Gilead, Part 3, Existence

Part 3, Existence

There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

(p. 53, emphasis added)

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial – if you remember them – and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

(pp. 56-57)


The first excerpt, especially, recalls to my mind a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of which I have only Books VIII and IX:

…for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant; and living is a choiceworthy thing, especially to those who are good, because existing is good for them, and pleasant, for in simultaneously perceiving what is good in itself, they feel pleasure. And if as the serious man stands in relation to himself, so he stands also in relation to a friend (for a friend is another [or different] self) – then, just as one’s own existence is choiceworthy to each, so also is the existence of a friend, or nearly so. Existing is, as we saw, a choiceworthy thing because a person’s perception that he is good, and this sort of perception is pleasant on its own account.

(p. 205)


The first passage I quoted also reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Ash has always struggled with finding approval from his father, Mr. Fox, who seems to love Ash’s cousin even more than him. Yet, nearing the end of the movie, Ash and Mr. Fox have a conversation:

MR. FOX: The whole time I was putting paw over paw with your mother digging beside me [i.e. digging their foxhole], and I thought to myself, I wonder who this little boy…

ASH: Or girl!

MR. FOX: Right, ’cause at the time we didn’t know. I wonder who this little boy or girl is gonna be? Ash, I’m so glad he was you.

The History of Philosophy

Since I am currently reading The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, I have been thinking about my experience with primary philosophical texts. I would like to record here what I have read, and what most interests me to read soon. I am recording entire texts. I will not consider something like Nicomachean Ethics, since I have only read books 8 and 9. I will include books that some might argue are not “in the realm of Philosophy.” I am claiming, then, that they do belong in the realm of Philosophy.

Books of Philosophy I have read:

  • Classical/Ancient
    • Apology by Plato
    • Crito by Plato
    • Euthyphro by Plato
    • Lysis by Plato
    • Less  by Plato
    • Parmenides by Plato
    • Phaedo by Plato
    • Republic by Plato
    • Theaetetus by Plato
    • Poetics by Aristotle
  • Late Classical/Early Medieval
    • Confessions by Augustine
    • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (currently reading)
  • Modern
    • Training in Christianity by Søren Kierkegaard

I am currently reading The Consolation of Philosophy. In the coming semester I will read and translate On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, as well as acquainting myself with the major modern philosophers (most likely Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant). Yet, these are the books of Philosophy I am most interested in (I am choosing one book of Philosophy for each of the four eras I have identified – there are other works I want to read):

  • Classical/Ancient
    • Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
  • Late Classical/Early Medieval
    • City of God by Augustine
  • Medieval
    • Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas
  • Modern
    • The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard

The Brothers Karamazov: Part III

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The Body of the Dead Christ by Holbein the Younger

In part III of The Brothers Karamazov, our main character, Alyosha, is grieved by the death of his closest companion, Elder Zosima. Zosima not only died, but his corpse has begun to corrupt, which supposedly didn’t happen to Elder’s bodies and monk’s bodies. Alyosha is actually offended by all of this.

But it was justice, justice he thirsted for, not simply miracles! And now he who, according to his hope, was to have been exalted higher than anyone in the whole world, this very man, instead of receiving the glory that was due him, was suddenly thrown down and disgraced? Why? Who had decreed it? Who could have judged so? These were the questions that immediately tormented his inexperienced and virgin heart. He could not bear without bitterness of heart, that this most righteous of righteous men should be given over to such derisive and spiteful jeering from a crowd so frivolous and so far beneath him. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

This drew my mind to what Søren Kierkegaard says in his Training in Christianity about the offense we feel about the humiliation of God in the figure of Jesus Christ (on the cross, in the mocking and derision, in the incarnation itself).

The disciples who had believed in His divinity, and in this respect had surmounted the offense by holding fast to their faith, are now brought to a stand by lowliness, by the possibility of offense, which consists in the fact that the God-Man suffers exactly as if he were a mere man. (Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity)

My personal canon

1. The Odyssey by Homer
2. The Gospel of John
3. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
4. Confessions by St. Augustine
5. Othello by William Shakespeare
6. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
7. Training in Christianity by Soren Kierkegaard
8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
10. Dubliners by James Joyce
11. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
12. An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

My life author is 19th century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

See Bensonian for the criteria for a ‘personal canon.’

Training in Christianity: Part III

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In this last part of Søren Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity, our Danish philosopher seeks to exegetically investigate John 12:32:

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

He performs this exegesis by giving us seven untitled expositions of this verse. I have taken it upon myself to title these expositions for my own benefit. Here are my given titles to these expositions:

  1. Remember Christ
  2. “Draw”
  3. Cannot Now This Sight Move Thee?
  4. An Examination in Obedience
  5. The Church Militant
  6. The Follower
  7. We Pray For All

Now I will quote my favorite passage from Part III. This passage might possibly be the most vivid passage for me in this entire work. In discussing the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ, and the Christians call to imitate Christ–in His humiliation and His exaltation–, Kierkegaard says:

Such is the relationship between exaltation and lowliness. The humiliation of the true Christian is not plain humiliation, it is merely the reflected image of exaltation, but the reflection of it in this world, where exaltation must appear conversely as lowliness and humiliation. In reality the star is situated high in the heavens, and it is no less high for the fact that seen in the ocean it seems be below the earth. Likewise, to be a Christian is the highest exaltation, although as reflected in this world it must appear the deepest humiliation. Humiliation is therefore in a certain sense exaltation. As soon as you eliminate the world, the turbid element which confuses the reflection, that is, as soon as the Christian dies, he is exalted on high, where he already was before, though it could not be perceived here on earth, any more than a man who was unable to lift up his head, and so could only see the star deep below at the bottom of the sea, could get the notion that in reality it is on high. (p. 179)

————

Part I: Come Hither!

Part II: The Offense

Training in Christianity: Part II

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In this second part of Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Training in Christianity, our author outlines ‘the possibility of the offense’ of Jesus Christ. This term (the possibility of offense) refers to that which in Christ Jesus man finds offensive. Kierkegaard maintains the term of offense a possibility because he holds Christ not to be an offense, but someone who has the possibility of offending us. We are either to believe or be offended. It is fitting that Kierkegaard provides Matthew 11:6 as the epigraph for this part of the book:

“Blessed is he whosoever is not offended in me.” (p. 63)

Kierkegaard defines three major aspects of Christ that man finds offensive (with a fourth added at the end).

  • [1] Man is offended that Christ came into collision with the established order.
  • [2] Man is offended that this man claims to be God (loftiness).
  • [3] Man is offended that God claims to be this man (lowliness).
  • {[4] Man is offended that the very thing that gives us peace, or relieves suffering, (Christ/The Word of God) is the very cause of more suffering.}

We are to either be offended or to believe. Let us all hope to come and say what our author does:

“Whether it now is a help or a torment, I will one thing only, I will belong to Christ, I will be a Christian!” (p. 102)

I will quote the prelude of this part of Training in Christianity at length because I found it particularly moving and clear:

Yea, blessed is he how is not offended in him, blessed is he who believes that Jesus Christ lived here on earth and was the One He said He was, the lowly man and yet God, the Only Begotten of the Father–blessed is the man who knows no other to go to, but knows in every case that he may go to Him. And whatever a man’s condition in life may be, though he live in poverty and wretchedness–blessed is he who is not offended but believes that this occurred, is not offended because it does not now occur but believes that it occurred. And whatever a man’s fate may be in the world, however the storms of life may threaten him–blessed is he who is not offended but believes fully and firmly that Peter sank for the one and only cause that he did not believe fully and firmly. And whatever a man’s fault may be, though his guilt were so great that not he himself only but the human race despaired his forgiveness–yet blessed is he who is not offended but believes that He said to the man sick of the palsy, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” and that this was just as easy for Him to say as to say to the palsied man, “Take up thy bed and walk”–blessed is he who is not offended but believes in the forgiveness of sinners, although they are not helped like the palsied man to believe by the certainty of healing. And whatever be the manner of a man’s death when his last hour is to come–blessed is he who is not offended like the contemporaries when He said, “The damsel is not dead but sleepeth,” blessed is he who is not offended but believes, who (like a child who is taught these words as it falls asleep) says, “I believe” … and then sleeps; yea, blessed is he, he is not dead, he sleepeth. And whatever sufferings a Christian may endure here on earth on account of his faith, though he be ridiculed, persecuted, put to death–blessed is he who is not offended but believes that He, the humbled, the lowly, the despised man, He who in a sorry way learned to know what it is to be a man when it was said of Him, “Behold the man”–blessed is he who is not offended but believes that he was God, the Only Begotten of the Father, and that this experience belongs to Christ, and belongs to him who would belong to Christ. Yea, blessed is he who is not offended but believes–blessed the victory that overcometh, for faith overcometh the world by overcoming every instant the enemy within him, the possibility of offense. Fear not the world, neither poverty, nor wretchedness, nor sickness, nor need, nor opposition, nor men’s injustice, their insults, their ill-treatment, have fear of nothing that can destroy the outward man; fear not him who can kill the body–but fear thyself, fear what can kill faith, and therewith can kill for thee Jesus Christ, namely the offense, which another indeed can give, but which yet is impossible if thou dost not take it. Fear and tremble; for faith is contained in a fragile earthen vessel, in the possibility of offense. Blessed is he who is not offended in Him but believes. (pp. 65-66)

————–

Part I: Come Hither

Part III: He Will Draw All

Phaedo by Plato

I spent much of my day reading the 50 page Platonic dialogue, Phaedo. I was intimidated by the thought of sitting down and reading this in its entirety in one sitting. I took small breaks in between, but, for the most part, read it within the span of three or four hours. Despite its demand of my extensive time and energy, this dialogue has proved to be the most thought provoking of the dialogues I have read. The main points discussed in this dialogue consist of death (fear of vs. desire for), virtue, the immortality of the soul and recollection (how Plato posits we “know”), the life of loving to learn (philosophy), and most importantly the Forms. I was forced to really think while reading this dialogue. I really enjoyed this dialogue. The following is an excerpt that stood out to me:

Therefore, if we had this knowledge, we knew before birth and immediately after not only the Equal, but the Greater and the Smaller and all such things [i.e. the Forms],  for our present argument is no more about the Equal than about the Beautiful itself, the Good itself, the Just, the Pious and, as I say, about all those things which we mark with the seal of “what it is,” [i.e. the Forms] both when we are putting questions and answering them. So me must have acquired knowledge of them all before we were born.

-Plato, Phaedo (p. 66)

Plato (via Socrates’ “character” in this dialogue) reaches to a vague resemblance of universal truth/knowledge, that is that all humans know at birth a set of “things”–Forms–that are immortal and immutable.

Now, this idea of the Forms can be reconciled with the Christian faith. These immutable and immortal truths are found in God–in fact, they are God, God is them. God is Equality/Equal (think of the Trinity); God is Beauty/Beautiful; God is Goodness/Good; God is Justice/Just, and God is Piety/Pious. It makes sense that great theologians such as Augustine found themselves reading works of Neo-Platonism. Plato may be “pagan” but his philosophy (from what I have read) seems to be pretty reconcilable to Christianity.