Showing posts from 2015

Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand.

This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this yourse…

Homer's Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past livesTime travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in th…

Rerum Novarum in context

Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people in the Western world lived and thought. Some changes happened so fast that, even after a hundred years, the world hadn’t yet figured out how to deal adequately with situations that were already a fact of life. One proposed “solution” to the problems of the Western world was set forth in The Communist Manifesto, written by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but as Pope Leo saw clearly, not only didn’t the Marxist solution fix anything, it only made things worse. That’s the main reason the Holy Father wrote Rerum Novarum, which is perhaps the first papal encyclical that found widespread resonance outside the Catholic Church.

Linguistic context: The title Before we look more closely at the social, political, and religious context in which this encyclical letter was written, I’d like to say something about its title. The tradition in na…

Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.
I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:
Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central aut…

Freedom: We love it, but what is it?

Today is July 4, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being Americans — the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man's freedom is another man's oppression.

As soon as this question occurred to me, I was reminded of The One Minute Philosopher: Quick Answers to Help you Banish Confusion, Resolve Controversies, and Explain Yourself Better to Others by Montague Brown (published by Sophia Institute Press).  In this book, on facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), with the intention of showing not only what each term means precisely but also of distinguishing between them. Even though the discussion of each term is fairly brief (a single page), Brown manages to bring to light many interesting shades of meaning that illuminate how truly distinct (sometimes even op…

Don't Shoot the Elephant or You'll Kill Education

I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they re…

Tradition, Truth and the Literary Epic

Yesterday, by a piece of serendipity, I discovered that there's a revised edition of Charles Rowan Beye’s Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, which now contains a chapter on Gilgamesh. I want it! I read the earlier edition years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, and it made an indelible impression on me, as well as my teaching. The key idea I took away from it was an understanding of what it means to be “literary.” I mention this now because it has a bearing on my reading of the flood accounts I’ve been discussing, particularly the ones in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses.

What does it mean to be “literary”? As the original edition of Beye’s book points out, Homer’s epics are regarded as marking the beginning of the Western literary tradition because they were the first great stories in fixed, written form to survive and influence later poets. Scholars agree that Homer was drawing on a long oral tradition of myths and legend. Be…

Zooming in on Ovid's acount of the Great Flood

Second installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses (If you haven't read the first installment, find it here.)

Reading, like so much of life, is all about seeing what is to be seen — not only what is visible in a cursory glance, but also patterns that lie beneath the surface to give meaning to the words, not to mention all sorts of little hints and clues “hidden in plain sight,” which provide an extra level of enjoyment and meaning to the attentive reader.  So now that we've looked at Ovid's general poetic purpose in writing Metamorphoses, it’s time to take a close look at the episode in which he describes a great flood that destroyed all living things in the ancient world, to see if we can discern the details that can tell us the meaning of this episode within the poem as a whole.

I frequently walk along the shore of the lake shore near my home. I enjoy both the panorama of the vast lake and its farther shore, as well as the fine details of the wildflowers…

Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid's flood in context

Recently, we took a close look at the account of the Great Flood that appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and found that, although it superficially resembles a similar account found in the Bible, its meaning was shaped by its context in the story. Context is always crucial for understanding anything — if you see a circle drawn on a page, without seeing it in relation to something else, you can’t tell if it’s mean to represent a ping pong ball, the Earth, or a freckle. The same is true when we are reading — you can’t understand what a story is intended to mean if you don’t know something about who is telling it, to whom he’s telling it, and in what circumstances or for what purpose. So as we now consider the Great Flood account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, once again context will be crucial if we want to see what Ovid was getting at.

Before we look at the context of the Flood account within the larger poem, then, we need to consider the rhetorical context, that is, who wrote it, when…

Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood. All that’s left is to ask what enduring truths, if any, we find in this poem. Is this poem simply an archaeological curiosity, or does it still have something to offer modern readers?

At first glance, it might seem not. The world that gave rise to this poem is very remote from us, not only in time but in culture. Its human figures seem barbaric and its callous and capricious gods are inscrutable — even Utnapishtim does not  try to explain their actions. But when we consider enduring truths, we have to move past cultural differences, which can be distracting. As a whole, it seems to me, the poem is about learning to accept our human limitations, something that can be especially difficult for a man like Gilgamesh, who excels ordinary mortals in so many ways. He has power, wealth, wisdo…

Movie makers need to read great literature, too

I've  talked quite a bit on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out of our petty interests and connect us to the larger human condition. Part of the problem, I believe, is that, by and large, people don't read any more, and when they do read they read the literary equivalent of Twinkies and Red Bull.

Of course, reading is not the only way to be exposed to great stories. Film can also tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. The problem is that most American filmmakers are more interested in spectacle than story, as Barbara Nicolosi and her collaborator Vicki Peterson discuss in this video interview:

Holy Saturday, the still center of all Creation

I think in many ways Holy Saturday is my favorite day of the Sacred Triduum, chiefly because of this ancient homily, which is traditionally read on the morning of this day. Try reading this aloud in a church that has been stripped of its sacred appointments, and devoid of the Sacred Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament — it will send ripples of awe down your spine.

Homily on The Lord's descent into hell, by St John Chrysostom Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives…

Words Worth Pondering: The Passion of Christ

This week, in deference to Holy Week, I’m taking a break from ancient epic to consider the Passion of Christ. I'll start by asking two leading questions, the first of which is a kind of riddle: How is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? That one's rather obscure, so I'll answer it last. Let's begin with a somewhat easier question: Has it ever occurred to you that when we speak of the “passion of Christ,” we are using the word passion in a way that we rarely (if ever) do in any other context?
When we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, usually we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve had many students tell me that they wanted to choose a major that they were “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.
Two kinds of “passion”? This idea that “passion” indicates intense interest is a watered-down version of an older meaning of the term: passion as an  emotion th…

The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh: What does it all mean?

In the past couple of posts in this series, we’ve been looking at the Great Flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, trying to put the flood story into context, both within the larger story of Gilgamesh’s quest for godlike immortality and within the overall rhetorical context of the poem. Having done so, we’ve now reached the point where we can sort out what it all means. Here again, though, the question is more complex than it might seem at first glance. There’s the “meaning” of the poem from the poet’s point of view (what meaning did he apparently intend his readers to derive from the story), and the enduring significance of the story over time.

Answer the dramatic questions to find the meaning The simplest way to get at the meaning of any story is to see what dramatic question the story poses and how that question gets answered. This refers to a question, raised at the beginning of the story, which holds the reader’s attention and drives the action of the story. Since Utna…

Something for you Trekkies: Saints, heroes, and Klingons

Okay, I know I got all the Trekkies hooked when I put up that post about Captain Picard and the Tamarian (you all subscribed to this blog, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?)

Well, read this to find out why my pal Dennis McGeehan, says Saint Joseph would make the perfect patron saint of the Klingons.

Death of Enkidu, if he and Gilgamesh had been Klingons Question: What would Worf think about Gilgamesh?  Would he dig him, or would he bury him? More importantly, what would he think of Gilgamesh's quest for immortality?
Answer:(My answer, anyway): I think Worf would admire Gilgamesh's heroic exploits and his desire for greatness, but I think he would abhor his response to the death of Enkidu. Or maybe not, if he believed that Gilgamesh, as a mere human, would not have access to Sto-Vo-Kor (the Klingon Valhalla). But he might also sympathize with Gilgamesh's depression at the thought that all his deeds would die with him, and respect his recovery after failing to grasp immortali…

The Story of the Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Today we come to the second part of our examination of the story of the Great Flood found in the Epic of Gilgameshwherein we will look at the story itself. I'm actually going to break this into two separate posts, a summary of the story and the interpretation of it, which I'll combine with an examination of the story's significance. Before I do that, however, let's recap what we've already covered in Part 1.

Last time, in the first step, the rhetorical analysis, we noted that the Flood account is really a story-within-a-story, which means we need to consider it along with the larger story that contains it. This narrative technique is sometimes called a “frame tale,” a term that is very appropriate in this case because the story of Gilgamesh provides the frame (context) for the part we're most interested in, and the Flood story is what gets framed (the focus of our attention). Still, although we are most interested in the Flood account, the relationship betw…

Epic of Gilgamesh: putting the Flood story in context

Sometimes we have to learn to see treasured, but overly-familiar truths with the eyes of a stranger in order to appreciate them better. That’s what I hope will come of the exercise I proposed last week, comparing several ancient accounts of the Great Flood.  So as we begin our look at three different literary accounts of the Great Flood, I think it best to start with the one that is probably least familiar to most of us. Why? Because the Biblical account is so familiar that we may miss its distinctive features, the features that help us draw out the intended meaning of the account. By looking first at unfamiliar versions of the story, we may be able to de-familiarize ourselves from the story of Noah and be better able to read it afresh.

Reading with understanding As we look at each of these three Flood stories in turn, I’ll be using a slightly-modified version of the four-point analysis I introduced in a post a couple of years ago, partly because I want to make sure  I don’t skip o…

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Now arm yourselves!

I love St Patrick's Day, not because I love green beer, parades, or even corned beef, but because it reminds me of the great prayer attributed to the saint who drove the snakes (and the pagans?) out of Ireland. You probably know a hymn called St Patrick's Breastplate, but did you know that the hymn was not itself written by the saint, but is based on an ancient prayer attributed to the patron of Ireland?

It is sometimes called the Lorica, a word which means “breastplate,” i.e., literally a piece of armor that protects a combatant's chest, also called a cuirass. Roman soldiers wore a lorica segmentata as part of their battle armor. In the Christian era, the term lorica also came to mean a prayer of protection — no doubt with reference to the armor of faith that St Paul in the sixth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians says will allow the believer “to stand before the wiles of the devil”:

[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
Put on the whole armor of …

What can Darren Aronofsky's Noah teach us about the Western cultural tradition?

About a year ago, I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah not long after it hit the cinemas. I always cringe whenever Hollywood produces anything vaguely Biblical, and probably would not have gone to see this film, if a friend hadn’t bought me a ticket. There was a huge hue and cry from Christian viewers that this film was “not true to the Bible” (big surprise!), and even the offer of a free ticket might not have swayed me if a review by Barbara Nicolosi hadn’t assured me that there were many other reasons to hate this “terrible, terrible” film. I will admit, sometimes I just enjoy seeing something truly, laughably awful (this probably counts as “concupiscence of the eyes”), and Noah looked like it was going to be one of those, so off to the cinema I went.

I found the film to be every bit as terrible as I had expected, just on purely cinematic grounds: a nonsensical story, inconsistent characterization, illogical motivation, goofy CG effects, etc. However, unlike many viewers, I did no…

Keep your bling, give me the treasures of the Western Cultural Tradition

In chapter 8 of the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom says, “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. … I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.” This is a saying any true-hearted student of the liberal arts, like myself, can heartily endorse, but it is not a saying that would have much appeal in the modern world, most of whose denizens would much rather have the bling. I’ve never gone in much for wealth or celebrity, myself, but since I was a child I have always hungered for wisdom and understanding. This explains why, as I contemplate the Lenten call to almsgiving (and my own abject poverty) I am inspired to offer you, dear readers, the benefit of my education, which is among the few (and the greatest) treasures I have accrued in my life.

By Jove, I think I've got it! Or "Sokath, his eyes open"

In case the title of this post is too cryptic for you, let me explain: the “it” I think I've got is the way forward for this blog. For the past couple of years, I’m been concentrating on writing a novel, my first — in fact, I’m still working on it. In the process, my various blogs, of which this one is the chief, have fallen fallow, a situation that has been as necessary as it has been regrettable (for me, at least). But I’ve finally got the novel in good enough shape that I can dare to let the intellectual side of my brain steal a little time from the creative side. And that means I’m ready to resume this blog.

So that explains half of my cryptic title, but what about the other half: “Sokath, his eyes open”? Some obscure literary allusion that can be grasped by only the most erudite? In fact, no. That is, not unless you consider the script of a television science fiction series to be “literature” (I must admit, I do not.) In fact, I’m quoting a Tamarian in the second episode of …