Friday, January 28, 2011

Festa Dies, Doctor Angelicus

Today, January 28th is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.  For those of us who have had philosophy as not merely a course of study, but also as a love-- for indeed philosophy literally means a love of wisdom-- today has special meaning as an occasion to celebrate with our bodies and minds one of the most important thinkers not only of mediaeval times, but of all history.

The Dominican friar from Italy was born in 1225 at his family's castle near Aquino.  His life-- spent in service to God through his study of sacred and natural truths-- came to an abrupt end in 1274 when he was en route to the Second Council of Lyon.  Most who would even dare to read the literary and cultural forays on this site no doubt are familiar with the life and virtues of St. Thomas, as such, it seems rather trite for me to go about offering a biography when Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. has done a finer job than I could ever do.

I suppose then that my task here is to take the great legacy of the Doctor Communis and move forward with it--both in terms of progressing individually in intellect and virtue, and in advancing the greater common good through knowledge of the truth.  Culturally speaking, St. Thomas's philosophy is more than a mere source for metaphysical discussions that have no apparent practical import; rather, his thought is a source of metaphysical principles that help to order the mind and society.  The axiom "good theory begets good practise" comes to mind here.  Though we shouldn't be quick to judge any particular set of principles solely on the practical import it has.  For example, it would be quite incorrect (and hasty) to assert that because person x is a murderer, and person x studied scholastic philosophy that scholastic philosophy leads to the generation of murderers.  There are undoubtedly many facets involved in the generation of a murderer, but we would be false in thinking that scholastic philosophy is necessarily the tipping point.

Good theory is in itself good-- and should be valued precisely because of its goodness.  A holy monk or nun who does God's work by contemplation and prayer with each passing day and night does just as much good work as someone assisting the poor by acts of corporeal service.  Both are different, yet both are good in themselves.  St. Thomas, while known for his practical philosophy (ius naturale, amongst others), is highly regarded for his metaphysical philosophy, which was perhaps largely the result of reconciling St. Augustine's theological system with Aristotle's system of natural philosophy.

Like I said, many reasons to celebrate today.

From a more practical side, however, St. Thomas offers some of the most inspiring thought on the virtues-- in essence his psychological treatises-- which never cease to occupy much of my thought, especially when I consider how I acted in any given moment and how I need to change or do better.  Virtues, as Aristotle said, are habits.  Indeed, when we look at how we act, we can not but help noticing that the good people in our lives are those who often times make it seem easy to be good.  When you think of that Uncle or Grandmother who always seems to be above everything, and always charitable and hopeful, it seems like being good is as easy as simply willing it.  To some extent it is that easy, but we know after reading the Nicomachean Ethics that being good-- or having an excellence about us-- is the repetition of a particular action in tandem with seeing others do the same.  Goodness and virtue can be in born, but for most of us they are the products of hard work, careful introspection...and much criticism.

For the import of culture-- one of the essential matrices-- St. Thomas acts as an underpinning to the co-existence and complementarity between faith and reason.  St. Thomas finds the healthy agreement that exists between a reasonable faith and a believing reason.  Étienne Gilson discussed this fitting together of two supposedly improbable puzzle pieces in his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages.  While Gilson poses the wide variety of responses to the question of how reason and revelation work together, from Tertullian to St. Bonaventure and Averroes, we are presented ultimately with the figure of St. Thomas who acts as the foundation to a proper understanding of the interrelation between faith and reason. 

Given our contemporaries' fixation on the animosity between the two, St. Thomas is a wonderful source for guidance on the purely Catholic view that reason without faith is hopeless, and faith without reason is dead.  When we abstract faith and act as though reason is an enemy, we are taking away from ourselves an angle and a lens through which we can more clearly see our religion and experience the God Who from the beginning endowed us with the precious ability to think and abstract-- to ponder, wonder, feel, express, and ultimately love.

St. Thomas should be a paragon for our vision of the world: as a place full of wonder and mystery; as an unfolding before our eyes of the Love of God Who not only gave His only Son for our redemption, but the beauty of the cosmos for our enjoyment, for our virtue-- one another for manifestations of His Love-- and all that is for the exhilaration of simple joy that comes from knowing the truth of things.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Can you imagine...

Life without Mozart?...Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that is.  His father's music was fantastic too-- his Sinfonia di Caccia is a personal favourite.  Yet, his son's compositions shine like a beacon within the history of Western music.

But... to return to my original question: Can you imagine life without Mozart?  To some, the question might be a non sequitur because it's obvious that we can "live" without the Austrian's music.  However, can we truly Live?  There are two senses of which we can speak of when we say "live".  The first can be taken as living in a merely biological or instinctual way: by eating and sleeping and fulfilling the other functions that we as rational animals (to quote Aristotle) share with the lower animals.  Conversely, the second sense of living means an experience and an abstraction apart from the basic necessities of life... it means to think and contemplate: to express the "divine spark" inherent within us.  When we think and contemplate, we live in a way that fulfills our rational nature and as the ancients said, ignites the God within us.

All of this is to say (or rather ask): Can we live a full and rational life without Mozart?

Plainly and simply, my answer is no.

The richness of Wolfgang's music has left the world a better place-- despite this cliché it remains a verity.  So many people recognize the beauty that emanates from Mozart's compositions, from his sonatas, Masses, operas (who can forget the arias of Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte?), to magnificent symphonies and concertos.  Recently, my fiancée and I attended a concert at which there was a performance of Mozart's symphony No. 23, followed by a Dvořák concerto.  After the orchestra finished playing Mozart's symphony, the audience gave a rousing standing ovation, which was quite loud and powerful.  Following the bravos and cheers, nearly half of those in attendance got up and left.

It was simply astounding to see how people would disregard another magnificent artist-- for Dvořák's music is indeed beautiful and moving-- just to listen to a sublime performance of a Mozart symphony.  It proved to me right then and there that Mozart's music has something more in it, something more than simply entertainment value, but an expression of pure divine beauty.  The melodies and themes, the allegros and the largos... everything about Mozart's music that makes it Mozart's is what sets him apart not merely in our hearing, but in our feeling... in our very souls.

Whether melancholic like the clarinet concerto, moving and giddy like Le Nozze di Figaro, solemn like the Jupiter symphony, reverent and glorious like the Exultate Jubilate, tragically joyful like the Requiem Mass, or chipper and singing like the piano concerto No. 22... nothing seems to touch the heart and mind like Mozart's music.  Ever since youth, it left an indelible mark on my intellectual life as a source of solace and beauty-- it has in many ways been an impetus to the wonderful friendships I have (and of course it helped me to fall more deeply in love with my musical fiancée.)  Music like his inspires and influences thinking.  His dramatic musical poetry flows with a graced liquidity that the spirit drinks up with such fervor that often times there seems to be a slippage from reality.  A type of immersion in the world of Mozart's music that both elevates yet enables us to be more aware of the beauty in every aspect of the world around us. 

His music is like wine, poured out into the spirit that inebriates us with a sweetness that surpasses all years and tastes.  The melodies of his work remain enchanting and mysterious for their ability to set us on fire.

Perhaps it's fitting then that I write such praise, for today is Mozart's birthday.  On this day, January 27th, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in the Archbishopric of Salzburg in the year 1756.

So... have a glass of wine, or scotch, put on some Mozart and relish in the music and the man that "gave us God's eternal laughter."


Like Evelyn Waugh, using Et in Arcadia Ego as a starting point is more than tempting-- considering our common (and antiquated) methods for belief and philosophy.  This should first of all tell you something important about this "blog."  It will hardly be a blog in the ordinary sense... yes there will be convenient amounts of bloviation, though hopefully more substantial.  Yet, the overarching theme of this site will be one focused on the culture; from its many perspectives.  Art, literature, music, conversation, family, government and politics-- it will all be the object of thought and contemplation in a manner that essentially breathes the free Catholic air.

Catholicism in this vein, therefore, is more than just an assumption of certain dogmas.  No, rather it is an understanding and a context.  It is the fundamental placing of a person and his ideas within the world he occupies, and the world he has come from.  Someone once said that to be Catholic meant that one had to have an understanding of history.  Well, here, that same will apply.  But, it will also mean that history is not simply dates and figures, but ideas-- their impact-- and the plight of beauty, truth, and goodness, in a world that sometimes looses sight of them.

I will come to this table offering the insights of someone who has grown-up Catholic and likes to think that he sees the world through such clear eyes.  The world of culture is an ever changing thing, and indeed it is something that permeates (for it ought to) ever segment and moment of our lives... this is object of our forum here. 

Finally, we should always be mindful of the fact that while we use culture and its products for various means-- such as getting an A on that Baroque Art exam, or impressing a beautiful girl with our knowledge of Rosetti's poetry-- it is, and must be approached as, something worthwhile in itself... something good for its own sake.

Welcome to Culture and Catholicism!