I I love clouds.  I could look at them all day, couldn’t you?  As a child, would often look upwards and just watch them.  I remember laying in the back of my parents car (this was before we constri…

Source: Clouds: An Appreciative Essay

Much has been of President Obama’s invitation to speak at and accept an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. Not a few Catholics, myself included, feel that, however customary this may be for ND (they have invited other presidents in the past), the fact that the president’s views on life are polar opposite from Catholic teaching makes the invitation very incongruous. But there are some Catholics who feel this is a good thing and that the Magisterium could use an “extreme makeover”. For them the teaching of the Church, which are teachings of Christ, are an embarrassing anachronism. My Catholic brothers and sisters who feel this way in relation to secular power remind me of a quote by Eric Hoffer:
“Those who bite the hand that feeds them will eventually lick the boot that kicks them.”

“The beauty of philosophy is that anything goes. Philosophical discussions are vital, not philosophical conclusions.”

-Undergraduate Student

“What about someone who believes in beautiful things, but doesn’t believe in the beautiful itself and isn’t able to follow anyone who could lead him to the knowledge of it? Don’t you think he is living in a dream rather than a wakened state?  Isn’t this dreaming: whether asleep or awake, to think that a likeness is not a likeness but rather the thing itself that it is like.”


Last evening I was lecturing on Plato’s Cave Allegory in Book VII of the Republic.  The allegory is used by Plato to represent the fact that those who do not pursue wisdom are like those living in a Cave, in which the shadows that they see, they take to be reality.  At one point in our discussion, I asked the class what they thought of philosophy to be, prior to taking the class.  Those that had an opinion, tended to say philosophy was just that, discussions about opinions.  These opinions could range from the timeless (e.g. God, evil, the afterlife) to the, seemingly, more contemporary (e.g. capital punishment, the legalization of drugs, abortion etc..).  Their view is not unusual.  Philosophers and anyone who takes up these questions,  seem to be shadow boxing.   I remember meeting a nice gentleman who was quite successful in business.  Upon learning that I was a philosophy graduate student, he remarked that he had once been a philosophy major as undergraduate at Harvard.  Nevertheless, he said, his father eventually told him to get down to reality and begin to study something useful.  Even in Plato’s day, philosophy was seen as something useless (which, is why it is superior…but that is another essay).  In Plato’s Gorgias dialogue, Callicles, a corrupt politician, says somthing of the same, i.e. philosophy is nice to engage in when young but better left there in order pursue more practical matters.

Above I have quoted a comment, posted on an article I read in a student newspaper about the need for philosophy in education.  The commentator was taking issue with the author’s view that philosophy should really serve as a guide for people.  It should do so, claimed the author, because it can lead people to more satisfactory answers about the world around them.  The commentator takes the author to task for becoming too dogmatic.  Thus, the, “…beauty of philosophy is that anything goes.  Philosophical discussions are vital, not philosophical conclusions.”   I remember reading a popular book on philosophy (which according to Plato, might be reason to leave it be) where the author enthusiastically stated that in philosophy, it was the question not the answer that was important.  On one level, both these views appear to be wise.  Questions and discussions are important.  But so are the answers!   Indeed, questions presuppose answers, however difficult they be to find.  Plato makes the same point when he says that the road to wisdom is a hard and difficult one.

Eric Voegelin, the great political scientist and philosopher, wrote a very illuminating commentary on the philosophy on Plato.  In it he makes the decisive point: one reason people have a hard time understanding the importance of philosophy is because, they are unaware of what philosophy, in Plato’s time was in opposition.  The opponent of the philosopher, in Plato’s view, was what he called the philodoxer.  So for Plato it was philosophos (love of wisdom) versus philodoxos (love of opinion).  Most people have heard of a philosopher, but not the philodoxer, and this is because, as Voegelin contends, there is no English equivalent to philodoxer.  Therefore, according to him, “[i]n modern usage…we call philosophers, precisely the persons to whom Plato as a philosopher was in opposition.”  So, anytime someone shares with us their opinions or view of life, we take that to be philosophy.  And since it seems there are as many view of life as there are people, many conclude that finding an answer is at misguided at best.  Yet, we must always keep in mind that a question without an answer is a logical contradiction.  The answer maybe genuinely difficult to arrive at, but difficulties do not necessarily add up to impossibilities.

I have stated, in accord with Voegelin, that one reason people view philosophy negatively, is due to the appellative loss of the opponent of the philosopher.  There is another, and perhaps more important reason, namely, that is not that some do not know what a philodoxer is but that they themselves are philodoxers.  Philodoxers or lovers of opinion are those who claim that genuine knowledge is not possible.  They say this either, because they are unable to arrive at genuine knowledge, or as they are vaguely aware of what that knowledge may require of them, they are unwilling to seek it.  Whichever it may be, these persons will extol the “beauty” of apparent philosophical endeavors (i.e. questions for questions sake and merely seeing what others think)  and ridicule the true philosophical endeavor (i.e. questions for the sake of answers and genuine interest in what people think to see if it is true).  Anyone, who values the exercise of philosophy, which in reality is philodoxy, over the aim of philosophy is, “…living in a dream…”.

Some may say that this view of philosophy is too narrow minded and not broad enough.  Maybe so.  But broadness of mind, in itself, is not be necessarily a virtue.  For our minds like a wayfarer must have a path to reach a destination.  The further and more difficult the destination the more one seeks certainty in the path.  Hence, highways have shoulders.

The following is not terribly systematic, but just some initial impressions that could be developed at a later time.

I started a philosophy club at the high school where I teach a few years ago. We sit around a do what you would expect, talk about things that most people find boring or pointless (e.g. Why is there evil? Is there any difference between knowledge and opinion? What constitutes a ‘good life’?, etc…). Every year someone will bring up the question of whether humans have freewill or not. It amazes me how many students say that humans do not have freewill. I remember one young fellow, quite nice and very smart, who was very adamant about and confident in the fact that we did not have freewill. Furthermore, he gave some good arguments supporting his position (therein lies the problem with his position). This year, I seem to have a crop of students who share the same belief. In fact the topic came up today. It is odd, but perhaps understandable why some people would like to deny freewill. If one is prone to indulge the senses, such a view may be helpful. I mean if you can help smoking a “j” or sleeping around, then the world would be a much simpler place. However, after I left the meeting that day, it struck me as odd that these students and not a few academics who deny freewill, spend some time trying to convince me that this is so. I mean if I am not free but determined to do something, then what is the use of trying to argue for something that I have no control over. No one tells a lion, “Now listen here Mr. Lion, don’t you go trying to kill those poor little gazelles.” A lion is determined to hunt and no matter how squeamish we may be at such a sight.  Eating gazelles is a completely natural act for lions. If on the other hand you are at a restaurant and eating your dinner, and I being hungry, knock you out of your chair and begin eating your food, you would not buy my protestations that I am an animal and when hungry, and have no choice but to take your food. You, along with most sane people, would say I do have a choice.

In short, those who deny freewill and try to convince others that freewill does not exist are working under a belief that the other has the capacity to change their mind. If one believes that if some one is given good reasons that ‘X’ is the case, in the hopes that that someone will accept “X”, then the person giving the reasons is presupposing that the other can choose to embrace the better argument. However, if one can change their mind, then they are not necessarily determined to think a certain way; they are free to think another way. In this way freewill deniers end up contradicting themselves.

Tell me lies…

I remember enduring a program put on by the HR department of a company I worked for years ago. It was about workplace sensitivity and the dangers of finding oneself a transgressor. The mantra of the program was that, “perception is reality.”, meaning if someone perceived you to be racially, ethnically, religiously, etc…, insensitive, you could and would be branded as such, whether that perception corresponded with reality or not. In fact, HR was more than willing to admit that it could turn out that perceived violations of sensitivity might be completely baseless but the damage would already be done.

Well, I don’t deny that perceptions are powerful, for they certainly are. I perceive that I am one ‘helluva’ nice guy but my wife may point out, truthfully, that this is not always the case. Being the philosophical realist that I am, such a view seems misguided. The reason this is so, is because although perceptions can be valid, common experience shows they can be invalid as well. In the end, perception does not always correspond with reality. I remember sitting there that afternoon thinking to myself, “If the HR department, by admitting that perceived violations of workplace sensitivity may not correspond to reality, then why must we sit through this program, why not find get to the truth of the matter?” I know the reason, at least the pragmatic one; the company doesn’t want the legal hassle and so better for one man to perish that the whole company. No, I understand the pragmatic approach. I’m trying to make a larger point, which is this business of going along with the, “perception is reality” mentality, when we are being told that this is not the case (yet one would think most of us know that it is this is not always the case without having to be told) .

This brings me to my point (yes, I do have one). Watching one of the talking head shows Sunday morning, I heard something that crystallizes what I have been thinking about for awhile now. The issue was over the selection of Governor Palin of Alaska to be John McCain running mate. I don’t remember the specific point but the substance of it was if Gov. Palin did not do something effectively, then it would create a perception that voters may view as negative, therefore leading potential voters to react in such a way that would to hurt McCain’s presidential aspirations. The pundit admitted that such a perception would probably not be fair and that the Democrats would exploit this fallacious perception. So we, the potential voters, sit here and listen to the fact that a perception, which may be false, will nevertheless be encouraged for the expressed purpose of influencing us to act in a certain way. Basically we are told that we will to be lied to and manipulated (as an aside ,anytime you hear a pundit use the word “narrative” for clarity’s sake, go ahead and insert the word “lie” in its place). The wonder of it all is that this happens in plain sight. What I am essentially talking about is this political phenomenon of “spin”. Spin is a great example of the “perception is reality”

If what I am saying is unclear, then imagine the following scenario: A person is looking to buy a car. Let us say that he or she is given the opportunity to have representatives of two auto manufacturers present their cars to this person. Both representatives give impassioned presenations about the relative merits of their cars and also tell you why the other’s car would not be the best for you. Now suppose there were a couple of bystanders, maybe industry insiders, who also listened to the presentations and pulled the potential buyer to the side to tell him or her that there was more to the story that what they were told. Suppose they said that one of the representatives’ claims about his vehicle was not quite accurate. Furthermore, they say that some negative statistics cited by the same representative about the other manufacturer’s car were taken out of context and were not what they seemed. The insiders say that the representative’s presentation was so well delivered that the potential buyer would probably be influenced in buying his car, if he did not know the whole story. Now what would you think of the person, who now knowing that they were being manipulated, decided to buy the deceptive auto maker’s car? If you say “I’d think that person was an idiot.” you would be correct. If the absurdity of this scenario is readily apparent, then what is the real difference of the person who listens to the pundit and acts upon the “spin”?

“What is it about August? The First World War began in August 1914. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact effectively announced the Second World War in August 1939. Iraq, a fragment of the collapse of empires precipitated by August 1914, invaded Kuwait in August 1990.”

The above is take from an article written by George Will on Russia’s invasion of Georgia last week. It does seem that August, at least in modern times, as seen it’s fair share of political and social upheval. Just the other day I was taking with some friends and it was brought up on how perilous our times seem these days- economic uncertainty, Islamic faniticism, and the seeming return of Soviet rule in Russia. Only an obtuse individual would be uneasy in the face of such events. I must admit to feeling a slight dis-ease of late. Life seem so timorous. Am I the only one who, in quite times, thinks “Where is all this headed” ?

Yes it it true that some of sadder chapters in the human drama have been written in August. While ruminating about Will’s observation I was reminded of something. In a month that begins with the last entry being made in Anne Frank’s diary to, nearing month’s end, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (in itself not “earth shattering” but considering the social changes in brought to this country, and not allfor the better, it is still very significant.), I was reminded I was reminded of another event that takes place in the middle of every August. This would be the celebration of The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This liturgical celebration is, if anything, a celebration of hope. As such it may serve as an antidote to the diffusion of anxiety that washes over contemporary humanity. When one thinks of desires Isalamic miliatants or designs of a Vladimir Putin, one should turn to readings of the day, such as the Canticle of Mary:

The Mighty One has done great things for me for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him…He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” Luke 1:49-50, 52

We are told that evil does exist in the world and has real power, but the Virgin Mother’s praise of God, encourages us to see that it does not have the last word. In the end, the celebration of this feast points to final victory:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out…” Revelation 12:10a

August has seen some fearful events. The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, reminds us that amidst the raging’s of world events (and indeed the raging in our own souls) that we have reason to hope. Father Clifford Stevens says it well,

“The Assumption looks to eternity and gives us hope that we, too, will follow Our Lady when our life is ended. The prayer for the feast reads: ‘All-powerful and ever-living God: You raised the sinless Virgin Mary, mother of your Son, body and soul, to the glory of heaven. May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory.’ “



A final thought: I came across a poem entitled, Wedding Toast by Richard Wilbur. The poem is speaks of the first miracle performed by Jesus at Cana. Part of the poem reads:

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

In keeping with the reflection above, part of our contemporary anxiety stems from our need to make our world a certain way (i.e. comfortable, safe, entertaining, efficient, etc…). The ancient philosophers believed such a need betrayed our need for some lasting happiness. What this poem reminded me of and what the ancients would have understood is that real happiness is not made, it is received.