Monday, February 25, 2013

The Week in Review: Evagriating

Patristic Spirituality: The subject of this week's class was Evagrios Pontikos, an ascetical writer from the late 4th century AD. Each week a student or two gives a presentation on the readings assigned, and I chose this week. The presentation could have gone better, but wasn't awful. I've learned I'm not a great extemporaneous speaker, and do much better when I have a prepared text before me. I tried to speak from an outline during this presentation, and I think it showed. Nevermind that, though. Evagrios wrote several works on the spiritual life and the path of progression to greater union with the Holy Trinity through focusing the intellect, calming the passions, and battling demonic temptations. Lots of your typical "deny the body to free the mind for contemplation" stuff--BUT the only reason it seems "typical" to us today is because Evagrios had HUGE influence on the history of Christian thought via his student John Cassian, who went into the Western Roman Empire and started founding monasteries; he, in turn, was a big influence on some guy named St. Benedict (you may have heard of him), whose rule for monastic life became an early standard for others to follow. We'll talk more about Evagrios this week in class.

Medieval Philosophy: There was no class on Monday due to the holiday. (Presidents' Day is a slap in the face, by the way; it used to be we had two separate federal holidays for the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and now we only get one with the ambiguous name "Presidents' Day." Is that supposed to include all the presidents? Really, are we taking time to commemorate the likes of William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and Chester A. Arthur?) Anyway... on Thursday we had a "discussion day" in which we compared various aspects of St. Augustine's De Magistro (On the Teacher) and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. There was a divide in the class as to who we thought had the more tightly constructed argument; it seems an unfair comparison, though, since Augustine was making one long argument, while Boethius made several short ones. Still, there was something about Boethius' I liked better. It had the clarity of the scholastic method about it. *Note: I will soon make a post describing the scholastic method in greater detail, so you'll know what the heck I'm talking about. (Actually, I wrote in my book "proto-Scholastic" as I read it, only to have our professor use that very phrase the next day in class!) This week we'll be discussing St. Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard... or Peter Lombard... one of those Peters... it sometimes seems like the Middle Ages only had, like, eight names. Everyone's named Hugh or Peter or Thomas or John or something.

Philosophical Anthropology: Aristotle had a very helpful concept for relating the functions of the various powers of the soul. Sense knowledge gathers data from the outside world. The "common sense" (not meant as "practical know-how") relates the senses together and distinguishes them. The imagination acts as a storehouse for sense data. The cogitative or estimative sense allows us to intuit whether those things we sense are beneficial or harmful to us. And the memory allows us to store perceptions or conclusions of the estimative sense and retrieve particular ones. See how they all work together?

Metaphysics: "Quiddity" is one of my new favorite words. Especially because it's defined as "the thing-ness of a thing." Come on, that's just plain fun. Who said you can't have fun doing philosophy? Next week's post on this class will be more detailed, as I'll explain the principle of non-contradiction. Unless I forget to.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Week in Review: Keepin' it Classy

Nothing of much note to share with you from this week, apart from class-related items, so we'll get to it:

Medieval Philosophy: This week we read some excerpts from works by one Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, commonly known to history simply as Boethius. He lived in the late 5th-early 6th centuries AD, and is sometimes called "the last of the antique men"; that is, he was what one might call the last true Roman. He grew up in an aristocratic family, and was appointed to high offices by Theoderic, the Visigothic general who had de facto control over Italy. He did something to fall out of favor, though, and was imprisoned for treason. He spent a year in jail before being executed, but during that time wrote what was to be a lasting work in the history of Western thought: The Consolation of Philosophy. This is a dialogue in which Boethius and "Lady Philosophy" investigate a number of philosophical questions. His method, in which he considers objections to a position, lays out his own answer, then responds to the objections, became the standard for the "school men" or scholastics of the Middle Ages. He's quoted quite often as an authority by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. And Boethius' translations of Greek philosophical terms into Latin became definitive. And he writes beautifully. Always nice when your assignments are a pleasure to read.

Philosophical Anthropology: We tend to think of human beings as the only things possessing souls, but Aristotle (and St. Thomas) took a different position. They used the term more broadly for the that principle which gives life to any material living thing; and different kinds of things have different kinds of souls, depending on the powers that sort of thing has. For example, a vegetative soul allows a thing to take nourishment, grow, and reproduce; so a tree has a vegetative soul. A sensitive soul would add movement and sensation to the powers of the vegetative soul; thus, a dog has a sensitive soul. A rational soul would add intellect to the powers of the sensitive soul; thus, humans have rational souls. Thomas was also clear that only humans have immortal souls, since eternal life would not perfect the powers of the vegetative or sensitive souls--one needs not the opportunity to contemplate God eternally if one has not the power of contemplation.

Metaphysics: When the subject matter of your class is defined as "everything that really exists," you start to wonder "How on earth are we going to cover this in 4 months?"

Patristic Spirituality: More Origen this week. We read excerpts from his De Principiis (On First Principles) dealing with his kooky cosmology and his theories on Scriptural interpretation. The latter was much more sensible than the former; and anyone who ever talks about the "spiritual sense" of Scripture owes a big debt to Origen. But his speculations about the nature of the universe got him into trouble later. Trying to fit Christian theology into his Platonist philosophy, he theorized that in the beginning God created all the intelligent beings that would ever exist, and they existed in a state of contemplation of God; but they got bored or lazy and turned away from God. The ones that fell the least became angels, the ones that fell the most became demons, and the ones in the middle were given material form and became human beings. This ain't kosher with Catholic theology, and it got his ideas condemned at an ecumenical council. But he had the whole Scripture thing going for him... which is nice.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Week in Review: Farewell Papa Benny

Before turning to a look at the week that was, let me first offer my prayers for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, who this morning announced his abdication of the Chair of Peter, effective February 28. This was a huge surprise and a highly unusual move (the first time in nearly 600 years a pope has resigned), but it seems the pope feels he no longer has the strength to lead the Church. This saddens me greatly. I admire and respect this man as much as any person on this earth. His pontificate was a great gift to the Church, and he showed himself to be an outstanding teacher and pastor of souls, a man of humility, gentleness, and quiet strength and resolve. May God bless him in his remaining years.

Let us pray, too, for the papal election which will happen in a few weeks. May God grant us the right man for the job!

(One side note: you may have seen various news reports disagreeing on when was the last time a pope resigned his office. The earlier date cited, in the 1200s, was that of Pope Celestine V, who stepped down due to his advanced age, and perhaps his lack of desire to be pope in the first place. The later date, in the 1400s, was that of Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in the midst of the Great Western Schism, when three men were claiming to be pope simultaneously; all three men resigned, and a new pope was elected that all factions agreed to recognize. I'm not sure why some news agencies aren't citing the latter example--perhaps they look at that turbulent time in Church history and aren't sure what to make of it. Anyway, the later date is the correct one, so far as I know.)

Now, to much more mundane affairs....

My prediction of a schola brevis for the first meeting of Philosophical Anthropology was proved accurate. I used the additional time, as well as most of the rest of the day, to do some reading for classes later in the week.

Yeah, Monday and Tuesday pretty much consisted of some combination of class-read-eat-read-sleep-class-read-eat-read-sleep-repeat. Busy, but just the sort of busy I want to be!

Wednesday added a little curve ball of a few hours of work instead of class, but the rest of the day was much the same as the previous two.

Thursdays will be LONG this semester: I start class at 8:10am, and don't finish for the day until 9:00pm. Oh, there are some breaks in there, but they're going to be marathons. This last Thursday proved no exception, with some interesting highlights:

-- In the first meeting of our Metaphysics class, we were introduced to Dr. Marga Vega, a diminutive philosopher from Spain with a kind demeanor and a three-month old baby. (Said baby was not present in class, adorable as that would have been.) This is going to be a heady course, but a good one, I think.

-- A classmate and I took part of the afternoon to grab a coffee and talk about his journey toward the Catholic faith. After discussing his sensitivities toward his non-Catholic family, he said to me: "All right, so: Mary. Just tell me your thoughts about Mary, without trying to answer any objections or anything like that." I said that Mary is the first and greatest disciple of Jesus Christ, whose last words in Scripture are "Do whatever he tells you"; that the relationship between a mother and child is the closest and most significant of all human relationships, so that the relationship between God Incarnate and His mother can't be something merely peripheral; and that Mary always leads us to Christ. This echoed things he had read elsewhere, and I think he found it helpful to have them reinforced by a real live person. I hope to have more conversations of this sort in future.

-- The evening saw the first meeting of our Patristic Spirituality class, led by Dr. Thomas Cattoi, a seemingly omniscient Italian who plucks quotes by everyone from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Theo the Studite out of thin air. He even knew of this very webpage! After I gave my little spiel at the beginning of class, answering my name, my school, etc., Dr. Cattoi added, "...and he has a blog." Apparently I turned a highly luminescent shade of red, and the fellow next to me said, "I believe that's known as a bust." Nice (and a bit intimidating) to know we may have a Ph.D. perusing these pages on occasion.

Saturday evening I joined a view friends for a viewing of the sci-fi classic Alien, which turned out to be much better than I remembered. Good thrills, good pacing, good dialogue, good twists here and there. Our one friend who had never seen the film before responded to the iconic "alien birth" scene by bursting out laughing--not the reaction I expected. Just remember: if you ever are on an alien planetoid and come across some leathery-looking eggs, DON'T NOT put your face in close proximity to them unless you want a squidy thing attaching itself to your mug.

Highlights from classes:

Medieval Philosophy: We've begun the course by discussing St. Augustine of Hippo, particularly his influence on philosophy. He lived in a time (350-420 AD) when there was no clear distinction between philosophy and theology; thus, no one would call it "irrational" when he asserted that human beings gain knowledge by being taught by the "inner teacher," that is, God. Augustine's thought on everything from the grace to the relationship between church and state would go on to be hugely influential on medieval philosophers and theologians. Our professor told us today (paraphrase): "Ancient philosophy effectively ends with Augustine." So, yeah. Kind of a big deal.

Philosophical Anthropology: In our first meeting, the professor set the agenda for the course by presenting us with a series of questions: What is the human being? What is the relation between soul and body? Do human beings have free will? He concluded with a wry smile, saying, "We'll answer these next time."

Metaphysics: Not much to report here yet, as the one class meeting was pretty much introductions and "housekeeping" items.

Patristic Spirituality: We discussed the 3rd century author Origen, who had some pretty unorthodox ideas on some things (e.g. pre-existence of souls, matter as a form of corruption, etc.), but whose work as a biblical commentator and exegete was hugely influential. He asserted that Christ was present in the Old Testament as well as the New, but in types and "shadows," pre-figurations. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Scripture commentary that didn't employ this sort of language. So, yeah. Also a big deal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Catching Up and the First Day of Class

Apologies to all of you both of you who were pining for a weekly update from me and didn't get one last week. Other than slicing off part of my thumb while working at the deli, I didn't think there was much to report. Come on, who among us can honestly say he hasn't mixed up his thumb and a salami before? Maybe that's why I liked to suck my thumb as a kid... hmm.... Anyway, it wasn't as bad as it first looked--it was just a flesh wound that took some skin and part of my nail, but it's so much fun to say to someone, "I slice off part of my thumb the other day."

This last week featured much less bloodshed and a bit more activity. The DSPT had a two-day event on the place of natural law rhetoric in American jurisprudence. If you're not sure exactly what that means, don't worry; the speakers didn't seem to quite know either. While we enjoyed some very controversial comments from Jean Porter of Notre Dame, some piquant observations from Russell Hittinger of Tulsa, and some trenchant thoughts from Lloyd Weinreb of Harvard, none of them explained particularly well what the natural law even is. They made many pleas to the "complexity of the tradition," etc., and said it was largely a framework for guiding further conversation, but didn't say much as to its content. I thought at first that I wasn't smart enough or well-versed enough to follow them, but several others had similar reactions to mine, making me think that it might possibly have been them, not me. Oh well. I suppose I can always read some St. Thomas and get a few answers.

Yesterday was the first day of classes for the semester. (Yes, it does start a bit late, but they make up for it by making the summer breaks shorter.) I described in a previous post the classes I'll be taking. Just one yesterday: Medieval Philosophy. (It's technically called "History of Philosophy: Medieval," but this is shorter.) It's being taught by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, who is an historian and a medievalist by trade; so not only is the subject material right up his alley, he owns the alley and the two adjacent buildings. And he gets so animated... it's going to be a great class.

Later today will be the first class meeting for Philosophical Anthropology, taught by Fr. Michael Dodds, OP. If Fr. Michael is true to form, today's class will be a schola brevis, or "short school," a tradition in the Dominican Order in which the first meeting for a class gives some basic introductory material and then adjourns early. That would be nice, since I've got a boatload of reading for my Patristic Spirituality class for Thursday... which I should probably get to now...