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.


Josef Pieper, A Brief Reading on the Virtues of the Human Heart

I’m not a fan of most modern philosophy.  No one ever seems to just come out and say what they mean, instead burying their points in a mass of verbiage so difficult to penetrate that when you do, it’s inevitably a disappointment.  More, they seem to have forgotten the fundamental duty of philosophy, to inform how we live.  As John of Salisbury says in the Metalogicon, ” Any pretext of philosophy that does not bear fruit in the cultivation of virtue and the guidance of one’s conduct is futile and false.”

Pieper is an exception to this, remarkable in his clarity and concision.  You ought to read him, and his Brief Reader on the Virtues is a good place to start, though I’d recommend this anthology as a better place to get a more complete image of his thought.

In class, we’ve recently finished discussing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethicsitself a fantastic bit of philosophy, and it’s interesting to compare Pieper’s summation of the virtues to Aristotle’s.  They shouldn’t be understood as standing in opposition to each other, but rather as stages of development, Aristotle (consciously) re-imagined and supplemented by St. Thomas and then passed onward to Pieper:

First: the Christian is on who, in faith, becomes aware of the reality of the triune God.  Second: the Christian strives, in hope, for the total fulfillment of his being in eternal life.  Third: the Christian directs himself, in the divine virtue of love, to an affirmation of God and neighbor that surpasses the power of any natural love.  Fourth: the Christian is prudent; namely, he does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will, but rather he makes this Yes or No of the will dependent upon the truth of real things.  Fifth: the Christian is just; that is, he is able to live, “with the other” in truth; he sees himself as a member among members of the Church, of the people, and of any community.  Sixth: the Christian is brave, that is, he is prepared to suffer injury and, if need be, death for the truth and for the realization of justice. Seventh: the Christian is temperate; namely, he does not permit his desire to possess and his desire for pleasure to become destructive and inimical to his being.
A big point for Pieper, and one of the reasons I enjoy him so much, is his emphasis on morality as rooted in the reality of things.  To be virtuous is simply to live in awareness of and in accordance with the truth.  This can probably be best illustrated by the contrary.  When we do wrong, don’t we know, at least deep down, that we’re acting on a lie?  Also, witness how doing wrong leads to the proliferation of falsehoods, lies we tell ourselves, lies we tell others, tangled webs.
Two more passages, both of which hit uncomfortably close to home.  The first reminds me strongly of The Transylvanian Trilogy, a series which I enjoyed deeply and have always promised myself I’d write about someday.  The quote certainly applied to the subject of the Trilogy, the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy immediately before the First World War (another example from a favorite of mine, the inter-war aristocrats of Evelyn Waugh), does it apply to us as well?:
The connection of licentiousness of the desire for pleasure with the indolent inability to get angry is the distinctive mark of complete and genuinely hopeless degeneration.  It shows itself wherever a social class, a people, or a culture is ripe for ruin.
The last is a painful mirror for myself, as I sit here with a dozen open tabs and multiple screen blaring:
The “concupiscence of the eyes” reaches its utmost destructive and extirpative power at the point where it has constructed for itself a world in its own image and likeness, where it has surrounded itself with the restlessness of a ceaseless film of meaningless objects for show and with a literally deafening noise of nothing more than impressions and sensations that roar in an uninterrupted chase around every window of the senses.  Behind their paper facade of ostentation lies absolute nothingness, a “world” of at most one-day constructs that often become insipid after just one-quarter of an hour and are thrown out like a newspaper that has been read or a magazine that has been paged through; a world which, before the revealing gaze of a sound spirit uninfected by its contagion, shows itself to be like a metropolitan entertainment district in the harsh clarity of a winter morning: barren, bleak, and ghostly to the point of pushing one to despair.

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.
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.
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.
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.


“Human beings are not different from the fire, scanner, or mother bear; they’re just more complex systems.” But if science discovered that burning were actually as complex as the brain action, or even if there were some Rube Goldberg contraption that was as complex as neuronal firing,  would we then have a reason to become confused about whether they were free?

~James Chastek Notes over the free will debate.