A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a classic of environmental literature and is quite good, with beautiful sketches of Leopold’s life and work on a sand farm in Wisconsin and his travels through Mexico, Canada, and the American west.  These sketches alone would make the book well-worth reading, but his underlying philosophy is also very solid, particularly in his recognition that conservation cannot be grounded in economic motives or even motivated by taking pleasure in the wilderness.  Rather, conservation must be founded on an ethics of the land, one in which contributing to the integrity and (importantly) beauty1 of what he calls the “biotic community” (essentially all the organisms living in a given habitat) is morally good and harming this community morally wrong.  So far, excellent and true.  Yet, the actual grounding of this ethic was lacking, resting largely on a gesture towards the beauty described in the opening sections of the book and a vague mention of Darwin.  This weakness stems, I think, from my one real quibble with the book.

The quibble is that Leopold tends to cast the mindset of his present (i.e. the late 1940s) as a perennial one, when in fact it is quite modern.  As a consequence, he’s not able to fully diagnose the severity of the problem nor is he able to draw on the wisdom of the past, a fault that ultimately undermines his arguments and cripples his ability to construct a truly robust land ethic.

For example, he writes about mourning the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous that its flocks blotted out the sun for miles, now vanished:

To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons

Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 112

Certainly poetic, but to cast loving what was as a newly emergent phenomenon is rather silly.

how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

He who thought wisely
on this foundation,
and pondered deeply
on this dark life,
wise in spirit,
remembered often from afar
many conflicts,
and spoke these words:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

The Wanderer

Of course, you might object, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon wanderer is not mourning for nature, but for a place, a time, and a people.2 But we’ve mourned for nature too:

I never had noticed it until
‘Twas gone, – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

It was not more than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow’s breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut fag got ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary’s tributary, rises there.

First Known When Lost, Edward Thomas

Of course, Thomas wrote only a few decades before Leopold, but nevertheless mourning for nature’s loss has a long history (I just don’t have any beautiful poems demonstrating the point that come readily to mind).  Medieval authors were well aware that it is not simply man who was cursed in the fall, but through him the world as well, and they grieved mightily for this loss, strove with all their might to restore it (this restoration is, after all, what salvation consists of).   They knew that we have always loved what we once had.  This is the love that leaves us restless, until we rest in Him.

Leopold recognizes the destructive stupidity of a lack or denial of this love, but misses that it is not the love that is “new under the sun,” but the pervasiveness of its absence. Certainly there were always those who did not cherish what was, but we used to not let them blather on about it so loudly in public.  We did not actively work to deaden the awareness that something has been, is being, lost.  In missing the novelty of what he diagnoses, he misses out on the full extent of its destructiveness.  Man could hardly have thrived without a love of what was, could hardly have called himself man at all, and indeed we’re struggling to do these things now.

Leopold  wants to transform man from a conqueror and ruler of nature, an absolute monarch despotically ruling the world, to a member of a community.  That sounds well and good, but here again we see that his mistaking of a current attitude for a perennial one has led him into error.  The mistake here is a prototypically modern understanding of authority, one which casts all exercise of authority as essentially tyrannical domination.3 But rule does not entail absolute, untrammeled power. Dominion over nature does not necessitate domination. Indeed, there is no such thing as earthly authority without obligation. The ruler is constrained, often more so, than the ruled. He rules insofar as he serves.

This truth is demonstrated by considering how Leopold’s solution undermines itself.  For what ethical obligation would man have to creation as a mere member of the biotic community?  As he notes, pigeons have no love of what was, bison do not worry about the environmental impact their grazing has on the field mice.  No, it is only because we are not mere community members that we must care for our fellow creatures.  It is because we are meant to rule that we are obligated to rule well.  Thus, the grounding of a land ethic, an ethic that is of vital importance, cannot be in our refusing the crown but only in our acceptance of it, and a realization that treating the crown as if it entitles us to rule like Louis XVI only leads to the guillotine.4

1. Remind me to delve into this deeper when I write about John Muir. Alternatively, remind me to write a book about environmental theology predicated on the idea that the aesthetic recognition of nature’s beauty is a salvific instance.
2. How distinguishable these were/are from nature is a question we’ll set to the side for the time being
3. In the background lurks the flawed anthropology of the modern era, that understands humans as, at their core, fully autonomous individuals defined above all by their wills. Any restriction on that will, therefore, is a suppression of the essential nature of a given individual and must, of necessity, be tyrannical. Thus, the end state of politics, ethics, etc. is a perfect freedom of the will. The consequences of this anthropology are far too far-reaching to delve into deeply here.  Leopold’s error is simply one manifestation.
4. There is a lesson in both Louis’s pretensions to absolutism and his mushy concessions to the people, each a misconceived half-measure.

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Psalm 19, 18 in the Vulgate

The calm dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon…The sunrise we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadow of the fjord cliffs; but in the midst of our studies, while the Indians were getting ready to sail, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains.  Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire.   In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich…Beneath the frosty shadows of the fjord we stood hushed and awe stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens opened and God mad manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained.
When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine  however glorious  but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself.  Then the supernal fire slowly descended…until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed and thoughtful  as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.  The white, rayless light of morning, seen when I was alone amid the peaks of the California Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  But here the mountains themselves were made divine and declared his glory in terms still more impressive.  How long we gazed I never knew.  The glorious vision passed away in a gradual, fading change….We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing icebergs, while “Gloria in excelsis” still seemed to be sounding over all the white landscape, and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.
John Muir, The Spiritual Writings, 102-3, TA 152-4

Avoiding Acedia in Intellectual Work

I have a small library of notes on things I want to write about, yet feel daunted every time I try.  Sometimes I’m tempted to simply say “read ____,”  and leave it at that.  Resisting that urge today, I’m going to try to write a little about one of the most important of my companion books, the book that more than any other defines my vocation, Antonin Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life.  

I will not offer a summary of the whole book.  For one thing, you should read it for yourself.  For another, the summary already exists.  Sertillanges is developing the principles found in a short letter of (pseudo-) St. Thomas, De modo studendi.  Thus, for a (wholly inadequate) summary, turn to that.

Instead, a single key insight, namely Sertillanges’s recognition of the fundamental vice that afflicts those engaged in intellectual pursuits: the great enemy of contemplation, the noonday demon, and the characteristic sin of our age, acedia:

The great enemy of knowledge is our indolence; that native sloth which shrinks from effort, which does indeed consent now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but soon relapses into careless automatism, regarding a vigorous and sustained impetus as a regular martyrdom.

The Intellectual Life, 124

Truth is eternal, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular truth recognized by others in the same arena.  Indeed, the fact that an insight is shared and recurs over and over again throughout history among those who have given an issue serious thought is good evidence that it’s true.  So we see that the manifestation of acedia in the intellectual is the same pattern diagnosed by Robert Boice in the best book I’ve ever read on overcoming writer’s block (without which, I would have never finished my dissertation). Long periods of desolation, bursts of frenzied activity, torpor, depression, and despair.  Rinse, repeat.

The root of this vice is cowardice.  That may sound strange or self-aggrandizing, casting the work of an academic as courageous, but it is nevertheless true.  To succumb to acedia is to quail in the face of our vocation, to hear the call and shirk at the price:

To get something without paying for it is the universal desire; but it is the desire of cowardly hearts and weak brains.  The universe does not respond to the first murmured request, and the light of God does not shine under your study lamp unless your soul asks for it with persistent effort.

The Intellectual Life, 6

It’s not merely a fear of work, however, not mere laziness.  Rather it’s a fear of the obligations that a vocation entails.  These obligations extend beyond ourselves (and beyond our students, our professors, and the academy as a whole for that matter), and that’s what’s truly terrifying about accepting a call, the knowledge that to get the benefits we must not just do the work, but do it well.

[Acedia] is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian.  It is a kind of anxious vertigo that befalls the human individual when he becomes aware of the heights to which God has raised him.  One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is.  He would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness.  Acedia is a perverted humility; it will not accept supernatural goods because they are, by their very nature, linked to a claim on him who receives them.  Something similar exists in the sphere of mental health and illness.  The psychiatrist frequently observes that, while a neurotic individual may have a superficial will to be restored to health, in actuality he fears more than anything else the demands that are mandated, as a matter of course, on one who is well.”
Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 119
The final two sentences strike home.  How often does a failure to work accompany an indulgent descent into mental unwellness?  Are you not heeding the call because you are miserable or are you miserable because you are not heeding the call?
Acedia, therefore, is the great enemy and a formidable one.  Luckily, the solution is very simple.  Unfortunately, the fact that it is simple is not the same thing as easy.  The way to expurgate a vice is to practice the opposite virtue, and to practice the virtue opposed to sloth, we must work (hence, why Dante has the slothful sprinting through Purgatory).

Do something, or do nothing at all.  Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with your might; and let the whole of your activity be a series of vigorous fresh starts.  Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work.

The Intellectual Life, 96

I see in my students and in myself so much indecision, so much fuddling around, when what must be done is to simply decide and begin.  Once begun, we should proceed until the work is done (failing on this last bit was one of the great struggles of my dissertation writing).

An important bit of practical advice is in place here. When you have decided on a work, when you have clearly conceived and carefully prepared it, and are actually beginning: settle immediately by a vigorous effort the quality that it is to have. Do not count on going back over it. When laziness whispers: “Go ahead anyhow now, you will come back to this later,” say to yourself that this idea of going back on what one has done is nearly always an illusion. When you have once gone down the slope, you will hardly climb up again.

The Intellectual Life, 230-1

We shouldn’t look at this need to work as a burden, or at least not as a heavy burden.1  Rather we must know it as beautiful, our participation in the unfolding of creation.

We must always seek, always endeavor.  Nature makes the wilderness flower anew, the star to shine, the water to flow down slopes, round obstacles, into empty places, dreaming of the sea that waits it yonder, and which it may at last reach.  Creation in every one of its stages is continuous aspiration.  The mind which is potentially all things can of itself no more limit its ideal forms than the natural forms of which they are a reflection.  Death will set the limit, and so will our own inadequacy: let us at least have the courage to flee the frontiers marked out by laziness.  Infinity, lying before use, demands infinity in our desire, to correct as far as may be the gradual failure of our powers.

The Intellectual Life, 126-7

Infinity lies before us, in all its intoxicating wonder and stomach-churning danger.  To approach it demands courage, but we would not be called were we not capable.  What remains, therefore, is to trust, to allow the love that nourishes our work to overpower our fear, to step out and explore.

1. The yoke is easy, the burden light, etc.

Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

I’m never particularly satisfied with anything I’ve written.  The end result never tallies with the original vision in my mind.  When I go back and read again, I find so many lapses, so much unexplained and implicit.  What was entirely clear to me as I wrote is now muddled and slow on the page.  Does the reader get any of it?  Have I failed?1

In particular, my dissertation suffered from a lack of an adequate conclusion.  Frankly, I was tired and scattered and up against a deadline, and I didn’t take the time to properly sum up the whole of my research.  Thus, there are a number of points that I wish had been made more emphatically throughout, and I want to emphasize one here.

First, a bit of background because apparently not everyone has read my dissertation (ridiculous, you should be ashamed).  The subject of that noble work was Honorius Augustodunensis, an extremely popular author of the early twelfth century.  Honorius is notable for all sorts of reasons–you often find him cited as an exemplar of this or that aspect of medieval thought or one of the first to utilize some soon-to-be-widespread literary technique–but there is little comprehensive study of his works.  In a large part this is because Honorius has been classified as a “popularizer,” someone writing for wide audiences whose work is essentially unsophisticated summaries of more important intellectual figures.  Except in one aspect, this is not necessarily an unfair categorization.  Indeed, it’s one he himself readily admits to.  He tells us he is writing for the unlearned, that his style is crude, and that nothing in his works is original, save the effort he expended putting everything together.2

But it’s that bit about being unsophisticated that rings false upon even a cursory examination of his work. It turns out that the effort spent assembling everything was actually quite considerable, and the more we look, the more sophisticated Honorius’s thought appears. His background theology is quite advanced, based on a complex synthesis of John Scottus Eriugena, a maddeningly difficult thinker of whom Honorius is perhaps the most devoted medieval student, Augustine, and Anselm. It’s hard to summarize huge swathes of Christian thought in concise, clear, and easily memorized package. Moreover, there’s a profound unity to both what Honorius writes and how he writes it. The very style of the work, all his unique literary techniques, are in line with his theological outlook. Therefore, the writing itself works to convey the same ideas as the words and to practically enact the ideal of salvific contemplative pedagogy that animates his whole authorial mission. Pretty neat stuff.

Now, the big take-away of all this that I wish I had emphasized more is that this exploring all this demonstrates something very important about medieval thought and about a mistake we often make when studying it. Namely, the dismissal of Honorius by modern scholars rests on a false dichotomy between popular and learned works, between simplicity of style and sophistication of thought. “Simple” is not opposed to “theological” (much less, as it’s sometimes cast to “orthodox”). In fact, if Honorius is any indication, medieval authors expend tremendous effort and marshal considerable literary sophistication to impart correct theology in a simple package, often in the style itself. The simplicity of popular works3 is itself an expression of the theology–the Bible, after all, is written in a simple style–as important as the content which it contains.

Also, since these works are the means by which the vast majority of people seem to have gotten their basic instruction and are read by essentially everyone who is able, it’s foolish to oppose them to the teachings of the Church, some abstract orthodoxy. These popular works were orthodoxy, they were how the Church taught, and we must not allow our biases against “the popular”4 to cause us to forget that.

1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot recently, both because of frustrations with my work and because in Augustine’s On the Catechism of the Unlearned I found that he had the same struggle.  Indeed, that short work was written precisely in response to this problem.  He notes that he struggles with it in every sermon he gives, in all that he writes, yet his conclusion is that we should not be so hard on ourselves.  Yes, our words, bound by time and our own deficiencies, can never truly match the understanding we hold of a subject.  Nevertheless, we also must recognize that the effect of these words, limited as they might be, on others still has the potential to cue in them something more, for understanding ultimately doesn’t derive from the words of other men but from above.   Good advice that should be taken to heart.  

2. The fact that these are all common rhetorical tropes that virtually every author of the Middle Ages makes use of should probably give us some pause here.

3. Which are very often written and read enthusiastically by the most well-educated and theologically astute men of their age, something we ignore all too often.

4. Or, as sometimes seem to be the case, against medieval beliefs/practices that have become unfashionable, gauche, to our modern “sophisticated” eyes.

A Narrative Summary of Alphonsus Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will

The devout Father John Tauler relates this personal experience: For years he had prayed God to send him someone who would teach him the real spiritual life.  One day, at prayer, he heard a voice saying: “Go to such and such a church and you will have the answer to your prayers.” He went and at the door of the church he found a beggar, barefooted and in rags.  He greeted the mendicant saying: “Good day, my friend.”
“Thank you, sire, for your kind wishes, but I do not recall ever having had a ‘bad’ day.”
“Then God has certainly given you a very happy life.”
“That is very true, sir.  I have never been unhappy.  In saying this I am  not making any rash statement either.  This is the reason: When I have nothing to eat, I give thanks to God: when it rains or snows, I bless God’s providence; when someone insults me, drives me away, or otherwise mistreats me, I give glory to God.  I said I’ve never had an unhappy day, and it’s the truth, because I am accustomed to will unreservedly what God wills.  Whatever happens to me, sweet or bitter, I gladly receive from his hands as what is best for me.  Hence my unvarying happiness.
“Where did you find God?”
“I found him where I left creatures.”
“Who are you anyway?”
“I am a king”
“And where is your kingdom?
“In my soul, where everything is in good order; where the passions obey reason, and reason obeys God.”
“How have you come to such a state of perfection?”
“By silence.  I practice silence towards men, while I cultivate the habit of speaking with God.  Conversing with God is the way I found and maintain my peace of soul.”
Uniformity with God’s Will, 13-14