Friday, March 29, 2024

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806 –1861

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Castitas: Thomas Aquinas' Preeminent Virtue


It has been said that the work of St. Thomas is the most impersonal of the entire thirteenth century. It is true that, in the thirty volumes of his Opera there is hardly a single immediately personal trait to discover—unless we consider this very absence as a mirror of his personality. It is doubtless an accident, though a significant one, that only one letter of St. Thomas has come down to us—the letter he wrote, shortly before his death, to the abbot of Monte Cassino. This single letter, however, deals with a textual difficulty in Gregory’s Commentary on Job and is too much an expression of expert opinion to afford the opportunity—as Goethe puts it—“of preserving the immediacy of living existence” and revealing it to us.

Those, however, who knew Thomas personally, must have sensed from his immediate presence the qualities of saintliness. And he must have been singularly impressive—a man of tall and erect bearing, at once strong and sensitive; with a mighty and commanding forehead, his skin gleaming like golden wheat, his face shining with a radiance that was never extinguished. There could be no doubting the special holiness of this friar, who frequently could be seen pacing up and down the convent halls in great strides, head erect, alone, meditating. The witnesses at the canonization process, many of whom had long been associated with Thomas, had nothing to report concerning unusual ascetic exercises or mortifications. But they testified that Thomas loved peace; that he was sparing regarding himself, humble, and full of goodness for his fellows. He was a lover of poverty and his heart was entirely directed toward the divine.

One particular trait was named most frequently by the more than thirty witnesses, and often in first place: castitas. St. Thomas must have been a man of such purity and radiance of character that everyone coming into his presence seemed to feel something like a fresh, cool breeze.

When Thomas was held prisoner in the isolation of the castle of San Giovanni, his brothers had tried in various ways to turn him from his decision to become a mendicant friar. (Reginald, one of the two brothers who had imprisoned him, was a poet of some note in his own day, known in particular for love poems in the vernacular. A Swedish scholar edited these poems during World War I [O. Tallgren, Les poesies de Reginaldo d'Aquino. Memoires de la Societe Neophilologique de Helsingfors, VI. Bd. {1917}; S. 174-303].) One day the brothers sent a practiced courtesan into Thomas’s chamber. We know only that he turned her out roughly. However, it seems that the twenty-year-old lad went in those few moments through a terrifying interior struggle. William of Tocco writes: Thomas immediately thereafter collapsed at the threshold of his chamber and fell exhausted into a deep sleep out of which he awoke with a loud scream. The scream was caused by an exceedingly painful operation. An angel had girded him tightly with a cincture in order to make him inviolable against all future temptation to impurity. Toward the end of his life Thomas related all of this to his friend and secretary, Reginald of Piperno.

Since we nowadays think that all a man needs for acquisition of truth is to exert his brain more or less vigorously, and since we consider an ascetic approach to knowledge hardly sensible, we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. Thomas says that unchastity’s first-born daughter is spiritual blindness. (Cf. Pieper on Temperance in The Four Cardinal Virtues, Notre Dame Press, 2006, 159ff.) Only he who wants nothing for himself, who is not subjectively “interested,” can know the truth. On the other hand, an impure, selfishly corrupted will-to-pleasure destroys both resoluteness of spirit and the ability of the psyche to listen in silent attention to the language of reality.

To perceive this language, i.e., to grasp the truth of real things—this is the true passion of St. Thomas. This fundamental character trait leads us to an understanding of his astonishing courage and his no less astonishing humility. When Thomas, for instance, ranged himself on the side of the pagan Aristotle against the traditional philosophico-theological trends (an undertaking requiring great boldness), he did this not from a spirit of opposition to traditional doctrines or from a mania for innovations, but rather because his intrepid approach to truth recognized the voice of reality in Aristotle’s work. This same boldness for truth made him ask, in his Commentary on the Book of Job whether Job’s bold conversation with the Lord God did not violate reverence—to which he gave the almost outrageous answer: truth does not change according to the standing of the person to whom it is addressed; he who speaks truthfully is invulnerable, regardless of the interlocutor. (Thomas Comment on Job, chapt.13, lecture 1.)

Another facet of this courage is shown in an incident pertaining to his last years in Paris—a time when the eyes of all Europe were fixed on him. At a public and formal disputation of some controversial points of his teaching, Thomas, after calmly presenting his arguments, had no hesitation to submit them for the final decision to the Bishop of Paris and the university faculty. (Many years later, the fiery Franciscan John Peckham, become Archbishop of Canterbury, who was Thomas’s opponent in the dispute, recalled the incident with great admiration.) If Thomas, at the height of his fame as a teacher, was capable of such humility, we have to see in it not so much the sign of modest self-effacement, but rather the courage to face the truth, to which belongs the courage to see in a thesis neither less nor more than its premises warrant. This tranquil courage for truth, neither afraid of rejection nor overly eager for approval, shows that Thomas was happily free of all self-importance. We have a prayer he wrote in which he asks God to let him be cheerful without falling into frivolity, and become mature without falling into pompousness.

We have become used to see in an intellectual dispute something in the nature of a fencing match, or at least of a contest with victors and vanquished. And by and large such disputes are carried on according to the rules of such contests. Thomas would have thought it unbearably self-important had anyone spoken of his “victory” over Averroes or Siger of Brabant. For him, an intellectual dispute was a common striving for the victory, not of one of the contenders, but of truth. Even the erring party, he says, is meritorious; for error, too, may serve the enlightenment of truth. (Cf. Thomas Comment. on Arist. Metaphysics, Bk. 2, Lecture 1.) Accordingly, in his disputes with opponents of contrary positions, Thomas violates all fighting codes. He challenges the opponent not at the weakest spot in his position—too cheap a procedure for Thomas, who was noble in more than name—but, rather, he meets him precisely in the area of his strongest arguments. Often enough Thomas is the first to bring the actual force of these arguments to light; frequently, it is through his formulations that the objections of his adversaries gain their persuasive power. Thus, in the study of such a work as The Summa Contra Gentiles it is an exhilarating experience to see an intrepid mind meet the essential questions squarely, with no attempt at side-stepping them.

One cannot touch on the theme “Thomas and the truth” and remain silent about the devotion with which he was the teacher of truth. To lead a man from error to truth—this he considered the greatest service which one man can render to another. (Cf. Thomas Comment on Dionysius, Chapt. 13, Lecture 4.) And nothing characterized Thomas the teacher so strongly as his prayer and hope that his life would not outlast his teaching. Once he could no longer teach, then life itself might as well be taken away from him. Teaching, for Thomas, is something other and greater than to impart by one method or another the “findings of research”; something other and greater than the report of a thinker on the results of his inquiry, not to mention the ways and by-ways of his search. Teaching is a process that goes on between living men. The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth. Love of truth and love of men—only the two together constitute a teacher. No small part of the whole work of St. Thomas was written in answer to requests of friends—sometimes the request of a prince, or, just as often, the request of a nobody. Once a young confrère from Venice, a “beginner,” submitted to him no less than thirty-six separate questions, which were not even clearly formulated, and requested an answer within four days. Thomas, who could legitimately have excused himself with the excessive demands made on him by more important work, not only supplied the answers but also formulated the questions more precisely; and in addition to that, he met the requested time limit.

Teaching demands above all else the capacity of survey and of simplification, and the ability and effort to think from the premise of a beginner. St. Thomas possessed his capacity of true simplification to a high degree, and he made every effort to take his student’s point of view as his lead. The best energies and the best part of his life he devoted not to a work of “research” but to a textbook for beginners, which is nonetheless the result of the deepest immersion into truth. The Summa Theologica is expressly written ad eruditionem for the instruction of beginners, as it is plainly stated several times in the preface. In this preface Thomas mentions the boredom produced by the over-familiar, and the confusion experienced by beginners through the excesses of misplaced scholarship. The teaching method of St. Thomas, contemporaries report, fascinated his students precisely through its freshness and originality. (Cf. Summa Theologica, I, prologus.) To quote Martin Grabmann, Thomas was the first to eliminate the underbrush of “scholastic” hair-splitting, which had already become traditional in the thirteenth century—to be revived, it is true, in new profusion by the late Scholastics.

What astounding capacities of survey and simplification are revealed in the threefold division of the Summa Theologica: “In the first part we will treat of God, in the second, of the turning back of spirit-endowed creatures to God, in the third of Christ, Who is in His Humanity the Way on which we will arrive at God. What power of simplification in a sentence such as the following, which embraces a "Summa" of Christian teaching on life: “Three kinds of knowledge are necessary to man for his salvation: the knowledge of what he must believe, the knowledge of that for which he must pray, and the knowledge of what he must do. The first is taught in the creeds of our Faith, the second in the prayer of the Lord, the third in the commandments." (Cf. Thomas On the Commandments.)

The intimate fusion, in this towering mind, of the innate gift for probing, grasping, and illuminating reality to its depth, and the capacity for giving it an inspired and convincing form as a teacher, becomes overwhelmingly evident in the tersely formulated eleventh chapter in the fourth book of The Summa Contra Gentiles. In this chapter, that stands perhaps unmatched even in Thomas’s own work, he undertakes to describe the ordered structure of total reality, building it up from stone to angel and to God Himself, in a truly ravishing range of vision. This is what it says:

Where things differ in nature, we find different modes of emanation. The more this emanation takes place in the innermost reality of a thing, the higher is its order of being. Now, of all things, the inanimate take the lowest place and from them no emanation is possible except by the action of one on another . . .

The next higher order after inanimate bodies is formed by the plants whose emanation proceeds from within inasmuch as the plant’s inner juice is converted into seed, which being committed to the soil grows into a new plant. Accordingly, we find here the first traces of life, since living things are those which move themselves into activity. Nevertheless, the plant’s life is still imperfect, for although its emanation proceeds from within, that which emanates emerges out of it and is ultimately entirely outside it. Thus, from the juice of the tree, first the blossom is produced and then the fruit which, although still connected with the tree, is outside its bark. When the fruit is ripe it separates itself entirely from the tree, falls to the earth, and brings forth out of its own seminal force a new plant. Indeed, if we consider the matter carefully we shall see that the first principle of this emanation is something extraneous, for the inner juice of the tree is sucked up by the roots from the earth, whence the plant draws its nourishment.

Above the level of plant life is a higher level, that of the sensitive soul, the proper emanation whereof, though beginning from without, terminates within. Also, the further the emanation proceeds, the more does it penetrate within, for the sensible object impresses a form on the external senses, whence it passes to the imagination and, further still, to the storehouse of the memory. Yet in every process of this kind of emanation, the beginning and the end are in different subjects, for no sensitive power reflects on itself. Therefore, this degree of life transcends that of plants insomuch as it is more intimate; and yet it is not a perfect life, since the emanation is always from one thing to another. The highest degree of life, therefore, is that which is according to intellect, for the intellect reflects on itself and can understand itself. There are, however, in the intellectual life several levels to be distinguished. The human intellect, although it is capable of knowing itself, still takes the beginning of its knowledge from without. Man is not able to know without a sense image. More perfect is the life of the angel, whose knowing spirit does not acquire self-knowledge from without, but rather knows itself through itself. Even so, life has still not reached its last and highest step, because the angel’s spiritual image of itself, although wholly within it, is still not one with its being. For in the angel, to know and to be are not the same thing. The highest perfection of life belongs to God, Whose understanding is not distinguished from His Being.

For its true effect, this sovereignly constructed passage should be heard in the Latin. The language of St. Thomas does not have the quality of beauty proper to a work of art, as we find it, for instance, in Augustine; it is beautiful as a perfect instrument is beautiful. And yet, there are in the writings of St. Thomas numerous chapters whose sentences move in such rhythmic cadence toward their final “therefore,” that one can think of no more fitting comparison than that with the determined stride of the final measures in an organ fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. It would be strange indeed if, as a shallow judgment of the humanists has decreed, the secret of language should have been barred to the very man who gave Christendom the hymn: Adoro Te devote, latens Deitas.

Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, Faber: London, 1957, 24-35.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Elon Musk with Tucker Carlson: Full Interview

PART 1 (April 17): 0:00 PART 1: AI dangers 11:37 TruthGPT 16:21 Twitter acquisition 19:57 How to use Twitter 21:08 Twitter manipulation 26:30 Mark Zuckerberg 27:21 Donald Trump 28:27 Media industry 30:51 Twitter staff reduction PART 2 (April 18): 33:42 PART 2: AI kill switch 35:53 Larry Page 37:57 AI timeline 39:00 Democracy 39:44 Banking crisis 44:14 Inflation 46:23 Aliens 48:44 Birth rates & lifecycle for civilizations

Twitter, after Musk takeover, is 20% of original staff. Musk: (30:00) "If you're not trying to run some sort of glorified activist organization. If you don't care that much about censorship. Then you can really let go of a lot of people, it turns out...It was absurdly over-staffed...It's working better than ever. We've increased the responsiveness of the system, in some cases, over 80%. We are trying the make Twitter the most trusted place on the internet, the least untrustworthy place on the internet."

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