Tag Archives: Aristotle

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Norman Bird Sanctuary pond 11-15-15“He knows if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake.” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”   1934, lyricist Haven Gillespie

If your high school yearbook was anything like mine (yes, they did have printing presses back then), many of the earnest and hopeful pictures of the seniors were autographed. We took them around to friends, who at the time seemed destined to be inseparable, and exchanged heartfelt good wishes for each other’s lives. Most would include their best expectations for their own lives in a line under their picture stating their goals and aspirations. A majority yearned most notably for happiness. I doubt there were many that interpreted that longing with a clear definition. Prosperity? A beautiful spouse and loving family? Good health and a long life? Multi bedroom houses and an expanse of weed-less lawn? A Porsche, a Harley or a Catalina 315 in Newport Harbor? Wilderness camping? A career with high earnings, fulfilling achievements and social recognition? A lot of fun, however construed, with multiplying diversions and entertainments – dances and concerts and travel to exotic places?

For some an adolescent meaning for happiness persists with inherent disappointment baked in – perhaps even to become pathology with a grinding need for distraction whether in sports or sex, drugs and rock & roll or toys of any stripe or a consuming career and pursuit of the accrual of wealth and stuff or celebrity and the praise of others. If the unrecognized intention is distraction, then distraction from what is the relevant question.

“Anyone that chooses to look back on his past excesses will perceive that pleasures (typically) have a sad ending: and if they can render a man happy, there is no reason why we should not say that the very beasts are happy too.” “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius, (sixth century)

The ancients had a much different understanding of happiness and thought much of happiness a choice, not good luck or successful effort for what we moderns accept as achievement. For Aristotle, human happiness did not consist of satiated desire or momentary contentment, but living daily lives in quiet pursuit of first knowing objective truth, virtue and honor, then to instill virtue in our decisions great and small. He agrees “The highest good attainable by action is happiness,”[i] but defines what that means poles apart from contemporary interpretation.  Happiness is not dependent upon the ephemeral or somebody else’s opinion; happiness is not to be sought as a goal unto itself, but something revealed and familiar in silent reflection, nurtured in our daily thoughts, words and actions.

For Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Aristotle’s definition is self evident, but they refine it further. Aquinas dedicates a segment of his Summa Theologica to happiness. “Since the last (final or primary) end is stated to be happiness, we must consider the last end in general.” [ii] He accomplishes this in great depth for an entire, beautiful section of his exposition on Ethics.  Augustine in his letter to Proba wrote, “We must search out the life of happiness, we must ask for it from the Lord our God. Many have discussed at great length the meaning of happiness, but surely we do not need to go to them and their long drawn out discussions. Holy Scripture says concisely and with truth: Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” To be truly happy, it is necessary to first know God, and in so knowing, learn truth and virtue, then to live that life. This brings us to Christmas.

“You first loved us so that we might love You – not because You needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving You.” “On the Contemplation of God,” William of St Thierry, abbot.

“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established, and cannot be revoked.”[iii]  We could come up with a better plan than God did for reconnecting His creation with Himself unless that was the only possible plan: that the Bridge had to be of flesh and blood, born of a very young woman in a very remote area of the world. The mystery is not that this actually happened in Bethlehem. If we contemplate the reunification of man separated from God, God, Who is pure Truth, Love and Beauty could not do other than this loving reconciliation for it is His nature, His essence. How it was and is done is a wonder, but what else would it be?

Once genuinely knowing that truth within ourselves, trying to live a life worthy of it, a life of virtue, seeking to understand ever more deeply and love ever more fervently leads like gravity leads running water in a woodland stream to an inner peace and happiness[iv], to that “perfect and sufficient good.”  “So be good for goodness sake.”

“Above all things keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned.”[v]  So if in the context of this peace imbedded in an abiding happiness, we should feel offended or ignored or forgotten or taken for granted or hurt or angry or resentful or vainly knowledgeable in an ignorant world or upset with incompetence or obtuseness or arrogance we perceive in others, then these are opportunities for virtue and great peace.  A gift of opportunity is granted to reclaim peace, to recall the sufferings of others, to know that we cannot see into their souls and what grave secret burdens they carry. We can understand that our feelings may well up from a reservoir of hurt carried within us all that we can allow to drain off. Peace is better than to be right. Mercy and truth, but mercy first. Peace and right, but peace first. Humility before offended pride, which always is rooted in our own faults.  God bless you and yours this Christmas season and a Happy New Year.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our Father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

Is man, His child and care.


For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.  

 “The Divine Image,” William Blake

[i] The Nichomean Ethics, 1.4, Aristotle

[ii] Peter Kreeft in Summa of the Summa, states in his notes, “’Happiness’ (eudaimonia in Greek, felicitas in Latin) means not merely subjective contentment, or rest of desire, but also real blessedness, the state of possessing the objective good for man.”

[iii] “Lumen gentium” from the Second Vatican Council.

[iv] “As Plato pointed out (Republic, Bk 9), all who have experienced both the greatest bodily delights and the greatest spiritual delights testify to the same results of this dual experiment: that the soul can experience far greater pleasure than the body. (It can experience far greater suffering, too.) All who doubt this simply prove they lack the experience and are in no position to judge.” Peter Kreeft, notes from Summa of the Summa.

[v] From “Imitation of Christ,” Thomas à Kempis.


Filed under Background Perspective

Beyond Singularity

“Jake Spoon is a mighty leaky vessel to put all your hopes in.” – Gus McCrae, “Lonesome Dove”, Larry McMurtry

In the most recent quovadisblog.net post, we explored however briefly the future according to futurist Ray Kurzweil: the era when man and machine will be inextricably fused into one creature, eternal, omniscient and beyond time and space. A blog post can cover barely a brush by analysis of the roots of this prophesy of the goal of human existence. “Singularity,” a beatific vision of the faith of scientism, is a mighty leaky vessel to put all your hopes in.

How we got here is complicated, but some understanding of the journey which discarded nearly two millennia of human wisdom is worth a word or two.

“This (the abandonment of much of Socratic/Aristotelian thought), though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world.” W.T. Stace “Man against Darkness,” The Atlantic (Sept, 1948) as quoted in Leo Sweeney, S.J., “Authentic Metaphysics in an Age of Unreality,” as quoted in “The Last Superstition, A Refutation of the New Atheism,” Edward Feser, 2008

AristotleFor roughly eighteen centuries, the lodestone of Western thought was Aristotle. Before Christianity, before Mohammed, before the Roman Empire, Greek philosophy was true north for all else that was to follow. Until the “Enlightenment,” which wasn’t all light, metaphysics and the search for human wisdom and truth in Western culture relied on principles of natural law and some would say common sense well thought out. What we now deem “science,” and for many the only valid arbiter of truth, was an important, but contracted, aspect of man’s search for truth. All science is based on metaphysical assumptions and precepts. The metaphysical enclosed the hard sciences as a portion, but not the whole.

Aristotle posited that all things have four causes. The first is its material cause: the stuff out of which anything is made (be it wood, iron, chlorophyll, cells, etc.). The formal cause adds the form, structure or pattern which the material assumes and is of a kind that distinguishes it from other things made of the same stuff – be they humans and poodles or countertops and the Pieta. The formal cause exists outside of the thing, separate from it and is congruent with the same form that exists in our minds so that we recognize it. The third attribute is the efficient cause or that which brings a thing into being from exploding stars creating elements to a whittler’s knife carving images – it is what causes a thing to move from potentiality to actuality. Things must have the innate potential to become; and something must act upon them to realize that potential. Finally there is the final cause – that for which something exists, its purpose, its why.

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. “Lucky is he who has been able to understand the causes of things,” Virgil, Georgics, Book 2

For Thomas Aquinas, the human person’s formal cause is the soul, which exists beyond space and time; for Aristotle, mankind’s final cause as a “rational animal” is to know the truth, a truth both objective and within our mortal limits, attainable. Beginning slowly with Hume, Locke, Hobbes and the like, modern philosophy disavowed both formal and final causes. We find ourselves on the other side of Neitzsche, Sartre, and now Dawkins and Hitchens and are entangled in webs of relativism, skepticism and purposelessness. [i] Scientism offers us a “leaky vessel” way out, a “hope” rooted in hubris. A mutually exclusive dichotomy now assumed between science and religion was not always so, is erroneous and is not necessary.

Just as the eye was made to see colors, and the ear to hear sounds, so the human mind was made to understand. From “Astronomi Opera Omnia” Johannes Kepler

Science is not scientism; science is an objective search for a limited truth attainable by experimentation and careful observation. Science is agnostic to ultimate purpose or final causes. There is no inherent conflict with faith, but science cannot sound the depths of before time and space. First, science and modern philosophy do not recognize the existence of final causes; secondly they do not possess the means to evaluate them. It is not “faith or reason” that brings us to the fullness of understanding, but “faith and reason” – Fides et Ratio. Scientism is not science; scientism is a faith – a faith not in God, but in “not God.” As in all faiths, there are underlying tenets of that faith that can neither be proven absolutely or refuted absolutely. One can only judge the fruits of it.

Yet the positive results achieved (from pure reason and its handmaid, science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned. Fides et Ratio, 1998 encyclical, Saint John Paul.

Here is an example that may help clarify how it works. Many years ago the Jesuits at Boston College tried to teach me logic, epistemology and other arcane subjects that at the time seemed completely irrelevant to the real world. Pearls cast to swine (or sophomores), I suppose. Of course what they were trying to do was teach me to think; they tried with limited success to inculcate into me a disciplined mind. Perhaps these many decades later to their credit, a few lessons stuck. Among the many examples of logical fallacy we learned was circular reasoning, wherein the preordained conclusion of an argument is baked into the premises to deliver stillborn real debate and analysis.

One such banal argument from the atheist goes like this: Since you benighted theists insist that your God is all good and all powerful and all loving, why is there still evil in the world? Hah! Take that! There is no God! Christian theology replies with an eternal Love, a Person, whose “ways are not our ways”, and of the free will inherent to the human person, free even to choose evil, but free will necessary to the nature of the dignity and worth of a free person. It also teaches of the mystery of suffering and redemptive suffering revealed by God as also necessary to the human person in some way not fully fathomable within our mortal coil, but exemplified and made of inestimable value by Jesus. These and other aspects of this most difficult subject require not only a lifetime of study and understanding, but more importantly prayer, reflection and relationship with God through Jesus. [ii]

But if the discussion is shut down with a trite aphorism with the unstated premise that there is not really any God that can shed light on darkness, but if there was, He could not be all powerful and all good and all knowing and permit evil, therefore He doesn’t exist, the argument reveals itself to be, “there is no God, therefore, there is no God.”

When the true believers of scientism draw their conclusions, they mask as scientific, rational and objective that which was preordained in its premises.

Perhaps there is no God; perhaps God is a Divine Watchmaker who set in motion the laws of the universe and left the premises; perhaps the “Irreducible complexity” debate of the Intelligent Design advocates is really another “god of the gaps” syllogism in a new guise. But perhaps, just perhaps, that as the Jesuits taught me our souls are eternal, as is God, and that we exist on this beleaguered planet, which rides within our solar system, our galaxy and our universe with all of them constantly and intimately enfolded within the Mind of God, utterly dependent for each moment on that Loving Mind.

“I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow Him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation.” St. Bernard, abbot

[i] For a good analysis of the etiology of the current brand of popular atheism and its convoluted path from the Enlightenment to modernity, try “The Last Superstition, A Refutation of the New Atheism,” Edward Feser, 2008 St. Augustine’s Press.

[ii] See C.S. Lewis “The Problem of Pain”


Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views