About the Journey? Medieval and Modern View

In the modern world, the decline of reason has led to the rise of cheap clichés by which people run their lives. A person no longer has the ability or (what is the real problem) patience to follow a logical argument to its conclusion. Nor does he have the will to modify his thinking or life according to the conclusions of that argument. Society today is less concerned to reason and more concerned to rationalize, less concerned with justice and more concerned to justify. In such a world, man is forced to live by cliché. Reason is too risky; once begun, one never knows where it might lead; far better to never let the process get started in the first place.

One could dedicate an entire blog to exposing modern slogans, but the one that concerns us here is the oft repeated idea that life is “about the journey not the destination.” I read one comment on another blog post saying exactly this:

The journey always matters more than the destination. In fact I don’t think life actually has a destination… it’s just a journey without a specific destination. If it had a destination, then what should we do once we reach that destination? There would be nothing to do. The whole thrill of life comes from the fact that there is no destination to reach (1). 

In the Middle Ages, such an idea would have been considered nonsense. There, the destination mattered tremendously; it was what gave the journey meaning. When the crusaders set off on a journey of hundreds of leagues to recapture Jerusalem, the destination, Jerusalem, was the point of the whole affair. Thousands of men, whether rightly or wrongly, suffered and died for that destination and because of that destination the journey was a meaningful one. This was also the point of pilgrimage, the destination was what made the journey special, worthwhile, and gave it meaning. For a crusader or pilgrim to have intended to go to Jerusalem, taken a wrong turn, ended up in Asia, and concluded “well, I guess it’s about the journey, anyway,” would have been absurd.

What is more, in the medieval world-view, life was a journey, with a destination. It was a journey to the grave- the expression sometimes used is: pilgrimage of life and death. Everyone, saint and sinner, ended up there sooner or later. But it was not only a journey to the grave, but beyond it. In the medieval view, there was an end point beyond death and that was God and heaven. It was the destination toward which everyone hoped to make his or her journey. Like a pilgrimage, the destination made the journey meaningful; and so life was meaningful because it was headed somewhere. It was a journey, a pilgrimage, because there was a destination that mattered.

No so today. Unlike medieval man, the modern world-view typically has little room for God or heaven. The journey has no meaningful point, no north by which a man may set his compass, and no meaningful end. One thinks of Nietsche’s madman, who proclaimed the death of God and the consequences: nihilism.

Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? (2)

Is there still any up or down?” Nietsche thought not. A life without a destination, end, or point is a pointless life and a pointless life is simply unlivable. Yet, this is the world that modern society lives with. So, it tells itself nonsense about the destination not mattering– the journey is more important. What would there be to do anyway, once we reached a destination? As if a man has nothing to do once he reaches the Louvre. The destination gives the journey meaning- without that, it is not a journey at all, only wandering.

(1) https://deepthinkings.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/its-about-the-journey-not-the-destination/

(2) http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/nietzsche-and-the-madman.htm

Flattening the World: Same-sex Marriage and Resistance

In response to the Supreme Court’s recent display of hubris and judicial overreach in legalizing same-sex marriage, the response has been mixed. Supporters have been in a state of giddy celebration, often leading them to denounce opponents as hateful bigots who hate love, love hatred, and simply cannot stand to see people with same-sex attraction happy. Opponents’ response to the decision has been more varied. Many have been both upset and fearful of the consequences– as well they might, since if 5 “benevolent” social planners can redefine something as basic as marriage, then what can they not do?

Other opponents though, have charged such people with over-reaction. To be afraid and upset, some have said- shows a lack of faith in God. Or else, (James Martin SJ) it shows a hatred of homosexuals (1). Of course, this is nonsense. If Jesus Himself wept over the state of his country, then we should be able to weep over ours. If He could call his closest follower “Satan,” then we can recognize the wrong done for what it is. And if He could summon the manliness and sheer moral outrage to fashion a whip of cords and drive the merchants and money-changers from the temples, then we can at least summon the moral outrage to do resist the evil done.

Supporters of redefining marriage have declared the debate over, but it is not. It is not because neither government nor society has power to change the meaning of marriage. It has has no more power to make a relationship between two men a marriage than it has to cause two and two to make five. Even if this broad decision were not the result of a mere five judges, even were it made by unanimous vote of an entire society, it could not change the nature of marriage. That would, and does, remain.

On July 6, 1535 a Catholic laymen was executed for refusing to recognize his own government’s attempt to redefine both marriage and the government’s power over religion. This man, Thomas More, was the hero of the agnostic playwright Robert Bolts’ Man for All Seasons. In one scene, Bolt has More being interrogated by the king’s ministers demanding that he recognize the king’s redefinitions. More replies simply,

“Some think the world round, others think it flat; it is a matter of debate. But if it is flat, will the king’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the king’s command flatten it?” No, I will not sign.”

Neither Supreme Court, nor government, nor society has any more power to redefine marriage than it has to flatten a round world. And because the truth of the matter will not be on their side, proponents of the attempted redefinition will be especially hostile to those who resist. The resistance of even one good man will have to be crushed– as Henry VIII had to crush Thomas More though he stood almost alone against all the power of the English state (2).

What to do in such a world, when it seems as if all the power of the secular world, government, media, and large majorities are preparing to move against opponents of same-sex marriage? The only thing one can do: resist. In history, battles have been turned by small groups of men planting their flag and refusing to move against larger forces. The world will move, but they will not. David planted himself against the giant Goliath. 300 Spartans planted themselves against the Persian Empire, rag-tag minutemen against the British Empire. And God planted his flag, a cross on a hill, Calvary, before all the power of Hell. Fulton Sheen has said that, “in history, the only causes that die are those for which men refuse to die.” One man willing to lose everything for a cause is worth more than 100 men willing to lose only some things, because a man willing to lose everything is a man who cannot be bullied.

For the bullies will come and are already at the door (3). And when they come, the only answer can be, “you move, for I will not.”

(1) http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?ID=1098

(2) This is not mere rhetoric. One thinks of the Bakers punished for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/07/03/christian-bakers-fined-135000-for-refusing-to-make-wedding-cake-for-lesbians.html); the Catholic priest spit on by gay pride supporters (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/06/29/tolerance-vs-pride-spit-on-by-parade-goers-catholic-priest-has-this-message.html);

(3) As in the cases cited in note 2.

Rhetoric, Reason, and Truth

In ancient Greece, a group of philosophers, the sophists, made a name for themselves for their skill in debate. The took the position, a position shared by so many in the modern world, that no objective truth existed. Instead, truth was merely subjective. Because truth was subjective, debate did not have the purpose of finding truth, but of simply convincing others to adopt one’s views without regard to whether or not those views were true. Hence, the sophists would teach others to debate both sides of an issue with equal effectiveness since neither side was more (or less) true than the other. In their world, one without truth, the side of an issue one adopted would be based on the slick arguments used, the appeals to emotion, persuasiveness of the case to a particular person etc. But one never chose a side of an issue or course of action because it was true- it was not.

Against the sophists, rose the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who created rules of logic, including the syllogism, as well as a list of fallacies that invalidated an argument. Hence, a claim that “you only think that because you are a man,” or “you only think that because you were raised to think it,” would be rejected as fallacious irrelevancies to the question of whether or not a claim was true. In this view, logic and reason, not rhetoric or slick talk would determine the truth value of a particular claim.

Yet, in the ancient world, Aristotle (as well as his teacher Plato) formed a distinct minority. It awaited the Middle Ages for his views to be spread to society at large. In one of those strange accidents or twists that makes history so interesting, the twelfth century rediscovered Aristotle’s works in the universities that were just beginning to form and spread throughout Europe. Harmonized with Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, logic became the language of the universities that formed the basis of the modern university system. While Aristotle had invented it, it took until the Christian Middle Ages for Aristotle to really catch on as “The Philosopher,” “the master of them that know” in the words of Dante.

Maybe such reason and logic could never really have flourished in a pagan world. Maybe the reason it took until the Christian Middle Ages to really take over lay in that Christianity offered a basis for the logical explanation of the world that pagan antiquity never really could. In the Christian conception, the universe was the product of a divine mind, a greatest conceivable being (in the language of Anselm). Hence the universe was an orderly place reflecting the order, reason, and love that had made it. Consequently, the universe could be explored rationally. No one in the ancient world thought Zeus or any other god particularly rational—at any rate, the ancient gods were creatures and not creators, anyway. More commonly, the universe was simply regarded as the product of chance, appearing for no reason, according to no plan. Hence it was not especially likely to be a rational place; far more likely were it to be non-rational and random. Logic and reason simply had more basis to flourish in a Christian society—and so they did.

Possibly this is why logic and reason are on the decline in the modern world. As the world grows increasingly pagan, the world appears as a cosmic accident, a chance event. Why then, should it be a rational place? Why should reason be able to tell us anything about it? Instead of reason and logic, debates in the public sphere often seem to be a matter of emotion, of slick and clever sound bites. The sophists have returned and they have all the force of the modern media, newscasters, social media, and twitter behind them. One might hope the universities, with their medieval basis, would be an exception, but as they secularize, they too are less places of rational and free inquiry and more places where students are taught a particular viewpoint (the pagan one). Arguing now means insults and personal attacks rather than the cool analysis of a particular issue. This has been particularly evident perhaps in recent debates over same-sex marriage. Opponents of it are not reasoned with; they are merely insulted, called names, and dismissed with no more than a few cheap cliches. In an increasingly secular world, perhaps this is unsurprising, but it is still nonetheless regrettable.