CURRENT READING – WHERE DID THE UNIVERSE COME FROM?

Where Did The Universe Come From?by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis

“I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.”– Steven Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

As we move next to ultimate reality and a return to the question of the existence of the divine, I thought it might make sense to revisit the question of the origin of the universe, historically the major justification for belief in God. I stumbled onto this book while visiting Stanford University and could not pass it by as again I came face to face with a lay explanation of the scientific solution to this fundamental problem.  One of the earliest axioms of the ancient Greek philosophers was that something cannot come from nothing, and in truth most of us still assume this to be the case. I suspect even the most committed physicist would be hard pressed to believe a pebble, a book, an automobile, or a novel life-form materialized out of thin air, but each of these is in fact possible (albeit infinitesimally so) in the strange world of quantum mechanics. In the first 37 pages, Ferrie and Lewis present with great clarity the hypothesis of a “universe from nothing” based on this system.

Quantum physics we are told began with Max Planck’s revelation that the glow from heated metal comes from the discreet ‘jiggling’ of charges in ‘chunks’ called quanta. Then Albert Einstein building on James Clerk Maxwell’s four equations on electromagnetic waves and the fixed speed of light in a vacuum formulated the general and special theories of relativity which reveal that (1) space and time are relative and only the speed of light is absolute and (2) mass and energy are interchangeable (E=mc2). After the Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann conceived of the universe as dynamic and evolving and Edwin Hubble documented the universe was expanding, it became apparent that if one rolls back time, the cosmos began with something like Georges Lemaitre’s ‘primeval atom’ – a theory which Fred Hoyle mockingly called the Big Bang. However the job of the scientist is now much more manageable as in that case only the appearance of this primeval atom or ‘singularity’ must be explained. So far so good!

Ferrie and Lewis next take on nothing, which they designate as a “chunk of space devoid of any matter or radiation”1 (they freely admitting that it is hard to imagine the alternative kind of nothing “where you strip away the space and time themselves.”). It turns out that empty space “seethes with particles popping in and out of existence” a phenomenon known as quantum fluctuations. Werner Heisenberg explained this phenomenon by developing matrixes of numbers which when multiplied together gave different results based on the order of multiplication (that is A x B is not equal to B x A) with the unexpected discovery that we can never precisely know all the properties of an object, a conclusion which came to be known as the uncertainty principle. The upshot of this theory, according to Niels Bohr, is that we must learn to reject our preconceived notion that things exist (at least in the exact sense we assume).

(continued next post)

CURRENT READING –  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem – PART IV

(to my readers, unfortunately the site has been down for 3 days, so the current post and responses to comments were delayed)

An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers,  by  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem

“If anyone should suggest that scientific knowledge is provable by the help of reason, he must realize that the first principles are not to be proved…By faith alone is it possible to arrive at the principle of the universe.” – Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis

 

I ended my last post on the uses of pragmatism to confirm reason outside of itself, and presented both a scientific example and an approach regarding proofs of God’s existence. To be fair we should attempt a similar process to consider the possibility that the traditional concept of God might be untrue. The agnostic (or atheist) might counter that the traditional concept of God is proven erroneous using coherence (the presence of unnecessary evil in the universe and the illogic of omnipotence and its inconsistency with free will)), coherence (the physicist’s argument for the spontaneous appearance of the primordial singularity or the power of science to explain events previously thought to be supernatural), and pragmatically (the inconsistency of attempts of most persons to achieve mystical union and the failure of prayers to solve worldly problems).  In the end, reason and pragmatism are shown to leave the proof of God unsettled.

Fr. Sorem’s attack on foundationalism and coherentism is immensely old – the default position of the ancient skeptics. But he who lives by the sword may die by it – intellectually honest skepticism imposes doubt on faith and revelation as well. In fact it seems far more dubious to consider revelation (particularly the patchwork of the New and Old Testaments) as absolute truth over reason and science with their largely internal consistencies, accurate predictions (for example eclipses) and immense utility (such as the automobile, cell phone, or computer). I seek not to undermine faith here, only to challenge whether skeptic doubt is the correct format to champion faith.

Nonetheless, for me, the most powerful portion Sorem’s essay is his proof of God’s existence I extracted in Part II of this critique. This is possibly one of the most powerful arguments I have ever seen for the belief in deity. If reason and truth itself are instantiated in the divine, what in the West is called the logos, then Fr. Sorem’s formulation of what is essentially a metaphysical argument for God’s existence seems to be entirely different from the traditional ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments. Its weakness is I suppose is the validity of the first premise  – “Truth and knowledge cannot be justified in the absence of God (i.e by unverifiable human reason alone).” Still, it is for me worthy of extended contemplation which must follow this critique.

My last comment is that even if we bracket the above comments, this paper seems to argue that reason cannot confirm faith, not that Christianity is true. Nothing within it disproves the truth of other faiths, each of which is held as tightly by others as Christianity is for the Orthodox practitioner. Perhaps that was never his focus of course.

All in all, I appreciate the reader’s recommendation to review Fr. Sorem’s article, and I enjoyed becoming more familiar with Orthodox theology through the links provided. I would also like to thank Fr. Sorem for making his essay available to all of us for study.

Next week we return to contentment and psychology.

CURRENT READING –  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem – PART III

An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers,  by  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem

“God is proven, not as the conclusion of rational or empirical theistic arguments, but as the very ground of argument itself.” – Russell Manion, The Contingency of Knowledge and Revelatory Theism.

 

In the last two posts I introduced this essay by Fr. Sorem and attempted an objective synopsis. Today I offer my impressions as requested by the reader who brought it to my attention. I begin with the following disclaimer: on this site, I have no intention of discouraging, disparaging, or attempting to undermine the sincere religious beliefs of anyone, and thus nothing which follows is intended to challenge such faith. Rather I believe the practical philosopher makes intellectually honest efforts to identify internally consistent truths in matters that inform the meaning of life, including of course the question of the existence and nature of the divine.

So let us start with natural theology. It seems to me that Fr. Sorem is being unduly harsh on Aquinas and other traditional Christian apologists. I suspect they too would assign the origin of human reason to God, but, like me, think it is apposite to demonstrate its internal consistency by inverting the two – the reason, logic, and order created by or emanating from God should comport with God’s existence and nature. I expect a theist would and should be alarmed if sound human reasoning demonstrates that God’s existence or characteristics are illogical or contradictory. In fact, the argument from evil or Stephen Law’s ‘evil God argument’ as well as many ad absurdum arguments (i.e. “Can an omnipotent God create a stone which he himself cannot lift?”) attempt to demonstrate this very inconsistency. Granted, if God is known by ‘faith,’ it is not necessary to prove His existence, but it seems  reassuring and reinforcing that the divine’s gift of human reason is confirmatory, not incongruous with religious beliefs.

Next let us consider Fr. Sorem’s explanation of epistemology which he reduces to foundationalism and coherentism. While these are the two dominant systems of the theory of knowledge described by Western philosophy and his descriptions are very learned, I would counter that this distillation is incomplete. In matters of metaphysics, the divine, and personal meaning, we seek truth, not mere knowledge, and must thus utilize the three classical theories of or avenues to truth – correspondence, coherence (convergence), and pragmatic. 1 Truth, it seems to me, is most certain and action most justified when assertions are confirmed by the application of all three.

Foundationalism relies most on correspondence, mainly through reason not experience and coherentism relies more on experience  and on coherence and convergence (truth  is approached by the converging of data points and learned opinions). However pragmatism often offers an additional and independent layer to validate the first two. Human reason and coherentism (for example science) then are not demonstrated through circular reason alone, but by pragmatic confirmation – empirical results and accurate predictions. So for example, we know that Einstein’s ‘theory’ of relativity is true not only because of correspondence (e.g. the mathematics and concordant astronomical observations), nor coherence (say interoperability with Newtonian physics), but by its accurate predictions (such as gravitational lensing) or its instrumentality (such as GPS satellites and the atomic bomb).

If we now apply this approach to the question of the existence of God, we might say God is proven by Natural Theology using correspondence (for example Anselm’s ontological argument, Aquinas’s ‘five ways,’ and mystical experience), coherence (the universe’s origin in creation suggested by the ‘big bang theory’ or by validated supernatural events or miracles) and pragmatically (for example by the answering of prayers). Whatever one’s individual thoughts on the factuality of these examples, this process averts the criticism of circular reasoning, and yet does not rely on revelation. The practical philosopher concludes that the validity of reason is not contingent on circular reasoning, or the existence of a divine creator, but on the congruous application of the three models of truth upon reality itself.

(completed next post)

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1Also see Certainty – Definitions and Distinctions published on this site 5/20/20 and 5/22/20 where I define  (1) Correspondence – truth is what corresponds to reality or fact (the common idea of truth). (2) Coherence – truth is that which coheres with other truths or beliefs (including the theory of  convergence), and (3) Pragmatism – truth is that which can be used to guide behavior; that is ‘what works.’

CURRENT READING –  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem – PART II

An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers,  by  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem  

“When God was conversing with Moses, He did not say ‘I am the essence’, but ‘I am the One Who is.’ Thus it is not the One Who is who derives from the essence, but essence which derives from Him, for it is He who contains all being in Himself.” – St. Gregory Palamas, Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts.

Continuing now with a synopsis of Fr. Sorem’s essay, he begins with a critique of Natural Theology – defined as inquiry into the existence and attributes of God without appeal to divine revelation as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas who pursued reason in justification of faith. Fr. Sorem disputes the rationale of this approach since reason cannot be validated except by reason itself – i.e.  circular arguments that beg the question of reason’s trustworthiness. In short, God’s ontology precedes and transcends any possible epistemology, and thus faith trumps reason.

The next portion of the essay distills down to a critique of the two basic approaches used by philosophers to determine truth, Foundationalism and Coherentism. In Fr. Sorem’s opinion, foundationalism – the basing of truth on a foundation of unquestionable assertions – invariably fails as all assertions are contingent, even presumably self-evident ones. For him, purportedly self-evident truths still depend on the use of reason to demonstrate they are self-evident, and reason can never be validated independent of reason itself. Meanwhile coherentism – the justification of knowledge based on a web of internally consistent data points and beliefs – fails in his opinion because of the unreliability of sensory data, contaminating theories, and its ultimate dependence on unverifiable foundational beliefs. Therefore neither foundationalism nor coherentism can be deployed in the proof of God’s existence or nature.5

Fr. Sorem offers the alternative of a transcendental argument of God’s existence. My oversimplified and restated version of his more complex proof follows6:

  1. Truth and knowledge cannot be justified in the absence of God (i.e by unverifiable human reason alone).
  2. Truth and knowledge (necessarily) exist.
  3. Therefore God (necessarily) exists.

At his juncture he inserts tenets of the Orthodox religion that complement the logical arguments above. Since unaided human reason is incapable of determining its own legitimacy and the divine functions as the originating force of knowledge and truth, a bridge is needed between man and God. A quote from St. Justin Popovich fills this gap:

“[T]he power of Truth, from the other side, responds to the powerlessness of man on this side. Transcendent Truth crosses the gulf, arrives on our side of it and reveals Itself – Himself – in the person of Christ, the God-man. In Him transcendent Truth becomes immanent in man. The God-man reveals the truth in and through Himself. He reveals it not through thought or reason, but by the life that is His. He not only has the truth, He is Himself the Truth. In Him, Being and Truth are one…”7

In Fr. Sorem’s opinion, only the Eastern Orthodox Church (as opposed to Western Catholicism and Protestantism) has preserved the correct doctrine  that “God (the necessary condition) is rational, omniscient, transcendent, non-contingent (necessary), intentional in His creation (as opposed to creation being accidental) a personal and communal being … having divine uncreated energies distinct from the common essence, who becomes incarnate as the God-man (the only one that can bridge the epistemic gap) sends His Holy Spirit to illumine and solve man’s epistemic predicament, and reveals these truths to His Apostles…”8

His essay ends on a discussion of presuppositional apologetics, which rejects the usual apologist stance that one can deploy a neutral, autonomous epistemology or logic to prove the existence of God and justify faith. “God is the ultimate epistemological starting point…”9 He concludes that one needs the entire system of orthodox Christianity to validate knowledge and truth, and that man’s epistemic autonomy is ultimately “pretended.”

In the next post I will offer my critique of Fr. Sorem’s essay. Join me then.

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5 Nor we presume the Five Ways of Aquinas. This is of course an extremely abbreviated explanation of Fr. Sorem’s very erudite composition and logic, but I believe it outlines fairly his attempt to demonstrate that Western philosophical reasoning is not a valid means to justify faith.

6I ask for leniency to those more familiar with advanced logic theory, and from Fr. Sorem for completely changing the format of his argument. It is possible I have misinterpreted his thinking, but I have attempted to remain faithful to the spirit of his logic.

7 Link https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/719360951752851519/720552166384730183/SOPHIA_Paper_2.pdf, page 15.

8Ibid., page 16.

9Ibid., page 17.

CURRENT READING –  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem – PART I

An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers,  by  Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem

 “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” – Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics.

This week a reader asked me to critique this 19 page essay1 with the following prompt: “… at a fundamental level all religions of the world are a form of monism…and only orthodoxy has the essence – energy distinction model which allows epistemic flourishing and avoids the circular reasoning of monism. Please take a look at this paper which I think is a good representation of the way I see things as of now and let me know if you have any critique for the way the author presents his transcendental argument.”2

So before we begin I think it is necessary to understand what is meant by the term, essence-energy distinction model, which was new to me and not in any of my philosophical dictionaries or encyclopedias (even R.C. Zaehner’s  Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions, which does in fact have a section on Orthodox Christianity). Thus I will have to accept Wikipedia’s definition:

“In Palamite theology, there is a distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God … In layman’s terms, God’s essence is distinct from God’s energies in the same manner as the Sun’s essence and energies are distinct. The Sun’s essence is a ball of burning gas, while the Eastern Orthodox hold that God’s essence is incomprehensible. As the Sun’s essence is certainly unapproachable and unendurable, so the Eastern Orthodox hold of God’s essence As the sun’s energies on Earth, however, can be experienced and are evidenced by changes that they induce (ex. melting, hardening, growing, bleaching, etc.), the same is said of God’s energies—though perhaps in a more spiritual sense (ex. melting of hearts or strength, hardening of hearts, spiritual growth, bleaching to be “white as snow,” though more physical and psychological manifestations occur as well as in miracles, and inspiration, etc.). The important points being made are that while God is unknowable in His essence, He can be known (i.e. experienced) in His energies… Eastern Orthodox theologians generally regard this distinction as a real distinction, and not just a conceptual distinction. Historically,  Western Christian thought, since the time of the Great Schism, has tended to reject the essence–energies distinction as real in the case of God, characterizing the view as a heretical introduction of an unacceptable division in the Trinity and suggestive of polytheism…”3

In any case, the author of this essay offers as his biography the following: “Fr. Deacon Ananias Sorem, PhD is CEO, Founder, and President of Patristic Faith. Father is an Orthodox apologist and Professor of Philosophy at Fullerton College and Carroll College. He has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College, together with an MA (Honors) and PhD in Philosophy (Epistemology; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind) from University College Dublin. His current academic work focuses on philosophical theology, epistemology, and the philosophy of science. Father is the author of several articles and peer-reviewed papers, including: ‘Searle, Materialism, and the Mind-Body Problem,’ ‘Gnostic Scientism and Technocratic Totalitarianism,’ ‘An Orthodox Approach to the Dangers of Modernity and Technology,’ and ‘An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers.’ He is also known for his YouTube channel, the Norwegian Nous.”4

Following this introductory post, I will in the next post summarize Fr. Sorem’s thesis, and in the two following it, offer my critique. Be prepared for some quite difficult reading!

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1 https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/719360951752851519/720552166384730183/SOPHIA_Paper_2.pdf

2See comment dated 7/17/22 on this site (italics are mine).

3 Wikipedia, Essence-energies distinction.

4 https://www.patristicfaith.com/our-team/

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (end)

In concluding my vacation and the excellent thoughts of Giorgio Vasari in his biography of great Renaissance artists, we come to Gozzoli who becomes for Vasari a model of how contentment follows purpose despite personal suffering: “He who pursues the path of excellence in his labors, although it is, as men say, both stony and full of thorns, finds himself finally at the end of the ascent on a broad plain, with all the blessings that he has desired …deliver men from poverty, and bring them to that secure and tranquil state in which, with so much contentment…”9

Vasari reminds one of Confucius when he gets to the three Bellinis:  “Who does not feel infinite pleasure and contentment, to say nothing of honor and adornment that they confer, at seeing the image of his ancestors, particularly if they have been famous and illustrious for their part in governing of republics, for noble deeds performed in peace of in war, or for learning or any other notable and distinguished talent? And to what other end… did the ancients set up images of their great men in public places, with honorable inscriptions, than to kindle in the minds of their successors a love of excellence and of glory?”10

Vasari counsels us that poverty need not be an obstacle to personal purpose and accomplishment with the example of Perugino: “How great a benefit poverty may be to men of genius, and how potent a force it may be to make them become excellent – nay, perfect- in the exercise of any faculty whatsoever, can be seen clearly enough in the actions of Pietro Perugino…Riches, indeed, might perchance have closed the path on which his talent should advance toward excellence…”11

But Vasari cautions us to remain humble and seek purpose within our own talents and abilities when he describes Raphael, (know best by philosophers for his immortal School of Athens, one of the most reproduced paintings in history) with this  “…no man should aim at super-striving, merely in order to surpass those who, by some gift of nature or by some special grace bestowed on them by God, have performed or are performing miracles in art ; for the reason that he who is not suited to any particular work, can never reach, let him labor as he may, the goal to which another, with the assistance of nature has maintained with ease.”12 Who can deny that we cannot all achieve the height of human creation of this Renaissance master?

I stop here omitting the ultra-famous artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as many others, simply to tease the inclination of the reader to check out Vasari for himself. We are awed that not only did he personally know so many great individuals, a thing most of us will never experience, but that he was able to transform that knowledge into an enduring masterpiece full of perceptive observations on how genius reinforces the meaning of life for us mere mortals.

Thank you for obliging me on my love for art, history, and philosophy.

And yes, it is good to be home…

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9 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 125.

10Ibid., page 136.

11Ibid., page 177.

12Ibid., page 266.

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (continued)

Continuing now both my trip abroad and my current reading of Giorgio Vasari the biographer of great Renaissance artists, we come to his refreshing perspective on competition among persons within a company or field. Speaking on Massacio and Masalino (“big Thomas” and “little Thomas”) who often combined efforts: “It is the custom of nature, when she makes a man very excellent in any profession, very often not to make him alone, but at the same time, and in the same neighborhood, to make another to compete with him, to the end that they may assist each other by their talent and emulation; which circumstance, besides the singular advantage enjoyed by the men themselves, who thus compete with each other, also kindles beyond measure the mind of those who come after that age…”5

Speaking of Brunelleschi, designer of the great il Duomo of Florence, we learn not to underestimate those of apparent diminutive stature perhaps including ourselves and how purpose leads to contentment: “Many men are created by nature small in person and in features, who have a mind full of such greatness and a heart of such irresistible vehemence, that if they do not begin difficult- nay, almost impossible – undertakings, and bring them to completion to the marvel of all who behold them, they have never any peace in their lives; and whatsoever work chance puts into their hands, however lowly and base it may be, they give it value and nobility.”6

Vasari confirms our earlier conclusions on contentment and legacy vis a vis wealth and material goods with the example of Fra Angelico. “ He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little…he sought no dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise. And what dignity, in truth, can be compared to that which all churchmen, nay, all men, should seek, and which is to be found only in God and in a life of virtue?”7

He uses Alberti as his model for the symbolic immortality of virtuous personal creation: “…with regard to name and fame, it is seen from experience that writings have greater power and longer life than anything else; for books go everywhere with ease, and everywhere they command belief, if only they be truthful and not full of lies.”8

The life of Fra Filippo Lippi becomes for Vasari an example of how even the least fortunate can become great. This remarkable artist went from an orphan in a monastery who tore up his school books to prisoner and slave of Moorish pirates to greatness as one of the one of the most excellent painters of his time.

(finished next post)

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5 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 41.

6 Ibid., page 49.

7Ibid., page 108.

8Ibid., page 120.

 

CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI

“He was not a great artist but he was a good man, and industrious investigator,… a generous as well as intelligent critic. In simple, racy, almost colloquial Tuscan, and occasionally with the vividness of the novelle, he gave us one of the most interesting books of all time… It will remain for centuries to come one of the classics of  the world’s literature.” – Will Durant, describing Giorgio Vasari.1

On this particular vacation through Italy, I brought my 1959 Modern Library version of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). To my great surprise his writing on Renaissance artists includes perspicacious observations on humanity and life, and also many pearls of practical wisdom, which I thought I would share with readers. I will go in chapter order so his philosophical perspectives may appear random though they can be arranged more systematically.

Vasari was born in Arezzo Italy and spent most of his life in nearby Florence. He was a middling painter and architect who obtained lasting fame for this book undertaken at the suggestion of Cardinal Farnese in 1546 and published in 1550. It was he who established the term Rinascita for this period, later morphed into Renaissance by the 18th century French encyclopedists.

The first of his observations occurs while speaking of Luca Della Robbia, “…no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.”2 Vasari reminds us that purpose requires endurance and sacrifice, and perhaps that suffering is built into it.

And still with Robbia, Vasari describes a version of Laozi’s wu wei: “…whosoever know that all the arts of design, not to speak only of painting, are similar to poetry, know that even as poems thrown off by the poetic fire are the true and good ones, and better than those made with great effort, so, too the works of men excellent in the arts of design are better when they are made at one sitting by the force of that fire, than when they go about investigating one thing after another with effort and fatigue. And he who has from the beginning, as he should have, a clear idea of what he wishes to do, ever advances resolutely and with great readiness to perfection.”3

His comment on Ghiberti sounds like something we might expect to find in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:  “Since it is seldom that talent is not persecuted by envy, men must continue to the best of their power, by means of the utmost excellence, to assure it of victory, or at least to make it stout and strong to sustain the attacks of the enemy…”4

(continued next post)

 

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1 Durant, Will, The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953. ISBN 0-671-61600-5, pages 704-705.

2 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 12.

3 Ibid., page 15

4Ibid., page 29

CURRENT READING – JEROME

“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” – G.K. Chesterton.

Still traveling, I return to A Loeb Classical Library Reader referenced in the last post where we find one other thinker who addresses contentment – Jerome (c342- 420 C.E.). His Latin name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus but he is better known as Jerome of Stridon or Saint Jerome. His translation of the bible into Latin was the first and came to be known as the Vulgate. He was also a Christian philosopher known for his teachings on moral life mainly to city dwellers and especially to women.1 Today’s selection is from a letter to Marcella written in 385 C.E.

He starts by recounting how Origen2 and his followers spent their time either in prayer or in reading, while in contrast we are easily bored by these activities and soon return to worldly affairs. He has particular scorn for heavy meals, gossip, showy clothing, and the pursuit of wealth, all of which cause conflict in the mind. He explains, “…as today we have traversed a great part of life’s journey through rough seas, and as our barque has been now shaken by tempestuous wind, now holed upon ragged rocks, let us take this first chance and make for the haven of a rural retreat. Let us live there on coarse bread…and on milk, country delicacies, cheap and harmless.”3 Each of the seasons  offer in turn privacy, a place for rest, and escape from the cold unlike in the city where we find an unsettling bustle, fury, madness, and profligacy. Contentment comes from cleaving to God and hope in a future in heaven, not the “poor passing pleasures here on earth.”4

Though separated by 300 years and opposite views on the existence of God, Lucretius and Jerome seem to profess similar paths to contentment. Both urge us to abandon material goods and luxury. Both discount the benefit of society and encourage a return to nature or at least a more natural existence. Their main area of difference appears to be on ultimate reality where Lucretius believes we should contemplate the cosmos and Jerome asks us to seek for the divine. There is much to consider as we reconcile these two with each other and with our cavalcade of other great thinkers.

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 1Wikipedia, Jerome.

2Origen (c. 185–c. 253) was a Christian theologian who contributed to the foundations of church doctrine using classical philosophy to create an exegesis and harmonization of scripture (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Origen [on-line]).

3A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 231.

4Ibid.

CURRENT READING – LUCRETIUS

“Who is calm and quiet becomes the guide for the universe.” – Laozi.

On my current vacation to Europe I have with me a treasure I purchased at After-words in Chicago four years ago, A Loeb Classical Library Reader. This small paperback (234 pages) published in 2006 by Harvard University Press contains selections from 33 classic works spanning twelve centuries from Homer to St. Jerome and covering history, philosophy, poetry, drama, and satire in their original Greek or Latin although thankfully accompanied by an English translation. Given our current subject matter on contentment, I was drawn to the selection from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius subtitled The Epicurean ideal: peace of mind.

Lucretius begins by noting the wistful pleasure experienced in seeing another person’s tribulations such as in battling a storm on the sea from a place of safety on the shore, not because of the other’s misfortune, but by virtue of knowing oneself is free from it.1 But, he tells us, there is a greater pleasure in possessing “lofty sanctuaries serene, well-fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold them all astray, wandering abroad and seeking the path of life – strife of wits, the fight for precedence, all laboring night and day with surpassing toil to mount upon the pinnacle of riches and to lay hold on power.”2

According to Lucretius, Nature sanctions a simpler way focused on the avoidance of pain and a mind free of care and fear. Pain is easily removed by meeting physical needs; luxuries are neither natural nor necessary. Neither beautiful tapestries nor royal robes cure one of sickness. Treasure and noble birth offer little of value to the body or to peace of mind. No army can relieve us of fears, superstition, or the terror of death. Can we doubt “that this power wholly belongs to reason, especially since life is one long struggle in the dark?”3 This kind of darkness is dispelled, not by light, but “by the aspect and law of nature.”4

Lucretius is unambiguous in these passages; peace of mind is the result of reason in harmony with nature not the trappings of society. A contented life we learn requires one to remain above the fray and in touch with the cosmos.

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1 We might think of the pleasure we experience watching storms on The Weather Channel from the comfort of our family room sofa.

2A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 145.

3Ibid., page 149.

4Ibid.