September 25, 2007

Chesterton in effect made the same reply as Horace

Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of Being Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. September 24, 2007
"Ridentem dicere verum: quid vetat? – What prevents a man from speaking the truth while smiling?" -- Horace, Satires, I, 24.
"Philosophy means reflecting on the entirety of what is encountered in experience from every conceivable standpoint and with regard to its unique meaning. The philosophizing person is thus not so much someone who has formed a well-rounded worldview as he is someone who keeps a question alive and thinks it through methodically." -- Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration" [1]
"Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected." -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [2]
Several decades ago, Jean Cardinal Daniélou wrote, in words that still seem appropriate: "I believe that there is a certain sickness of contemporary intelligence, a certain powerlessness to adhere, a certain powerlessness to say 'yes,' and in an absolute primacy of the 'no.' This situation is contrary to that which constitutes for me the basic dignity of intelligence which is the possibility of grasping being." [4] If we are primarily interested in how we "feel" about a thing, and not in the thing itself and what sort of "feelings" that might be appropriate to it, we cut ourselves off from being. "The basic dignity of intelligence is the possibility of grasping being," to repeat Daniélou's principle.
Karl Marx once said, in a famous passage in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, that wherever he looked he wanted to see only man. He wanted a world without a window that would cause us to wonder about it all. He was, in fact, setting up a closed world against God. If all we ever see is man and our own theories and artifacts, we will never be interested in anything but ourselves and what we can make or rule. Nietzsche, of course, gave up on any of these theories that sought to explain reality by some coherent philosophic system once the connection with being had been lost beginning with Descartes. He thought we would be more honest just to seek power and make what we wanted without any pretense that it conformed to a reality that we could not know.
These remarks I have entitled "the existence of things." The first of the initial citations was from the Roman poet, Horace. He remarked that no contradiction exists between our joy or our smiling and our knowing the truth. Chesterton made the same point. Someone once said that he could not be serious about what he said because he was so witty in saying it. Chesterton in effect made the same reply as Horace. He said that the opposite of "funny" is not "serious." The proper opposite of "funny" is "not funny." There is no reason why the truth cannot also be funny, amusing. I cite both Horace and Chesterton on the same point because reason, in properly knowing things, is a cause of delight, of amusement, of joy. The intellect, as Aristotle said, has its own unique pleasure. The existence of things flows out of the abundance of things and points not to necessity but to gift.
A short poem of Chesterton begins, "There is only one sin: to call, a green leaf grey, / Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth." [5] Why is it a "sin" to call a green leaf "grey?" The basic answer is because it is green and we know it. When we say of something what it is not, if it is not, we abuse it. Our minds work by identifying what is, by showing how things differentiate one thing from one another. Before we choose to do anything about something we must first have a moment in which we see its existence--what it is, that it is. Plato was right, truth is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. Philosophy, Robert Sokolowski said, consists in first making distinctions. Knowing is first contemplative. And we want to make distinctions because we not only want to know that something is, but all about it: how it is, where, when, and even why.
In a passage reminiscent of Aristotle, Yves Simon wrote, on this same point: "There is nothing more profound in the life of the intellect than our eagerness to know, without tepidity and without fear, under circumstances of a certitude totally determined by the power of truth." [6] This is a remarkable sentence. It is precisely this "eagerness" to know that is the striking thing about us. But Simon adds that this eagerness is not just a kind of gushiness about novelties. Rather it is that this power of knowing we have is directed to the truth. We want to know not just that a thing is true but the evidence and arguments for it. Simon wisely added that we want to know the truth "without fear." I had said earlier that modern thought is often guilty of the one "sin," of calling the green leaf grey, but also, even more, of doubting its very existence as coming from outside itself... Related Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews: • Author page for Josef Pieper• Author page for G. K. Chesterton

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