Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grammar is a great analogue for life

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An exchange I had with Quill about a line from a job application I am perusing and attempting to complete:

Me: Oh boy, here’s an example of pretentious grammar. ‘Below, give the names of three persons you are not related to, whom you have known at least one year.’

Him: That’s pretentious grammar?

Me: Because it’s used wrong.

Him: Well, people often overcompensate for commonly made errors.  For instance, the common error is something like “So-and-so and me are going to the store,” when it should be “so-and-so and I.”  So when you really are the direct object, like “They gave the ball to Mark and me,” people frequently just assume it’s an error and say “Mark and I,” even though it’s wrong.

Me: And that still annoys me.

Him: It’s just a tendency–in order to correct one error, people overcorrect and wind up making an equal and opposite error.  Just like heresy.

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Sidewalk evangelists and other lovely college things

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I just moved back in to college!  My first few orders of business were to get my room set up (that is, as of the writing of this post, a work still in progress, and I do have a few days’ leeway before classes start–thank God) and then to go buy a ton of sketchbooks, as well as to explore my new dorm and see what else has changed in the area.  Last semestre, I only used one sketchbook and I used it for everything… that system was convenient, but difficult to study from.  So this semestre, I bought three (relatively) cheapo sketchbooks and one nicer one (which is for studio).  Dorm exploration has proven fruitful, and I’ve been applying for jobs in all the little shops nearby the university.  This is what leads me to my interesting experience.

On a street corner, just off-campus but close enough that it’s basically College Territory, a man regularly stands and “preaches the gospel.”  It’s usually in sound bytes, with a sandwich board, but he’s clearly a Protestant.  From time to time I stop and chat him up, just to see how he thinks.  Today I discovered that he is a Catholic-turned-Born-Again (with two priests in his family).  Greeeeaaat.  And he thinks that Catholicism was started in 312–to which I replied, “Don’t tell me Constantine started Catholicism.”  He then backtracked and said that Constantine set up the Roman system–which is, as far as I know, pretty untrue, but I didn’t push the argument.  He’s difficult to reason with, so I’m planning on going back some time and just listening for a while… maybe taking notes.  Might ask him a little about himself: why turn Born-Again?  What did your family think? and a few about his brand of Protestantism: What do you think about Petrine primacy? (I’ll have that verse–you know, you are Peter and all that–marked in my handy-dandy Bible.)  What made you leave?  And do you really think you’re getting somewhere by simply spreading the Gospel to deaf ears?  Sure, the Bible says go out and preach.  But you can preach to a bunch of college kids who, for the most part, probably think you’re barking up the wrong tree–or you can engage people individually, one-by-one, and instead of pushing and talking, listen.  (I could totally also take my own advice.  I told him to go read Josephus and get back to me.  That was kind of my escape… my room was calling to me.)

Pagans and the Passion: Conflict or Concord?

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Pagans and the Passion: Conflict or Concord?

(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today.)

I’ve often seen it said that the classical virtues– first enumerated and analyzed by pagan thinkers like Plato and Aristotle– and the Catholic virtues found in the teachings of Our Lord don’t fit together the way moral theology makes it seem: either the two sets of virtues hold together in tension at best or else they directly oppose each other, leading to two different moral ideals.  Pagan virtues, they will tell you, did have to do with channeling our emotions and desires toward human flourishing, but this kind of flourishing had nothing to do with the Beatitudes.  A man of complete virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, might willingly make sacrifices for the sake of his friends, at the limit of things– but then, the friend of a completely virtuous person could only be someone else completely virtuous, alike in excellence and achievement.  Nothing could be further from such virtue, and the ideal way of life it points to, than terrible dishonor and ignominious, slavish death; much less would our Aristotelian gentleman stoop to suffer for those beneath him: the man of foreign race, the slave, the vicious and weak-minded.  What could such virtue have to do with imitating the One who died for all sinners while they were still His enemies, in Whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female?

The whole problem seems clearest in the supposed contrast between Aristotle’s Magnanimity and Our Lord’s Humility.  Magnanimity is a disposition to undertake the kinds of deeds that bring the greatest honor: the person of complete virtue, Aristotle says, will recognize her excellence, seek to express it as fully as she can, and demand that her excellence be afforded the recognition it deserves.  Our Lord’s Humility, on the other hand, speaks not a word for itself, not even in defense: it receives false accusation and unjust punishment with patience and longsuffering.  Alone among all men, surely, Our Lord deserved the honors and acclamations of Aristotle’s magnanimous man.  Yet He did not stretch out His hand to grasp them but willingly divested Himself of every semblance of honor and dignity for the sake of those who had made themselves His enemies.  How could these two virtues ever coincide?

The answer may be seen in Christ Himself, above all in His Passion.  Our Lord shows us, as Aristotle wrote, that true magnanimity is concerned not so much with honors but with the heroic deeds which merit honor.  Indeed, the magnanimous person may even be said to despise honors for the sake of doing what would rightly be honored– just as Our Lord willingly performed the most heroic act possible, the act which is the very exemplification of all virtue, even though it meant embracing the scorn of the world.  In fact, magnanimity is not a kind of arrogance but a great willingness on the part of the virtuous person to do her very best in acts of virtue; and the true opposite of magnanimity is not humility but pusillanimity, a small-souled aversion to acts that demand our all.

Thus the great 20th century Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, writes in his Three Ages of the Interior Life: “The magnanimous man… seeks great things worthy of honor, but he considers that honors themselves are practically nothing. He does not let himself be exalted by prosperity or cast down by difficulties. Is there anything greater on earth than genuine Christian perfection? The magnanimous man dreads neither obstacles nor critics nor scorn, if they must be borne for a great cause. He does not allow himself to be at all intimidated by freethinkers, and pays no attention to their utterances. He pays far more attention to truth than to the opinions of men which are often false. If this generosity is not always understood by those who wish an easier life, it has, nevertheless, a true value in itself. And if it is united to humility, it pleases God and cannot fail of a reward.”

Our Lord shows us how this magnanimity can be united to humility, and in recognizing this union and exemplification of all virtue in the life and Passion of Our Lord, we also come to see how Christ’s outstretched arms embrace and sanctify all that is best in the natural man, elevating it and perfecting it in grace to participate in the very life of the Divine Nature.  May we also share in that unending life of sanctification.