Monday, November 23, 2009

Leisure, Light and Looking-At

Since our school pace is slowing down for the holiday, I finally get to try to speak up in the leisure discussion! So here goes -- this is on chapter 1 of "The Philosophical Act" which is the second part of Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Theorein -- -- Greek word, transferred to Latin and thence to English --

looking at, contemplation, spectator, speculation; viewing.

I have been thinking that this word and its cognates -- "theory", "theoretical" -- have a rather bad rap in our culture. We scorn things as theoretical; we say "that's just a theory". Science in our country is constantly being pulled into the service of political or social goals. I suppose we have a great current example with the recent exposure of the inner workings of the Hadley Climatic Research Centre.

Tocqueville wrote long ago of our American virtue of practicality and its corresponding weak spot:

In America the purely practical part of science is admirably understood, and careful attention is paid to the theoretical portion which is immediately requisite to application. On this head the Americans always display a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind. But hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge. In this respect the Americans carry to excess a tendency which is, I think, discernible, though in a less degree, amongst all democratic nations.

Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society. .... Everyone is actively in motion: some in quest of power, others of gain. In the midst of this universal tumult – this incessant conflict of jarring interests – this continual stride of men after fortune – where is that calm to be found which is necessary for the deeper combinations of the intellect? How can the mind dwell upon any single point, when everything whirls around it, and man himself is swept and beaten onwards by the heady current which rolls all things in its course?
This is not dissimilar to what Pieper is trying to show in this chapter. Here is where he states his thesis in so many words:

"It is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work. This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor again, in "becoming lords and masters of nature," (he is quoting Descartes here) but rather in being able to understand what is -- the whole of what is."
Does merely understanding "what is" seem like an impractical goal, even a selfish goal? This is because hardly anything in our culture evokes it. The church is probably the last bastion of any kind of contemplation, and even there, how rare it is and how little it is provided for!

Pieper says that philosophy does not dismiss the importance of work. Work is crucial in more than one sense, including the etymological -- it is our "cross", because of the sin of our first parents. It is a key and necessary response to imperfection. (When I look around this very disheveled loft after a relaxed Sunday, I see that it is so and that we will have to bend our backs to some perfecting very soon!) But because imperfection is not the essence, work cannot be the essence. There are some things that do not need perfecting, that do not need improvement, and any world view that does not leave a place for beholding what is good, true and beautiful already without our puny efforts will be problematic.

Plus, good policy, beneficial activity, does not happen accidentally. It comes, as Aristotle pointed out in the Metaphysics, from a proper understanding of first principles, which he calls Wisdom. When we have no idea why we are doing what we are doing, we make the kinds of mistakes that we see happening all around us. There comes an urgency and bitterness to public affairs -- people are opposed on trivial things that have huge implications, because they don't understand the implications.

Pieper is not trying to say that practicality is worthless. It is far from that. As Toqueville wrote:

Each of these different portions of science (the theoretical, the practical and the applied) may be separately cultivated, although reason and experience show that none of them can prosper long, if it be absolutely cut off from the two others.
Rather, he is trying to show that a correction of balance is needed. Practicality is not sufficient, because by definition it is in service of something else. Philosophy in its truest sense (as ancilla fidei, attendant of religion, and Pieper points out that this is the only way to understand philosophy's true role) is capable of putting these things in balance. It speaks of the "something else" that practicality needs in order not to become a transitive without an object. No other subject or way of being, of itself, is capable of that. (for more on their relation, Peter Kreeft's "Why Study Philosophy and Theology?" is good)

It is easy to see why everything else is inadequate when divorced from true philosophy, which goes beyond the semblance of things to what they really are. What is work for? To get things done. What do we want to get done? Things that will help people live better lives. What is meant by better lives? Well, everyone should have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. And then? Well -- freedom, one supposes. What does freedom mean? You just can't get to the end of the game without some thought about how things really are, and if you do avoid thinking about how things really are and just go back to the "food and roof" then you often end up disposing of even that for a lot of people. One sees it everywhere in our modern world.

Without a vision, the people perish.
Here, Chesterton's parable seems to apply:

SUPPOSE that a great commotion arises in the street about something -- let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, 'Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good -- -- -- ' At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamppost is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp we must now discuss in the dark.

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