Newman on the Human Condition

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s worlds, “having no hope and without God in the world”–all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?

I used to spend pleasant hours with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking about our favorite writers.  He introduced me to Cardinal Newman, and to the glories of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.  Who has ever written more perfectly controlled English prose?  Here, a piece of prose to range alongside Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes.  Consider the opening ten lines or so of that great poem.

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Book Recommendations: Two Pairs

I don’t explicitly or directly recommend lots of books here, although I mention or quote from many and often make it clear that I think highly of them.  But, as I rode my bike in this morning, I started thinking about two pairs of books that have meant a lot to me, personally and intellectually.  I thought I would recommend them.

The first pair is:

The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Walter Jackson Bate) and The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper).  Neither of these books is quite or completely a biography, neither is quite or completely literary criticism (Bate) or philosophy (Pieper).  Each is instead an examination of how the work of each man grew into what and who he was, and was grown into by what and who he was.

The second pair is:

Actor and Spectator (Lewis White Beck) and The Myth of Metaphor (Colin Murray Turbayne).   I was lucky enough to have been taught by both men, although to a lesser extent and mostly informally (in conversation) by Turbayne.  Both books are beautifully written and philosophically significant.  And each is a study of the way in which a person can become so immersed in another’s thought that it is no longer clear who is doing the thinking and who is being thought about.  With Beck, it is Kant; with Turbayne, it is Berkeley.

Enjoy!

Johnson on Intellectual Pride (Sermon 8)

To these causes,or to some of these, it must surely be imputed, that learning is found so frequently to fail in the direction of life; and to operate so faintly and uncertainly in the regulation of [the learned’s] conduct, who are most celebrated for their application and proficiency.  They have been betrayed, by some false security, to withhold their attention from their own lives; they have grown knowing without growing virtuous; and have failed of the wisdom which is the gift of the Father of lights, because they have thought it unnecessary to seek it, with that anxiety and importunity, to which only it is granted; they have trusted to their own powers, and were “wise in their own conceits”.

Johnson on Affectation and Hypocrisy

Johnson knew how to make distinctions.  From Rambler 20:

Affectation is to be always distinguished from hypocrisy, as being the art of counterfeiting those qualities which we might, with innocence and safety, be known to want.  Thus the man, who, to carry on any fraud, or, to conceal any crime, pretends to the rigors of devotion, and exactness of life, is guilty of hypocrisy; and his guilt is greater, as the end, for which he puts on the false appearance, is more pernicious.  But he that, which an awkward address, and unpleasing countenance, boasts of the conquests made by him among the ladies, and counts over the thousands, which he might have possessed, if he would have submitted to the yoke of matrimony, is chargeable only with affectation.  Hypocrisy is the necessary burden of villainy, affection part of the chosen trappings of folly; the one completes a villain, the other only finishes a fop.  Contempt is the proper punishment of affectation, and detestation is the just consequence of hypocrisy.

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