Josef Pieper – The meaning of life, according to Plato

 

“I wish to sum up Plato’s stance [regarding the meaning of human existence] in three brief statements:

The First Statement: To perceive, as much as possible, all things as they really are and to live and act according to this truth (truth, indeed, not as something abstract and “floating in thin air” but as the unveiling of reality)–in this consists the good of man; in this consists a meaningful human existence.

The Second Statement: All men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth, not only those who search for knowledge–the scientists and the philosophers. Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.

The Third Statement: The natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation–it resides, therefore, in language, in the word. Consequently, the well-ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed. A well-ordered language here does not primarily mean its formal perfection, even though I tend to agree with Karl Kraus when he says that every correctly placed comma is decisive. No, a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.”

Pieper, Josef. Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1992. 35-26. Print.

Stranger Things and the difference between virtual and physical RPGs

I have been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and thus far I love the show (for a few reasons I won’t get into here – I will only add that I’ve been successfully able to watch it occasionally rather than clothing myself in athletic gear, and watching the whole thing in one night). One thing about the show got me thinking. There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode in which the young boys are playing a Role Playing Game (Dungeons and Dragons, I believe). I played the same game (RPG) for a little while in grade 7. I stopped playing in part because I noticed even then that the game had become an obsession for me (for whatever reason I think I may tend towards obsessing about things that interest me, rather than being able to moderate my participation and enjoyment). Even so, the obsession I had with playing an RPG in grade 7 was moderated by a few things.

As a kid I had to work hard at feeding my obsession with RPGs because of the basic creaturely constraints of space and time. In Stranger Things we see how the mother of one of the characters operates as a moderating influence. She has an eye on the clock. She intervenes. When they physically disperse, the game stops. They go to their homes (or not). They eat. They go to school. They need to plan to play again. The planning itself takes time for preparation. Physical RPGs involve real-world interaction between individuals who are immersed in a narrative by way of a story teller. The games are themselves tactile, with dice and paper at least, along with your own ‘I don’t want to shower today mom’ grime and smell.

 

There is a vast array of RPGs in New Media and some of them are massive (they are actually called MMORPGs – or for the uninitiated Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games). The online form of these games means the basic creaturely constraints of space and time are negated or absent entirely. Physical community is unnecessary in order for the game to work. Our primal biological and typical way of gathering as a community of human beings for entertainment has been short-circuited by instant access to the internet wherever we are, and at any time. As a teacher at an inner-city high school in London, I could notice how World of Warcraft (for example) was having a detrimental effect on some of my students. The obsession of the game could be indulged almost seamlessly around mealtime, bedtime and home-work (if that happened). My guess is that some of the young people exerted influence on the family dynamics in order to play more, taking supper into their rooms, and spending more and more time closed away from the other members of their family. Admittedly for some of them the game was a relief from certain harsh realities.

I think it is worth thinking about space and time in general as we consider New Media. How can we  engage with New Media in, at least, a benign way if not a positive way? It has been my observation that immersion into such games comes at the expense of looking after your body and letting your mind rest. It has a detrimental impact on all other areas of your life. I think for those people who can play MMORPGs for a little while (say 3 hours once per week) there is much enjoyment to be had. It would be not so different than watching a movie. However, I think that many of these games are intentional about making it difficult to detach and do other things. Without the basic creaturely constraints, our minds are at risk of being altered and artificially stimulated to obsess in a way that does not necessarily involve the other aspects of our lives (physical interaction with other humans, the feeling of warm sunlight on our skin, showering, eating, sleeping…). Something of primal importance for us is being lost, or at least marginalized, namely story-telling and community, not to mention actual physical adventures in the forest on our bikes.

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Maximus the Confessor on the Incarnation

… On the incarnation being part of God’s divine plan from all eternity, irrespective of humanity’s primal disobedience.

“He who, by the sheer inclination of his will, established the beginning of all creation, seen and unseen, before all the ages and before that beginning of created beings, had an ineffably good plan for those creatures. The plan [even before the sin and fall] was for him to mingle, without change on his part, with the human nature by true hypostatic union, to unite human nature to himself while remaining immutable, so that he might become a man, as he alone knew how, and so that he might deify humanity in union with himself. Also, according to this plan, it is clear that God wisely divided “the ages” between those intended for God to become human, and those intended for humanity to become divine” (Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassium 22, as quoted in Harink’s commentary on 1 Peter, pg 40).

“My Way of Life” opening paragraphs.

[“My Way of Life” (Walter Farrell O.P., S.T.M, and Martin J. Healy, S.T.D) was written to be a simplification (yes, that’s correct, a simplification) of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I only discovered this little book while rummaging through a used book store yesterday. I’ve since learned that it is a classic in its own right. I found the opening paragraphs very thought provoking. Here is a link to an online edition of Walter Farrell’s 4 vol Companion to the Summa.]

“THE ROAD THAT STRETCHES before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs. Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.

IN THAT DARKNESS beyond the world, we can begin to know the world and ourselves, though we see through the eyes of Another. We begin to understand that a man was not made to pace out his life behind the prison walls of nature, but to walk into the arms of God on a road that nature could never build.

LIFE MUST BE LIVED, even by those who cannot find the courage to face it. In the living of it, every mind must meet the rebuff of mystery. To some men, this will be an exultant challenge: that so much can be known and truth not be exhausted, that so much is still to be sought, that truth is an ocean not to be contained in the pool of a human mind. To others, this is a humiliation not to be borne; for it marks out sharply the limits of our proud minds. In the living of life, every mind must face the unyielding rock of reality, of a truth that does not bend to our whim or fantasy, of the rule that measures the life and mind of a man.

IN THE LIVING OF LIFE, every human heart must see problems awful with finality. There are the obvious problems of death, marriage, the priesthood, religious vows; all unutterably final. But there are, too, the day to day, or rather the moment to moment choices of heaven or hell. Before every human heart that has ever beat out its allotted measures, the dare of goals as high as God Himself was tossed down: to be accepted, or to be fled from in terror.

GOD HAS SAID SO LITTLE, that yet means so much for our living. To have said more would mean less of reverence by God for the splendor of His image in us. Our knowing and loving, He insists, must be our own; the truth ours because we have accepted it; the love ours because we have given it. We are made in His image. Our Maker will be the last to smudge that image in the name of security, or by way of easing the hazards of the nobility of man” (My Way of Life, pgs 1-2).

John Paul II on Faith and Reason

ENCYCLICAL LETTER
FIDES ET RATIO
OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF
JOHN PAUL II
TO THE BISHOPS

OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

ON THE RELATIONSHIP
BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON

My Venerable Brother Bishops,
Health and the Apostolic Blessing!

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).

INTRODUCTION

“KNOW YOURSELF”

1. In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded-as it must-within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

2. The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be. From the moment when, through the Paschal Mystery, she received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life, the Church has made her pilgrim way along the paths of the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). It is her duty to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes a responsibility of a quite special kind: the diakonia of the truth.(1) This mission on the one hand makes the believing community a partner in humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at truth; (2) and on the other hand it obliges the believing community to proclaim the certitudes arrived at, albeit with a sense that every truth attained is but a step towards that fullness of truth which will appear with the final Revelation of God: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Cor 13:12).

3. Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy, which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks. According to its Greek etymology, the term philosophy means “love of wisdom”. Born and nurtured when the human being first asked questions about the reason for things and their purpose, philosophy shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. It is an innate property of human reason to ask why things are as they are, even though the answers which gradually emerge are set within a horizon which reveals how the different human cultures are complementary.

Philosophy’s powerful influence on the formation and development of the cultures of the West should not obscure the influence it has also had upon the ways of understanding existence found in the East. Every people has its own native and seminal wisdom which, as a true cultural treasure, tends to find voice and develop in forms which are genuinely philosophical. One example of this is the basic form of philosophical knowledge which is evident to this day in the postulates which inspire national and international legal systems in regulating the life of society. Continue reading