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On Thinking and Persistence

Part of man’s problem—which is sin—is his tendency to quit.  This applies to almost everything on which man should never quit, but almost inevitably does.  Most especially, though, it happens with intellectual endeavors.  There are a lot of reasons behind such a lackadaisical attitude, from poor education to inundation with distractions and mostly passive amusements of little real value.  Being in good physical shape has easily-seen benefits, which are glorified by the Great Stereopticon.1 Being in good intellectual shape is a bit harder to see, especially when there is a grievous misperception as to what constitutes a sharp intellect; math and science can help man do things, but unless there is wisdom and prudence, he just ends up with a lot of stuff, a lot of which is not that great anyway: like the atom bomb.  Thus, whenever it comes to something which is difficult to understand, which is not simple, which requires persistence in thinking, people are big fans of finding an easier, simpler, if quite-wrong explanation.  The more elevated the subject matter, the less inclined a person is to pursue the adequation of his intellect with the objects of thought.  This is most true, sadly, of religious faith.

It is not as though every man ought to be studying the most profound metaphysical principles nor delving into works of systematic theology.  For someone who spends all day mopping floors and has never attained a good liberal arts education, it cannot be expected; nor can it be anticipated of every child, some not making the choices necessary in educating themselves, and some not having the intellectual material there in the first place.  Nonetheless, there is a general human phenomenon, particularly in the day of the emancipated, independent, and self-determining person, to assume intellectual competency in his choices despite intellectual laziness.  There is no problem with a janitor choosing to believe in God because of the evidence he sees on a daily basis, so long as he really applies his intellect.  But there is a problem with a janitor choosing not to believe in God because he cannot see Him like he sees his dog.

This problem manifests itself rather clearly in Protestantism, most especially the sort of Protestantism that serves as little more than a therapeutic deism; and even more profoundly does it demonstrate itself in cafeteria Catholicism, which is perhaps the worst of any Protestantism, since it belies its true nature under a nobler name.  Such dissenters who embrace the hermeneutic of rupture tend to do so because understanding the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church, despite the inconsistent persons who have been teaching within it, requires a not-inconsiderable amount of intellectual alacrity (or faith, hope, and obedience; in some cases the unwise rejection may, hopefully, be wrought by invincible ignorance).  In some ways this can see the smashing of square pegs through round holes; but so can the brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas, if one understands words as merely one-way signifiers of a calcified denotative meaning.  Frankly, almost every author and every person, even the most pervasively lucid, can be seen to contradict themselves if understood in such a strict manner.  G.K. Chesterton, if read narrowly, flatly contradicts himself at every turn; but what Chesterton knew is that the words he wrote were not merely a means to signify particular objects, but that they signified concepts and universals and a host of parts and wholes to an audience.  The Magisterial teachings of the One True Church certainly signify eternal concepts; but they signify them to rather varied audiences, and sometimes the means by which they are signified are not really the best; sometimes the wording is vague, or ambiguous, or in particular instances of those not teaching in accord with the Magisterium, downright fallacious.  But the teachings do not change, because they cannot.

Sometimes, such as those of the 1960s, it can be difficult to understand the significations of a teaching; but the error, more often than not, is not with the teaching itself, but with the person trying, or not trying, to understand it.  Perhaps if he got off the couch (or quit dozing on the Mount) a bit more often, his perspective would be a little clearer.

1 A term coined by Richard Weaver to describe the all-encompassing media state from which modern man cannot escape.  It is a little bit Huxleian, but nonetheless very true—much more so today than when Weaver introduced the term in 1948.

Categories: General
  1. John Lollard
    August 12, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Well, I must say, I am honored by this post.
    Speaking of continuities:

    So here’s a simpler explanation of G.K. Chesterton. Rather than presume that he had one well-formed and definite opinion that he spoke on in all of his writings, variously highlighting separate elements that seem at first to contradict one another but not when read in light of him having always believed the same thing in all his writings and the contradictions really being a single harmony of opinions (that happen to all really be the most recent opinion expressed) hidden beneath the use of language and the dis-interpretation of his words from what they meant when they were first written, rather than all of that, why don’t we posit that maybe Chesterton changed his mind during the course of his life in response to new experiences and new information and new insight; that the apparent contradictions are places where he had changed his mind or was inconsistent or never had a really firm opinion anyway; that he might have been more correct earlier on and changed in error, of he might have been in error early on and changed in truth, but that he did not retain a static vision of what he truly professed throughout his entire life. Seems to account for everything in his life a lot better, and it seems to fit with all of the data about everyone who is not Chesterton as well.

    Of course, the theory that we really have a single faceted work of Chesterton expressed variedly throughout his writings, and that his last opinions that seemingly contradict his first opinions are really the same opinion that he held all along but differently expressed is plausible. Just extremely contrived. It’s almost like someone had a staked interest or professed faith in Chesterton never contradicting himself and now has to handle the obvious contradictions. But that’s just my opinion.

    • August 12, 2009 at 10:17 pm

      Of course Chesterton’s opinions changed. He was a fallible man, and one who admitted as much. I highly recommend reading his autobiography.

      However, the reference to him here is one that in a single paragraph you can find such apparent contradictions. However, applying a little judicious reading, a little awareness of a greater totality of things than one’s personal or contemporary experience allows for a shock; namely that the apparent contradiction is actually a more lucidly presented truth than you’ve encountered in some time.

  2. Dr. S. Petersen
    August 13, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Please be careful to match the number of your pronouns with the number of their antecedents.
    However, yours is a great blog. Deep subjects, well treated.

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