Books briefly noted

April 14, 2011

Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1980)
178 p. Third reading.

This little book is a long-standing favourite of mine, and it was a pleasure to revisit it again after an absence of several years. Buechner is a very fine writer, and he is at his best in this rough-hewn, wondering, unsentimental tale about the medieval English ascetic, Godric of Finchale. The story is based on surviving legends about St. Godric, to which Buechner cleaves quite closely, yet he tries to get behind the hagiography to the raw, unvarnished truth that he believes lies behind it. It is not a ‘debunking’ story, though, in any usual sense, for despite the violence and vulgarity and caustic humour that he introduces into Godric’s character, he does not efface the man’s repentant heart and thirst for righteousness. It is truly a wonderful book. I wish I had written it.


The Diary of a Country Priest
Georges Bernanos

I read this novel once, and I need to read it again. The book goes deep, deep, deep into a spiritual crisis suffered by a young French priest. It is not the spiritual crisis that one might expect — not a crisis of doubt — but something much more ambitious and even intimidating: spiritual transformation through suffering. As in Buechner, there is little overt piety on display, yet somehow it manages to penetrate deeply into the heart of the Christian mystery. What must an author be thinking when he undertakes to tell the story of a saint in the first person? Bernanos is someone to be reckoned with.


Edward Feser (Oneworld, 2009)
215 p.

Over the years I have read a handful of ‘introductory’ books on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (by Copleston, Gilson, Maritain, Pieper, Kenny, and Chesterton). The fact that I keep reading introductory texts no doubt says something unflattering about my philosophical acumen. In any case, Feser’s effort belongs with the best of them, especially for the way in which it brings Aquinas’ thought into conversation with contemporary analytic philosophy, cognitive science, and naturalism. The main topics of discussion are Aquinas’ metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. Feser wants to emphasize that Aquinas’ arguments (and those of medieval philosophers more generally) are frequently misrepresented because sufficient care is not taken to understand their terms. In this connection he revisits each of Thomas’ famous ‘Five Ways’ for proving the existence of God, arguing that the usual counter-arguments are without force once one understands Aquinas’ language correctly. There are quite a few provocative claims made in the book — for instance, that the mind/body problem, which has so preoccupied modern philosophy, is a consequence of the early modern rejection of the full panoply of Aristotelian causes, and simply did not exist for medieval philosophers like Aquinas. Feser self-identifies as a Thomist, so his approach is lively and sometimes mildly combative vis-a-vis modern philosophy, but the style is precise, articulate, and, so far as this knuckle-dragging reader could ascertain, fair. The book really deserves more and more careful attention than I am giving it here. Alas, time is a thief.


An Introduction to Ethics
Bernard Williams (Harper & Row, 1972)
121 p.

This is a rather rambling and diffuse essay on various topics in moral philosophy. Remembering, perhaps, that “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”, Williams critiques dominant schools of moral philosophy — relativism, subjectivism, divine command, utilitarianism — arguing that each leaves something essential out of consideration. His basic stance seems to be that moral reasoning is complex, and that we should not be too hasty to impose a system upon our moral life. He even suggests that the only medium capable of adequate moral inquiry is literature. There are some witticisms in the book, such as a utilitarian argument against believing in utilitarianism, or his description of moral relativism as “the most absurd view to have been advanced, even in moral philosophy”. There are moments when the clouds disperse and a clear judgment emerges, to devastating effect (“The central confusion of relativism is to try to conjure out of the fact that societies have differing attitudes and values an a priori nonrelative principle to determine the attitude of one society to another; this is impossible.”). But, for the most part, the discussion seems to meander from one thing to another. Only near the end does he get around to a question that one would have thought essential (‘What is morality about?’). After turning the last page, I was left feeling empty-handed.

2 Responses to “Books briefly noted”

  1. I don’t think that reading introductory texts in philosophy suggests a lack of “philosophical acumen” so much as something inherent in the nature of the discipline; the most properly basic questions about philosophical topics are also the most difficult to answer, and take on new complexities when seen from a different perspective. I like to think that the amount of fine secondary literature on Aquinas reflects the ability of his thought to spur precisely this type of reflection on the basics of philosophy.

    On the other hand, perhaps I am only making a feeble attempt to justify the number of “introductory” books in my own library. . .

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that encouraging thought, Osbert. I do have enough philosophical, or at least logical, acumen, however, to realize that even if the richness of basic philosophical questions is reason enough for one to dwell on them, it does not necessarily follow that my reason for dwelling on them is not a lack of philosophical acumen. I am afraid I have no very great confidence in my own abilities in this area.

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