Published in Logos, 7 (Spring, 2004), 14-29.
“THE WHOLE RISK FOR A HUMAN BEING”:
On the Insufficiency of Apollo
“‘Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems. And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible.’”
– Plato, The Republic, 618b/c.
“People wondered: where was God when the gas chambers were operating? This objection, which seemed reasonable enough before Auschwitz when one recognized all the atrocities of history, shows that in any case a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty. Apollo, who for Plato’s Socrates, was ‘the God’ and the guarantor of unruffled beauty as ‘the truly divine’ is absolutely no longer sufficient.”
– Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ.”1
“What is it, do you think, that causes the return (to the faith)? I think it is the problem of living, for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. The solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember.”
– Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome.2
Not long ago, a student stopped me after class. He apologized for asking an “impertinent” question. I inquired about the nature of the said impertinency. Schall is, after all, a Thomist, that is, “Ask and ye shall receive at least an opinion, provided you know the technical difference between opinion and truth!” The young in man in fact wanted to know whether “I thought there was such a thing as truth?” – note he did not ask whether there was truth, but whether I thought there was. Though I think such a problem as the existence of truth might, deep down, bother not a few of our kind, still it is not a question that one is asked every day. My “opinion” is that there is such a thing as truth, which, technically, means that what I hold is not just an opinion
To my knowledge, I had never given any indication in writing or speaking that I did not hold truth to be a decided possibility, to be a fact, something I hope we can still affirm today without seeming “arrogant.” Thus, I was puzzled. “Why is such a question addressed to someone who obviously holds to the possibility of truth?” I have, after all, pondered with delight Aquinas’ famous phrase, omne ens est verum, “all being is true.” Josef Pieper’s The Truth of All Things I consider to be simply a jewel of intelligence.3 With some confidentiality, however, as if he were letting me in on some deep secret about which Schall was totally clueless, the student explained that, “around here and in our age groups, few people -- he might have said ‘no one’ – think that truth exists.” At this presumably startling, if not shocking, information, I did not bat an eyelash. Schall is a man of the world.
Surely, I thought to myself, this young man had not forgotten that I had read in class the beginning lines of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom bluntly states that the one thing any professor can be sure of, on entering a class for the first time, is that every student there thinks, or claims he thinks, that “truth is relative.”4 I will not here go into the self-contradictory irony of the “truth” of the proposition that all “truth is relative.” The real iconoclasts today, young or old, are not the unbelievers in truth’s existence, who are a dime a dozen, as they say, but the knowers who affirm it. I am in fact more surprised by students who do not think truth or culture is purely relative than by those who think it is.
Most students today are brought up on a steady diet of a “theory” – it is no more than that – of “tolerance” as the operative principle in all their dealings. No one wants to “judge” anything or anybody when, in most circumstances, that is the only intellectual operation worth performing. Such tolerance in turn is not merely a pragmatic agreement to get along even when not in intellectual harmony, something that might be defended on reasonable grounds. Rather it is based on the idea that the only “legitimate” way we can do whatever it is we want to do is to affirm, as a general or theoretical proposition, that nothing, in principle, is or can be certain or true. Such a position frees us from all contact with reality or its having anything to say to us about what is.
This position was originally in Western thought an epistemological thesis about the adequacy of our senses to report external reality, whereas, today, it conceived to be mostly a political or moral one. Any affirmation of a truth is thus considered to be “discriminatory,” with tendencies to “fanaticism,” the most terrible modern aberration of all. “Fanaticism,” to give it its due, however, means, at bottom, that there are truths and they are worth affirming or pursuing, though not necessarily in just any manner. The “law” of our action or our polity, under a regime of speculative and dogmatic tolerance, thus simply becomes what is enforced or accepted, with no other theoretical justification about the truth of what is affirmed. This is the theoretic background against which John Paul II has called attention to the real possibility of a “democratic tyranny” (Centesimus Annus, #46).
We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain or justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard, that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience. In this sense, we remain rational beings even when we implicitly deny reason to justify what we want and choose to do. In short, all disorder of soul seeks to defend or explain itself in terms of some apparently plausible intelligible principle or argument. The difference between being good or bad is not a difference between having an explanation and having no explanation for what we do. Rather it is between having an explanation that is logical and true and having one that is not, wherein the one that is not has a valid point to it that allows us to choose it for our own purposes in living as we wish. All error, in other words, as Aquinas intimated, contains some truth. The ultimate location of evil, consequently, is not in our intelligence but in our will, wherein we choose to direct ourselves through what we know either to the truth or to our own chosen version of the truth as the basis of our actions in this world.
In retrospect, I am not sure whether the young man concluded that Schall was the hopeless anachronism that everyone thought he was, or whether the young man was relieved that at least someone in his ken would, on confrontation, openly affirm the minority position that truth was indeed possible and not simply “relative.” As to issue itself, to the question, “what is truth?,” the question that Pilate ironically asked Christ at His trial, Plato’s answer remains the best: truth is to affirm of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. Thomas Aquinas’ formula is substantially the same and equally insightful: truth is the adaequatio mentis et rei, the conformity of the mind with reality. It is not just that there is this “conformity” (adaequatio) but that we know the identity exists.
We know that, in knowledge, we can be what we are not, while remaining what we are from nature. The fact is that what is not ourselves, that is, the total complexus of other beings, can come to exist intentionally in our minds. This intentional existence is what makes it right, makes it delightful, that we are the kind of finite beings that we are to whom, in fact, everything is given, including the truth of things not ourselves, including indeed our very selves with our mysterious capacity to know. The doctrine of the Beatific Vision even intimates that we are finally to know God in this way, face to face.
I tend to conceive the young men and women whom I meet after the model of the two young potential philosophers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, in the second book of The Republic of Plato, though I admit that not everyone shows the zeal for truth these two young men displayed before Socrates. These young Greeks wanted to hear presented for their understanding the truth of things, in this case, the truth of justice, even when they could brilliantly and eloquently articulate the arguments against it. Yet they remained troubled and unsettled. Save is from the young men and women who are never unsettled, or from the old ones for that matters. Adeimantus and Glaucon could not quite see why, even though they suspected their arguments were erroneous, such arguments, that they proposed against truth or justice, were wrong. They were unsettled in their very being because they did not know the truth.
Please God that we all find ourselves in this condition of those who know they that do not know. I love such students, such potential philosophers, as I call them. They make teaching not just a profession or a duty but an adventure. Plato himself tells them, in the seventh book of The Republic, that it is going to take a considerable time and experience, much more than they could possibly anticipate, before they sort things out. Aristotle tells them that they will need virtue and discipline, while Aquinas tells them that they will need grace, that ultimate gift that goes against the grain of the autonomous man who is dissatisfied with everything that he does not create himself. Plato, for his part, even worries that presenting the highest things to students, to potential philosophers, at too young an age, will make them skeptical, for they do not yet have the full capacity and experience to know the truth. This is correct but to be completely closed to such attractions, to such wonder about the truth of things, to such seeking, is simply to miss what it is to be a human being, particularly a young human being.
The great Augustine, a true follower of Plato in so many ways, tells us that when he was nineteen, in Carthage, he was leading a rather dissolute life, something perhaps not uncommon to nineteen year olds of any age. Into his hands somehow chanced to fall a dialogue of Cicero, another reader of Plato. It was called the Hortensius, though its text is now lost and the only thing we know about it was that Augustine read it. It would be no exaggeration to say that the chance reading in 363 A. D., of a lost dialogue by a disordered young man at the age of nineteen in an out of the way African city, changed the world. For when this precocious potential philosopher put down this dialogue, his life was changed. He decided then and there to be a philosopher. He was determined to seek the truth, though it would be quite a spell before he found what he sought. This world, I think, can tolerate those, present company not necessarily excluded, who only find the truth slowly. What it cannot so easily tolerate are those who never seek it, or, even worse, those who only seek it luke-warmly or half-heartedly because they fear finding it and thus fear having to change their lives.
My initial point is first that we suspect that truth exists even when we cannot formulate it; and secondly, on this basis, we want to know what that truth is. Quid sit veritas? This relation to the truth that is at the very core of our being is the real origin of that “unsettlement” about reality that constitutes the radical dynamism in what it is to be a human being. This is what this same Augustine, in his Confessions, called, with overtones both of Plato and of Scripture, “our restless hearts.” We tirelessly do seek to know the truth, even when we think it does not exist or that it cannot, in principle, be known. We want to know, as Eric Voegelin puts it, the very “ground” of our finite being, since we cannot help but know that we do not cause ourselves either to be or to be what we are.5
We are the “rational” beings, as Aristotle called us. Furthermore, we do not want to know this truth about ourselves for any particularly utilitarian purpose, for what we might “do” with it, though there is nothing wrong with knowing how things work, with “doing” things. In his essay, “The Sacred and ‘Desacrilization,” Josef Pieper made the following remark about intellectual poverty or want, an insight concerning the ultimate non-pragmatic purpose of truth::
At the same time that we behold this image of abundance, we must confront the image of the most radical human poverty, not material but existential want. We would be desolate if we had to live in a world containing only things which we could dispose of and use, but nothing which we could simply enjoy, without thought of any utilitarian end; a world in which there was specialized expertise, but no philosophical reflection on life as a whole....6
The world includes things simply to be known and enjoyed, something that can happen to the things we need and use for daily purposes. It is no accident that craftsmen not only make tools, but beautiful tools, which are, as such, useless insofar as they are also beautiful.
We thus just want to know the truth. We are the kind of beings who, even in conditions of perfect abundance, as in the Garden of Eden, that original “image of abundance,” remain unsettled. We are unsettled simply because we do not know and know that we do not know. The famous temptation to “be like gods” comes with our very existence in the midst, not of want, but of abundance. Most of the world’s skeptics live in societies of abundance and in institutions with large libraries.
Adam and Eve, we might say, experienced, to use Pieper’s word, “existential want.” Or perhaps I should say, at the core of our being, we always reach a point where we have to decide whether the truth that we seek exists in what is or whether we make the truth ourselves in conformity not to what is but to what we would prefer to be, as if it were up to ourselves to create ourselves from nothing. The real division of mankind, and probably of the universe, passes through this question of whether what is, is something of our own making or whether it is something we receive as already made to be what it is, and, indeed, in being what it is, to be best for us also.
The worst life that we can imagine, in one sense, to borrow Pieper’s trenchant phrase again, “is one containing no philosophical reflection on life as a whole.” Philosophy, Strauss observes, is to seek a knowledge of the whole, as if somehow it is ours to know. The Christian gloss on this definition of philosophy is to accept all the help we can get to obtain this “knowledge of the whole” even if it is given to us by revelation. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to know only what it is in our capacity to know or whether we also can accept a gift of knowledge that would lead us to the whole which is not of our own making.
Years ago, when I was still a relatively young man – a period to which my students today refer as “ancient history” – I read a passage in Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful book, The Path to Rome, a passage that has always haunted me somehow. It is a passage that immediately follows the introductory observation of Belloc that I cited above wherein he reflects that it is our regular encounter with living, with evil itself, that eventually recalls to us a scheme of things that we once knew. This scheme, the structure of our faith itself, describes to us how things fit together, the good with the evil, how things, that stand out of nothingness, simply are.
The passage that I recall is as follows, a passage of remarkable pertinence, I think, to the condition of Catholicism in our time and in our place: Those who have wandered away from the faith and return, Belloc rightly reflected, obviously recalling his own memories, “suffer hard things.” He finds a “gulf” between him, as one of these who have once wandered, and “many companions.” He proceeds to explain what he means here: “We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and supernatural revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions.”7
“Violent decisions” seem to be at hand. We talk a “strange language.” I read during Christmas the account of a school district that does not even allow the word “Christmas” to be pronounced in any classroom. Justice Holmes, in a famous decision, once said we are not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Evidently today, the word “Christian” substitutes for the word “fire” among the words we cannot speak. Christianity is indeed sometimes pictured as “a fire on the earth.” In the name of toleration theory, it supposedly makes no difference what forms our souls. Yet we seek to remove from our souls those traditions that called our attention to the fact that we have souls in the first place. Tolerance does not tolerate truth, though that was once its purpose..
We are indeed “troubled,” to put it mildly, over the “human machinery of a perfect and supernatural revelation.” We think of bankrupt dioceses. A cousin of mine in Colorado told me that two neighbors across the street told her that they stopped going to church because of the ecclesiastical scandals. My brother-in-law told me of a Presbyterian lady who assumed that the scandals had “disproved” the Catholic Church, and proceeded to invite him to join a local church which had ten ministers, eight of whom, including the pastor, were women. This latter statistic, fortunately, confirmed his life long devotion to Catholicism.
Others, as a colleague of mine, are not so much shocked by the facts of degradation but rather by how little and how slowly anything was done about them, even at the highest levels. We worry about why this great Pope himself has been so reticent, so apparently uncertain to act firmly and decisively with men, whom he himself appointed to high office, when they fail him. A priest told me that two of his friends in Boston were afraid or ashamed to wear the Roman Collar in the streets.
The Holocaust, as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger remarked, again forced to our attention the question of how a good God could allow these things. Historian that he is, Ratzinger reminds us that this crime in the last century was not the first time in history that such grounds for an accusation against God were founded on being appalled by human atrocities. Many people who read the Old Testament itself, moreover, are particularly bothered by what looks like God actually approving and encouraging the slaughter of innocents, women and children and elderly. A Jesuit friend, now dead, once told me that he would not read the Old Testament because it was so bloody. Evidently, if he had written it, it would be un-bloody; that is, it would not have been what was given to us. But our current problem is not so much, “why did God allow such atrocities?,” not of itself a new question, but “why did the Church itself not merely allow them but evidently saw many clerics participated in them?”
Belloc wrote in 1901, the year after the death of Nietzsche, with his effort to get “beyond good and evil,” which “getting beyond” is indeed one way of confronting the problem, provided of course that there is some “beyond” that is neither good or evil. It is interesting in this current case that secularists, who profess to see little wrong with much of this activity, are themselves scandalized when clerics do not do what they preach. It reminds us of Chesterton’s remark that these same secularists are more scandalized when clerics do observe their vows than when they do not. Sin is ultimately less interesting than virtue, let alone grace.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Belloc already was worried about precisely “the human machinery” of the supernatural revelation.8 Why ever would God not only create a world in which terrible evils exist, but why would He create a Church in which its leaders turned out, at too many times, to be sinners? God’s “ways are not our ways,” as it says in Isaiah. Our complaints against God reveal our conception of God. We think He should do what we would do in His position. We, with our notions of fairness and justice, would not have allowed these things to happen, or so we surmise, without reflecting on just what we would have had to do to stop them. Granted these facts of disorder in high places, we can either reject God as unworthy of us, or suspect that there is something of more profundity in God’s ways than we are willing to suspect. Had God given us a sinless clergy, He would have no doubt also given us, simultaneously, religious figures who could not understand us in our own sins. If history attested to no holocausts, it probably could attest to no free will either.
I am reminded of these popular and contemporary questions not merely because they concern us all and are part of the quest for the meaning of things in which we are all involved, but also because they are issues already anticipated in revelation and in our reflection on it. The demand for a world in which there was no possibility of atrocities or a Church in which the hierarchy was sinless might be conceivable. Indeed, it was conceived, by God, in the Garden of Eden, as Genesis tells us. But if such a world existed, we can be sure that we would not exist, for we are a product of a world in which atrocities are possible and a sinful clergy is too often a fact. The question is not whether God might not have created some other sinless or atrocity-free world, but whether he could have created the world in which we are and still be God.
The second from the last sentence in the Introduction to James Thurber’s autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, reads, “It is unfortunate, however, that even a well-ordered life can not lead anybody safely around the inevitable doom that waits in the skies.”9 This passage, both amusing and profound in its context, I suppose, is but another way of stating Socrates’ notion that philosophy is basically a preparation for death. Socrates said in The Apology that nothing bad can happen to a good man, even death is not known to be bad, while doing wrong is wrong in all cases. We are aware not only that the good can suffer – “the inevitable doom that waits in the skies” is not to be avoided – but that their suffering and their doom is an argument for, not against, a “well-ordered life.”
We are reminded from time to time, especially by the classical authors, that the very being of a human being involves a “risk.” We are to be “seekers.” Built into the very structure of our being is the question of what is it all about? And the fact that we are “seekers” and not, in the first instance, “knowers,” causes us to wonder if there is anyone who can give us the “capacity” and the “knowledge” to distinguish, as Socrates put, “the good and the bad life.” Once we have learned to distinguish these two sorts of lives, we still must “choose” from among those lives that are “possible” to us. The risk or drama of human existence does not seem to arise over the question of whether something is offered to us, but, whether, on its being offered, whether we like it or not, we will accept it or reject it.
In St. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 109 (Wednesday of the Second Week of Advent), we read:
God, who is faithful, put himself in our debt, not by receiving anything but by promising so much. A promise was not sufficient for him; he chose to commit himself in writing as well, as it were making a contract of his promises. He wanted us to be able to see the way in which his promises were redeemed when he began to discharge them. And so the time of the prophets ... a foretelling of the promises. He promised eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after the resurrection from the dead, no further fear of dying.
If indeed we choose “not to be good,” we do so generally under the aegis of an alternate theory of what good means. We dispute what the good is. That is, we seek ourselves to formulate what it is to be good. That is, we put ourselves in the position of the gods; we make ourselves the cause of the distinctions in things. If we argue that God, not ourselves, is responsible for the well-known evils that we all seem to recognize, we have to be careful what we propose. If the evil in the world is caused by God, then I suppose we have to reject God and build another world. In fact, this is what we may very well be doing. On the other hand, if evil has origins in our own will, then the cure for the world’s ills would seem to be to acknowledge a good that we did not ourselves create. We probably cannot have it both ways. And that, in essence, constitutes the risk of our own existence.
When Josef Ratzinger remarked that the serene beauty of Apollo is not sufficient for us, he did not mean to chastize the Greek philosophers, poets, and dramatists. They did discover something worthy that moves our soul. Beauty does astonish us. But beauty in a world with tragedy, with wonton evil, caused by those whom God created to choose the good and the beautiful, does not allow us to escape the Crucifixion. Our concept of beauty, and we should have a concept of beauty, ought not to be such that we do not, mentally, at least, allow the world that exists to be. If we want our ways to be God’s ways, we will certainly end up with a different kind of a world than the one we have. The question must always be, is our world an improvement? I like to ask this question because it states baldly the real issue, namely, does the fact of human sin and disorder imply, logically, that this particular world in which we exist ought not to exist in the first place? Would nothingness be better than an existing world in which terrible things not only can happen but have happened, even in our own lives?
The brief answer to this perplexing question is that the glory and beauty of God remains the same whether we exist or not. God needs us not. But assuming that God can choose to have something exist outside of Himself, it follows that the greater glory would be if creatures existed which could acknowledge and love what is, and to say of what is, that it is. This position would intrinsically mean that creatures could prefer themselves to God, otherwise they would not be real. If this be true, we should not expect that our existence would not include things that go terribly wrong. We leave God in only one position. Sometimes it is called bringing “good” out of “evil.” In reality, what God does is carry forth to its proper end whatever good exists, wherever it is found, even in sin. No sin takes place without its being based on some good. The history of the world, including the ecclesiastical world, including our own personal world, is the working out of this drama of how we choose and how God continues his bringing things to glory in spite of any formal rejection of his Beauty.
To conclude, in an old Peanut’s series entitled, Here Comes Charlie Brown, I came across the following scene: Charlie and Lucy are walking in what looks to be a wintery countryside. Lucy has a pout on her face. Innocently, Charlie asks her, “Are you going to make any New Year’s Resolutions, Lucy?” The next scene is unexpectedly explosive. We see Charlie being completely flipped over, as Lucy shouts at him, “What? What for?! What’s wrong with me now? I LIKE MYSELF JUST THE WAY I AM!” Charlie manages to upright himself, but Lucy continues yelling even more vehemently, “WHY SHOULD I CHANGE?! WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE MATTER WITH YOU, CHARLIE BROWN?” In the last scene, Lucy is still yelling, now with her fists raised to the heavens, “I am all right the way I am! I don’t have to improve! HOW? I ask you, HOW?” Finally, we see a thoroughly defeated Charlie Brown slinking away muttering to himself, “Good grief!”10
If we reflect on this scene, we must acknowledge that in a very real sense, Lucy is indeed all right “the way she is.” That is, her very being is good and remains so. When she asks “how” can she improve what she is, she cannot. But Charlie is also correct. The drama of our existence does not consist in the fact that we are born, but in the actions that flow from our being. Our resolutions imply that we can change our ways; indeed, they imply that at times we must change our ways. But we need not. If it is not overly irreverent, I would say that part of the enjoyment of God’s being God is the delight He must take in countering our actions with our being created good. No evil simply sits there. Its consequences themselves constitute the drama of reality, not only in our own lives, but in those affected by our sins and, to be sure by our good deeds.
Let me end with ten propositions:
1) “It is unfortunate that not even a well-ordered life can not lead anybody around the inevitable doom that awaits us in the skies.”
2) “Is there such a thing as truth?”
3) “Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems.”
4) “We are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and supernatural revelation.”
5) “Apollo is absolutely no longer sufficient.”
6) “What is it, do you think, that causes this return to the faith?”
7) “Why in the world should I change? What in the world is the matter with you, Charlie Brown?”
8) “Would nothingness be better?”
9) “It would be no exaggeration to say that the chance reading in 363 A. D., of a lost dialogue by a disordered young man in an obscure African city, changed the world.”
10) “God promised eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after the resurrection, no further fear of dying.”