A Moving Image of Eternity

July 25, 2010

There is an excellently over-the-top article about baseball on the First Things website today. It begins with a discussion of baseball as a representative product of American culture, a topic I find quite interesting. I also particularly liked these two paragraphs, especially the term “the oblong game” (meaning all games of the football/soccer/basketball/hockey variety):

All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis, I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in ¬mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park—Yankee Stadium, for instance—there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

Over-the-top as all these claims are, there is something of truth in them; any beautiful thing (and baseball is beautiful) is so because it resonates with something greater than itself.

For the first time in several years the Texas Rangers appear likely to go to the playoffs and perhaps make it past the first round. It could be an exciting season.


To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)




Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”


What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.


A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).

2009 Reviewed in Words

December 29, 2009

(As opposed to not in words? they ask.)

It’s been an eventful year. And I’ve discovered a lot of new interesting concepts; or, perhaps, a better way to say it would be that I’ve learned a lot of new words that can be used to describe concepts that I already understood implicitly. Thus, I think, the best way to recap what I’ve learned over the last twelve months is to attempt to define, briefly, all of the words I’ve gained a new grasp of. (I’m going to proceed somewhat chronologically; basically, to write this post, I’m reading through all of the posts I’ve made so far this year.)

  • sublime – n. What is extreme, out of proportion to mankind, overwhelming. The sublime, though not itself divine, reminds us of God. An example of the sublime might be a vast mountain, or a storm at sea.
  • hue – n. The aspect of color captured by the rainbow, whose essence is variety without inherent moral meaning. Red, blue, green, etc, have different emotional flavors, but are in themselves neither good nor evil.
  • value – n. The aspect of color contained within the dichotomy of light and dark, and which carries a moral connotation, but has no aesthetic value.
  • empathize – v. To attempt to understand another person’s state of mind despite the impossibility of actually becoming them. That impossibility makes empathy impossible, and yet it remains necessary for human life. To empathize with another is to treat them as another subject, not merely an object.
  • sincerity – n. The virtue of presenting oneself as one is, rather than as one wishes to be perceived. Necessary if one is to be empathized with, or (since empathy must be reciprocal) to empathize with another.
  • induct – v. To move from a finite data set to a general conclusion. Life itself is inductive, for the universe is finite, and yet we attempt to find meaning in it that is not arbitrary, not finite, divine. Language is also inductive; we will only experience the hearing or reading of a given word a finite number of times, yet we can extrapolate a meaning from it beyond the mere amalgamation of those experiences.
  • deduct – v. To apply general laws to specific cases and thus arrive at a conclusion. To act in the world, we must use deduction, and yet we cannot deduct without general laws, which we get from induction; the two are thus inextricably linked.
  • faerie – n. The sense of mystery we feel when we encounter nature as separate from the self and from society, impossible to understand, and yet intended by God. Tied to a feeling of strangeness, of the foreign, the “other.”
  • numinous – adj. Suggestive of the power or presence of a divinity, and of final causality; the “why” rather than the “how.” Different from “fey” in that the numinous is generally spiritual, whereas the fey is necessarily physical, and related specifically to nature.
  • spell – v. To entrance, draw in, convey a meaning. What a poem does to us when we read it: through its language, rhyme, wordplay, it impresses on us an emotional state we perhaps would never have experienced otherwise.

These ten words, as you may have noticed, are interrelated; there are perhaps three or four themes running through all of them. But I don’t want to try to define what those themes are; I’ll let the words speak for themselves.

(Incidentally, this post may end up as a precursor to a new page to go along the top: “Turin’s Dictionary,” consisting of the above plus any other words crucial to my understanding of the world.)

Personal Narratives

November 12, 2009

The blog Findings, written by a fellow former Wesnothian, had a post today about narrative which ties in nicely with something I’ve been thinking about myself: perhaps, just as that post implies that we are each trying to write our own narratives, we could say that the world is a grand story composed of the multitude of personal narratives we are all crafting, and which cannot be reduced to a simpler form, and it is impossible to understand the world entirely, because we can never fully understand another person…

Of course, this isn’t a fully thought out idea, but I want to post that link before I forget about it. Perhaps I’ll come back to this when I have a fuller description of what I mean. Incidentally, this is a thought I had after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; if I end up able to draw a coherent concept out of this mess, I’ll have to revise my opinion of that book upwards.

Difference and Indifference

October 15, 2009

I’ve become aware of an interesting phenomenon over the past month or so regarding the reading of argumentative non-fiction. It’s probably because of the JPo project, in which we read a bunch of literary criticism about our focal poet, but I’ve experienced it regarding other subjects as well, including philosophy and politics.

What I’m talking about without naming is essentially an experience that I’ve had multiple times, in different forms: I read a book. I disagree with the argument of the book, and “officially” declare that to be my response to the book. I go about my life. Days, weeks, or months later, I encounter something related in some way to the argument the book made. I then approach the new situation in the light of the book I previously read, whether explicitly or implicitly, and treat it as providing me a unique insight into the new situation, regardless of the fact that I completely disagree with the book when I originally read it.

I have a theory as to why this happens. Essentially, I think, when I read something, I’ve invested several hours, perhaps days, into reading and thinking about what it is I’ve read; that time spent has created an emotional bond with the material. I may disagree with what it says, but I disagree with it; I don’t just vaguely not like that way of approaching the subject, I have grappled with a particular person’s argument and formed an emotional bond with it – perhaps negative, but still, an emotional.

After writing that last sentence, it occured to me that this seems related to something I’ve written before, I don’t remember where, about interpersonal relationships. To dislike someone is still to have an emotional connection to someone. To actively dislike someone – rather than simply ignoring them – is to have a closer bond with someone than to just vaguely not mind their being around.

Also, I think, a strong enmity is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than into nothing at all; and, in fact, I think it is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than is a weak friendship, by which I mean one where the two people are not good friends not because they don’t know each other well, but because they just don’t particularly like each other, even if they don’t particularly dislike each other. The former case, after all, is just one of changing the type of emotion felt; the latter is one of changing the intensity of emotion, a more difficult proposition.

The Core

August 24, 2009

In a week’s time I move into my new apartment and begin the newest semester of college, this being my junior year. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the education I received my first two years at the University of Dallas, and the defining characteristic of that education: the Core. Prepare for a mild degree of ranting.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I’ll briefly describe the courses UD’s Core (the list of those required of all students) includes (for a total of 21 classes):

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • “Fundamentals of Economics”
  • “Principles of American Politics”
  • Two science classes, one “life science” and one “physical science”
  • A math class and a fine arts class (for whatever reason these are listed together)
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

This is a fairly large list of courses; they’re usually finished by the end of a student’s sophomore year. I’m done with all of it except the foreign language, due to taking German Elementary I & II my freshman year and then not taking any languages last year (I blame Rome).

In general I think it’s a good program, but I have a number of complaints with it. For the most part, they boil down to, “either force students to take this subject seriously, or take it out of the Core”.

Complaint #1: The math and science classes in the Core are, for the non-math-or-science major, a joke. The problem is that, while the courses in English, Philosophy, Theology, and History all serve as a good introduction to the subject for someone wanting to major in those subjects, no math major will ever take “Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries” (the course non-math-and-science majors always take), instead they’ll take Calculus I&II (if they haven’t already), then Linear Point Set Theory, and go from there. No biology major will ever take the class known colloquially as “baby bio”, instead they’ll take Gen Bio I, and then Gen Bio II. Et cetera.

This results in the majors not taking the core courses, but jumping right into the actual subject matter, while the core courses are taught be people who don’t want to teach them to classes composed of people who don’t want to take them and study the subject to so little depth that it might as well not be studied at all. My solution? Sadly, unless the school could bring itself to start demanding that its entire student body learn calculus (which I don’t expect to happen, though I don’t see why it shouldn’t; for some reason calculus is seen as too difficult for fine arts majors), I think the best thing to do would be to cut out the math and science requirements altogether. These are subjects that (ought to) have been taught to the students in high school already to at least the same level they’re learning about it at college. Why duplicate that effort?

Similarly, though Economics and Politics majors do take Fundamental of Economics and Principles of American Politics alongside non-major classmates, the politics core course seems to me to duplicate what’s taught in high school politics classes and the history classes that are part of the core, and the economics one is just as bad. I doubt there was any need for the majors to take the class before taking higher-level classes, and the non-majors in the class learned little from them.

Then there’s the Fine Arts course inexplicably lumped in with the math requirement. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this requirement is. To get any kind of decent grasp of art or music or in the Western tradition would require a multi-course sequence (and indeed, the core requirement is satisfied, when not by “Art and Architecture in Rome”, by a single course picked from these sequences). The requirement can also be satisfied by a single “History of Drama” course. This major requirement just seems bizarre to me, especially given how it can be satisfied by studying visual art OR music OR drama, a somewhat random collection unified only by not being purely language-based.

Is the goal to convey a history of “aesthetics” in general, and visual art, music, and drama, are all seen as equally good vehicles at doing this? If so, then just put more emphasis on views of aesthetics in the English classes, which already serve as a history of artistic development, but are currently restricted to language arts only, or in the History classes, which are already essentially history of intellectual thought and incorporate a good deal of aesthetic history. But why have a separate core requirement that can be fulfilled by any of a large number of courses that each give you only a snapshot of the history of the arts?

So if I made these changes to the Core, what we we be left with? It would look something like the following:

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel, and also talking about how the works of literature fit into broader aesthetic categories (“Romantic”, “Renaissance”, “Medieval”, etc)
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”, talking about not only political but also intellectual and aesthetic history
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

Total: 14 classes. Which is essentially a student’s freshman year, plus the semester they spend in Rome if they go. A reduced core, but one that still fulfills its purpose.

Bringing it down to 14 courses also gives some room for additional courses, if desired; for example, since “history” is now explicitly burdened with talking about intellectual and aesthetic history, rather than just political and economic history, a fifth history course might be desired. (“Explicitly” is in place of “implicitly” – history classes at UD already focus on intellectual and aesthetic history more so than anywhere else, this would just make it official.)

It is also a Core that is unapologetically unscientific. This is not ideal, I believe, but it better than being apologetically unscientific – better than pretending to include math and science, but actually not leading to any real study of those subjects except by those who are majoring in them. It would be possible to still include math and science in the Core, of course, but it would require a radical perspective shift; if you believe they ought to learn more than they already did in high school, then forcing them to learn calculus is the logical next step. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s pointless to force them to continue taking math classes.

So that’s my grand theory of what I would do to the Core if ever I were in charge of UD. I never will be, of course, which is why even if this plan is actually more harm than good, we’ll never know about it. But that’s the fun of wishful thinking, isn’t it – that there’s no consequences to poorly thought out wishes?

More on Reason

March 29, 2008

I’ve talked about this before (twice). That was a year and a half ago. I hadn’t progressed any further on the subject until a few weeks ago, before Spring Break.

Where I last left off, my conclusion was that, while we have to make assumptions in order to come to any conclusions (i.e. we need axioms, no matter what), it’s only natural to take the validity of reason and logic as an axiom. After all, if we don’t, green pineapple rain. And that still convinces me.

But now, it seems me that the right question is not, “why not green pineapple rain?” – in other words, why shouldn’t we be irrational? Because the answer to that is, “faith”. Even if we can’t prove that logic is valid, we should accept it on faith. And this is at least one component, I think, of faith in the Christian God.

The right question is, “how not green pineapple rain?”. What I mean by this is – if it is a possibility that the world is irrational, what would it even mean for us to assume that it is rational? What does it mean for God to exist if there is such a thing as existence only when you assume that things make sense? I see this as breaking down into two cases:

  • If reason is a human construct, then God/rationality/everything depends on humanity, not vice versa. In my opinion, that’s obviously false, whether you believe in God or not (hopefully you believe in logic). It’s essentially solipsism.
  • If reason is not a human construct, then it must have some sort of being – though we (or at least I) can’t say a thing about what sort. But what does it mean for reason to be somehow real if someone can just deny its existence and then, for that person, it does not exist?

I can accept having to put my faith in something. But I don’t like the idea that my faith in it is the only thing that makes it real, because I think that denies reality itself. I’m not sure I’m expressing this coherently, but basically – it makes it so that both possibilities, reason and unreason, are equally unreal, and I just choose which illusion I want to live with. Whatever “illusion” and “live” mean. Green pineapple rain. :/

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