A Sacrifice Too Far: There is a Sacrifice that Gives Meaning to All Sacrifice

Triumphal entry into Jerusalem - Wikipedia

On Palm Sunday the entire Passion of Our Lord is famously read at Mass throughout the world. But today, in the midst of the present crisis it is sure to strike Catholics everywhere with new poignancy – especially when Our Lord before he dies, utters the words of the psalmist,

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

After such a glorious entrance into Jerusalem with the children of the Hebrews crying “Hosanna” and “Benedictus qui venit in nomini Domini,” the sudden change in the atmosphere and mood of the Palm Sunday liturgy is always striking. But this year it is admittedly a little melancholic, even from the beginning, because there is no one in the church to even wave the palms.

What our palm branches really mean – Catholic Philly

It is wrong to deny the faithful the opportunity to assist at Mass which is the sacrifice that gives meaning to every sacrifice.

This point is eminently manifest in the beautiful homily for today – Palm Sunday, 5 April 2020 – that a priest (and friend of this blog) has graciously given us permission to reprint here.

Here begins his Homily:

Watch and pray so that you do not enter into temptation.

These words of Jesus to St. Peter in the garden of Gethsemane should stand for us as the watchwords for this crisis into which we have now entered. We must be very clear about this: the pandemic is not just a public health crisis, but has brought to light and intensified the underlying spiritual crisis of humanity in today’s world; the pandemic has brought to light and intensified the crisis of man without God, man who has turned his back on God.

During this time of the pandemic, the use of the word ‘sacrifice’ has become quite common. Everyone is being asked to make sacrifices. Catholics are even being asked to sacrifice attending Mass. For my part, I have been wondering if anyone even knows what they are talking about.

I never read the famous philosopher of selfishness, Ayn Rand, but I recall reading something about her affirming that no human being is worth any ‘sacrifice’. She seems to have seen ‘sacrifice’ as something degrading. Perhaps, as is often the case with falsehoods, she was half right.

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I could put the matter this way. It would truly be degrading to sacrifice to another human being (like Caesar for instance), but it is not degrading to sacrifice for another human being. To sacrifice for someone is an act of love.

The real problem we have today is that people speak all the time about sacrificing for someone, but they never speak about sacrificing to anyone or anything. Is that because Ayn Rand was right, or because we have been missing something, something essential, namely that even the sacrifice for someone derives its merit from the sacrifice to someone, but it has to be to the right sacrifice, to the right someone. What and who?

Why Did God Reject the Sacrifice of Cain? – Shameless Popery

Well, if we consider that Catholics are being asked to sacrifice Mass attendance we might start getting to the root of the problem. Catholics are being asked to sacrifice the Sacrifice, the one true Sacrifice, the only Sacrifice that gives meaning and value to all other sacrifices; Catholics are being asked to sacrifice the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Really? Can the Mass really be that important? Isn’t the essential thing now fighting the pandemic by staying home, staying safe, and supporting the doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers on the front lines?

Don’t get me wrong, the healthcare workers, the truck drivers, the grocery workers, and the others working at ‘essential’ jobs, are indeed important and are putting themselves at risk.

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We need to support them and show them our gratitude. Nevertheless, perhaps we are failing to provide them with the most essential support of all.

Now, as we follow the Passion Narrative of Palm Sunday we might consider what an outsider would think about the whole affair. Indeed, there are outsiders present in the Passion Narrative: Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers. Actually, Pontius Pilate seems to a bit bored and annoyed by this religious conflict among the barbaric and fanatical Jews. He would rather wash his hands of the affair, wishing it would just go away. The Roman soldiers are bored too, but they think they can at least have a bit of fun. In their fun they show how important they think Jesus is as they put a crown of thorns on his head and proclaim,

Hail, King of the Jews!

It seems that today’s outsiders, the civil authorities, attribute as much importance to the Mass in the fight against the pandemic as Pilate attributed to Jesus Christ.

So, is the Sacrifice of the Mass really so important when it seems we are called upon to make much more urgent sacrifices, like staying at home, for the sake of “flattening the curve”?

As I said, falsehoods often contain an element of the truth. The Aztecs engaged in brutal human sacrifice. They believed that the continuation of the world was dependent on ripping out the hearts of choice human beings and offering them in sacrifice to the god of the sun. Their horrific belief that the sun god needed to sustain his life, and therefore the life of the world, by feeding on human blood is false. Nevertheless, buried in the midst of the falsehood is the truth that the survival of human society is somehow dependent upon sacrifice, but it has to be the right sacrifice.

Aztec human sacrifice was a bloody, fascinating mess — Quartz

God does not need our sacrifices, but we are dependent upon God and our relationship with God is dependent upon right sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, in the temple of Jerusalem, besides all the votive sacrifices and prescribed sacrifice for special feasts, there was also the perpetual sacrifice, morning and evening. (cf. Nu 28:3-8) In 586 BC the temple was destroyed. What a catastrophe! The destruction of the Temple and the end of the perpetual sacrifice meant the death of the people.

File:By the Waters of Babylon Arthur Hacker.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the people somehow held together in exile in Babylon and were restored to life again after the exile, when the temple was rebuilt and the perpetual sacrifice was once again offered.

Yet, from that time of exile there came a prophecy of another future destruction. He shall abolish sacrifice and oblation. (Dan 9:27) Later there is reference to a terrible time, a period of about 3 ½ years, that begins when the daily sacrifice is abolished. (Dan 12:11) A terrible prophecy to the mind of the ancient Jew; a prophecy of the end of the world. The same period of 3 ½ years is found again in the Book of Revelation as the expression for the time of the final persecution, the persecution of the Antichrist.

It happened. The Greek King, Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid dynasty, based in present-day Syria, was a figure of the Antichrist. He abolished the sacrifice and profaned the temple in 145 BC. For three years there was no sacrifice until Judas Maccabeus delivered the temple mount, purified the temple and restored the sacrifice. Once again, the sacrifice continued until the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

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Nevertheless, some 40 years prior the temple worship had been emptied of its meaning. In the reading of the Lord’s Passion according to St. Matthew this Palm Sunday we hear a statement every bit as disturbing to Jewish ears as the abolition of the sacrifice:

Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit. And, behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.

Jesus’ death effectively brought an end to the temple worship, even if it continued for another 40 years as an empty shell.

Indeed, the Protestants, basing themselves principally on certain passages in the Letter to the Hebrews (cf. Heb 7:26-28; 9:25-28) think that Jesus’ sacrifice brought an end to all offering of sacrifice. For this reason, from their beginning (1517 AD), they have all attacked the whole idea of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This was really the beginning of the secularization of Christianity. This historical process of secularization has led us to the point in which today all religion is viewed as a purely private matter; consequently, from that point of view, there could be nothing wrong with canceling Masses for the good of the public health.

What the Protestants have missed, however, is found in the Passion Narrative of Palm Sunday. At the Last Supper, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is sacrificial language and even though this took place in the intimacy of the Last Supper, where Jesus was alone with the twelve Apostles, the very mention of “the covenant” speaks of a public reality.

Valentin de Boulogne | Last Supper | The Met

St. Luke gives us important additional information, Jesus’ command to the Apostles, Do this in memory of me. (Lk 22:19) In other words, the same sacrifice that Jesus offered once for all on the Cross, he entrusted to his Apostles to be offered always new in his Church, his Kingdom. This is the public worship of the kingdom of God. That is part of the meaning, at least, of the words that Jesus adds after the offering of the cup: I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.

Jesus died once for all, but according to the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, he is our great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek who is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them. (Heb 7:25)

Sacrifice, in its first and true meaning, which has been forgotten, is the supreme act of the worship of God. When it comes from the heart it is also the supreme act of love of God. The sacrificial worship offered to God, the pleasing sacrifice, is what gives value to all the little sacrifices performed for the benefit of others. Jesus on the Cross offered the one perfect sacrifice that truly pleases God and wins for us the forgiveness of sins and the abundance of grace and divine life.

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Sacrifice is the supreme act of the worship of God, but it is above all an act of public worship. We, the public, the people of God, must take part. In that sense, and in that sense only, the sacrifice of the Cross was not sufficient. In that sense the sacrifice of the Cross needs to be offered always anew in every time and place, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi: From the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; and everywhere they bring sacrifices to my name, and a pure offering; for great is my name among the nations, says the Lord God of hosts. (Mal 1:11) Through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus’ sacrifice becomes the sacrifice of the Church, our sacrifice, the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant.

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The destruction of the temple means the end of sacrifice and the end of the people. The rebuilding of the temple means the renewal of sacrifice and the resurrection of the people. So, Jesus, after driving the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem declared: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. (Jn 2:19) The evangelist comments: He was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. (Jn 2:21-22)

The temple of Jesus’ body was destroyed on the Cross, but Jesus ‘rebuilt’ it through his resurrection and continues to ‘build it’ in his mystical Body, the Church. In this temple of his Body, the Holy Sacrifice is continually offered anew.

The Council of Trent taught:

[Jesus] our God and Lord, though He was about to offer Himself once on the altar of the cross unto God the Father, by means of his death, there to operate an eternal redemption; nevertheless … that He might leave, to His own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit … He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine; and … He delivered (His own body and blood) to be received by His apostles, whom He then constituted priests of the New Testament; and by those words, Do this in commemoration of me, He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood, to offer (them); even as the Catholic Church has always understood and taught.(Council of Trent, Session XXII, On the Sacrifice of the Mass, Ch. I)


In this divine sacrifice which is performed in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in a bloodless manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross … the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one, to wit, are most plentifully received through this bloodless one; so far is this latter from derogating in any way from that former. (Council of Trent, Session XXII, On the Sacrifice of the Mass, Ch. II)

The well-being of the human world, the well-being of human society, the well-being of human life, as well as our eternal salvation depends upon God. Our connection with God depends on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That is why, in accord with the prophecy of Daniel, the abolition of the sacrifice has always been seen as a sign of the reign of the Antichrist and the coming judgment.

Well, the sacrifice as such has not been abolished, but its public character has been suppressed because the faithful are forbidden to take part.

During this Holy Week, we may well want to cry out with the Psalmist: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Yet, as we do so, we want to remember that Jesus himself took these words of the Psalm upon his own lips as he hung upon the Cross.

The abandonment is only apparent as the Psalmist continues – and Jesus knew full well – I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you: ‘You who fear the Lord, praise him; all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him; revere him, all you descendants of Israel.

So also in the 54th chapter of the prophet Isaiah, following upon the most vivid prophecy of Christ’s suffering and death (cf. 52:13-53:12), which we will hear on Good Friday, we read:

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness, I will take you back. In an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with enduring love I take pity on you, says the Lord, your redeemer.

Posted in Common Good, Council of Trent, Modernists, Temptation, The Mass | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Passion Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

One unforeseen perk of being a parish music director is the ability to participate at Holy Mass during this strange period. I am grateful to my wife and daughters for providing the beautiful chant. In the future, I am hoping to have them sing even more of the chant, but it is tough to expect anyone to learn all the propers every week in addition to the ordinary.

My favorite parts are:

  • the Introit (“Judica Me Deus”) through the Kyrie – from 0:00 – 6:53
  • the Attende Domine at 31:24 (always a beautiful Lenten chant)
  •  the Sanctus at 36:16 – 37:19 (taken from Missa XVII for Sundays in Lent). And then the Benedictus at 39:43-40:15
  • Agnus Dei at 43:45-45:04
  • The Communion “Hoc Corpus” at 45:54-47:19
  • And finally the lovely Marian Hymn of the Lenten season “Ave Regina Coelorum” at 51:37

I think the ladies observed just the right cadence in their chant.  Prayerful, lovely and sacred!


And for all of our friends who are accustomed to the Novus Ordo, I think this is a special treat.

Even though it is not the preferable Graduale – I think the ladies did a nice job with the Responsorial Psalm at 4:00-7:13. The main ingredient of sacred music, in my view, is that it has to sound sacred and prayerful.  My suggestion is that choirs pretend they are singing Gregorian chant even when singing an OCP psalm written by Owen Alstott.

Who is there that does not love Theodore Dubois’ “Adoramus Te Christe” (at 19:22-20:51) even when sung without a tenor?

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A Confusion about the Common Good

In the not too distant future, I am hoping that someone much brighter than I will perform the heavy philosophical lifting that it will take to state precisely what is wrong with the current approach that our Church is taking to the present crisis.

This is precisely the time for a philosopher (perhaps even a Theologian!) to spring into action. It is high time for the philosopher to crawl back down the tunnel from the realm of pure light and make yet another attempt to draw the rest of us out of the cave.

Plato's Cave - danieldeanschuler.com

As we wait for that supreme act of condescension perhaps we can make a few guesses as to what the philosopher might say to us in this moment of crisis.

But first let us acknowledge the apparent goodwill of those who are in leadership positions, political leaders, bishops, clergy, and everyone that has been forced to make decisions or obey others in an attempt to protect health and life.

Second, let us also acknowledge the heroism of all those people who acting in the service of others at risk to themselves (particularly doctors, nurses, healthcare providers, and civil servants of all kinds) work tirelessly to protect us. It’s easy for the rest of us who sit safely in the comfort of our own homes, and who may be more or less distant from the actual real suffering to downplay or minimize the gravity of the causes that have impelled the nearly universal suspension of our daily activities – even the public worship of God.

Nonetheless, something seems to be amiss aside from the pestilence itself. We suddenly find ourselves confronted with laws, rules and regulations of all kinds, which taken together have had the startling effect of stripping entire nations of freedoms to conduct regular business, work, gather, attend worship services, obtain marriage licenses, have funerals, and in extreme cases…to even take a morning jog!

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On the one hand, the ground for these stringent laws is clear (i.e the protection of human life). On the other hand, something seems vaguely out of order. But what is it? Isn’t the protection of human health the highest good, the summum bonum? Are not all laws ultimately grounded in life?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be yes. In shutting down all non-essential businesses, the governor of New York declared,

“I want to be able to say to the people of New York — I did everything we could do,” Cuomo told reporters at the state Capitol. “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

Now if this same governor had given the same argument to curtail any business in New York that cooperated in the destruction of unborn human life, then perhaps we might argue in his defense. (Oddly, one great benefit of the Coronavirus is that the New York legislature has suspended its own activity for the current session making it impossible to make further progress on such life-promoting legislation as the so-called “death with dignity” bill. Every cloud has a silver lining).

Nonetheless, leaving aside the governor’s own curious inconsistencies, his reasoning for suspending the ordinary lives of New Yorkers is very compelling. And it is even more compelling when we consider that the draconian laws to which we have all yielded might very well save many lives – maybe even our own life or the lives of those we love.

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But again, this reasoning seems to be premised on the basis that laws which significantly curtail fundamental human activities are justified if they are ordered to the preservation of human life. It is difficult to find any reason to disagree with this premiss.

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Interestingly, however, the classic definition of law, so influential in the western world does not make a specific appeal to human life as the highest good. St. Thomas Aquinas famously articulated that definition in his treatise on law saying,

the definition of law …is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.

St. Thomas, like no other, enunciates the essence of law clearly and perfectly because he defines law in terms of all of its causes. Formally, law is an ordinance of reason. It is promulgated in either written or spoken words. A law is made by “him who has care of the community.” And the final cause, the purpose, the that for the sake of which all law is directed is the common good. His definition could not be more perfect and in following Aristotle’s doctrine of causes we are assured that his definition is grounded in nature itself.

Isn’t it interesting that the definition of law does not read,

an ordinance of reason for the protection of human life etc?

One might think that it would have.

Instead, we are confronted with the notion of the “common good” as the basis and purpose upon which all laws must be grounded if they are to have legitimacy.

Now, as fate would have it, we just happen to live in an epoch when nothing could be more misunderstood than this very term (i.e. common good). What the common good is appears to have arrived at its nadir in our collective understanding- and precisely at a moment when a correct understanding is most needed.

That’s unfortunate, because if all law is ordered to the common good, and no one appears to understand the common good, then we do have more than a small problem.

We will not belabor the point, but I suppose it might be worth saying that the notion of the common good is a rather difficult one to understand. It is of such importance to civilized society that Our Lord established a Church to be its guardian. In times past when we could rightly expect our legislators and those to whom we entrust the care of the community to have been educated in perennial philosophy, the obligation of knowing what the common good with any precision was not incumbent upon the common citizen.

With an increasingly secular society and the continual erosion of liberal education, we could at least trust that the Church itself would be an effective safeguard and teacher of the common good. In this way, the Church is not only the guardian of souls, and the dispenser of Christ’s sacraments, but is also the protectress of civil society, for she is the guardian of the common good.

St. Michael the Archangel - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online

And what is the common good? First, let us say what it is not.

The common good is not what is advantageous to the most. It is not in the words of one Dominican,

some utilitarian calculus of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Nor is it some this-worldly Utopian social scheme.

I think it is safe to say that we are habituated to thinking that the common good consists in the greatest material welfare for as many people as possible. By material welfare, we think mostly of the goods of the body- things like health, beauty and wealth. We also, of course, think of mere human existence. It’s rather difficult to enjoy any good if one is not alive.

Economic Welfare - Economics Help

But as good as all these things are, as laudable a goal as it is to attempt a universal distribution of wealth and healthcare and the means for obtaining a higher standard of living, we nonetheless are greatly mistaken in saying that this amounts to achieving the common good. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church we find,

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it…

The common good is something that is shared and attained in a community. Rather than a private good like health or beauty, or government stimulus checks, a common good is something at which a community aims as a community. As a choir director, I always think of the transcendent beauty of sacred music that can only be attained when a choir is working together perfectly- voices are well coordinated in sufficient numbers so as to give rise to a beauty in which each partakes but is shared by all without any diminishment.

The Lyceum | The Schola Cantorum

Every community appears to have a common good to which it is directed. We can think of the good that is pursued by any organization, business, or community as a common good. In his excellent lecture on the common good, Professor John Goyette exemplifies this well, saying,

The soldiers in an army all work together for the sake of victory. Or the sailors on a ship all work together to bring the ship safely to port. Or to use an example closer to home, children are a common good of the family. In these examples we have a single end that is pursued and enjoyed by many.

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Rather than the private good of each individual, the first notion that we should have of the common good is that it is something that in being shared is not diminished. The common good does not grow less by being distributed.

Clearly then, the common good cannot be a material thing like wealth, houses or money. All these things do suffer diminution when they are shared.

But there are common goods and then…there is The Common Good. St. Thomas explains,

[Aristotle] says that the city is a perfect community; and this he proves from this, since every association among all men is ordered to something necessary for life, that community will be perfect which is ordered to this, that man have sufficiently whatever is necessary for life. Such a community is the city [civitas]. For it is of the nature of the city that in it should be found everything sufficient for human life … that men not only live but that they live well insofar as by the laws of the city human life is ordered to the virtues.

Commenting on this passage Professor Goyette says,

The perfect human community, then, is self-sufficient not only because it allows men to flourish materially, but, more importantly, because it makes the good life possible by ordering men toward the life of virtue…Aquinas faithfully represents and endorses Aristotle’s view that man by nature is a political animal, that he reaches his natural perfection by participating in the civitas.

Thus we might say that if we consider man only in virtue of what he is by nature the civitas, the state, the “Polis” is the common good. And this common good is achieved and shared only when its citizens live virtuous lives.

polis | Definition & Facts | Britannica

But we are not mere creatures of nature. We are also creatures of grace, and therefore we strive to attain a common good which is not a mere common good of this or that earthly community but is rather The Common Good of the universe.

Debate intensifies over speed of expanding universe | Science | AAAS

It should now be clear that the common good is nothing more, nothing less than God Himself. He is the Alpha and Omega. He is the single goal of every creature and of every human act and endeavor. God is the reason for everything, the reason for our very lives, our health, our business, our civil body politic, our everything! He is the Good in which we all desire to share, and when we become partakers of Him, He does not grow less. On the contrary, when we partake of Him, it is we that increase.

Now, what is the end of this consideration?

Very simply it is this. As we consider the stringent measures that any society must adopt in directing its citizens to the common good, as we ponder the actions and laws that a society needs to undertake and enact especially during times of crisis, we must always measure those actions, those laws, by the common good.

In other words, every measure must be taken so as to ensure, protect and promote the Common Good. But as we have noted human life, or human health, itself is not the common good. There is something greater than these, namely God. And it is the goal of human life to partake in the worship and glorification of God. This is the whole goal of every society: to worship God as the common good. And the highest expression of this activity in which we can participate is to worship God at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Now suppose an army was going into battle and the general made an announcement such as,

“Whatever you soldiers do for the next indeterminate amount of time, make certain that none of you fight as an army. You may all work individually but there shall be no coordinated activity so as to obtain victory”

Or suppose a choir director said,

“OK people, I don’t know how long this may last, but we will not be singing as a group anymore. We will not sing so as to obtain the transcendent beauty that is only achievable by working together. “

In other words, it would appear that while every community or organization might establish rules and laws that are ordered to promoting the attainment of the specific good for which this or that organization exists, there is something radically wrong when an organization makes a law that forbids the very reason, the raison d’etre for its existence.

Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an ...

Posted in America, Aquinas, Common Good, liberal education, Modernists, philosophy, Socrates, The Mass | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

A Dialogue Concerning Large Discourse

Today we shall content ourselves with purely intellectual discourse.

Image result for bill buckley discussion

OX: Why?

Lion: Because you and I, my dear Ox, both possess the ability for large discourse! And as we all know, reaching way back to the vestiges and remnants of learning from our bygone philosophical days,

“every ability desires its own act.”

Ox: Ahhhh….Every ability desires its own act… I like that! Are you the first one to say that? And with such eloquent brevity!

Lion: Probably not. I must be merely parroting somebody else as has been my life-long habit.

Lion: The nice thing about parroting the wisdom of others is that, after a fair amount of time has passed, and after one has engaged in enough consistent parroting, one is apt to forget that all of one’s borrowed wisdom is borrowed.

Ox: Yes, how true! To be perfectly honest, I sometimes actually feel quite intelligent!

Lion: But let us return to the purely intellectual discourse that we intend to have – and by now, dear Ox, you are probably wondering what “the ability for large discourse” is?

Ox: Yes I most certainly am! and I am not only wondering what the ability for large discourse is, I am also wondering who, besides you, says we have such an ability?

Lion: Good questions! And here is the answer to the second.

Ox: Who says?

Lion: Yes. Who says?

Ox: Who says?

Lion: Shakespeare says!

Ox: Shakespeare says?

Lion: Yes, Shakespeare says.

Ox: But Shakespeare is a poet. He is not a philosopher. Why would he say something like that?

Lion: Ahhh….my dear Ox, you have unwittingly put your finger…um…eh…your hoof right on an important point.

Ox: What point is that?

Lion: the point that although Shakespeare despite being a poet was, in fact, the greatest English philosopher.

Ox: What? The greatest English Philosopher!? You have got to be kidding me, Lion!

Lion: No I am not. Shakespeare was the greatest English philosopher.

Ox: That’s ridiculous. You already said he was a poet.

Lion: Well, let us say that Shakespeare as a poet surpassed and excelled every English philosopher.

Ox: Do you really mean to say that Shakespeare, the supreme poet, philosophically surpassed?:

  • Francis and Roger Bacon,
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • Thomas Hobbes

Image result for thomas hobbes

  • John Locke,
  • John Stuart Mill,

John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870.jpg

  • Stephen Mumford
  • Karl Popper,
  • Bertrand Russell
  • Adam Smith,

Image result for adam smith

  • Alfred North Whitehead,

Image result for alfred north whitehead

  • William of Ockham
  • and….Ludwig Wittgenstein?

35. Portrait of Wittgenstein.jpg

Just to name a few off the top of my head. Are you really saying Shakespeare exceeded all of these philosophically?

Lion: Yes I am

Ox: Outrageous!

Lion: Nonetheless I still hold it!

Ox: How can you assert such a silly thing so confidently?

Lion: Because I once heard a very wise person say it. And so now I say it all the time.

Ox: Oh right… you have already admitted to being a parrot.

Lion: That’s right at least I am able to pick up on what another, wiser than I, says. For even the great poet Hesiod says,

Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.

And so I advise you, my dear Ox, four-footed creature that you are, not to make fun of me for merely repeating the wisdom of others.

Ox: Well get on with your point. One is not wise to argue with a parrot! What does Shakespeare say about the ability for large discourse?

Lion: Yes indeed, that is the question! I shall tell you- and you will be delighted that what Shakespeare says about this godlike ability – he says speaking through the mouth of none other than that incomparable brooder, Hamlet!

Image result for hamlet

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

Lion: I have emboldened the appropriate words for you to see the more easily.

And so the point is settled.  You and I have a god-like ability for large discourse; we have an ability for looking before and after.

Image result for looking before and after

We have something called reason, and Hamlet has done nothing other than to tell us precisely what this thing is; he has, against all odds, defined the distinctively human thing that distinguishes man from the beasts.

And by golly, let’s not let this ability fust in us unused! Let’s go ahead and engage in some of that large discourse right now!

Ox: But wait a minute. Why should we engage in large discourse. And what does “fust” mean?

Lion: We shall do so with no apology! We shall not attempt to persuade anyone of the usefulness of the enterprise! We shall not, like the poets, make an attempt to sweeten our discourse with honeyed speech! There will be no effort to lure you, dear Ox, into the discussion; no catchy lead-in, no clever rhetorical hook, so to speak.

I think we are all above that now, don’t you?

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Ox: I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter.

Lion: If a thing is interesting in itself then we may just let the thing speak for itself. Let us not engage in the silly enterprise of trying to coax one another to see that something is interesting if it is already interesting. How childish!

Ox: Childish indeed.

Lion: And further, if a person cannot engage in large discourse, looking before and after, from time to time without making apologies, then what’s the use?

Every other creature gets to do what it was made to do without defending itself. Take a mountain for instance. Do you hear it making apologies for what it does???

No, you don’t. The last thing you would ever expect to hear from a mountain is an apology of any kind!

Ox: Wait just a minute Lion. Mountains don’t do anything. Of course, mountains don’t make long apologies for what they do, because mountains don’t do anything. They just sit there!”

Lion: You are quite mistaken!

Ox: Mistaken?

Lion: Yes, you could not be more mistaken. Even though Mountains appear to be just sitting there (which is, in fact, doing something, that’s what I am doing right now, for example!) you should be aware that mountains are really doing a great deal more than just sitting there. Obviously, you did not read the delightful article entitled Jean Henri Fabre and the Purpose of Mountains. Shame on you!

Ox: Fabre wrote an essay about the purpose of mountains and what they do?

Lion: yes he most certainly did. Fabre was not only interested in insects. His was a mind that desired to know all things!

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Ox: Better to stick to one subject and specialize! More money in that!

Lion: Ox! That is a shameful thing to say especially in view of what the great Anaxagoras said about the mind! Really- you should not encourage specialization! As if the world needs more specialists! Pshaw!

Ox. Anaxagoras? What did he say?

Lion: well, among other things he said,

“Other things have a part of everything, but mind is unlimited and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing, but is itself alone by itself….”

Anaxagoras was the great philosopher of mind. Aristotle had special praise for him.

Ox: That’s kind of interesting.

Lion: Yes it is. It is ENORMOUSLY interesting! Well, if you would like to know more about that you should read the delightful little essay on Anaxagoras and Liberal Education. But I think you are beginning to stray from the point Ox. Let’s get on with it. Let’s begin our large discourse! And what could be more appropriate than to engage in large discourse about the very word large!

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Ox: Are you seriously proposing that we are going to have a large discourse about the word large?

Lion: Yes I am.

Ox: Large discourse about large?

Lion: yes. Large discourse about large!

Ox: Well let’s see what you can do. I will set my timer.

Lion: Would it surprise you to know that Hamlet’s use of the word “large” (in the passage above) can be understood in at least six different ways?!?

Ox: Six different ways! That would be very surprising.

Lion: With your permission, I shall make an enunciation of at least six senses of the word large. But please stop me if you get tired.

Ox: Don’t worry, I can sleep on my legs and with my eyes open.

Lion: I suppose that is the ordinary case with most animals – especially of the rational sort, don’t you agree?

Ox: Are you suggesting that most men are sleeping even if they are standing up with their eyes open?

Lion: That is precisely what I am suggesting.

Ox: why on earth would you say such a thing?

Lion: Because that is precisely what the great Heraclitus said! He is after all the central thinker in human history. He is the father of the progress of the human mind!

Ox: I don’t follow you but what exactly did he say?

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Lion: Well for starters he said,

The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own.

and then he said

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.

I think that is tantamount to saying “Most men live sleeping.” I think St. Paul thought so as well!

Ox: Oh, there you go again parroting others!

Lion: Well, at least I’m upfront about it. I think some animals are a little more sneaky.

Ox: Please continue enunciating the senses of large which you promised. I will restart the clock.

Lion: I will enunciate them as briefly as I can. Paradoxically, a brief discourse may also be a large discourse.

Ox: Get on with it Lion. Don’t get distracted.

Lion: Very well Ox. Since you are evidently in a hurry I will oblige. But I would advise you against going to quickly. For as Friar Lawrence said to Romeo…

Ox: STOP Lion!!! And get on with the brief enunciation. Spare us your Friar Lawrence routine. We have already heard enough of Friar Lawrence!

Lion: Okay, Okay….

Ox: well then proceed.

Lion: I will, I just need to collect my thoughts and take a breath

Ox: Well, I suppose that’s only natural.

Lion: yes, I would say nature requires a sort of cadence in our discourse. I never trusted those who speak too quickly and glibly.

Ox: Lion…

Lion: Okay then without further delay let us proceed. We shall enunciate these ways briefly and perhaps we shall find an occasion to speak about them at greater length as the muse instructs.

Ox: One can only hope!

Lion: But before we distinguish the six ways, in which Hamlet intended us to understand the word large, in his marvelous definition of reason, I think it would be fitting if you and I took a moment to revel in the fact that six senses of the word large is a rather large number when it comes to the senses of a word, and we should clap “our hands” at the very fact that in distinguishing these senses we are engaging in large discourse already!

Ox: You clap you paws and I will clap my cloven hooves!

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Lion: Ok here we go. When Hamlet says that reason is the ability for large discourse, here is what we should understand.

Large discourse can be large in the sense that it is about the large.

So, for example,, suppose I say something like the whole is greater than the part. Is it not obvious to everyone that I have made a very large statement (i.e. universal statement)? Just think about that for a while.

Ox: Okay, I will grant that one sense of large is the sense in which a universal statement is a large statement. Proceed.

Lion: How many kinds of wholes can you distinguish? And guess what…every kind of whole is greater than its own part. We could go on for ever trading examples of the truth of this large statement.

Ox: Let’s not go on forever just now.

Lion: That would be fun. Maybe fodder for a future post! I can’t wait.

Ox: Fine. proceed

Lion: What about this? What if I make a statement about a very large (or important) thing? What if I say something about the largest thing there is, namely, God? Nothing is bigger than God.

Ox: True. Nothing is bigger than God

Lion: Consequently when I say something true about God,  I am therefore making a very large statement. Right?

Ox: Right

Lion: I think so! Similarly, we might engage in reasonable discourse about other large things. Like the purpose of life, the soul, angels, the state, virtue…and may I even say reason itself? In other words “large discourse” is not small talk!

Ox: You know what, I’m getting kind of sleepy.

Lion: Now, let’s see, is there a third way that our ability for large discourse can be large? What about in its limits? Just as every line has two endpoints so does our reason.

Our reason has a beginning, a very large one. You see ordinarily when we set forth a proposition, like “I know boys, and I can tell you that boys can be a load of trouble!”

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That statement is no small thing. That statement is probably based on a very wide experience of boys (i.e. an induction from a large experience). A very large experience.

Ox: I though lines were infinite…at least that is what I learned in school.

Lion: ridiculous

Ox: What is the fourth sense of large?

Lion: Well, the fourth sense can be seen from the other endpoint of our reason. When we consider a large truth we might understand very many things that fall under this truth, so to speak (i.e. we understand many applications or deductions from one truth). So for example when God considers Himself he understands ALL THINGS!

Ox: Wow!

Lion: Now here is a fifth way that our ability for large discourse can be large. have you ever read a lengthy blog post?

Ox: To be honest, I never have. I hate lengthy blog posts!

Lion: Well, sometimes things take time and those who persevere are rewarded!

Ox: Yes, but more often than not they are not rewarded and what then?

Lion: Sometimes a line of reasoning is like one of those longer propositions in the Elements of Euclid. Goes on for pages! Nonetheless anytime someone makes an argument that takes a long time, I think that qualifies as large discourse.

Ox: Or an intolerable discourse!

Lion: I am talking about a discourse that is large in that there are many steps, a large number of steps. And if you are fortunate, the discourse might be all the more so when it is bound together with continuous syllogisms and witty jokes!

Ox: Or very unfortunate if the reverse is the case!

Lion: Finally, my dear Ox, the ability for large discourse can be large in the sense that reason is able to make connections between things that are very far apart.

Ox: What do you mean?

Lion: I mean that sometimes reason is able to traverse enormous distances. Imagine uttering a statement like “God is my rock!”

Lion: Now who on earth, but someone with reason, would ever think of seeing a connection between God Himself,  the almighty, omniscient, all-loving Being, and a rock!?!

To make such a connection requires covering a very large distance…an infinitely large distance!

Ox: Very well. I will grant that the discourse of reason may be large in at least six ways.

Lion: You betcha Ox! Reason, is the ability for large discourse.

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Posted in enlightenment, Heraclitus, Hesiod, liberal education, Shakespeare, socratic dialogue, truth for its own sake, Wisdom | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Sadness and Anxiety With William Byrd

No better way to purge anxiety and sadness than through the music of Byrd!


Tristitia et anxietas occupaverunt interiora mea.
Mœstum factum est cor meum in dolore, et contenebrati sunt oculi mei.
Væ mihi, quia peccavi.
Sed tu, Domine, qui non derelinquis sperantes in te,
consolare et adjuva me propter nomen sanctum tuum, et miserere mei.

Sadness and anxiety have occupied my interior.
My heart is made sad in suffering, my eyes have become darkened.
Woe is me, because I have sinned.
But thou, O Lord, who dost not abandon those hoping in you.
comfort and help me on account of your holy name, and have mercy on me.

Posted in beauty, Music, passions, William Byrd | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

On March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry made a famous speech. Would he repeat it today?

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In the face of COVID-19, one wonders if Patrick Henry would have repeated today the sentiment that he uttered before the second Virginia convention on 23 March 1775.

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Admittedly, Mr. Henry was speaking to an audience that was not yet held in the intellectual thralldom of the scientists and statisticians who reign supreme over the denizens of the twenty-first century.

Nonetheless, he was speaking to an audience over which George III reigned and, at least from the history books I read, he appeared to have been quite formidable in his own way. Fortunately for America, British Regulars were a little easier to spot for colonial marksmen than is the invisible enemy that presently invades our shores.

As sympathetic as I am towards my own health and especially towards the health of the vulnerable elderly and those with underlying health conditions, it does make me shudder a little that the right to free assembly and public worship appears to have vanished almost overnight.

Thankfully, none of us need entertain any suspicions that the current suspension of political and religious liberty is the result of an overseas potentate exercising despotic power through grossly unreasonable taxes on our tea!

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No need to suspect covert and nefarious forces at work orchestrating an attack on the principle of self-governance and local sovereignty that is the hallmark of American patriots. Although a foreign flu appears to have squelched massive pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, it is we ourselves through our own elected leaders who have voluntarily set aside our liberty.

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Let us be grateful that George III never thought of using something like the Coronovirus to suppress public meetings in 1775.

After all, life is more important than liberty is it not?

What was Patrick Henry thinking?

Posted in America, classical education, Custom, enlightenment | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well: Who Were Those Five Husbands?

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[I could not resist reposting this – the original may be found here with a number of great comments!]

The Gospel for the third Sunday of Lent offers a special little gem for the classically minded church-goer. As Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, He tells her that the water in the well will only bring a limited satisfaction.

Whosoever drinketh of this water, shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst for ever: But the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting. The woman saith to him: Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.

I am no Scripture scholar, but it’s clear to me that the water that Our Lord is speaking about here is not some kind of physical or sensible water. He is not speaking about H2O.  He is clearly referring to something else; something like the waters of Baptism. Or perhaps he is referring to the gift of faith itself under the figure of water. It is through Faith that the believer springs up to life everlasting.

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The Samaritan woman does not necessarily understand this, but nonetheless desires this special water. But then Our Lord makes this rather strange request:

Jesus saith to her: Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered, and said: I have no husband. Jesus said to her: Thou hast said well, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.

My knowledge of the customs of the Samaritans is limited. How is it that the woman at Jacob’s well had five husbands? Perhaps each husband successively died? Either that or this woman was a sort of scriptural pre-cursor to Elizabeth Taylor?

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In addition, the shocking revelation of the number of husbands that this Samaritan woman has had sort of covers up what appears to be a strange request by Our Lord in the first place. Why does he say “Go, call thy husband”? Why do we suddenly need the woman’s husband?

But the answer to this particular question is not quite as interesting to the hearer as the simple revelation that this woman has had five husbands!

It’s not everyday that one meets a man who has had five wives, much less a woman who has had five husbands!

I confess I find it scarcely credible that anyone could have that many spouses.

Now I remember that when interpreting scripture one is always supposed to start with the literal meaning. The other figurative meanings have their foundation in the literal meaning.

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So I am ready to simply take Our Lord’s word for it that this woman did in fact have five husbands. She, on the other hand, appears to be very impressed by His knowledge of this and immediately says,

Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

And later she tells her fellow townspeople,

Come, and see a man who has told me all things whatsoever I have done. Is not he the Christ?

So, again, I suppose we need to simply assent to the simple fact that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands. Perhaps her husbands were each a little like the water in Jacob’s well; stagnant, dull and unsatisfying. Hence she keeps going back to the “well” to draw up another one.

But I don’t think we should be satisfied with only the literal meaning of the Gospel in this instance. Five husbands are just too unusual to let it pass that easily.

Here are two figurative accounts of these five husbands that I find very satisfying.

The first is explained by the Catholic apologist Gary Michuta  who points out the fascinating fact that the Samaritan woman’s “matrimonial history” has an uncanny “parallel in the religious history of Samaria” itself .

Samaria was once part of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had broken off from the Davidic Kingdom…The king of Assyria brought pagans into Samaria to settle there (1 Kings 17:24).

Interestingly enough, 1 Kings 17:30-31 tells us there were five groups that settled there, each worshipping their own pagan gods: The Babylonians worshipped Marduk; the men of Cuth worshipped Nergal; the men of Avva worshipped Nibhaz and Tartak; the men of Sepharvaim worshipped their city gods; and King Hadad worshipped Anath.

Even though the Israelites were joined in covenant to the one true God, they intermarried with these foreigners and adopted their worship and practices. This is why the Jews wouldn’t have anything in common with Samaritans — because their assimilation with these pagans had defiled them. Samaria, like the woman at the well, had five husbands and was estranged from her true husband.

Now this is very revealing! Scales are falling from my eyes!

It makes abundant sense that Our Lord was referring to these false gods as husbands. How often does Our Lord compare his relation to the church through the image of the bridegroom? Christ is the husband of His bride the church. So of course, the five husbands might fittingly refer to Samaria’s unfortunate “marriages” to five false gods.

For our second figurative interpretation let us turn to Saint Augustine. It was through reading his book On the Interpretation of Scripture , that I first gained a sense for the many layers of wisdom contained in the Scriptures. It was there that I learned the principle rule of interpretation, namely the “rule of charity.” Scripture should not be interpreted in a way that contradicts any other part of Scripture. Or more positively, we ought to be open to reasonable interpretations of scripture as long as they do not contradict other doctrines or interpretations that have already been set forth.  Additionally, if I remember correctly, Saint Augustine seems to have a particular fondness towards making sense of numbers in scripture. I know there are some who downplay numbers in the Bible – and I suppose many get carried away with their numerological interpretations – but if examining numbers seriously in scripture was good enough for Augustine, then it is also good enough for me!

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So here is what Saint Augustine says about the five husbands (among other things).

Jesus seeing that the woman did not understand, and wishing to enlighten her, says, Call your husband; i.e. apply your understanding. For when the life is well-ordered, the understanding governs the soul itself, pertaining to the soul. For though it is indeed nothing else than the soul, it is at the same time a certain part of the soul.

Now that is a shock isn’t it? Saint Augustine appears to be suggesting that the rational ability that we have, the understanding, is fittingly called “husband” by Our Lord.

I am certain that Saint Augustine meant no offense with his reference to the understanding as the husband. I think he means something like what St Paul said when he says,

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

The head, of course, is often associated with thinking and I think it is safe to call it the seat of the understanding. Is that a safe assertion?

And so we needn’t dismiss Saint Augustine’s interpretation as merely an interpretation coming out of the patriarchal mindset that he undoubtedly had inherited through no fault of his own.

Rather it would appear, according to Saint Augustine, that beyond any actual husbands that the woman had, he was more concerned with the “husband” that is none other than the understanding part of the woman’s soul. Call that husband.

But more importantly,Saint Augustine gives us an insight into the nature of the human soul. The “well-ordered” soul might be seen as a sort of marriage between the understanding part of the soul and the soul itself. In other words, the soul might be said to have a part which governs, and this part we call the husband.

He continues:

And this very part of the soul which is called the understanding and the intellect, is itself illuminated by a light superior to itself. Such a Light was talking with the woman; but in her there was not understanding to be enlightened.

It seems to me that there is a sort of proportion here. As the understanding governs and instructs a person, so too should Christ Himself govern and instruct the understanding.

In other words, Christ is the bridegroom of the soul. Christ is the husband of the understanding soul.

Our Lord then, as it were, says, I wish to enlighten, and there is not one to be enlightened; Call your husband, i. e. apply your understanding, through which you must be taught, by which {you must be} governed.

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And now you are thinking, “What about those five husbands?”

Without missing the cue,Saint Augustine responds,

The five former husbands may be explained as the five senses, thus: a man before he has the use of his reason, is entirely under the government of his bodily senses. Then reason comes into action; and from that time forward he is capable of entertaining ideas, and is either under the influence of truth or error.

We are either under the governance of our reason, or under the governance of our senses. The senses of course, in a broader sense,  also include the so-called sensitive appetites otherwise known as the passions or the emotions.

We are either governed by our reason or by our passions.

And so our understanding soul, that which ought to govern, is called “husband” by our Lord. But when we are ruled by our appetites, then we have unsatisfying and even “dull” husbands. The senses are not quite as keen as the intellect. No wonder we would marry one after another.

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And when Our Lord says,

“and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.”

He now refers to an even worse husband than the dull senses or passions. He is referring to the “husband” who is Error. Error might be called an “adulterer”, because the understanding soul ought to be wedded to the truth, the understanding soul ought to be wedded to Christ.

It clearly follows what Saint Augustine says next:

The woman had been under the influence of error, which error was not her lawful husband, but an adulterer. Wherefore our Lord says, Put away that adulterer which corrupts thee, and call your husband, that you may understand Me.

Posted in Augustine, Catena Aurea, classical education | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Learning in Virus Time

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In a sermon delivered in the Fall of 1939 titled Learning in Wartime, C.S. Lewis asserts,

every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology

Now I can only guess about the anxiety and feelings of dread that Lewis was addressing among the student body at Oxford at that time. Bombs had not yet dropped on London as they would a year later during the German Blitzkrieg of 1940. I don’t know how his sermon was received at St Mary’s Church that particular evening in the Fall of ’39,  but I regret to say that my own sense for self-preservation would probably have precluded me from sticking around to the end of it should the bombs have started dropping a little earlier.

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Nonetheless, I wonder if he might have delivered the same sermon during the virus of 2020?

Granted there must be a difference between the feelings of those who faced possible enlistment, and consequently imminent death, and the feelings of a people whose confrontation with death and mortality is largely based on screen-induced fear and media-driven panic. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that C.S. Lewis would surely be empathetic with the terrible dread and anxiety of present-day thinking Americans, even despite its irrational basis.

I admit it. When the financial markets plunge, when nations quarantine their citizens, when the diocese of Rome cancels all public Masses, when hand sanitizer and Kleenex are flying off the shelves, I can’t think of a time when the study of Latin and Greek and Euclidean geometry seemed more insignificant (except for maybe here). I can’t remember a time when teaching the liberal arts, the seven arts of the Quadrivium and the Trivium seemed, well…more trivial.

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As Lewis asks his students,

why should we – indeed how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Yea, learning the liberal arts at the present time is in fact quite like fiddling while Rome burns! No, even more, it is not like fiddling… it is fiddling.

Thirty years ago I suppose I was thinking there was still enough time to spread liberal education throughout the land. There was still enough time, that is, to stop and put to rout the forces of modern barbarism.

I told myself that even a handful of classically minded teachers could affect the entire nation. If 12 apostles could spread Christ’s gospel throughout the world, then certainly several hundred liberally educated teachers could transform a single nation!

Student by student, family by family, what with the laws of exponential expansion and the magic of liberal education, I would participate in making small ripples which, though parochial as they were, would in a matter of a decade or so increase to a tsunami-sized deluge, transforming and disposing the hearts and minds of thousands and even millions towards an enthusiastic embrace of  Western Civilization!

Oh well, thirty years later here we are. Standing on the brink of collapse. Brought to this pathetic state by a mere virus. Reduced by something akin to the common cold! So much for hic, haec, hoc and qui, quae, quod!

What is the point of learning now? My efforts and those of a great many others do not appear to have transformed the culture. What a colossal waste of time to teach students how to conjugate a verb and decline a noun.

Arma virumque cano….whatever!

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But I ask myself “What would C.S. Lewis do?” “How would he respond to my despair?”

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Well, I think I know. He would say,  No! This way of thinking is nothing but Tomfoolery!  As if the primary purpose of pursuing a liberal education was to transform the culture in the first place! Hogwash! Yes, maybe liberal education is part of a solution for those who wish to transform the culture, but how insulting it is to assert that this is the purpose of such an education.

He would go on to point out that the present calamity that is the virus of 2020 “creates no absolutely new situation,” as neither did World War II.

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.

When precisely, I ask, is a person supposed to pursue the excellence of soul for which he was created? We are not like the insects who as Lewis says, first seek

the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.

Like Archimedes in his beleaguered Syracuse and Boethius in his cell and Thomas More on the scaffold and James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and the noble Spartans who resisted the Barbarian at Thermopylae, we should not cease from the practice of truth, beauty, and goodness just because our own civilization appears to be collapsing.

Posted in catholic education, Christendom, classical education, education, Latin, Liberal Arts, liberal education | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why I do not want to be the King of Scotland

I’m not so certain that I want to be king of Scotland anymore.

After reading The Tragedy of Macbeth with my students, I am having a difficult time shaking off a sense that life is meaningless when worldly ambition is the governing principle.

In Act II, King Duncan has been dispatched “to heaven or to hell,” by his own kith and kin- nay more even by his host and hostess who are now able to supplant him as king and Queen of Scotland. One would think that this would be enough to bring some kind of pleasure even if we grant it a guilty one. But Lady Macbeth dispels any doubt about this pleasure in Act III,

Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy…


And then Macbeth himself confirms the sentiment saying,


…better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.


But you might say


Langley, you are mistaken about the intent of the author here. Of course Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not content, of course they are miserable. They have guilty consciences! This is another play about guilty consciences…just like that other one…what was it…er…


Do you mean Aeschylus’ The Eumenides?  I spoke about that play here if you’re interested.


Yes that’s it. You are simply repeating now what you said then. Shakespeare and Aeschylus both attest to the reality of conscience. They both attest to the reality of the natural law. They both attest that crimes against nature will not go unpunished….especially regicide!


Well, that’s a good point. I had failed to make that connection. I suppose Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth does remind me a bit of Lady Agamemnon or rather Clytemnestra.

But Clytemnestra was far more certain of herself and less remorseful. I could never see Clytemnestra walking in her sleep uttering things like,
Yet here’s a spot.

Hark! she speaks. I will set down what comes
from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

Do you mark that?

The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

She’s on the verge of a mental breakdown. Lady Macbeth is not so tough after all, even though she made herself appear so in the first act, when she said:
…Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

Clytemnestra would not have said that. I suppose she had ten years to brood and plan her husband’s murder. Perhaps over the decade while Agamemnon was fighting in Troy her blood had the time it needed to congeal making any such speech unnecessary.

Nonetheless, aside from the teaching about conscience and crimes against nature that we find in Macbeth, aside from his poignant portrayals of a man and a woman who are driven deeper and deeper into acts of deception and violence- and ultimately even to madness in the case of Lady Macbeth- Shakespeare is adding a lesson for us about worldly ambition.

If success in this world is the principal objective of a person’s life then “life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that frets and struts his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

The ambitious man is a “walking shadow,” that is, his life is dim, empty and insubstantial.



Because, after a while the ambitious man will undoubtedly consider himself as a “poor player” on the stage; he will consider himself as one who has the appearance of being something that he is not. He will see that his life is that of one fretting and strutting for an hour upon the stage but soon he will be heard from no more. Other actors will soon take his place.

Time itself reminds us all of the potential meaninglessness of life. Each day passes much like the day before in the endless succession of tomorrows. All of our yesterdays are non-existent except in memory. And fools, those who esteemed themselves as something they were not, have simply returned unto the dust from which they came. For the ambitious life sometimes, if not often, is suddenly cut short without a proper ending – like a story told by an idiot.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Posted in classical education, Literature, Shakespeare, Temptation, truth for its own sake | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sin is first in the will: a brief lesson in morality from Lady Macbeth

Of all the authors we should compel our students to read, surely no one is so foolhardy as to demand a reason for reading Shakespeare.

I can forgive the one who asks,

Why should students read Aeschylus?

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Why do you force them to read Thucydides?

But this is only because these authors are ancient Greeks and therefore might appear (at first glance) to be so remote, so out-dated and outmoded that perhaps devouring time has blunted their relevance.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth!

Thankfully, Shakespeare still appears to be among the authors with whose works a more than passing familiarity is still deemed a sine qua non for the one who dares to think himself educated.

Notice the phrase “passing familiarity.” I chose those words very carefully because that is an exact characterization of my own knowledge of Shakespeare. Embarrassing, but no matter how many times I read his plays, I am only able to tell you about the very one that I happen to be reading at the moment. Sadly this disqualifies me from the prestigious ranks of Shakespeare scholars- a group I admire beyond words.

Nonetheless, as I am currently reading The Tragedy of Macbeth, I can’t help thinking that reading Shakespeare is a fantastic way to introduce high school students to the subtleties of the moral act.

Take this for example. In Act I Scene VII, Lady Macbeth has managed to cajole and persuade Macbeth to “screw up his courage to the sticking-place” and resolve to kill his kinsman and his king, the unfortunate and doomed Duncan.

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Macbeth says, betokening his interior resolution and interior purpose,

I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat. Away and mock the time with fairest show: False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Shakespeare teaches us with poignancy about the difference between the internal and the external; the inner act and the outer act. He teaches us that sin is first in the will as Saint Augustine taught in the fourth century.

Saint Thomas Aquinas quotes Augustine in his Summa,

Augustine says that “it is by the will that we sin, and that we behave aright.” Therefore moral good and evil are first in the will.

This is a profound teaching. It is not the external act that condemns us. It is not the outer sin that confounds us so much as the act of the will whereby we resolve to commit the outer sin. And this Lady Macbeth affirms in Act II. After having drugged Duncan’s guards, she fails to commit the murder herself,

Macbeth. [Within] Who’s there? what, ho!

Lady Macbeth. Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.
My husband!

Frightened by every noise, Lady Macbeth gives evidence of a guilty conscience even though she had not the strength to carry out the ghastly deed outwardly that she had already committed inwardly. It doesn’t matter. She is a murderess.

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The attempt and not the deed Confounds us.

It is the attempt, the intention, the will settled on evil that condemns us.

This is not to say that the outward act doesn’t matter. No, in fact, the external action adds and increases the evil – but seemingly only in degree, not in kind. Thus St. Thomas explains,

… every inclination or movement is perfected by attaining its end or reaching its term. Wherefore the will is not perfect, unless it be such that, given the opportunity, it realizes the operation. But if this prove impossible, as long as the will is perfect, so as to realize the operation if it could; the lack of perfection derived from the external action, is simply involuntary.

Shakespeare helps us to understand what our Lord is speaking about when he says in Matthew,

You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment….You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.

If anything, Christ came not to overturn the law with regard to the exterior act, the outward man. Our external actions and behavior are important, and there were roughly two thousand years of Old Testament history to prove that.

But Our Lord appears to be even more interested in the interior man than the exterior man. He is interested more in what is on the inside than what is on the outside; Perhaps the external is really for the sake of the internal?

Could it be that Our Lord is really after our souls?

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Posted in aeschylus, Augustine, catholic education, classical education, Literature, Shakespeare, Temptation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment