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Wednesday, July 8, 2009
But while Protestant anthropology may be a better topic for a different post, it must be said that Aristotle was as much a controversial figure in the Catholic Church as the Church herself became for Protestants – at least according to Aristotle’s Children by Richard E. Rubenstein. Rubenstein, a George Mason University public affairs professor, paints an epic picture of the loss and subsequent rediscovery of Aristotle and his philosophy. The story of Aristotle’s incorporation into Catholic thought and medieval scholasticism is one of intrigue, infighting, but most of all, synthesis with the Gospel.
Synthesizing classical philosophy with Christianity might seem like a tricky task, but the job is made tremendously easier by the fact that Aristotle and Plato wrote hundreds of years before Christ. As medieval Christians (and Christians of the modern era) argued, these writers simply did not have Christianity before them to work from and they did what they could given what they had. Reason alone can figure out an awful lot, but where reason falls short, faith stands strong.
As Rubenstein points out, synthesizing classical philosophy with Christianity had been going on since the early days of the Church. St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the late patristic writers, is known for his Christianization of Plato during the 5th century. Sadly, Aristotle’s works were not taken up as closely as Plato. This was, for one reason, because of how his philosophy conflicted with the calamitous events of the fall of the Roman Empire. Plato’s philosophy spoke in a way that treated this world as temporary and imperfect – and only another almost heavenly reality is where perfection is found forever. In other words, it fit well with the persecutions that had befallen Christians in the past and fit just as well in the face of Rome’s destruction; in other words: don’t worry about this world, think about the next.
Aristotle, on the other hand, pointed out the harmony in this world and how everything can find an order and a purpose in the way things are. There is beauty, goodness, and truth to be found in this life as well. His view painted a much prettier picture of reality’s self-congruence and our ability to enjoy discovering its secrets - or put another way, he exemplified the fact that God created a "good" world. Aristotle, like Plato, believed in a God who gave the universe its start and fundamental meaning – but many of his other views seemed quite controversial. It was in part because of this, coupled with St. Augustine’s triumphant use of Plato, that Aristotle’s works fell to the wayside for over half a millennia.
What I particularly enjoyed about Rubenstein’s book was that it captured the events which led Christians, Jews, and Muslims to translate and distribute the works of Aristotle – and then captured the shockwave of Europe’s dealing with the philosopher’s thoughts. More importantly, Rubenstein looks at the rise of the university system established by the Catholic Church and how Aristotle was so influential in helping some of the greatest theologians of history better articulate the Faith using reason. When Cathar heretics used Aristotle to back up their claims (e.g. that there was two gods), the pope made the controversial decision to allow Catholic monks and university teachers to pick up Aristotle and show how his ideas were not contradictory to the Faith - and help quench the layman's thirst for a deeper understanding of Christian doctrine. In this way, and in many others, Aristotle helped shape the future of Church history as well as western civilization in the Middle Ages.
Without giving too much more away, Aristotle was heavily studied during the 12th-13th centuries as Europe was blossoming religiously, politically, and economically – but he began to be abandoned once more with the darker 14th century and beyond as Europe fell into the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Western Schism. This was only further deepened by the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation and another century of religious wars.
It was also during this time that faith was divorced from reason. Reason (reduced to scientific materialist atheism) took over the public sphere while faith became a private matter to be kept out of society and public policy. Though so many people think of the Middle Ages as nothing more than a theocracy, the beauty of medieval Catholic scholasticism was that it kept faith and reason in dialogue with each other. This dialogue was never a fusion of the two as one or identical, but rather as a means of finding deeper truths about God, humanity, and the world around us.
Today we are left with a schizophrenic worldview that must be reconciled once again.
Rubenstein argues that the present age of globalization may be a good time to rediscover Aristotle and do just this. Aristotle’s “ideas have always seemed most relevant to those inhabiting an age of expanding trade, increasing intercultural connections, and rising expectations for human development. The Aristotelian project, which seemed irrelevant in an age of political and religious fragmentation, may serve in the next phase of human history as an inspirer of creative, integrative thought.”
Now if only I could find my copies of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Politics, and Nicomachean Ethics…
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
“For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Liberty – i.e. freedom – has been terribly misunderstood in the modern world. St. Paul here reminds us that liberty is a positive force in our lives, not a negative. In case you’re wondering, the negative sense of liberty means a “freedom from” one thing or another. This is the typically modern-secular meaning of the world. Freedom for the liberal means freedom from intervention. While this can be a perfectly legitimate use for liberty in certain contexts, using it as the sole definition is rather lacking, for ultimately one must find himself floating alone in space in order to be “free from intervention” – in fact, one must be in perfect isolation to be truly free in this negative sense. And that sounds like a good definition of hell. As C.S. Lewis pondered, the physical pains of hell could be self-inflicted in order to distract oneself from the isolation of having lost God and all others for all eternity.
But what about the positive side: “freedom for” one thing or another?
This implies boundaries and limits. As Oscar Wilde once said: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” What’s more, liberty must also mean following the rules, doing your duty, and behaving as you ought to behave. The rules, however, are not there to make us oppressed but are there to set us free to do the things that will help us to be all we can really be. The Founding Fathers understood this and they knew that granting the American people the freedom to practice their faith, associate and trade with others, and participate in governance would lead to a prosperous nation; and yes, even a holy nation. What’s more, they recognized that this kind of liberty cannot simply be “granted” by a government. Liberty lies at the heart of man. It is part of our nature and is in part what makes us made in the image and likeness of God. This why Thomas Jefferson pointed out that our equality and rights come not from kingly power or even from a democratic vote, but rather they are “endowed by [our] Creator.”
Thus it is not so much a Supreme Court ruling or a new passed law (or even an executive order masking itself as law) that can set us free. A government can only exercise its power to limit liberty and hamper our ability to be what God has made us to be. One philosopher defined a good society as one in which it is easy to be good. Now looking back at Galatians above, has our government today helped us to live a life of liberty or has it instead served to resubmit us into a yoke of slavery? Are we more or less free to be creative and productive in the market place? Are we really free to live a life of faith in the public sphere? [G.K. Chesterton quipped: “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it."]
But perhaps these questions hit too closely to home. Let’s look at Iran and Honduras instead.
As I write this, news stories are coming in reporting about the crackdowns and “investigations” going on regarding the protests of a seemingly rigged election in Iran while others regarding America cutting certain ties with Honduras because the “coup” staged by, oh I don’t know, the entire government from legislature to the courts to the military! And what makes it worse, our president has stood on the wrong side in both cases. His actions simply aid other governments to impinge upon the cultural, political, and economic liberties of their people. And to think that the one place where we fought so hard to plant the flag of liberty is the one place we’re retreating from?!
Thus as America withdraws her troops from Iraq, Iran moves closer to a civil war for freedom from the Islamofascism of their nuke-seeking, homicidal maniac-in-chief. Our brave soldiers, which were placed in Iraq as part of a grand strategy of eliminating the powers that be in countries like Iran and Syria, are now being withdrawn in an imbecile strategy by a man who is showing us his total lack of foreign policy experience. And what’s happening? Bombs are going off across Iraq and the good citizens of Iran, who we could be helping right now, are being slaughtered in the streets. And don’t forget about North Korea. Some may think Kim Jong Il is insane, but his current actions are the perfect actions to take in the face of an American leader who will not take a stand against terrorism or nuclear weapons creation in Iran. Expect more countries to pop up and take advantage of our weakened foreign policy.
And Honduras only makes things worse. We’ve shown our allies, the allies for liberty, that we side with socialist dictators over democracy and liberty. We favor a micromanaged economy of stagnation over the kind of economy that has done more to rid the world of poverty than socialism could ever hope to achieve. We’ve told the world that people need to be controlled and that economic problems should really be fixed by spending more money and asking some committee of lawyers to figure out how to regulate every little aspect of the economy. We’ve told the world that the best leaders are the leaders that write for Playboy, protect their own interests, gain votes from the dead, and sleep with Argentinean women!
What happened to authentic liberty?
Distraction. I think it starts there. By now everyone knows Michael Jackson is dead and everyone has some sort of opinion on the matter. How many people do you know who have heard anything about the “energy tax” the House just passed or how it will raise their energy bills by hundreds of dollars per person? How many people went to see Transformers 2 but have no clue who their mayor is? How many people take America for granted? How many are cynical about religion, economics, and politics because their liberties have been hit so hard that they feel they can’t make a difference anymore?
Selfishness and laziness. Too many people just expect to get everything they want (or even need). There are some incredible immigrants that have come to the US and love it because all they need to do is work hard, practice a little ingenuity, and take a few risks to come out a hundred times better than where they were in their own country. I recently met a couple people from Belarus and Lebanon who came here speaking no English but are doing quite well because they did exactly what I mentioned above. Like the Romans, Americans want to have it all without sacrificing anything to keep what we possess. What’s worse, they make the dumb mistake of electing people who promise them “free” healthcare and other dreams (at best) or lies (at worst).
Liberty brings with it a great responsibility. We need to move beyond the distractions, the selfishness, and the laziness to do what is best for our nation and our own livelihood. We must stop living either for a future fantasy or in living in the past. Instead, we must look realistically to the future, seeing each obstacle as a challenge to be faced, not feared. When Pope John Paul II was elected his first words to the world were: “Be not afraid!” In regards to modern forms of liberty, Chesterton said: "Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities."
Both the citizens in Iran and the government officials of Honduras should show America what liberty is all about. Unfortunately we have a government and media to contend with that consistently stands against authentic liberty as being “divisive” in some way or another. When Obama finally spoke against the actions of the Iranian government, he was asked if pressure from the GOP had anything to do with it. He answered with the question: “What do you think?” Is this really the kind of leadership we need?
On one other final note, I just finished a fantastic book by Michael Novak called The Universal Hunger for Liberty. I might just write a review of it sometime soon. In any case, in part of the book he asks the question of liberty in a Muslim society. Can it work or is Islam fundamentally opposed to liberty? When Pope Benedict questioned this in his Regensburg address, the media backlash was out of this world. It did, however, spark a dialogue between Muslims and the West that hasn’t been seen in hundreds of years. I would tend to say that, judging by what we’ve seen by the people of Iran, along with the work of Iraqis for five years, that liberty is possible though not a foregone conclusion.
What do you think?