Tradition and Progress: a Vlog Discussion

Manotti and I returned from a Latin Mass.  The whole thing got me thinking about tradition and how it seems we as a culture have more than ever chipped away not only at our own traditions, but even more debased tradition as something bad.  We think this is unfortunate.  Still, is it possible to retain tradition while also being progressive or meliorative?  We try to address this issue.  The conversation runs long and the discourse is arduous.

The Philosopher on Carmel Show: Inscrutable Philosophical Conversations

I invited my friend Manotti to try out vlogging (which auto-corrected to flogging, by the way).  Just in case no one reads blogs anymore I figured I’d try out making video for no one to watch.  This reminds me of something a colleague and I once discussed: since primary sources are better to assign in philosophy classes, but students don’t read what is assigned anyway, it is better that they not read the primary sources than not read the crappy textbook.  Whatever.

So here are three videos we made based on questions we each wrote.  It’s heavy philosophy, so buckle up.  In the end I am not sure we accomplished anything, but we had fun.  In the Socratic tradition these are “aporetic”, and perhaps that’s how it should be.  Either way, we’re two traditionalist dudes who are yakking just after Sunday Mass, and that means we’re a little formally dressed and wired on coffee and donuts.  Manotti didn’t want anyone to know, but he spilled water all over his shirt, which is why he’s wearing a jacket.

Question One: Which is primary – the Good, the True, or the Beautiful?

Manotti asks me about the three transcendentals, one of my favorite topics.  We have a very good conversation, and Manotti makes some valuable insights and then nearly commits the heresy of Sabellianism.  I think you’ll like this one.


Question Two: Is there room in our contemporary moral world for a Platonic notion of the Good?

When we decided to do this we both wrote down our questions, not letting the other know what they were.  It seems we had some similar themes in mind.  Here I ask Manotti about whether or not we can envision a morality based on something like the Platonic Good.  In other words, is there an overarching sense of the Good that we should be striving for?  We go deep on this one.  Very deep.  I bring up Augustine. Manotti brings in Leibniz.  Whenever Leibniz enters the room things get nutty.


Question Three: How and When Did the West Go Wrong in its Thinking, pt. 1

This was a fun conversation.  Manotti asks me about if and when the West went off course.  I propose a broad answer is with the Cartesian turn, but more acutely in post-enlightenment thinking.  We never finished, then decided to eat sauerkraut and keilbasa, and call it a day.  We’ll finish this one later.  IT WENT THAT WELL!


The Socratic Project: The Perfection of the Soul

This is an essay that I wrote quite a few years ago.  It was written for students first encountering Socrates.  While I think it could be more nuanced, accurate, and better composed, I maintain it contains some valuable insights from Socrates that are relevant now.  Those insights belong to him, not me. 


If one can assume scholarly belief about the order of Plato’s writings, and separate the early from the later, and thereby also assume that the earlier dialogs exhibit what is likely the closes thing we have to what the historical Socrates believed, we can surmise what is the project of Socrates, the Socratic method, and Socrates’ exhortation to philosophy as a way of life that brings together his project and his method. This essay will focus on the project of Socrates, which is to attempt a generalization regarding what drove Socrates’ interest in philosophy, and why he did philosophy the way he did. Hence, to some degree this essay is logically prior to those involving the Socratic method and his exhortation to philosophy that is most clearly exhibited in Apology.[1]

A most concise understanding of the project of Socrates would be that of the perfection of the soul. A simple enough reply, but for Socrates this was a rich ideal that positively projected the philosopher toward a life of contemplation toward the values of truth, beauty[2], and goodness, and negatively slaked off the dogmas, presumptions and arrogances of popular opinion and the actions of the many. In other words, to perfect the soul – to be a philosopher – meant an understanding of, and a closeness to, values that are cardinal, values that are themselves the only values that could be considered ends in themselves. When we consider other values cherished by the average Athenian, such as wealth, power, and prestige, the Socratic shift in value could be seen as nothing other than an affront to popular opinion. This would be similar to the ways in which some Americans eschew capital gain, and forceful power with the values of living simply and wisely; to those who pursue capital wealth and bodily or militaristic might, such a reinterpretation of such values are often taken as an insult to a supposed American way of life. The force of the affront is even more acute when if we then also emphasize that this is not just a way of being or living, but is perfecting life and the soul. Even more, if we consider Socrates’ suggestion that “those who practice philosophy in the proper manner [are practicing] for dying and death”[3] we recognize instantly an additional affront to worldly values.[4] The point to all this is that such worldly values really cannot be considered ends in themselves. To be wealthy for its own sake is clearly absurd. Looking past the simple idea that wealth is good for buying goods and services, those goods and services still seem to be toward something else. Do we have things simply to have them? No. We have things for other reasons. Can we say a reason is pleasure, and that pleasure is an end in itself? This might be true but consider that even pleasure seems to be toward something else, and this something must be happiness. So, if wealth and power and geared toward happiness we will be in a terrible position if for some reason our wealth and power dissipates, as so often does happen with the vicissitudes of life. As Socrates argues, the only ends really worth pursuing are those that cannot be effected by such vicissitudes. Even health is not certain, for even if we pursue a healthy lifestyle, personal sickness or political upheaval may wreck our bodies as prisoners of war know. So if we perfect ourselves in any way, Socrates argues, it must be that part of us that cannot be altered by changes outside us. This may be what led Socrates to that momentous shift in philosophy that is the discovery of the soul.

Before considering the perfecting of the soul we need to delimit what he means by soul. First, soul in the Socratic sense is not in any way what popular new age spirituality, or even some forms of Christianity supposes soul to be. This understanding of soul is also closely related to what the Greeks considered Psyche, a vaporous second self that runs along with the body and that remains after death. While Socrates does not seem to disbelieve this understanding of soul, he locates a soul that is properly speaking prior to Psyche, and this is Nous. Nous for Socrates is the immortal part of the soul that, we might conclude, perfects Psyche, so that there are two levels of perfection occurring. At the first level is the perfection of nous, and at the second is psyche. I would not thereby conclude that there are multiple layers to our being, one of body, one of psyche, and one of nous. I think this is an indefensibly complicated metaphysical construct. But if we simply run with this picture for heuristic purposes it will hopefully serve us well.

Nous as soul is really insight. Insight into what? As insight – an inner-seeing – it is that capacity of a perfect seeing of things as they really are, of recognizing truth, beauty, and goodness. Nous is therefore intellect, and intellect and insight are mutually inclusive capacities. It in incumbent at this point to draw a vital distinction, and one to which Socrates often alludes. If I tell you that 2+2=4, and you believe it, and you can rehearse my words so that you can tell other people that 2+2=4 and you can also, upon request, declare that 4 is the correct answer to the problem 2+2=x, you are in the realm of correct belief, but it is belief all the same. Socrates, however, makes an important philosophical distinction between belief, or doxa, and episteme, which is knowledge. It is one thing to correctly believe that 2+2=4, that stealing is wrong, or that truth is good, but is best to see that these statements are so. This seeing is the insight of which Socrates speaks.

But the perfecting of the soul is not so much gaining something as much as it is clearing.[5] Perfecting of the soul is really a clearing and an opening. It is a clearing of presumptions, prejudices, conventions, and opinions – all those forms of doxa that infiltrate our judgments and that come to us through worldly interactions, for better or worse. Realize that neither Socrates nor any philosopher would admit that all popular opinion is false and bad. The point is that even when we believe what is true we are not seeing how and why it is true. Consider for moment the process of Googling for information versus attaining it through experience. Only a fool would surmise that finding information on the internet is epistemologically equal to experiencing it first hand or gaining the capacity for demonstration.[6] It is not that Googling or believing what is true is bad. It is just that it is a different kind of experience to what is true than what Socrates is calling nous or insight, or, rightly speaking, wisdom and knowledge, and that episteme is ultimately superior to doxa, and is therefore the proper aim of the philosopher.

Allowing for an openness to the true, good, and beautiful, which is a clearing in much the way that clearing away brush and debris from a landscape allows you to see the land better, is on the way to the perfection of the soul; it allows an openness to that excellence which in Greek is called arête, and which, for Socrates is a higher order virtue because it is direct insight into truth, beauty, and goodness. If we consider virtue in the ordinary Greek sense, or even the ordinary sense in our culture, virtue is merely playing a social role with excellence. We say “silence is a virtue” for instance to indicate a kind of etiquette in certain circumstances. Arête as excellent virtue on the other hand is an inner excellence. It is not following the rules of convention, as it were. This distinction must be understood, for it is integral to Socrates’ project.

To conclude this treatment of Socrates’ project, which is perfection of the soul, we still need investigate how this is done – the method Socrates employs – and how this perfection of the soul is implicated into a larger understanding of philosophy and living philosophically. The Socratic method, which is the use of irony and dialog is also immediately implicated into what might be considered Socratic philosophy more generally. I address both of these, method and the exhortation to philosophy in separate essays.

[1] This refers to the work by Plato, The Apology, considered by most scholars to be a faithful account of Socrates speeches before the Athenian juries, and therefore it is also considered to be an early dialog.

[2] Socrates means the very essence of the beautiful, as all beautiful things participate in beauty itself.

[3] Phaedo, 64a Phaedo is considered a middle dialog, but I am of the opinion that this particular belief is consisten with Socrates thoughts about death, while the more precise thoughts about the afterlife are Plato’s. It is good to consider that Socrates was agnostic about the afterlife (cf. Apology, Crito) while Plato had an afterlife consistent with his metaphysics.

[4] This point is made clearly in Apology, 36b: “…I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city…”

[5] We might also consider here the Platonic, possibly Socratic, idea that knowledge is really recollecting. See Phaedo, 72e and Meno, 81b ff. It is more likely that this is more Platonic than Socratic, given the dates of these dialogs, which locate them in his middle period, where Socrates’ voice gives way to Plato’s.

[6] In philosophy demonstration is that capacity to show how and why it is true. It would be showing how 2+2=4 is true by taking two sets of two things, putting them together and counting a total of four.

The Value and Formation of ‘A Rule of Life’

Introduction and background

When I first began spiritual direction I complained to my director that my spiritual life was all over the place.  There seemed to be no focus, little consistency, and I did not really feel as if I was growing as I should.  The first thing he asked me is whether or not I had a “rule of life”.  I was familiar with this idea, but assumed it was something only those in religious life really attended to and abided by, and I further associated with the rather lengthy and rigorous Rule of St. Benedict.  He then offered me some literature to get started and charged me with creating my own rule that we would then examine during our next meeting.  Since that time I have done my best to follow my rule of life, and it has become part of the structure of my life.  More importantly, it has remedied those matters for which it was prescribed by my director: while I am not perfectly consistent or always focused, my rule has served well as a frame around which I structure my life.

A spiritual or religious rule of life is different from, say, a daily routine such as what you may typically do otherwise in the day such as having coffee every morning, reading the paper, checking email and so on.  It has more in common with a self-imposed exercise or dietary regimen in that it is prescribed with goals in mind.  And yet it can often become habitual and so becomes part of a virtuous life.  It also shares with the cultivation of virtue the need for frequent reflection and growth, as will be discussed below.

Common elements

While there is no exhaustive list of the elements contained in a rule of life there are some practices that must obtain for Catholics and some that are simply good to include.  And you may also consider forming your list based upon whatever charism or order you may be drawn to, such as that of the Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, or Jesuits. To do so you want to read about the founder of an order, and find that order’s rule online or in book form.

For the non-Catholic (and a rule of life with the goal of spiritual development is, by my estimation, a very good thing, and one not exclusive to Catholics) this list can easily be amended accordingly.

Since these elements are fairly self-evident I will offer a few lines of explanation only.

  • Mass – Regular attendance at least once a week, but if you really want to boost your spiritual life incorporate a few more during the week with the goal of daily attendance if possible.
  • Prayer – Daily prayer is essential. Try to incorporate prayer several times a day beginning with morning prayer. If you a breviary, great! Use it! Also experiment with different modes of prayer such as lectio divina, meditation, and contemplation.  Don’t forget to offer prayers of gratitude and intention for others!
  • Devotions – Of these Eucharistic Adoration is powerful and effective, as is the Rosary.
  • Reconciliation – Confession not only participates in God’s mercy, but it is also vital for the sanctification of self, moral growth, virtue, and spiritual growth.
  • Fasting and abstinence – These needn’t be practiced only during Lent. Perhaps you might try one Friday a month or every Friday (or any day) fasting from meat for a day, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco for a period, or take a break from whatever habits or practices may be worthwhile denying yourself of for a spell.
  • Reading and intellectual growth – I find this are particularly appealing and useful, and deserving of a bit more discussion.  I find three main categories of reading: scriptural, spiritual, and theological:
    • Scripture reading – Quotes from the saints about reading scripture are legion, but St. Jerome expressed its importance most pithily: “Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ.”  While the comedian Jim Gaffigan has a point that we all read the Cliff Notes to scripture during Mass it is good to engage in more sustained readings on one’s own or with a group.  If you’re not a seasoned reader of Scripture (I am not) perhaps you might just start with what piques your interest and move outward.  The Gospels are a great place to start.
    • Spiritual reading – My spiritual director describes spiritual reading as light, exemplary, and motivational, and uses the example of reading about the lives of the saints.  But this mode of reading may also include short and simple treatises or directives on a topic.  Many of Fr. Michael Gaitley’s writings are good examples of this, as are those of Matthew Kelley.  C.S. Lewis comes to mind as well.
    • Theology – This is an expansive category and veers into Scripture reading and spiritual reading.  It is also where we grow in our understanding and knowledge of the faith.  As such it deserves its own discussion, but here are only a few examples: catechetical writings, church history, the life of Christ, the writings of saints, explorations of sacraments, Catholic philosophy, mystical writings, Biblical exegesis, ethics and virtue.
  • Almsgiving and service – We are a religion of faith and works. Are you helping your parish? Do you volunteer? Do you consider the needy?  I don’t find charity or charitable works to be little nicety or add-on; they are vital to spiritual growth and the engagement within the mystical body of Christ.
  • Retreats (and conferences) – These are like spiritual adrenalin injections.  Retreats can be expensive and often difficult to arrange around work and family.  If you can’t do one, try a home retreat: Fr. Michael Gaitley has written several, and I can personally attest to his Consoling the Heart of Jesus, which is inspired by Ignatian retreats.  Also, many diocese have conferences, and some parishes will bring is speakers and do workshops.  Avail yourself of these.
  • Spiritual direction – If you are serious about growing in your spiritual life a spiritual director seems to be a good move.  Most diocese have lists of willing directors.  Do a little research to see if this is right for you.

How I structured my rule

I arranged my rule as practices I would engage in daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.  Below is a sketch based on my own.

Daily practices: Prayer, including morning prayer, evening prayer, and an Examen prayer.

Weekly practices: Sunday Mass, and at least two other Masses during the week, attending holy days of obligation; at least three Rosary recitations; at least one holy hour with attempts at further visits to my local adoration chapel; at least one weekly lectio divina.

Monthly practices: Reconciliation at least once a month; one session of spiritual direction; at least one work of service to the needy or volunteering in some other capacity.

Yearly practices: At least one retreat, either at home or at a retreat house; at least one pilgrimage to a holy place such as a shrine; special activities during Lent and Christmas such as a reading of the Gospels, beyond what is usually practiced and emphasized during these seasons.

A special note on reading: I am an avid reader so I didn’t feel the need to include reading in my rule.  However, including reading specified by kind, along with goals, is probably a good idea.

This seems fairly modest and, admittedly, it is, but my spiritual director found it best to start modestly and allow room for growth rather than scaling back or otherwise setting the stage for failure.  Remember, the goal is growth, not heroic achievement.  As St. Therese de Lisieux advises for us little souls: small things with great love.

Cautions and suggestions

  • Know thyself. Reflect on where you are in your spiritual life, what you need, what you are capable of, and what are your obligations to work and family, which are also part of your spiritual life.  Your rule as an instrument of growth should not be so burdensome that it becomes a dreaded struggle.  Work it into your life.
  • Incorporate intellectual growth, and set goals accordingly.  In what areas of our faith are you in need of exploring? We have a wonderfully rich religion that should really be explored as fully as possible, so if you need to better understand something, hop to it.
  • Your rule should have rigor, but not too much.  Again, it should strike a balance as between too weak or easy and overly burdensome and impossible to achieve. Challenge yourself, but not at the risk of burning out and giving up. There is always room for growth.
  • Hence, it is an ongoing practice with flexibility. As you grow, your rule should grow. As your life might change, your rule may need to adapt.  If you find yourself with more time on your hands, perhaps add a practice.  If your schedule becomes tighter, adapt your rule accordingly.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you do not follow it perfectly.  Things may come up through no fault of your own that compromise your daily or weekly practices, and that’s OK. If it’s ongoing, honestly reflect on this.  Were you just being lazy, or does the rule need to be tweaked?
  • It’s ultimately about spiritual growth and cultivating virtue, as well as becoming closer to God.  The rule is instrumental and not just for its own sake.  Reflect on this and what this means.
  • As you grow, so should your rule.  This deserves to be stated again!

Get started!

If this seems like something you want to try, spend some time thinking about your rule.  Write down ideas and reflect on those, pray on those.  Write down your rule.  You may even want to sign it as if it is a contract between you and God.  Then, give it a go!