Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.



St. Silouan on Nietzsche

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)

Educating Narcissus

Recently posted on AOI is Bryan Smith’s essay on Christian education, “Educating Narcissus”.  Bryan is a friend, fellow parishioner, and a rare jewel in the educating community.  He is also the founder of the Orthodox School Association and headmaster of St. Peter’s Orthodox Classical School in Fort Worth, TX.  The school has the entire age-range of students, and Bryan works with them everyday.  He knows education from top to bottom.

Unfortunately, we now have behind us several decades of professionally sanctioned educational practices which, in their methods as well as in their results, could be called an education to narcissism. Child-centered learning, whole-language practice, and multiple-intelligence theory have taught countless children that nothing matters which has its origin outside the self.

Though perhaps not overtly, the lesson has, nevertheless, been taught. It has been taught in stream-of-consciousness “journaling” where external forms such as spelling and grammar are of no consequence; it has been taught in anti-knowledge schools where memorization is belittled as “rote learning” and administrators declare openly their inability to predict what children will need to know in the future. It has been taught by teachers telling students there are no right answers, and by the cheap teen novels once hidden from the instructor but now assigned as classroom reading because she believes the young people can “relate” to them better. It has been taught in social studies where students learn nothing of the sacrifices of heroic men and women of the past, but everything of their own personal entitlements. In these and so many other ways, our current “progressive” schools encourage children to gaze no farther than their own adolescent images.

There are many problems with this approach. Most practically, it simply fails as a means of education—a fact by now so well documented that only those with careers rooted in the old theories still echo their empty tenets. Moreover, this approach to education assumes a Romantic optimism about human nature that is unjustified by practical experience, denies the fallen nature, and robs young people of the noblest ideas and examples of human kind while forcing them to wallow in the low, the base, and the mediocre. Furthermore, the progressive approach squanders the best opportunity—that of the early school years—to instill a body of objective factual content that can become a network of epiphanies in later years, and to inculcate habits of diligence in the attention to minute details that must always accompany successes that are not accidental. The most dangerous effect of all, however, may be that this progressive approach to education gives children the idea that the universe orbits around the parochial world of themselves and their peers—that the world will forever reconfigure itself around their desires, moods, and natural inclinations.

Many Christian schools, we must admit, are not guiltless of this pedagogical folly.

Bryan, a historically minded educator as well as an historically minded Christian, casts a corrective vision.

The education offered by Orthodox Christian schools has as one of its intentions to lure Narcissus away from his pool. Our focus on the history of Christian Civilization is an attempt to ground young people outside themselves in a legacy of ideas, actions, and aesthetics that span continents and millennia. We want them to see society as comprising the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. Our studies of great historical personalities are intended to impress upon the students how greatly their own lives and options have been shaped by the prudent foresight of another generation. Even in our study of other cultures we are not so impressed with the insular cults of folk-ways as we are with the common nature all humans share—a nature which universally acknowledges one natural law and so points to the existence of a standard higher than the assumptions of any one self-approving group.

Wittgenstein & Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’

There’s an insipid idea of “progress” that not only does a disservice to our ancestors but also fosters and spirit that robs joy and wonder from our experience of the world.  Both Chesterton and Wittgenstein named this spirit for what it was; and urged an awakening of vision of the world.  For Chesterton this awakening was one of beauty and adventure, for Wittgenstein it was one of duty and truth — and maybe the two are not as far off from each other as they might seem.

From Wittgenstein’s notes collected in Culture and Value, written in 1930.

In Renan’s ‘Peuple d’Israel’ I read: “Birth sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, dreams, all made an immense impression and,  even nowadays, only a few have the gift of seeing clearly that these phenomena have causes within our constitution.”

On the contrary there is absolutely no reason to wonder at these things, because they are such everyday occurrences. If primitive men can’t help but wonder at them, how much more so dogs and monkeys.  Or is it being assumed that men, as it were, suddenly woke up and, noticing for the first time these things that had always been there, were understandably amazed? — Well, as a matter of fact we might assume something like this; though not that they become aware of these things for the first time but that they do suddenly start to wonder at them.  But this again has nothing to do with their being primitive.  Unless it is called primitive not to wonder at things, in which case the people of today are really the primitive ones, and Renan himself too if he supposes that scientific explanation could intensify wonderment.

As though lightning were more commonplace or less astounding today that 2000 years ago.

Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples.  Science is a way of sending him off to sleep again.

In other words it’s just false to say: Of course, these primitive peoples couldn’t help wondering at everything.  Though perhaps it is true that these peoples did wonder at all the things around them. — To suppose they couldn’t help wondering at them is a primitive superstition…

Things are placed right in front of our eyes, not covered by any veil. — This is where religion and art part company.

Ok, so I don’t know how much they share that last sentiment, but the likeness is enough to make me grin.

Wittgenstein summarizes Chesterton

From Philosophical Investigations.


The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.  (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.  Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

Philosophy’s valuable bumps

What is philosophy good for? People often read Wittgenstein as deconstructing the usefulness of philosophy; and I suppose that is sort of true. As any philosophy majoy will tell you, philosophy is not particularly useful.  They will, however, tell you that it is incredibly valuable.  Wittgenstein helps make this clear; and here’s a little section from Philosophical Investigations to that effect.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language.  These bumps make us see the value of the discovery. (PI, #119)

It bears mentioning here that the value of a thing is also a thing that is discovered by the philosophical act of “simply put(ting) everything before us, and neither explain(ing) nor deduc(ing) anything”.  That is, to be precise, that value is something real that is seen, as opposed to something invented or made up. Philosophy is useful in that it helps us value things that should be valued, and enjoy things that should be enjoyed.  In short, it helps us live well.  But it will not help us with smaller projects.  When it is commandeered for that purpose, it simply becomes something that gets in the way. That is why Wittgenstein says about a page later that “(i)f  one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” (PI, #128)

St. Maximus on Philosophy

I’ve been working on a review of Derek Webb’s new album, Stockholm Syndrome, and an article on the recent OCA/ ACNA conference at Nashota House, but I wanted to briefly share a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor on the good of philosophy.  I ran into it while reading through Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus.

The passage is from Difficulty 10, which tries to dissolve the tension between philosophy and ascetic struggle, and the knowledge gained by both.  In a move characteristic of Orthodoxy, he refuses to allow the physical and the immaterial to be divorced from each other, calling to mind the reasonable movements of our bodies.

For the movement of the body is ordered by reason, which by correct thinking restrains, as by a bridle, any turning aside towards what is out of place, and the rational and sensible choice of what is thought and judged is reckoned to contemplation, like a most radiant light manifesting truth itself through knowledge.  By these two especially every philosophical virtue is created and protected and by them is manifest through the body, though not wholly.

Frankly, I was expecting  a move towards union in the opposite way; because philosophical investigation– like any other artistic act– is an act of ascetic striving.  The truth of this St. Maximus does not deny, and the union of reasoning in our daily bodily movements informs my more mundane observation.  Discipline in one’s physical actions reveals health in one’s rational and contemplative mind.  Rational movement is part of the prudent life. Prudence and profound thoughts are not just relatives, but close kin.

St. Maximus continues by talking of “the grace of philosophy” and how it wonderfully subtracts from our unfortunate state of disrepair.  Once rid of these entanglements we primed for the ascetical struggle that is so much of the righteous life.

For philosophy is not limited by a body, since it has the character of divine power, but it has shadowy reflections, in those who have been stripped through the grace of philosophy to become imitators of the godlike conduct of God-loving men.  Through participation in the Good they too have put off the shamefulness of evil to become worthy of being portions of God, through assitance they needed from those empowered, and having received it they make manifest in the body through ascetic struggle the virtuous disposition that is hidden in the depths of the soul.  So they become all things to all men and in all things make present to all the providence of God, and thus are a credit to God-loving men.

For Plato, Wittgenstein, and now St. Maximus, the role of philosophy is not to add something missing to the human being, but to keep us where we need to be: in humility, wonder, and holiness.