Philosophy

“The love of wisdom.” To do with applying truths together using logic, to find further truths.

Time

Yesterday morning the clocks went forwards an hour. Which sounds very dull, admittedly. But when you break down what is really happening, there’s something much more interesting going on.

Imagine if you didn’t understand our modern concept of time. If you understood time in terms of the natural rhythms of life, sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, birth and death. What would British summertime even mean? (and while we’re at it, what would British mean?)

It would mean that we all simultaneously agree to wake up one hour earlier/closer to sunrise, and move our schedules forwards an hour too. Incredibly, we all make this change at once, waking an hour earlier every day, so that we can enjoy one hour more of sunlight. Millions of people, most confessing that they are “not morning people”, all doing what they need to do to wake an hour earlier every single day.

It is astonishing that we think of it as losing an hour’s sleep and not as simply waking earlier every day. It says something about our separation from nature. For us, time has become something artificial, something primarily about other people’s rhythms, not the natural world’s. It has become something we create and define, a rhythm we dictate rather than dance to. In this note, thank God for the Church’s liturgical calendar, with its lumpy organic character, giving a bit of rhythm to the life of the soul. Thank God we don’t have a sterile religion, without feasts and seasons and God given rhythm.

We should also recognise the power of reframing our ideas. If we were all told to move our lives to be an hour earlier, we’d say no. If we asked those who wake up at 7 to suddenly start waking up at 6 each morning, they’d say it’s asking too much. But if we reframe it as just changing the clocks and missing one hour of sleep, we can all do that and we hardly even mention it (except for me, it seems). We have made a significant change consistently across a large population, just by a small change to our thinking, a slight shift to our frame of reference.

God bless you!

What to do with the statues?

In the wake of black lives matter protests, there’s been a lot of attention given to many statues. What do we do with our lovely statues of less than lovely people?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that statues aren’t merely a historical record, and taking them down is anything but erasing history. It’s insane that people (including the PM) even try to make this argument. Adolf Hitler had a significant effect on our history, but we don’t give him a statue. We use statues to celebrate and immortalise those we hold up as heroes. They’re usually raised up for us to literally look up to.

With that out of the way, what do we do? I think we should obviously remove statues of bad people. People who we don’t want to celebrate any more. People like Bristol’s Edward Colston, merchant, philanthropist, slave trader and Tory MP.

What about, say, Winston Churchill? Churchill was a hero for the British war effort, but also a terrible racist, and arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians. He was incredibly racist, even by the standards of his day (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_views_of_Winston_Churchill). Should we continue to uphold him as a hero?

I think we need to acknowledge that Churchill played two different roles in two different stories. In one he was the hero, and in the other he was the villain. Does one story discount the other? Not entirely, but they can’t be neatly separated either. Was he a hero? I think it’s ok to say, “yes, but…”. Was he a villain? It’s ok to say “yes, despite…”.

In this, I think that Churchill epitomises the ambiguity of the British empire itself. An empire that did do much good, but also much evil. It’s ok to say it was both. I think the empire was more bad than good, but it’s ok to acknowledge and celebrate the good, so long as we also recognise the evil.

So should we take Churchill’s statues down? Would we be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I don’t know. We’d take them down if he was a pedophile, so maybe we should take them down for him being a horrific racist; it’s maybe just a question of how much it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Can we celebrate him despite his racism and if we can, is that a bad sign about us?

I don’t know. Maybe Churchill doesn’t make the cut, and maybe he does. Maybe we have to learn to accept the contradictions of history and of life, and not be too quick to resolve them. If we have the patience to hold them in tension, we can learn and we can grow. The crucial thing is for us to learn, and learn from, both stories. History is complicated and the world isn’t neatly separated into good people and evil people. We need to grasp this if we are to make any progress.

God bless you!

On gluttony

What is gluttony? According to its Catholic Encyclopedia entry, gluttony is ‘the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking.’ It is also one of the seven deadly sins/cardinal vices, and yet it seems to be widely forgotten today.

‘Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire.’ (St John Cassian) Food was made to nourish us as its primary purpose, and to deny it this is to twist it out of its own nature, and into something that is both harmful and wasteful.

What’s more, gluttony subverts the created order in which the mind rules over the body, managing its needs and desires, and lets the body and its desires instead rule the mind. It attaches us to bodily/earthly realities, and so prevents us from rising to spiritual/celestial realities.

Gluttony also feeds the next cardinal vice, lust. This vice we hear about all the time. St John Cassian said, ‘No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity.’ Indulgence spills out to indulgence. First the flesh demands its basic good and pleasure of food, and then it goes on to its higher good and pleasure of sex.

According to St Thomas, there are five ways to be gluttonous: too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. While growing obesity levels are visible and concerning, gluttony is much more than getting fat, and likely affects most people in the western world. Being excessively fussy is itself a form of gluttony.

So how should we oppose this vice? St John Cassian: ‘A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.‘ I’m not sure how hungry/unsatisfied this requires, but at least try to leave some room (and not just for dessert!).

Speaking of dessert, I won’t say anything against that, nor against enjoying life generally. But we do need to learn moderation, and eat with the end of nourishment in mind. Food should absolutely be enjoyed as a gift from God, but we have to watch not to abuse it.

God bless 🙏

Am I wasting my life?

(tl;dr: Yes, definitely)

The other day I had to delete a couple of games from my phone because I realised they were a) addictive b) taking too much of my time and c) not even very fun. So yes, I definitely tend towards wasting my time and therefore my life.

Then there’s the time I spend watching TV. Multiple hours each day in front of the box. That can’t be good. And then there’s all of the things I do and then regret.

I like to imagine that when we die, God shows us all of the stats for our earthly lives, like you can see on a video game. Things like jokes told, total time spent on mobile (excluding phone calls), friends made, friends lost, total time spent in prayer, total money donated to charity, biggest expense, total time helping others, total time laughing, total steps taken, total carbon footprint, time dominated by gluttony/lust/envy/greed/wrath/pride/sloth, total apples eaten, etc. etc., and with breakdowns for all the data over time. But I don’t think my stats would look very good.

I also like to imagine we get to see a highlights reel showing all of our best and worst moments. I’m not sure I’ll like watching my highlights reel either actually… Too much bad and not enough good.

I’m glad to say that we’re not judged on the basis of these stats or highlights, and don’t have to reach certain thresholds to enter heaven (although they maybe give a rough idea of purgatory time). But I don’t want to die and realise I wasted my life. Or even just a portion of my life.

Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. [From the Baltimore Catechism]

So what am I going to do about it?

  1. Delete any apps that waste my time
  2. Use the daily examen prayer to make sure I use my time/energy/life right each day
  3. Commit more time to prayer
  4. Watch less TV

God bless

Duty, authority and freedom

I was recently described as being lawful-good. If you’re unaware of alignment charts, it’s a way of summarising characters as the combination of two scales: lawful to chaotic, and good to evil. At first I felt offended by my new label, like I’d been called boring right to my face. I tried feebly to argue it, but quickly realised they were right (which just reaffirms my lawful-goodness).

And then, I discovered that I like it. I like authority and I like rules, and I find actual fun in establishing or amending both. I regularly come up with new rules and find new principles to live by. I like when things are well ordered and I dislike when they are disordered. I actually like seeing authority being exercised (when done well). I love the idea of duty, and of living by a strict code (like batman, or a samurai).

And yes, I’ll accept that I’m “good” as well. By which I mean, I largely believe that others’ good is generally my good. I believe that being good to others is the best path to happiness, and so I try to be good to others.

With this in mind, I have to ask myself, is duty and authority contrary to freedom? Am I less free than my chaotic friends? Does lawfulness and or goodness make me a slave?

No. In fact, the opposite is true: the fulfillment of duty and submission to authority is absolutely necessary to freedom – for the individual as well as for society.

Why? Because freedom is simply life according to truth. The truth of who and what I am, and the truth of my situation. And duty is the truth of who I am in relation to others, while authority is the truth of the relation of the whole to its parts.

While you can violently force people to live contrary to truth, deception is far and away the best way to enslave someone. You tell them you are their benefactor, or that their friends are their enemies, or that they are worthless, or that their suffering and work is actually for their own benefit etc. We are forced to live confined to an unreal world, denied the opportunity to be who we truly are, in the world as it truly is.

If we want liberation, for ourselves or for others, the first point must always be to expose the lie. Generally, it is some variation of that we are worthless, or powerless, or alone, and usually a combination of all three. When we realise that we are beloved children of God Himself, that all of Heaven is on our side, and all of creation is our brother and sister and mother, we are set free from these lies, and we enter into the freedom of the children of God.

To do our duty is to live the truth of not being alone. I serve you and you serve me, because we are united. We are something to each other; we mean something to each other. I am a son, a brother, a friend, an employee, a colleague, a citizen, a fellow human, a fellow creature, and much more. And to play these roles well, is no more than to be myself.

Similarly, to obey authority is to live the truth that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that our own greatness lies in playing our part well. The part must submit itself to the whole in order to be realised. We humble ourselves for the unity and the good of the whole of which we are a part, like the individual instruments in an orchestra, each giving way to the others, such that the beauty of all together and of every one singly is magnified.

There will be times when those in authority must be opposed however, and on the same basis. When they oppose the unity and the good of the whole, they lose their real authority, and are left with an empty facade, ready to crumble. When they no longer serve harmony, those who seek harmony will no longer serve them.

God bless you!

Do we read the Scriptures or a translation of the Scriptures?

Is reading a translation of the Bible actually reading the Bible? Is it still the same books, the same inspired word of God? What if it’s a poor translation, or a paraphrase?

Translation will always be an exercise in interpretation and co-creation. There is no simple mapping of one language to another, not least because each language lives in the distinct, though overlapping, worlds their speakers inhabit. To faithfully translate is not just to avoid any additions, but to attempt to be united with the author, while inhabiting another world. It is a faithful translation as long as it is a co-creation, and unfaithful as far as it is a separate creation added onto the first.

An image of a pipe is not a pipe, and a translation of a book is not that book. However, to see an image of a pipe is to see a pipe, and no one has ever seen a pipe except by seeing an image of a pipe. We see the pipe through the image, even if it’s just the image in our own eyes. Similarly, we can read a book through its translation. We might also add, that even writings in our own language need to be translated into our own minds. The words may be the same, but still the meaning must be found, and every word has a slightly different meaning to every reader.

When we read our translations of the Bible, we are not reading it on our own, and that’s a good thing, because we’re actually reading it with and through the communion of the saints. Not just the translators, but all those who influenced their reading of the scriptures, and all the faithful who have together shaped how we will read it too, both by their teaching and just by their use of the same words.

The words of scripture take on new meaning in this process (though without losing the previous meaning), as often happens when we re-encounter a piece of art, and something new is picked up, perhaps even something with new meaning in our new context. It grows in meaning with each new listener, each new day, each new context. Or rather, its divine and eternal meaning is unfolded ever more fully.

With the Holy Spirit guiding our translations and interpretations through the saints, we can happily view our translations as an extension and development of the scriptures themselves.

Not one of us has ever read the Bible on our own. We are always reading with our own context, with our society, with the society that produced our Bible (the Church), and with the society it was written in. The New Testament was written by the early Church, from a common faith, through Greek and Jewish ideas and cultures, and translated and interpreted through Roman, Latin, European ideas and cultures, and then through the ideas and cultures of the New World, and then again through the modern world, always undertaken by the Church in dialogue with the world.

God bless you!

What is happiness?

I had the shocking realisation a while back, that I didn’t know how to define happiness in a satisfactory way. I know that I have been happy, but what does that mean?

Is it having my desires fulfilled? Yes, but no… It has to be about more than my own will, or it is arbitrary, and I cannot be truly satisfied by something arbitrary. Is it feeling like smiling? Yes, but no… Happiness must be something more than its outward expression.

I looked it up in the dictionary, but was sorely disappointed. Finally, I have concluded that happiness is the (subjective) experience of (objective) goodness. I feel silly it took me days to work out.

This raises the question, what is goodness? I think the only decent answer to this is, that all things that are, are good, and “goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” [Summa Theologica I, Q5, Art1]. (Goodness is being considered under the aspect of desire, and resides in things in so far as they are perfect, since we desire things as far as they are perfect.)

We either define goodness in terms of happiness, in which case both will be empty, and we will be miserable, or define happiness in terms of goodness, and find true happiness beyond ourselves.

So happiness is the experience of goodness, or even, the experience of being itself. Put this way, it seems absurd to ever not be happy. Why are we unhappy sometimes? Firstly, because we fail to experience. We hollow out reality, objectifying it, seeing everyone and everything only in terms of our own fears and desires, rather than loving each person/thing in themselves. We live in an illusion, and separate ourselves from reality. This is sin.

Secondly, we experience imperfection, the absence of goodness, and the brokenness of creation. Things are not as they were meant to be; we are not as we are meant to be. All things are good, but all are broken goods.

But by His life and death and resurrection Jesus Christ has overcome all unhappiness. He united Himself to us and to all in perfect love, giving Himself to us upon the Cross, suffering all of our sins, and offering us in His love to the Father. Then by that same love, that same offering, He defeated death, and rose from the grave, resurrecting all creation with Him. He has given us the absolute fulness of life. If we allow Him to love us, to unite Himself to us, we are set free from sin, and suffering itself becomes a way to unite ourselves with Jesus, uniting Himself to all and offering all to God. Evil itself has been turned to good. Jesus has won us perfect happiness.

We have access to true, divine happiness even now through Jesus, and will one day enjoy God’s own absolute, perfect happiness. By His cross and resurrection, He has set us free!

God bless you, and (sorry it’s late) happy Easter!

P.S. This wasn’t intended to be a Christian/Easter post, but it seems I can’t help myself

P.P.S. I find it strange it took me so long to find what happiness is, and wonder if it reflects how much I’ve absorbed a culture of meaninglessness…

Foxes and Goodness and God

I follow a fantastic twitter account, @hourlyFox, which posts one photo of a fox each hour. If you’re on twitter, follow it.

These foxes have taught me a profound truth: goodness is something solid and real. Sometimes I forget this. I start thinking of goodness as being something subjective, existing only in our minds, or as being just relational, existing only between things. But these foxes disprove this.

These foxes are good. God sees foxes, and sees that they are good. And they are not merely good-to-me or good-according-to-me; they are good-in-and-of-themselves. Foxes were good for millions of years before we humans even showed up.

As St Thomas said, “Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” (ST I, Q.5, Art.1). Foxes remind me of this truth. When we forget this, we can become stupidly small minded, obsessed with ourselves and with other people’s thoughts. When we are the measure and centre of the universe, the source of its meaning, our universe becomes as small as we are, and will suffocate us with its pressure.

It’s not all about me! It’s not even all about us! The universe would still be genuinely good if human beings never existed. Of course, we are good too, but not merely by our own judgments.

All of this does raise the question: who is it good to? Because as much as foxes are good in themselves, I’m not sure if the idea of “good” makes sense in a non-personal context. St Thomas links goodness with desire, which is surely tied to personhood. So can anything really be good in itself?

Yes, by being good in God. I believe that foxes being good in themselves is the same as foxes being good in God’s eyes. In fact, I believe their existence is the same as God’s knowledge/experience of them. God is not separated from reality for there to be a subjective-objective distinction. He is the non-other.

What’s more, the goodness of each fox is a participation-in and revelation-of the goodness of God, that is, God Himself.

Now we must ask: have we just shifted the existential burden onto this “God” character? Is the world small and in itself meaningless to Him, if not to us?

No. We must remember that God is perfectly humble (and this humility is Himself). Like fox cubs at play, He doesn’t act for any end beyond rejoicing in the act itself. It has no greater meaning and it needs no greater meaning. He has no greater meaning and He needs no greater meaning. He is love.

God bless you!