Archive for March, 2016

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Easter Sunday, 2016

March 27, 2016

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

March 18, 2016

JohnDonneDevotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Death’s Duel
John Donne
(Vintage, 1999) [1624, 1630]
234 p.

Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while he lay a-bed of a serious illness. It is a work of moral and spiritual reflection on sin, sickness, and death — which makes it perfect Lenten reading.

The book is divided into twenty-three parts which, arranged sequentially, follow the progress of a sickness from its onset, through the development of symptoms, the consultations of physicians, and their treatments, to the early stages of recovery. Donne writes at one level about a physical sickness — perhaps his own — but there is a also a metaphorical spiritual interpretation running in parallel, the sickness in his soul mirroring that in his body. Each part of the work is divided into three smaller parts: an initial meditation, an “expostulation” in which the theme of the meditation is expanded upon, and a concluding, though often quite lengthy, prayer in which Donne offers the fruit of his meditation to the Almighty.

It is written in a dense and somewhat difficult style, almost like a prose poem, and it requires a good deal of concentration to follow the often highly elaborate grammatical constructions (and all without paragraph breaks). To give a flavour for the book, here is a passage chosen more or less at random:

When wilt thou bid me take up my bed and walk? As my bed is my affections, when shall I bear them so as to subdue them? As my bed is my afflictions, when shall I bear them so as not to murmur at them? When shall I take up my bed and walk? Not lie down upon it, as it is my pleasure, not sink under it, as it is my correction? But O my God, my God, the God of all flesh, and of all spirit, to let me be content with that in my fainting spirit, which thou declarest in this decayed flesh, that as this body is content to sit still, that it may learn to stand, and to learn by standing to walk, and by walking to travel, so my soul, by obeying this thy voice of rising, may by a farther and farther growth of thy grace proceed so, and be so established, as may remove all suspicions, all jealousies between thee and me, and may speak and hear in such a voice, as that still I may be acceptable to thee, and satisfied from thee.

Meditation XVII is the source of two of Donne’s most enduring aphorisms: “No man is an island”, and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Interestingly, the second actually appears in a slightly different form; the brief section which includes both runs as follows:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away to the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

These sayings, famous as they are, have become perhaps a bit hackneyed by being so frequently pressed into service to express human solidarity. Their undoubted eloquence and lack of religious references have made them attractive to a secular-minded people. But, needless to say, Donne was not secular-minded, and one has only to cast one’s eyes around on the same page to find the Christian foundations of the sentiment he expresses:

The Church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

All this from Meditation XVII, which to my mind was among the best. I will confess that, by and large, and with some exceptions here and there, I found the book as a whole rather dry. I love Donne’s poetry for its muscular, vigorous qualities, and the same unsparing intensity is found in many of these meditations. But when I try to call to mind particular insights gleaned from its pages, I am almost empty-handed. I say this being uncertain whether the blame lies on the page or within me, though I incline toward the latter.

Does the title of the book intrigue you? What are these “emergent occasions”? I believe “emergencies” would be a fair way to translate them into a modern idiom.


The short piece, “Death’s Duel”, which is also included in this volume, was the last sermon Donne preached at Whitehall “not many days before his death” in 1630. It was highly regarded in his own time (the preamble, written by an admiring contemporary, states that “as he exceeded others at first, so at last he exceeded himself”), but again I found it fairly dry. For me the principal interest in reading it was to see how linguistically rich and complex even his sermons were! We don’t hear preaching — nor, for that matter, any public speech — on that level anymore.


Another excerpt:

And since sin, in the nature of it, retains still so much of the author of it that it is a serpent, insensibly insinuating itself into my soul, let thy brazen serpent (the contemplation of thy Son crucified for me) be evermore present to me, for my recovery against the sting of the first serpent; that so, as I have a Lion against a lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah against that lion that seeks whom he may devour, so I may have a serpent against a serpent, the wisdom of the serpent against the malice of the serpent, and both against that lion and serpent, forcible and subtle temptations, thy dove with thy olive in thy ark, humility and peace and reconciliation to thee, by the ordinances of thy church. Amen. (Devotions, X, Prayer)

The tree of life

March 16, 2016

I wrote a short appreciation of The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. It has been posted today, and can be found here.


Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.

Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.


As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.


A vulnerable persons standard

March 2, 2016

In an effort to get more and better safeguards for vulnerable patients into the forthcoming assisted suicide/euthanasia legislation, a Vulnerable Persons Standard was launched yesterday.

This Standard is consistent with the Carter ruling that legalized these “procedures” in Canada, but it proposes much tighter restrictions and better oversight in order to provide protection for patients who might request assisted suicide or euthanasia “when what they want and deserve is better treatment – to have their needs for care, respect and palliative and other supports better met.”

For those of us who are opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, this Standard can only be a half-measure. It cannot prevent all such “procedures”, but it may prevent some. Under the straitened circumstances imposed by the Supreme Court I see it as a morally praiseworthy initiative.

It has already attracted the support of numerous medical and legal organizations. (Full disclosure: my wife is one of the advisors to the Standard.)

Read the Standard here.

Pundits weigh in

March 2, 2016

Last week I wrote about the recommendations to Parliament made by a committee of MPs to guide legislation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. As I said then, the recommendations are irresponsible in the extreme. In the past few days, a number of responses to the Committee’s report have appeared in Canada’s leading newspapers, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The Toronto Star, which is Canada’s largest left-leaning paper, was gently but unequivocally critical of the recommendations, seeing them as needlessly inflammatory and potentially dangerous:

Given the fraught nature of this file, compassion and caution, not compulsion, should be the government’s watchword as it goes ahead. A physician’s first duty is, after all, to do no harm.

A Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom, also highlighted the apparent unwillingness of the Committee to consider the implications of its recommendations for the vulnerable. “Death, it seems, is easier.”

And just today — and frankly rather astoundingly — the Toronto Star has run an op-ed by Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, arguing for conscience protections for doctors:

When the state goes beyond its legitimate but limited role and suppresses conscience rights, I am reminded of a man whose employer told him to do something against his conscience. He courageously replied: “You employ me; you don’t own me.”

Just before the recommendations were issued last week, the Globe & Mail ran a prescient column by Margaret Somerville of McGill University, who has been one of our leading public voices urging skepticism about the putative goods of assisted suicide and euthanasia. She focused on the Liberal Party’s plan to whip the vote on the grounds that assisted suicide and euthanasia are allegedly “Charter issues”:

This “hide behind the Charter” strategy resonates with an “obedience to higher orders” defence to wrongdoing (“it wasn’t my decision, I was forced to do it”), which the law has never accepted as valid.

Also in the Globe & Mail, constitutional lawyer David Baker and University of Toronto professor Trudo Lemmens have written a scathing critique of the Committee’s work:

Essentially all disabilities can be included in the open-ended criteria for access, extending the law beyond the persons with irreversibly declining capacities at the end-of-life that the Supreme Court ruled upon, and disregarding the court’s determination that “psychiatric disorders” were expressly excluded, as well as children, even if children would only have access three years after the new legislation is introduced. The committee further recommends access by advanced directive for people suffering from dementia, which most agree would create a practical and ethical minefield.

In the National Post, Andrew Coyne puts the Committee’s report in context, arguing that each step in the process of legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia has extended the conditions under which it would be permitted:

So the court not only opened the door to assisted suicide, but opened it a little wider than it had been asked to. Nonetheless, it remained confident that the door would open no further. Indeed, the ruling arguably depended on it. The Crown’s case for retaining the prohibition, after all, had rested on the concern that the logic of assisted suicide would not permit it to be limited to the sort of narrow circumstances the court had in mind. Expert testimony was called on the experience in Belgium and other countries, where eligibility for assisted suicide has been extended to children, the mentally incompetent, and others.

The court found this sort of “anecdotal” evidence unpersuasive. These countries, it said, had a very different “medico-legal culture” than ours. In Canada, the “risks” of legalized killing could be limited “through a carefully designed and monitored system of safeguards.”

That was a year ago. The court’s ruling has not yet taken effect, and already we have the report of an all-party joint committee on “physician-assisted dying” recommending legislation that would go far beyond what the court prescribed.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Medical Association has expressed its disappointment with the Committee’s failure to recommend protections for health-care workers who refuse to participate in death-dealing. The CMA has consistently been strong on this point, opposing also the provincial medical colleges, such as those for Ontario and Saskatchewan, who have abandoned conscientious protections for their physicians.

There have been some hear-no-evil, see-no-evil responses to the Committee’s work as well, but all in all I take the above commentary to be broadly encouraging. There may yet be the will to override the Joint Committee’s awful recommendations.