Move over Jordan!

Well, Jordan failed again to show up for an extemporaneous chat about Pope Pius XI’s FANTASTIC encyclical on Christian education Divini Illius Magistri. I was more than happy to fill in for him.

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Socrates and Jesus: On dangerous teaching methods and the lack of published works

Jesus and Socrates are alike in two striking ways. Not that we are the first to compare the two. Actually, I am singularly unversed in what other thinkers like Montaigne and Mill, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had to say about the matter, but I am confident that what I shall say will probably be more enjoyable and accessible to other simple souls like myself who are not quite so inclined for heavy reading in the evenings!

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Now before we proceed, let us acknowledge that one of these men was also God.

So perhaps you might object, along Euclidean lines, that one should not make comparisons between things that are of different kinds. One should not compare apples to oranges.

But even my clever students can answer this silly objection – and they would do so with obliging and courteous finesse. And they will undoubtedly use the old scholastic ‘qua‘ technique! The three little letters QUA provide the fledgling debater with 80% of everything he will ever need to escape from difficult positions and answer tricky objections.

For example, when confronted with a situation in which a patient is healed by a doctor, named John, who happens to be a virtuoso on the violin, the patient is able to say ‘John healed me not QUA violinist but QUA doctor.’

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Similarly, in the case of comparing Socrates to Our Lord and Savior, they will say,

“We do not mean to compare Socrates to Jesus qua God, but rather we mean to compare Socrates to Jesus qua man.”  

How was Socrates similar to Jesus as a man? This is our question.

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Perhaps many similarities might suggest themselves at once. They were both men. They both had mothers. They each had one nose and two eyes.

But we are not concerned with such obvious comparisons – although let us stipulate that it should be of ENORMOUS interest to all of us that God became man and that he actually condescended to have such a lowly organ of sense as a nose!

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But right now we are more interested in drawing similarities between Socrates and Jesus insofar as each of these men were of paramount significance to western civilization as teachers.

Now, as we have repeatedly pointed out in the pages of this blog, strictly speaking, Jesus alone is the teacher. There is only one teacher. There is only one who has the ability to directly cause the agent intellect to grasp intelligible objects. Jesus is the only one who can directly cause intellectual illumination even without the cooperation of the student. Every other teacher can only act as a remote cause of knowledge insofar as he cooperates with nature- in large part by removing obstacles from a student’s mind that prevent him from learning.

So again- strictly speaking, Jesus alone is a teacher whereas Socrates is not. Actually, Socrates appears to be among the first to grasp this very fact. Socrates is famous for going around insisting that he did not have wisdom and was only on a  mission to examine others who claimed they did.

So now that we have stipulated these initial differences between Our Lord and Socrates, are we able to find some striking similarities?

Here are at least two.

The first is that both Socrates and Jesus employed a similar method in their teaching.

They both employed the method of asking questions in order to show others that they did not have the wisdom they claimed to have.

This is what makes reading the Platonic Dialogues so enjoyable. We ask ourselves, ‘how is Socrates going to show so-and-so that so-and-so doesn’t really know what so-and-so claims to know?’

Embarrassing his interlocutors was never the primary aim of Socrates. His primary aim was, rather, to help others to examine their own opinions with the view of ascertaining whether all of their thoughts held consistently together. Or did their opinions actually contradict one another? The underlying assumption is, of course, that truth is the sort of thing that hangs together. One thing cannot be true while contradicting another thing that is true.  The kind of discussion that Socrates pioneered is what we call ‘the examination conversation.‘ It is a conversation in which a person seeks out the coherency of his own ideas.

The danger, of course, with this method is that it is apt to shine a bright light on the fallacies and inconsistencies in a person’s thought. And should one happen to be the person whose thoughts are under scrutiny, then it can be painful to be brought to the realization that one’s thoughts- especially if they are long and firmly held convictions- are nothing more than idle and empty wind-bags! Instead of gratitude and joy at having one’s thoughts examined and found wanting, feelings of shame, and anger and perhaps even bitter hatred might arise against the unlucky one who examines us.

Take this delightful passage from Plato’s Republic. Socrates has just ‘finished off’ the ideas of the brash Thrasymachus who maintained that injustice is more advantageous than justice. He maintained that the unjust man is more likely to be happy and successful than the just man. But through his examination, Socrates compelled Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is really on the side of evil and ignorance.

When we had got to this point in the argument, and every one saw that the definition of justice had been completely upset, Thrasymachus, instead of replying to me, said: Tell me, Socrates, have you got a nurse?

Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be answering?

Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose:

Clearly, Thrasymachus did not enjoy being ‘shown up’ for his false notions. He should have been thankful to Socrates for helping him because as long as we refuse to examine our ideas, none of us can obtain wisdom.

Jesus employed this same method in speaking to the chief priests and Pharisees.

And the Pharisees being gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying: What think you of Christ? whose son is he? They say to him: David’s. He saith to them: How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool?  If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?

And no man was able to answer him a word; neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.

One can infer at least two things about the use of this method of teaching that both Jesus and Socrates employed. The first thing is that it is an extremely effective method since Jesus and Socrates both used it. The second is that this method of teaching is quite dangerous. Given that the two chief exemplars of this method (aka the ‘Socratic method’) were both executed unjustly through the malignancy of the individuals that they examined, I think it is safe to say that effective teaching does have its perils.

Let us turn to a second striking similarity between Socrates and Jesus with respect to their teaching.

Neither Socrates nor Jesus appear to have written any books, articles, blog posts, or engaged in any medium that employs the written word.

They both displayed an exceptional preference for the spoken word as the single medium for their teaching. 

Neither Jesus nor Socrates was an author.

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True, Jesus did write something in the sand that scared off a number of people. But the fact that he wrote in the sand is sort of an interesting thing in itself. He did not intend his writing to be preserved.

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If Jesus is the greatest teacher, then certainly he used the most effective method for teaching. But Jesus taught through the spoken word rather than the written word. Therefore it would appear that the spoken word is the most perfect method of teaching.

Certainly, we are thankful for the written word. Where would we be without the works of Aristotle and Aquinas? But Socrates and Jesus were men of the spoken word. The written word is, after all, merely a sign of the spoken word. The written word is a derivative word. The written word is only a word in a secondary sense.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Socrates’ words were chronicled brilliantly by his student Plato and Our Lord’s words recorded by no less than four evangelists through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, I still take it as a sign of their single-minded devotion to teaching and always expressing the truth in its fullest degree that neither Jesus nor Socrates bothered to write anything down themselves.

We are certainly not the first to compare Socrates to Jesus. Socrates lived a life motivated by a single-hearted love of truth for its own sake. He lived a life consumed with the love of wisdom. ” We are shaped and fashioned by what we love,” says Goethe. No wonder then that so many have found similarities between Socrates and the one who was the very fulfillment of his search.

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Concerning the ill-advised changes to the Lord’s Prayer. Lionandox meets “The Catholic Current”

In light of the recent ill-advised yet “approved” inept translations/changes to the Lord’s Prayer (and the Gloria) by the Holy See for both French and Italian Catholics…what else can one do but argue for accurate translations on the radio with Fr. McTeigue?

My advice to all of you educators out there, who enjoy accurate translations of scripture…you better start teaching a little Greek to your students…. and fast!

Fr. McTeigue, of course, is the excellent host of the daily radio program “The Catholic Current” which airs every day at 5pm on “The Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network.”

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Because he had read my post on the sixth petition of the Lord’s prayer, Father invited me to speak more about it on his daily program.

Someday I hope to be as articulate and as compelling a speaker as he is!

Here is a link to the interview!

or click on the following link:

(https://lionandox.com/2019/06/06/the-lords-prayer-what-does-lead-us-not-into-temptation-mean-2/)

 

Posted in Aquinas, Augustine, catholic education, classical education, The Lord's Prayer | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

There are no teachers.

At the outset of a new academic year those of us who have the privilege of working with students in that mysterious process that we call ‘education,’ are again confronted with the question about how we might succeed a little better in the new year than we all did in the previous one.

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Unfortunately, the teaching profession is markedly different from every other profession in one prominent way: It is not safe to assume that a teacher will improve with experience.

In fact, I have heard it alleged that the educational world provides a relatively safe haven for those who are ill-equipped and perhaps even disastrous in their chosen profession as teachers. A disappointing thought, but a thought that bears some reflection.

Obviously, the object of teaching separates it from every other art or profession. Whereas the plumber might deal with copper pipe,

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and the doctor concerns himself with the health of the body, and the sculptor shapes and forms marble… the teacher focuses on forming the human mind- the intellect. Clearly teaching is different from other professions in its object.

But let us consider at least four other ways that teaching is different from every other art.

1. The teaching profession is the only profession that, strictly speaking, has only one authentic member.

And His name is Jesus Christ.

As it is written,

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.

Now it is not only clear from this text, but I have had it on authority from multiple sources that the word ‘rabbi’ means ‘teacher.’

Hence the King James version of this same passage reads,

And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.

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So this should offer a small consolation to teachers who might be facing various existential crises about whether they are effective and good teachers. The answer is no they are not – because they are not teachers, in the primary sense of the word. They are only teachers in a secondary sense as I have lucidly explained here.

It must be nice to be a plumber or an accountant or a building contractor. At least they can feel pretty secure in being called what they profess to be. Teachers, on the other hand always have to keep in mind that they are not really teachers.

2. The teaching profession is the only profession that allows for repeated and continuous long-term catastrophic failure by its practitioners.

I suppose those of you who know more about working for State or Federal Government will correct me here, but how many professions, how many businesses can remain open for years and years when they fail to produce, or, even worse, intentionally destroy the product they are producing?

If a doctor repeatedly harms, maims, or even kills his patients, my hunch is that some oversight committee eventually catches up to him and calls him to account.

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Or if an auto manufacturer produces cars that don’t work, are poorly designed, or are even dangerous, my guess is that such an auto manufacturer will eventually either change its modus operandi or go out of business.

The same goes for airplane and jet manufacturers. After one or two catastrophic crashes, the entire company is subject to relatively close scrutiny.  At least that is what I thought.

But teaching is different. A single teacher can, for example, spend his entire career corrupting the minds of all of his students with false doctrine, heresy, or even just plain old bad doctrine without ever encountering a review board or any kind of censure. A teacher might even spend his entire career teaching nothing but falsehoods and lies and make a fairly good living at it. Is there another profession like this? Actually, it’s sort of amazing!

I can’t think of a better gig. It’s like a completely fail-safe profession. If I teach falsehood I get paid. If I teach the truth I get paid (although perhaps a little less).

3. There are no objective measures for effective teaching.

Isn’t that wonderful?

As a ‘teacher’ it is impossible for anyone to say with certainty that I am a total disaster or a prodigious success!

Other than God Himself, who can make the judgment? There are no objective measures.

When a student learns something I will, of course, take the credit gladly. But should a student fail to learn I can recite any number of reasons why it was his or her fault.

Standardized testing does not offer us any help either. The first reason for this is that standardized tests are unable to measure authentic learning. For example, there are never any questions on a standardized test that ask a student to reason, step by step, through an elementary proposition in Euclid’s Elements. 

The second reason is that one can never be certain whether the excellent results obtained by one’s students on a standardized test has anything to do with what one ‘taught’ the student. The results are more likely a simple reflection of the student’s native intelligence.

With the mechanical arts, the case is radically different. Every auto mechanic receives a fairly direct and objective confirmation of his good or bad work simply by ascertaining whether the thing he was working on is actually fixed or whether the problem continues. Does the car start or doesn’t it?

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A home builder will someday find out whether the homes he has built stand up or fail. If a roof collapses without the influence of any extraordinary climatic event, everyone is pretty certain that there was a fault in the construction. But it is very difficult to pin anything on a bad teacher.

4. Teaching depends mostly on a willing student who is also disposed to learn.

Who can blame a teacher, even a poor and ineffective teacher, for failing to make any sort of impact on a student that is simply unwilling to learn? Who can fault a teacher who is unsuccessful in teaching a student that is not disposed to learn?

But even more, who can blame a teacher for not improving in his art should he be continually provided with students who are unwilling or ill-disposed to learn what he is trying to teach?

Consider this – there are two requirements on the part of the student for learning. First, he must be willing to learn. Second, even if he is willing, he must also be disposed to learn.

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There is no teaching without learning, and there is no learning without the learner’s cooperation.

But even if a student is willing to learn this does not mean that he is able to learn a specific subject. If a student is willing to learn Calculus but has never taken Algebra, it is unlikely that any Calculus teacher will ever succeed in teaching him. Likewise, a student who has never taken plane geometry is not disposed to learn solid geometry no matter how enthusiastic he is to learn!

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Real learning is a matter of sticking to an order. Mere enthusiasm is not enough.

But the point here is that teaching differs from, say, carpentry in this way- the carpenter doesn’t have to wait until his lumber is in the proper mood in order to make a house. The electrician does not have to entertain and coax his wires to behave properly so that he can complete some kind of complex circuit. Teaching, by contrast, is singularly dependent upon the disposition of its object- the student.

There are carpenters, there are doctors, there are electricians and there are plumbers. But there are really no teachers if teaching has anything to do with the direct formation of the souls of students, except for one, Jesus Christ.

Posted in classical education, education | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Liberal Education Works: Volume 20 (Fence Building)

My chief regret this summer is that I found no time to pack in another Dickens novel. Nothing says summer better than packing in a Dicken’s novel. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read a Dickens novel since the last time I spoke about it here. Oh my! That was 2015.

Well I suppose the good news is that I can probably re-read Dombey and Son with renewed delight since I am quite certain I have forgotten every detail – one of the golden benefits of having a poor memory!

Well, instead of spending the summer break leisurely reading Dickens, I was more than happy to demonstrate once again one of my favorite themes. And what is that theme? Spoken most pithly and with the brevity that wisdom demands, it is this:

Liberal education works!

And nothing is quite so labor intensive as rebuilding old fences, refinishing decks, and engaging in the ancient art of setting bricks and tuckpointing! Those of us who are liberally educated are bound to know these various skills and arts as well as any person can know all of them simultaneously. The liberally educated man is one who can make a “fair off handed judgement” about just about everything as that god among philosophers, that maven of wisdom, that paragon of reasoning, that star among the firmament of sapiential thinkers….as the philosopher Aristotle says,

For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgement as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. [and here I am certain that Aristotle would not mind if we substituted for the word professor the word artisan, musican, painter, car mechanic, plumber, electrician, piano technician brick layer, etc.] To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject.

Aristotle is reminding us that the mark of the educated man is his wide ranging and universal knowledge. In other words the educated man is not one who is a specialist. The educated man is one who has not sacrificed his entire intellectual ability on the altar of specialization.

And so – does the educated man know about building fences? You bet he does!

Fence post

Now fortunately, for me, I did not need to start from scratch. In my case I was merely rebuilding a fence that devouring time had blunted to the point that it was beginning to resemble a mouth missing multiple teeth.

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Nonetheless, most of the posts were still usable and had some meat-although certainly greyed with time. But as every fence builder knows, setting posts is the most difficult thing about building a fence, and so in my case, I was fortunate to have only needed to replace four of them. But this presented its own difficuty insofar as one cannot replace a fence post without digging out the old one. The difficulty here lies in the fact that each fence post is ordinarily firmly planted in a two or three foot long concrete ‘footing’ buried just under the surface. Therefore in order to set a new post one needs to first extract the old footing in order to make room for a new footing. I am guessing that dentists would especially sympathize with the difficulty of this operation.

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Unfortunately, I did not capture a photo of the brilliant process by which these concrete ‘teeth’ were exhumed from the ground.

In the not so distant past, I would dig through the Cleveland Heights clay for hours until the footing was loose. Then I would use long steel pikes to lever the concrete footing- tugging, pulling, and levering it until at last it reluctantly came out.

But after some research I discovered the joy of the Harbor Freight farmer’s jack!

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Oh how I wish someone had told me about this method years ago. One simply has to wrap a chain around the lip of the concrete footing and then with the help of a well placed farmer’s jack, one simply ‘jacks’ the concrete footing out of the earth! Of course this still requires considerable effort- but nowhere near the effort required by digging them out with a shovel!

Here is the general idea although the jack in the photo is considerably more complex and better equipped for the job than was mine.

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Afterwards one is left with the empty hole. We are now ready to set the new post!

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We should be thankful for the advanced stage of concrete-technology these days as there now exist ready-mix bags of concrete to which one simply adds water for our new posts. Thank goodness for “Quickrete!”

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quickrete

One only needs to make certain that the hole is about 1/3 the depth of the new post length (i.e. about 2.5-3 feet deep) and then (one) simply pours the quickrete about the new fence post, adds water and makes certain the post is plumb and square and generally perfectly upright- using a couple of spare boards to keep it so as the concrete dries.

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mess

It is always very satsifying to have a nice new pressurized 4X4 post firmly established and ready for supporting the new fence.

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There are two ways to proceed once one has the posts ready. One can either purchase the ready made 8 foot sections of pre-built factory manufactured fencing panels for about $51 each, Image result for home depot fence panels dog ear

…or one can decide to build the entire panel by hand… rail by rail, board by board, pounding or drilling six nails or screws into each.

I chose the latter option thinking to save some money as each pressurized pine board was about $1.32 and the 2X3 pine cross beams were about $2.18 a piece. My thinking was that I could build each 8 foot panel for about $38.27 apiece (nails, screws and a gallon of wood preservative included) and save over $10 a panel!

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Take my advice, spend the extra $10 for the pre-fabricated panels!

Even with the aid of two strong helpers, I am now certain that the extra cost of delivery would still have been worth the amount of time and energy it took us to make five trips to Lowes for the material.

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Nonetheless, we do not regret improving our upper body strength, tenacity and coordination by hammering in the nearly 1500 nails and screws it took to affix each separate plank to the cross rails.

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Hopefully the new fence will last twenty years, but I have a hunch that I will need to replace some of the older posts before that.

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What does ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven’ mean?

Punctuation can often be misleading, especially when translators are faced with punctuating a text which has no punctuation. And so when we read the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Saint Matthew we are perhaps accustomed to reading the first part like this,

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Now, of course, this is perfectly acceptable. But there is a possible mistake that is suggested by the punctuation. To which of the first three petitions does the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” belong? The punctuation appears to include it in the third petition alone. In other words, it seems to me that many people understand the first three petitions like this:

  1. Hallowed be Thy name.
  2. Thy kingdom come.
  3. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.

But fortunately for us who have access to the Catena Aurea we are able to avoid this confined view!

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St. Thomas Aquinas, in his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of every church father, every church doctor, and even the thoughts of scores of the prominent heretics,  has provided us all a gift of inestimable value by bestowing all of his knowledge on the rest of us in comparatively brief works.

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For example, take this little gem from the Theologian known to history as Pseudo-Chrysostom,

These words, “As in heaven so in earth,” must be taken as common to all three preceding petitions.

In other words, the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer should be understood like this,

  1. Hallowed be Thy name on earth as it is heaven.
  2. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.
  3. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Grammarians might argue that the placement of the phrase “on earth as it is heaven” is appositive. It is placed after the three petitions yet is taken to refer to all of them.

Now, what does this phrase mean? What does it mean to say, for example, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven, or Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven?

Well, perhaps you, as I, have always understood it to mean something very clear and obvious like,

‘May your will be done here on planet earth as it is done perfectly by all the saints and angels in heaven’

This of course is a wonderful understanding of the text, and I suppose qualifies as the literal sense. As we all know, every other interpretation of sacred scripture must be rendered in a way that starts from and does not exclude the literal sense. (except of course when the literal meaning of the words cannot possibly be the first intent of the author e.g. “God is my rock” “if your eye offend thee pluck it out”).

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But among other interpretation of this phrase I find one, suggested by Saint Augustine, particularly marvelous,

“by the heaven and the earth we may understand the spirit and the flesh. As the Apostle says, “In my mind I obey the law of God,” [Rom 7:25] we see the will of God done in the spirit. But in that change which is promised to the righteous there, “Let thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth;” that is, as the spirit does not resist God, so let the body not resist the spirit.”

This especially makes sense when we think of Our Lord’s words to His disciples in the garden,

And he cometh to his disciples and findeth them asleep. And he saith to Peter: What? Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch ye: and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

St. Thomas explains this in greater detail in his own brief commentary on The Lord’s Prayer,

Thus, there is an endless strife between the flesh and the spirit, and man is continually being brought lower by sin. The will of God, therefore, is that man be restored to his primal state so that no more would the flesh rebel against the spirit: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification. “Now, this will of God cannot be fulfilled in this life, but it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of the just, when glorified bodies shall arise incorrupt and most perfect: “It is sown a natural body; it shall rise a spiritual body. “In the just the will of God is fulfilled relative to the spirit, which abides in justice and knowledge and perfect life. Therefore, when we say “Thy will be done,” let us pray that His will also may be done regarding the flesh. Thus, the sense of “Thy will be done on earth” is that it may be done “for our flesh,” and “as it is in heaven” means in our spirit. Thus, we take “in heaven” for our spirit, and “on earth” as our flesh.

This is a beautiful interpretation of the phrase ‘on earth as it is heaven’ and reminds us that our bodies really are something of earth. We are dust and unto dust we must return. But by praying the Lord’s Prayer often we prepare our bodies for the life of eternal beatitude when flesh shall no longer war against spirit, and,

The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds (Wisdom 3:7).

Posted in Aquinas, Augustine, Catena Aurea, Lord's Prayer | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Three Ways We Should Read Sacred Scripture

In scene two of the third Act of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence cautions Romeo,

Wisely and Slow, they stumble that run fast.

Now, even those who have not read the play can guess that Romeo probably did not take that advice. Youth is impetuous and although St Thomas says,

Man has a natural aptitude for docility even as for other things connected with prudence,

nonetheless in the age of high-performance CPUs, increasing gigahertz, rockets and Aldi checkout lines, the virtue of slowness can be a tough sell!

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Docility is, of course, a virtue which enables us to fulfil our nature as rational animals. From the Latin second conjugation verb doceo, docere, docui, doctum meaning to teach, docility is the virtue of ‘teachability’. If our mission as human beings is to become one day joined with God who is truth itself, then we certainly need to be teachable.

Admittedly, docility is a little out of vogue these days since we are all supposed to be ‘critical thinkers,’ and so we might have to struggle a little more to obtain this virtue than all of those fortunate souls that lived in the docile dark ages.

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But I think everyone instinctively adopts a teachable attitude when confronted with another who is undoubtedly an expert about this or that subject. Americans are especially docile when it comes to listening to medical doctors, or scientists of any shape or size.

So, it goes without saying that if there is one place where we should exhibit docility, it is when we are in the presence of the wise. And I suppose, in an age in which the mathematicization of everything is the prevailing custom, we might even propose a mathematical law concerning our docility.

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Let “D” stand for Docility. Let “W” stand for wisdom and let N stand for some constant of variation. Therefore, our law, stated in words, will be:

A person’s docility should vary directly according to the wisdom of the one in whose presence he happens to be.

Or in other words:

The docility of the listener should vary directly according to the wisdom of the speaker,

This law stated symbolically is:

D≅NW

In concrete terms, this law means that when we are confronted with, say, the words of Aristotle, or Shakespeare, or St Thomas Aquinas, we should be very docile because these three thinkers were very wise!

Everyone intuitively knows this law and, as we said before, we might even say that the law is naturally implanted in us.

But if we should be docile when confronted with the wisdom of human thinkers, then a fortiori, how much more docile ought we to be when confronted with the wisdom of God! Again, an obvious point, although certainly well worth repeating. How much more docile ought we to be when we are reading or hearing Sacred Scripture!

St Thomas pointed out, our own efforts “count for much towards the attainment of perfect docility.” That is to say, we can and should take certain definite steps to increase and perfect our docility when it comes to the Wisdom of God.

But how? What are these steps?

St. Thomas, as usual, does not leave us in the dark. He says each person,

must carefully, frequently and reverently apply his mind to the teachings of the learned, neither neglecting them through laziness, nor despising them through pride.

In other words, we have here three concrete steps that we ought to take when reading Sacred Scripture:

  1. We should read sacred scripture carefully.
  2. We should read sacred scripture frequently.
  3. We should read sacred scripture with reverence.

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Now, again, I suppose you, my dear reader, might think to yourself, “How obvious! I didn’t need St Thomas to tell me that!”

But perhaps this might seem obvious, especially to lifelong Catholics who attend Mass regularly, because the Church has habituated them to these very three ways of hearing God’s word at every Mass.

Notice that rather than reading entire chapters of the Old or New Testament, the Church has carefully selected relatively brief passages for us to consider. We are not made to gulp down and swallow huge portions at a time, but rather are invited to sip and savor little morsels. And then we are invited to meditate upon these passages with the wise help of one who has considered them and is able to speak about them in his homily.

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The church has carefully arranged the readings that Catholics hear at Mass. Now whether one prefers the annual cyclical arrangement of fewer readings that one hears at Mass in the Extraordinary Form (as I do) or whether one prefers the three year cyclical arrangement of more readings that one hears at Mass celebrated in the Ordinary Form, in any case, I think it may be said that the church has taken great care in the arrangement of these readings!

Extraordinary care has been taken in not only reading passages from the Old and New Testament, but also in pairing the readings in such a way that we can clearly see how the New Testament is a perfect fulfillment of the Old!

Consequently, the ordinary faithful will hear the same scriptures frequently. Whereas Catholics who attend the Ordinary Form will hear the same scriptures at least once every three years, those who attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form, are treated to the same scriptures every year. The church has taken special care that Catholics hear the sacred scriptures frequently!

And finally, what could be more reverent than the way Sacred Scripture is read at Mass. Most Catholics are to sit quietly during the readings, and they stand for the Gospel. In the general Instruction on the Roman Missal we read,

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel. Therefore, the readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone, for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.

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The readings are,

to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice, whether by the Priest or the Deacon, or by a reader, or by everyone, the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself…

I think it is just another excellent example of how the church always promotes not only moral virtue but also especially intellectual virtue. Docility is foundational to intellectual virtue and Catholics are fortunate to have the opportunity to develop this virtue in three concrete steps every week – by reading carefully, frequently and reverently the word of God.

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Two Reasons Why Things Are Difficult to Understand

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As has been thoroughly set forth and expounded by the inimitable philosopher, the late great Duane Berquist, in a beautiful succinct and brilliant paper on this very subject, there are seven times when we need to go wisely and slow in our path towards wisdom, that is in our attempt to increase our understanding, to wit:

  1. where many things must be considered before a judgment can be made
  2. where a thing is difficult to understand
  3. where there is a beginning small in size, but great in its power
  4. where there is knowledge over a road and knowledge of the road to follow
  5. where there is general knowledge and particular knowledge
  6. where there is a word equivocal by reason
  7. where there are the words of a wise man

To date we have discussed two of these times (which are in bold) here.

Today I propose that we tackle the second time that we need to go wisely and slow. We should go wisely and slow when a thing is difficult to understand.

What’s that? Do I hear an objection already?

Gentle Reader: Yes, I object on the ground that what you have proposed is already too obvious. We would prefer that you don’t assault our patience, in your usual way, by explaining the obvious! Why not tell us what your wise friend means by #3, #4 or #5. Those are incomprehensible. Instead you concentrate on the very one that appears to need no explanation at all!

Well, I do understand your concern and it is not my intention to protract this discussion unnecessarily. But there is something about difficulty that may not have occurred to you. Will you hear me out just a little longer?

Gentle Reader: Perhaps for a few more seconds. I hope you will not disappoint.

Thank you. I will try my best. Perhaps you could slip away into the background a bit and allow me to speak without further interruption.

Gentle Reader: I thought this was a discussion.

Well not quite. I admit that I use the word discussion often. But this is partly due to a marketing sense which helps to drive up my readership. Sometimes we need to play to our audience and take its interests into account. Nonetheless, we could probably cover the material that we propose to cover today faster if you were simply to  agree to sit back and take notes silently.

Gentle Reader: I don’t think I can agree to this. I have ideas and questions and I am not going to allow you to simply talk over me or at me without addressing these questions as they come up naturally. What good would that be? Are you interested in teaching me something or do you just want to talk and make speeches based on the borrowed wisdom of your so called wise man?

You leave me with no alternative other than to simply turn you out of the room. I am sorry to do this, but we will simply not be able to make any progress today with your frequent interjections and interruptions.

Gentle Reader: But wait! You can’t do that…. I have the right to….. (click…..dial tone…..)

Now let us return to our discussion. As I was saying before, we should go wisely and slow when there is a thing difficult to understand. The interesting question to consider here is:

‘When is a thing difficult to understand?’ or ‘What is it that makes something difficult?

There are two times when a thing is difficult to understand.

  1. When the difficulty occurs in the thing that we are trying to understand.
  2. When the difficulty occurs in ourselves, that is in our own reason.

Consider the first. Somethings are difficult to understand because there is something about the thing which is just plain difficult to understand. Take ‘motion’ for example.

Motion is difficult to understand. Why? Well simply because motion happens to belong to that class of things which barely exists.

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Local motion is a good example. First a thing is here and then it is there and then it is there and then it is there and so on…. How is one able to understand something that is moving? Ordinarily our understanding is based on the fact that something stands still for at least a little while. What does the word understanding mean if there is nothing that stands, or  stands under? Do you see what I mean here?

Understanding is a thing which is based on some kind of rest. And that is why the great Heraclitus should be held up and revered by all thinking people.

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It was Heraclitus who pointed out the problem of knowing things which do not rest when he famously uttered those immortal words:

We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.
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Another example of a thing which is difficult to understand is time. Talk about something which doesn’t stand still, my goodness, time has got to be the most fluid thing there is!

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It boggles the mind. The question really should be does time even exist? I think it does…but just barely!

Consider, what part of time exists at any given time? The past does not exist. The future does not exist. Only the present appears to exist and the present is not very long is it?

How long? well about as long as a point is long. And that is not very long!

At any rate, I think it is clear that time is one of those things that is very difficult to understand. Mind you I don’t say it is impossible to understand. But I would assert that it is impossible to understand without reading Aristotle’s 8 Books on Natural Hearing (otherwise known as Physics).

And so the first time when a thing is difficult appears to be when the difficulty occurs in the thing itself.

Now for the second. A thing is also difficult when there is a difficulty due to the weakness of our own reason.

This is evident especially when we consider things above our own reason, like God and His angels.

This accounts very well for the fact that there are very few homilies in our churches concerning the Holy Trinity or the distinction among the heavenly spirits.

Why?

Simply because the subject matter is so far above us that our own reason encounters great difficulty in thinking about these things. Immaterial things are tough to think about. It is not that these things barely exist, or have a slim hold on existence, no, quite the contrary!

These things are difficult to understand because there is a deficiency in our own ability to understand.

Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon us to think about them despite their difficulty. In fact, it turns out that God is really the only thing worth thinking about ultimately, The only reason why we should think about anything else is because of the light that these other things might shed upon our understanding of God. Right? Right!

That is the reason why we call Theology the Queen of the Sciences. Every other branch of learning has value or dignity as a handmaiden. And the more another field of thought enables us to think about God, the higher it is in the scale of worthwhileness or dignity.

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That, among other things, is what Saint Paul was alluding to when he said,

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

And so we should go wisely and slow when trying to understand difficult things, bearing in mind where the difficulty lies.

We should first attempt to ascertain whether the difficulty is based in the thing or in us.

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The first two places we need to go “wisely and slow”(ly)

 I can tell when a topic is so fascinating that people are just not ready to move on. And you, O fortunate reader, are lucky that I have this gift!

Many would have long since abandoned the interesting topic of the last post and would, no doubt, already have posted three or four or even a dozen other trivial posts, concerning any number of the passing topics de jour, which lose their relevance almost as soon as they are published.

Here at Lionandox.com you will find that when we bring up something of interest we will dwell on it at length. We will savor it. We will sip it and taste it, rolling it around in our mouths like a good wine, allowing the sweet flavors to yield themselves up to our ready and eager intellectual taste buds.

We will not gulp our topics down like some cheap beer.

Quaffing it like some tasteless swill meant only for those who have no ability to distinguish, no sense for subtlety, no idea of gustatory refinement.

Good ideas need to be milked….or perhaps I should say “tapped.” Yes, tapped is a better image. You can be sure that we will do our utmost to tap every ounce of the sweet sap from our Maples! We will not leave a gusher gushing without sticking a bucket under it to catch every drop!

We do not flit from one topic to another in paroxysms of intellectual curiosity- the intellectual malady indicative of our age. Flitting now here now there, up one line of thought, abandoning it, only to pick up another before that too is abandoned according as our feelings, fashion, or impulse directs.

Instead, we will plod wisely and slowly in our attempt to understand. Why?

Because, my good friend, if we run fast we risk stumbling! And further, as you may recall, we need to go wisely and slow precisely when talking about going wisely and slow because these are the words of a wise man. Do you doubt me?

Here again are the seven times that we should go wisely and slow and I invite you to scrutinize #7 carefully:

  1. where many things must be considered before a judgment can be made
  2. where a thing is difficult to understand
  3. where there is a beginning small in size, but great in its power
  4. where there is knowledge over a road and knowledge of the road to follow
  5. where there is general knowledge and particular knowledge
  6. where there is a word equivocal by reason
  7. where there are the words of a wise man

Who is there that doesn’t understand this reason? When a wise man speaks we might easily guess that his words would be wise and weighty. We should listen to the words of the wise with reverence pondering them frequently.

The words of God are the obvious example. One should not read through Scripture quickly- running as it were from one verse to another, barreling through pages and chapters and books as if wisdom could be gained in the manner that the cup is won at the Kentucky Derby!

No! On the contrary, when reading Sacred Scripture far better to take a stylus out and copy just a few words beautifully while contemplating them in peace and quiet for at least a day or two…or a couple a years…or for a lifetime.

Those who are wise have the special capability of saying very much in a few words. That is their secret. Therefore it belongs to the rest of us to spend time unwrapping and unveiling the profundities that the words of the wise undoubtedly contain (in addition to calligraph-ing them).

And so without further ado, without any circumlocution, without wasting any words whatsoever to justify the attempt further, let us examine these seven times when we should go wisely and slow.

Actually I suppose we have already extrapolated on #7 (i.e. where there are the words of a wise man). Quite inadvertently we find ourselves in the awkward position of having explained the last when we meant to start with the first! But you, O compassionate reader, understand that this was necessary. You understand that without explaining the last first you would not even be reading as you are now.

And so let us be done with the seventh reason why we should go wisely and slow and turn our attention to the remaining six beginning with the first. That was fast. Too fast?

And so the first time that we need to consider when to go wisely and slow is:

1. where many things must be considered before a judgment can be made

Now fortunately for us this is quite simple. The best example that I can think of off-hand is of course taken from the great Euclid, about whom too much honor and praise is not able to be bestowed. (May his name be revered by every student everywhere!)

Take Euclid’s presentation of proposition 47 in his first book, the Pythagorean Theorem. Well, as anyone can see who consults the text, Euclid presents the demonstration of this significant mathematical concept after having first demonstrated 46 prior propositions.

In other words, the business of understanding the Pythagorean Theorem is not the affair of an hour or an afternoon or even a day. No …in order to understand it well I would say one needs to spend all the time necessary that it will take to completely understand the 46 prior demonstrations. How long will that take? 46 hours? 23 Hours? 11.5 hours? I don’t know, but I would recommend spreading it out over at least one good month especially if you try this on your own.

The Pythagorean Theorem, mind you, is fairly elementary knowledge for math students even as young as the seventh and eighth grade. And yet we regularly force them to make a judgment about  its truth on the very slimmest grounds….nay even a pretty picture!

Well, maybe it is not a crime to tell someone that a thing is true without giving substantive reasons, especially if, like the Pythagorean Theorem it is very useful, but we really ought to do our best to provide all the reasoning at the earliest possible opportunity. That way, the poor student isn’t in the terrible position of thinking that he knows something which he really is not able to  know.

The truth is that very many things- even things that we might have thought of as fundamental- require many steps for their understanding. That is to say that before we can make any sort of judgment we need to approach many things wisely and slow because of the multitude of steps require in their understanding.

You would like another example?

Take the many skills required by the musician before he is able to play those big pieces that he wants to play. Many violin teachers wont even let their students touch the violin before the first couple of lessons. But aside from this think of all those preliminary skills the musician has to learn! One just doesn’t start playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto on day one!

Take the enthusiastic student of Theology who longs to dive into the heart of things thinking he is going to study the Blessed Trinity after a week or two of introductory remarks.

It only takes a quick look at the very first article in the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas to realize that even the beginner in the Sacred Science is expected to have acquired more than an acquaintance with mathematics and Astronomy and the major works of Aristotle including his Metaphysics.

Theology is a science that requires many things before judgments can be made.

And so we need to resist the immature thinker who is most prone towards racing and zipping along at breakneck speed thinking that the serious work of understanding is something like speed reading or calculating. He might think something like

 Well…I completed Algebra 1 and 2 before I was out of diapers, in comparison to that Aristotle’s De Anima and his Metaphysics will be a cake walk!

We need to say to him.

Young man, some things cannot be acquired like the big mac meal at McDonald’s.

Some things take years of application before they admit to being understood. If you wish to court Lady Philosophy then go wisely and slow.

Ms 3045 Fol.68V Lady Philosophy Offers to Boethius the Wings That Will Enable His Mind to Fly Aloft Giclee Print

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Seven times to proceed wisely and slow

This past January 22, the philosopher Duane Berquist died. Among his many virtues, Duane Berquist had the distinction of being a wise man.

Readers of lionandox.com might already be familiar with some of Dr. Berquist’s thought to the extent that this blog has not, from time to time, butchered it past recognition. Or to the extent that we have not grossly misrepresented his thinking in a zealous and persistent attempt to adopt and assimilate as much of it as possible.

In turn, I consider it a great honor to re-present it to you my dear readers, with the hope of making it a little more accessible… to those of you….to those among us who did not have the time to sit at his feet lapping up his words as honey from the honey comb.

Of course, I did devote a considerable amount of time lapping up his words like honey from the honeycomb, though not as much time as I would have liked!

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But I suppose sheer fortune…sheer luck provided me with the opportunity to hear a considerable amount of what he said.

And why not me? Everyone deserves a lucky break in life. Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,

some in their wealth, some in the body’s force,

some in their garments though new-fangled ill;

Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse!

In my case, I happen to have been fortunate in the wisdom of my connections.

In other words I do not expect Socrates, in obedience to the oracle, to come knocking on my door testing me to see if I am wise. He will not accuse me of claiming to be something that I am not.

Gentle Reader: This seems a little pointless Langley! Is there anything that you would like to share with us other than the fact that you were able to lap up honey from the honeycomb. Is there any other point?

Langley: I am getting to  it. you need to be patient. As a matter of fact, ironically, the point I have to share has to do with ‘going slow.’ We need to slow down sometimes.

Gentle Reader: Good grief!

Langley: Well, as I said in a previous post , there are times that we need to go wisely and slow. Seven times, as a matter of fact! And I now intend to share them with you.

Gentle Reader: Well its about time! Please just list them and spare us the usual pedantry and mindless pablum which constitutes the ordinary fare that is your specialty.

Langley: This makes me uncomfortable.

Gentle Reader: Uncomfortable? How so?

Langley: I don’t think I can just give you a list. You may not understand how very wise it is and peremptorily dismiss it. That would be a shame.  Very often people refuse to think twice about something when it appears either too simple or even too profound.

Gentle Reader: Langley, just give us the list!

Langley: I don’t know if I should. After all, the list is about how we need to sometimes go wisely and slow…and I think this is precisely one of those times.

Gentle Reader: You don’t realize how close I am to clicking myself out of your trivial little blog. I have my finger on the left clicker right now,

Langley: Ok… Ok. Here is the list. But don’t blame me if you don’t understand it completely. Don’t blame me for not mentioning to you why it is appropriate that there are in fact seven times that we should go wisely and slow… and not eight for instance.  You do know that seven is a number signifying wisdom don’t you?

Gentle Reader: The list! The List!!

Langley: Very well. Here it is.

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”

Seven times that we should proceed wisely and slow in the discourse of reason:

  1. where many things must be considered before a judgment can be made
  2. where a thing is difficult to understand
  3. where there is a beginning small in size, but great in its power
  4. where there is knowledge over a road and knowledge of the road to follow
  5. where there is general knowledge and particular knowledge
  6. where there is a word equivocal by reason
  7. where there are the words of a wise man

 

Gentle Reader: Langley, some of these are obvious. Simple, in fact.

Langley: Yes, but what did you think wisdom was anyway? You probably think that wisdom always means saying something incomprehensible! Wisdom is often just the simple truth…

And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:

Gentle Reader: And #3, #4, #5 and #6 make no sense.

Langley: What? They make no sense? Why that is more than half of them! Let me try to explain.

Gentle Reader: No I haven’t the time. I need to run.

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