Power and the Modern Age

I find myself reading a lot of diagnoses of the modern world-picture.1  There are perhaps too many of these, they all generally arrive at the same conclusions, of the sort we’ve recently explored in Schumacher, and you wish they said more about the cure than the disease.2  In any case, I tend to believe that the convergence of these diagnoses is a sign of their plausibility and when we step back we can see how each individual author is taking up a thread of a vast and multifaceted problem.  It’s therefore always interesting when an author offers a different perspective on things. Such is the case of Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Like virtually everyone, he situates the roots of the modern weltbild in the late Medieval period—his “culprit” is Copernicus and the end of the medieval picture of the cosmos (a claim I only find mildly convincing)—and like many he also argues that the titular end has already come, sometime during or around the time of the two world wars.3

In the wake of this ending, Guardini understands the central question of the next phase of history to be man’s relation to power. What he means by power is not entirely obvious, something like “real energies capable of changing the reality of things, of determining their condition and interrelations” (End of the Modern World, 121). A definition that encompasses both what we might call material technology—atomic bombs, computers, bulldozers, and the like—and social technology—propaganda, mass education, mass media.

He’s weak on the latter sort of power. The specter of nuclear war very obviously lurks in the background here,4 yet it turns out that it is not in material technology that power has developed most insidiously in the decades since Guardini wrote.5  Nevertheless, his key worry remains legitimate, that modern man understands technology as an essentially natural force, detached from human choice

The use of power is accepted simply as another natural process; its only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security. Power is never considered in terms of the responsibility for choice which is inherent in freedom.


End of the Modern World, 83

The worry is that control over power, which man has very deliberately seized, usurping God, to inaugurate the modern revolution in thought, has been abdicated in light of the horrors and exigencies of the World Wars and the attendant collapse of the modern world-picture that resulted (is resulting). Thus, power is now understood to progress as a consequence of some internal logic, rather than as something actualized by human agents.

Of even more significance, the development of power has created the impression that power objectifies itself; that is, power cannot really be possessed or even used by man; rather, it unfold independently from the continuous logic of scientific investigations, from technical problems, from political tensions. The conviction grows that power simply demands its own actualization.


End of the Modern World, 83

The very development of news sources of power, in other words, demands that this power be used. Atomic weapons are, as mentioned, the prototypical case. The fact that the hydrogen bomb can be built means it must be built. The fact that it has been built, means me must build bigger and bigger bombs and must build scores of them. The need to do so is not because the people, our leaders, have specifically chosen, but because political circumstances imagined as beyond the control of human agents, have necessitated it. Thus, they bear no moral agency for their choice to make ever more destructive weapons, not really.

Nuclear weapons are passe these days, but we can see this reasoning to other areas. The surveillance state is necessary because it is useful, how else will we prevent the terrorist attacks that are only possible because of the (apparently inevitable) choices made by policy makers in other areas? Globalization and corporate consolidation are necessary due to market forces, entirely distinct from the people we’ve appointed (or who have appointed themselves) to manage the markets. That these have disastrous effects, morally and materially, is simply an unfortunate natural by-product, no different than a natural disaster and certainly no one’s fault.

Guardini contends that this ostensible lack of agency is a colossal lie, the unfolding of the energies that control the world are not directionless. They cannot be.

There is no being without a master. As far as being is nature–or the non-personal creation–being belongs to God, Whose will is expressed in the laws by which this being, this nature, exists. As far as being is taken out of nature and into the sphere of human freedom, it belongs to man and man is responsible for it. If man fails in his responsibility and does not care for being as he should, it does not return to nature. To think that it does is a negligent assumption, one with which the contemporary world has consoled itself with more or less awareness. But being is not something which one can dispose of by putting it away in storage. When man fails in his responsibility toward the being which he has taken from nature, that being becomes the possession of something anonymous. 

End of the Modern World, 83-4

That (more properly, these) anonymous possessor(s) are demons. Guardini is not being metaphorical here, he means actual demons. Man in the slowly crumbling ruins of the modern age is given a choice. He can give himself over to unconsciousness, and the inhuman, demonic consciousness that will the vacuum,6 or he can master himself, something only possible (as the failure of the modern world-picture to do makes clear) through a proper awareness of our true relation to power and power’s real source, God:

If human power and the lordship which stems from it are rooted in man’s likeness to God, then power is not man’s in his own right, autonomously, but only as a loan, in fief. Man is lord by the grace of God, and he must exercise his dominion responsibly, for he is answerable for it to him who is Lord by essence. Thus sovereignty becomes obedience, service (134).

Guardini believes the choice between these two options, demonic and divine, will only become obvious as things progress. The crumbling of the modern world-picture reveals the stark reality of the struggle lying behind it. No longer will we be deceived by the mush of false sentimentalism masquerading as Christianity or the insistence, much derided by Nietzsche, that Christian values can be retained after their bedrock has been denied. He ultimately sees this as a good thing, though it will certainly not be a quiet and peaceful time. At least the lies of the modern age will hold less currency and, in collapse, awaken the possibility of something true taking their place. Meanwhile, each individual still faces the choice, as they always have, must make it and make it well.

  1. I think I’ve settled on this term, we might substitute condition, worldview, mindset, etc.
  2. The reason for this disparity is because the cure is rather simple, “cultivate virtue.” Simply stated, yet exceedingly difficult. Still, there ought to be more practical advice on attaining this life, particularly amidst the corrupting miasma of the modern world. To his credit, Schumacher outlines some high-level curatives that we’ll discuss in the next few posts.
  3. when dealing in meta-history, it’s all right to be vague about these things
  4. making me realize we never really talk about nuclear weapons anymore, when I was a child, living in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, they were still very much on peoples’ minds. Odd how these things slip away.
  5. As an aside, there is a fairly strong argument that technological development has essentially stalled as of late, a troublesome development for a world-picture so dependent on continual technological advancement for its own self-justification.
  6. When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-6). We might also thing of the terrifying consumption of Prof. Frost in That Hideous Strength as a metaphor for the modern described by Guardini (this should horrify you).

Advertisements

Of Angels and Motes

Every once in awhile you read something that makes everything click into place, a puzzle long scattered in your mind comes together all at once.1 A passage from Tolkien recently set this clicking together in motion, on the subject of the angels:

I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.

Letter 89, To Christopher Tolkien

The love of God is a person.  It’s a stunning insight, one flowing naturally from the reality of God as three-in-one.2  Love, the highest name of God, must have an object, and the love of God, as the most perfect instance of love (indeed, to call it an instance is essentially a confusion, for all love simply is participation in the Love that is the inner life of the Trinity) must have an object appropriate to the lover.  Thus the lover, the Father, is a divine person.  The beloved, the Son, a divine person infinite and equal to the Father as befits the perfect object of the Father’s love, and the love of the Father and the Son is itself a person, the Spirit.3

But what about the love of God for lesser, finite things?  This too, Tolkien notes, is a person:

As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.

Letter 89

In other words, angels are the love of God for the distinct aspects of creation.  Staggering in itself, there are a few implications that are worth noting:

    1. Your guardian angel is God’s love for you, so perfect as to be a divine, albeit finite, person.
    2. Every single bit of creation from the smallest mote to the biggest stars has an attendant angel.  There are as many angels as there are things, and all are fundamentally creatures of God’s love.
    3. With this understanding, we can begin to grasp the import of the concluding line of Dante’s Comedy, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  The celestial bodies are truly moved through the heavens by angels, by the personal attention and love of God, and so too are all other things.4
    4. Moreover, when the Psalmist writes that “the heavens declare the glory of God,”  our minds ought to turn towards the singing of the angelic choir.  The angels, the personal manifestations of God’s love, do not merely move the cosmos, they sing it in praise of its Creator.  This is the celestial music, the music of the spheres, which we bring our inner being into alignment with through our participation in the love of God.  The whole of creation is, therefore, a vast and beautiful love song.

 

Truly wonderful.

1. This phenomenon is, I believe, inspiration in the truest sense of the word. Some fragment of the world acts as a key in the mind, directing it toward the contemplation of higher things from whence it can be illuminated. In the light from above, what was previously obscure becomes apparent in a sort of interior vision.
2. It was, perhaps, no accident that I encountered this passage shortly before Trinity Sunday.
3. And this is why, in loving, we are conformed to God. The more we participate in the intercommunicative love of the Trinity, the more we come to resemble the divine persons, as the love of God transforms us to become more receptive/worthy of being beloved by the divine. More, it entails that in loving we attain to greater degrees of personhood. Love of neighbor and love of God makes us more of a person, more real.
Also, since God loves every fragment of creation (the individual motes, as Tolkien observes), we see that it is this love that acts as the motive force behind the movement of the cosmos back to its ultimate culmination in union with the Creator.
4. The objection that this truth is superstitious, simplistic, or somehow superseded by scientific accounts of planetary motion reveals only the intellectual carelessness and, frankly, the stupidity of the objector.

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

(one of the reasons) why I love the Proslogion

Alongside the Divine Comedy, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is my favorite piece of medieval writing, and it’s my favorite because it’s beautiful.  That might surprise those who are only familiar with the text for the so-called “ontological argument,” the arguments of the second and third chapters that demonstrate not only that God exists but that He cannot be conceived not to exist.  The argument is 100% correct and thus deeply frustrating to those who would like not to believe in God, thus often mocked and parodied and rarely actually contemplated,* but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to try to describe at least a sliver of the sublimity of Anselm’s writing and to hint at why it ends with the joys of heaven.

The Proslogion starts with a sort of spiritual emptiness. No matter where we look, God does not appear. What’s more, study only leads us to the realization that God cannot in principle appear, cannot be understood, cannot be grasped. Yet He unquestionably is.

What to do in the face of this emptiness, sitting in our empty cell, staring at the blank wall and trying to hold the un-holdable? Starting from this absence of God, Anselm shows that all we need is one piece, a single understanding, and from the simple operation of our reason God emerges from the silence. His attributes become clear and finally we realize that the darkness is not darkness at all, but light. Light so bright that it shines dark, light so bright that we, our sight weakened by sin and crippled by ignorance, are blind. The highest realization is not catching sight of God, but the realization that it is God by which we see. We haven’t missed the forest for the trees, we’ve missed the light that envelops and pervades the leaves. The light which allows the forest to appear at all.

Constructed in this way, moments of the greatest spiritual dryness, of the utter absence of God, are transformed into the moments where God is closest. Our ignorance is transformed into knowledge, blindness into sight. That is the beauty of the Proslogion.

 

*see also: Pascal’s Wager

Stars and Dust

This is a continuation of the line of thought found in an earlier post.

In On the Human Condition, St. Basil writes:

If you like, after your contemplation of the soul be attentive also to the structure of the body and marvel at how appropriate a dwelling for the rational soul the sovereign Fashioner has created.  He has made the human being alone of the animals upright, that from your very form you may see that your life is akin to that on high; for all the quadrupeds are bent down toward their stomachs, while the human being is prepared to look up toward heaven, so as not to be devoted to the stomach or to the passions below the stomach but to direct his whole desire toward the journey on high.  (104)

Our physical form makes manifest our natural end, to contemplate the heavens and thus come to seek their Creator.  Ideally, all of creation could serve this end, but the stars are particularly useful for at least two reasons.  The first is that the regular passage of the stars, their permanence, indicates that they approximate the eternal better than other aspects of creation we encounter in the day to day.  In other words, because trees and rabbits are ever-changing, but the stars are a constant.  The second and more important reason is because the stars are impossibly beautiful.  Basil speaks about this earlier in the same book, emphasizing the glory of creation against which any material, human riches pale:

Therefore, why do you call happy one who has a fat purse but needs the feet of others to move around?  You do not lie on a bed of ivory, but you have the earth which is more valuable than great amounts of ivory, and your rest upon it is sweet, sleep comes quickly and is free from anxiety.  You do not lie beneath a gilded roof, but you have the sky glittering all around with the inexpressible beauty of the stars.  (101-2)

And, of course, you have Dante ending every book of The Divine Comedy with the stars.

(An aside, what do you think is the effect of this on your soul? Is it worth it? have you ever truly seen the stars?)

Basil’s ideas were common in Antiquity and beyond, and knowing this gives addition resonance to Lady Philosophy’s description of Boethius’s condition in The Consolation of Philosophy:

This was the man who once was free
To climb the sky with zeal devout
To contemplate the crimson sun,
The frozen fairness of the moon-
Astronomer once used in joy
To comprehend and to commune
With planets on their wandering ways.
This man, this man sought out the source
Of storms that roar and rouse the seas;
The spirit that rotates the world,
The cause that translocates the sun
From shining East to watery West;
He sought the reason why spring hours
Are mild with flowers manifest,
And who enriched with swelling grapes
Ripe autumn at the full of year.
Now see that mind that searched and made
All Nature’s hidden secrets clear
Lie prostrate prisoner of night.
His neck bends low in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate – the lowly dust. (5-6)

Imprisoned on charges of treason, awaiting execution, Boethius can no longer contemplate the stars and has thus lost sight of the source of storms, the Spirit That Rotates the World.  Instead, he stares at the lowest element, the earth, last of the elements and lying at the greatest remove from the divine.  But it’s from here, the lowest point, that Lady Philosophy emerges to lead Boethius back to who he really is.

whither can I flee from thy presence?

Reading in the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by the resonances between Psalm 138 and Anselm’s project in the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo.  My read of Anselm here is shaped heavily by Burcht Pranger’s interpretation of the saint’s thought.  Not coincidentally, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Pranger on Anselm, thus these ideas were percolating around my mind as I read the Psalms.  During the Q&A, he was asked about the potential connections between Anselm’s poetics and the Divine Office, but unfortunately I had to leave before I could hear his answer.

Anyway, the psalm reads:

Whither can I go from thy spirit
whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou are there;
if I am prostrate in the abyss, thou art there.
(Ps. 138:7-8)
It’s that final line, “in the abyss, thou art there” that strikes me.  In seeking for the unum argumentum of the Proslogion, Anselm is reduced to despair in the absence of God, but it is precisely from this absence that God’s presence becomes manifest.  It is the denial of the possibility of the unum argumentum which reveals it, from the preface:

Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found. But when I wished to exclude this thought altogether, lest, by busying my mind to no purpose, it should keep me from other thoughts, in which I might be successful; then more and more, though I was unwilling and shunned it, it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity. So, one day, when I was exceedingly wearied with resisting its importunity, in the very conflict of my thoughts, the proof of which I had despaired offered itself, so that I eagerly embraced the thoughts which I was strenuously repelling.

Similarly, in Cur Deus Homo:

The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ.

The necessity of the Incarnation becomes clear when our knowledge of it is denied, just as God’s attributes emerge from the unum argumentum precisely when we both deny Biblical revelation, proceeding sola ratione, and even the search for reason altogether.  God is still there, in the abyss.

Unfortunately, I was unable in my admittedly cursory research to find the precise schedule of the hours which Anselm would have been reading, but in my breviary the Psalm is sung during Vespers on Friday.  Vespers is traditionally associated with the removal of Christ from the Cross and it’s hard to imagine a moment of greater dejection, a deeper abyss, than that.  Perhaps it’s at this very moment, a moment of utter despair and absence, that God’s presence shines through most clearly, if we have eyes to see.

This line of thought has also led me to become convinced that Boethius is engaged in a fundamentally similar project in the Consolation, and I hope to post more thoughts on that sometime in the near future.

Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers

I enjoy Dorothy Sayers and think she’s underrated as a thinker, though I haven’t read all that much.  Her suggestions in her article on the Trivium have always struck me as eminently reasonable.
Anyway, this is a collection of her essays.  Within she offers a number of wonderful insights and images, this is my favorite:
But, if theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if the had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead, they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist-then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences.  They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.
I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician.  But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it not longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world.  It is the way every novel in the world is written.
(38)
But let us suppose a novelist with a perfectly consistent imagination, who had conceived characters with an absolutely complete and flawless past history; and let us suppose, further, that the fossil remains were being examined by one of the characters, who (since his existence is contained wholly within the covers of the book just as ours is contained wholly within the universe) could not get outside the written book to communicate with the author.  (This, I know, is difficult rather like imaging the inhabitant of two-dimensional space, but it can be done.) Now, such a character would be in precisely the same position as a scientist examining the evidence that the universe affords of its own past.  The evidence would all be there, it would all point in the same direction, and its effects would be apparent in the whole action of the story itself (that is what, for him, would be “real” history). There is no conceivable set of data, no imaginable line of reasoning, by which he could possible prove whether or not the past had ever gone through the formality of taking place…Indeed, he could not by any means behave otherwise because he had been created by his maker as  a person with those influences in the past.
(39-40)
Conceiving of the comos as a story, rather than a machine has always appealed to me.
To the most obvious objection:
Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful.  But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth.  IN what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it?  Or if a prehistory that never happened exercise on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening?  If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.
(40)
Indirectly, I think that conceiving of things like this also eliminates many of the issues revolving around free will.
Sayers is also greatly interested in work, and takes a similar tact to Josef Pieper in his excellent writings on leisure.  Two selections to mull over:
“work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.” (126)
“The Church’s approach to  an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.  What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”(131)
Another of her repeated emphases is the affinity of the human mind as creator with God as creator, an idea explored a lot during the Tolkien course I TA’d for.   Through some meandering meditation on this insight, I’ve become convinced that this entails that the liturgy is the highest mode of human expression.  It seems plausible enough.

 

I place before my inward eyes myself with all that I am--my
body, soul, and all my powers--and I gather round me all the creatures
which God ever created in heaven, on earth, and in all the elements,
each one severally with its name, whether birds of the air, beasts of
the forest, fishes of the water, leaves and grass of the earth, or the
innumerable sand of the sea, and to these I add all the little specks
of dust which glance in the sun beams, with all the little drops of
water which ever fell or are falling from dew, snow, or rain, and I
wish that each of these had a sweetly-sounding stringed instrument,
fashioned from my heart's inmost blood, striking on which they might
each send up to our dear and gentle God a new and lofty strain of
praise for ever and ever. And then the loving arms of my soul stretch
out and extend themselves towards the innumerable multitude of all
creatures, and my intention is, just as a free and blithesome leader of
a choir stirs up the singers of his company, even so to turn them all
to good account by inciting them to sing joyously, and to offer up
their hearts to God. "Sursum corda."

– Henry Suso, The Life of Blessed Henry Suso by Himself. XI

1 Kings 19

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Virtually all errors in thought are the result of a misunderstanding or failure to appreciate the significance of the Incarnation.

Alternatively:  Reality is fundamentally Incarnational, and a failure to recognize this will always lead to error.

Modern thought denies the Incarnation (generally by refusing to admit the union of material and spiritual, giving undue precedence to one or the other) and the reason for the Incarnation (i.e. original sin).