the table.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Whisper from the East - implications

The last posting dealt with Plato's ideas (interpreted by Josef Pieper) that language is designed for men to communicate truth to one another, and that anything less is what Plato would call "flattery" - worthless words designed only to sway men's will, not communicate truth. I observed that much discourse these days is just this type of communication. Reader SarahD made the point that the sophists may not have won. They may be enjoying a Golden Age, but that some still value true and proper speech. I certainly concede that point. As long as men interact with one another, forming families, friendships, and associations, truth will be spoken. However, I would claim that much of the public discourse in our culture is what Plato would call flattery. Regardless of the arena - politics (of course), media, entertainment, commerce, whatever - success is often measured by how persuasive you are, not how truthful.

To revisit the topic, I'd suggest that men surrounded by a culture so strongly influenced by sophistry will be effected in several ways. It seems to me that there are at least three:

Men will have a distorted view of the truth
This is the most obvious point: if speech is not used to communicate truth, how will men know it? But I think it goes even deeper: men will not only not know the truth, they will have a distorted picture of what the truth is. I heard a classic example on a radio interview recently. The host was interviewing a man who was espousing the current conspiracy theory that the federal government actually blew up some of the levees in New Orleans to flood out the poor blacks remaining in the city. The host was pressing the man for factual support for this outrageous canard, but none was provided - only louder and ruder speeches about how racist the administration was, etc., etc. It was clear that facts were not of interest to this man. His purpose was to rant long and loud enough that enough people would come to believe what he was saying, if only through brute repetition. It was clear that he thought if enough people believed this story, that would somehow make it true - so much so that he even offered that as support ("A lot of people believe this, you know!")

That is one example of having a distorted view of the truth.
It may be true that in a republic like ours, having enough people believe even a falsehood can translate into political power, but neither quantity of believers nor political power can make a lie true. But this sort of confusion is to be expected in a world dominated by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of the purpose of speech
This is a more subtle point, but critical. I remember reading about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, wherein each candidate spoke for hours on end about the issues of the day while their audience listened patiently in the hot sun. (Ever read those debates? I doubt many college graduates could follow them, yet these rustics ate the stuff up. Real hayseeds, those Illinois farmers.) At any rate, once Steven Douglas made some cogent point, and in appreciation the audience gave him a round of applause. He actually stopped his speech to gently reproach his listeners, saying that he was far more interested in convincing their minds then tickling their fancies, and that he'd far rather they considered his ideas than give him a round of applause.

Can you imagine!?

Whether or not you agree with Douglas' positions, his response illustrates a crystalline understanding of the purpose of speech. Yet if that were to happen in today's world, the politician would not only bask in the applause, he'd pull his speechwriter and campaign manager aside afterwards to dissect what button he'd hit, to make sure he'd hit it three times in the next speech. Do you see? The purpose of speech itself has been reworked. "Good speech" is what gets the applause. How that speech relates to truth is secondary (if that.)

This matters greatly to anyone concerned with communicating truth, be it an infantry sergeant, a safety instructor on an oil rig, or an evangelist. If people come to see words as just a tool of persuasion, they will stop considering the question of the truth behind the words and see them only as levers being used to work the hearer around to a certain position. At worst, the listener can fall into a cynical attitude about any sort of persuasive speaking. ("This guy's trying to talk me into something. Why would he do that? What good will it do him if I allow myself to be persuaded?") The cruel irony is that is just these kind of people who are most open to being swayed by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of themselves
That clunky Pieper quote in the last post contained a critical line: [the sophist] no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person. This is obviously true from the speaker's perspective. Someone who is seeking only to sway the masses has little respect for the masses. He sees them only as sheep who may be useful for his ends, but has no respect for them. But men are not fools, and at a gut level they know when they are being treated like sheep. But what if they're always treated like sheep? How will they come to see themselves? Probably not as noble and responsible citizens of an honorable society. Certainly not as image-bearers of God. Yet those identities are still there, constantly struggling to emerge. No matter how depraved and cynical a man gets, part of him wants to honor nobility and goodness. Nothing on earth can erase the imprint of God's image. Yet if much of the communication a man hears tells him that he is a sheep to be herded, what kind of inner conflict will that engender?

Those are my observations. I see a fair amount of attention being paid to the first point, but on pondering Pieper's work, I began to see how important the second and third were, too. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Whisper from the East

The first comment on my initial entry was not a comment at all, but an automated response from a machine. I understand now that it was “comment spam”, a new scourge of the Internet that my blog environment has tools to deal with (and which I have now activated).

Annoyance aside, the event got me thinking. In today's world, we tolerate such things, or if they get too annoying, we implement tools to deflect them. The thought that someone would speak to us in some form (verbal, written, whatever) without really intending to engage in a dialog is part of our culture. We're bombarded with words that have no meaning, and we think nothing of it.

I have been reading an interesting book written by brilliant German philosopher Josef Pieper. It's called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, and in it he distills the thinking of Plato on the topic of dialog. It's a short enough book already, but at the risk of ruining something by double-distilling it, here's a summary of what Pieper says about Plato's thoughts:

  1. Words convey reality.

  2. The purpose of communication is for men to communicate true things about reality one to another

  3. Whenever words are used for something less than communicating true things about reality, then not only are the words debased, the act of communication itself is made into something less than it is intended to be, and the parties involved are no longer treating each other as true men, with all the dignity that goes with that.

This last point is worth noting, and even worth quoting Pieper:

Whoever speaks to another person – not simply, we presume, in spontaneous conversation but using well-considered words – and whoever in doing so is not explicitly committed to the truth – whoever, in other words, is in this guided by something other than the truth – such a person, from that moment on, no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.

(Can you tell this was translated from German?)

This rises out of Plato's writings wherein Socrates debates against the sophists – people whose “skill” lay in their persuasive ability. Persuasive about what? Well, it didn't matter to the sophists – they could be persuasive about anything at all, and usually for a fee. They prided themselves on their verbal gymnastics, and thought nothing of the fact that their words were divorced not only from any objective external truth, but from any foundation of truth within themselves. The sophists didn't even worry that their words didn't reflect what they themselves believed – the only thing that mattered was the elegance and persuasiveness of their speech (Plato's play Gorgias is an example of a dialog between Socrates and the sophist Gorgias.) Plato's term for such disconnected dialog was flattery - a term we use today for speech intended to “butter up” someone, but probably Plato's intent was much broader. Plato would probably appreciate the phrase used by the author of Ecclesiastes: “vain words”.

Pieper's book got me thinking, and the bit of comment spam got me thinking even more, about a simple fact: our culture is drenched in this type of speech constantly - “24/7”, to use the modern idiom. Heck, there are several entire industries devoted to churning out such language, and people highly trained in and well paid for the skill of coming up with such language. The advertising industry alone is almost entirely devoted to it, and nearly every media outlet (radio, television, magazines, even web pages) is devoted to language used for something other than what Pieper identifies as the purpose of language: to communicate true things about reality.

In other words, we're a culture in which our primary tool for comprehending and communicating truth – language itself – has become divorced from that truth and used for something else.

In other words, the sophists have won.

Or have they?

Think about that. Get the book, if you can, and read what Pieper has to say. Think about the significance of such a state of affairs. In my next post I'll discuss some of my thoughts on the implications of this situation.

Monday, September 12, 2005


The last thing the world needs:another weblog

Especially from someone who doesn't identify himself, even in the slightly-obscured form used by some bloggers (pseudonyms, cryptic place names, etc.) After all, isn't the intent of a web log to have a voice in the world, to make your voice heard “out there”, to establish your importance alongside that of – well, that's a question, isn't it? And how can your importance be established if you are not known?

Perhaps that is what posting on the Internet means to some. For me, it means something different – I hope. I hope that this becomes a place for me to “think out loud”, and share something of my life and thoughts, and perhaps interact with others. If this is one outcome of the Internet logging phenomenon, it will be a positive thing. For too long only a very, very few got to publish their thoughts in any way outside of their immediate circle, and few of those ever heard back from those impacted by whatever was published. I remember I once wrote an author whose work had helped me greatly. I didn't expect to hear back; after all, I reasoned, he is a famous author who probably gets dozens of these letters and hasn't time to respond to them all. To my surprise, he did reply, and he assured me that one of the most satisfying parts of being an author is hearing from those who have been impacted by your work. I wonder what he would have thought of the web log idea. Of course, he would have been swift to observe that most postings on most blogs range from inane to obscene, and the comments are worthy of the postings, but I think he would have appreciated the ability of the author and readers to interact.

So that is what I envision this project becoming – a place to think in the open, and to talk with those who deem such musings worth reading. Perhaps it will be more; possibly much less (in which case I might just close it). But even with that modest goal, why the anonymity? Why not even glimpses of my personal life?

We'll see about that in time, but for now, let's just say it's because I don't really matter. No, really – this isn't damaged self-esteem, or Heep-style 'umility talking here, but the soberest self-appraisal I can make. From a human perspective, I live a simple, quiet life. I am not yet, and will probably never be, a Great One as far as human history is concerned. If I do well, my name may be known to a small circle of people, in whose lives I hope to have been a positive influence. And if I manage even that good, it will only be because I pass along good which I received from elsewhere, not good that I manufactured myself. My greatest aspiration is to be a mirror, a finely polished surface that reflects the Charity and Wisdom of the ages to those around me. And what mirror is noticed? Only the flawed and cracked ones. A fine, flawless mirror is not noticed at all – those who gaze into it see only that which it reflects. When I say “I don't matter”, it is in that sense.

Which brings us to the name. A Prince of the West? What kind of pen name is that? Let's start with the last part - “the West”. To anyone who knows me, this would seem strange – especially since I live on the east coast. But by this I do not mean the modern American sense, i.e. “the Coast” - associated in the popular mind with unrestricted self-indulgence and the casting off of moral restraint. No, by this I mean West as in Western Civilization, and all the best of that. Founded in truth, from the dialogue of Socrates to the revelation to the Jews. The West of mythology as well, from the fireside tales of the Celts to the Arthurian legends to the modern tales of Tolkien, all of which identify the West with beauty, completeness, and perfection. The modern mind, of course, scoffs at all such things. Historical revisionists work diligently to erase all memory of the nobility and goodness found in Western tradition. Shallow and worldly men scoff at the notion of any transcendent good or purity - “The West, indeed! There is no such place, except in nursery rhymes! Learn to live in The Real World!” (meaning, of course, the world I have created and through which I seek to control you.)

No. There is a West, and I have touched it (or, to be more precise, been touched by it.) It is both the West of the hopeful mythology and the West of classical learning: the true, the right, the good. I am Of that West, far more than I am of our shallow and vapid modern culture. To those who would scoff at this, calling it a subjective reality, I give Puddleglum's response: if so, we have created an imaginary world that licks their “real” world all hollow. Others have helped me by turning my face to the West – if I can help others by doing the same, I will.

But the name? “A Prince”? Hubris, surely? Perhaps – but my intention is honesty. I am, by adoption, the son of a King, which makes me a prince. Far from the only one, to be sure, and not The Prince (only One will ever hold that title), but rather one of many who hopes to walk the trail blazed by the One who has gone before.

So that is my name: part of who I am, and who I have become. Perhaps I will have a chance to document part of my journey here. If it helps you – so much the better.