Category: Philosophy

Edith Hamilton keeps deep truth alive

In her 1948 book, Witness to the Truth, Edith Hamilton wrote in the Introduction that when times are bad and “storm-driven,” there is a “strong tendency to emphasize men’s baseness or their impotent insignificance.” This happens in both philosophy and art.

Seventy years later, there is still this tendency to bemoan the nature of humanity. Speaking from our not-to-distant past, Hamilton (1867-1963), a scholar of ancient Greece, has insight that may help us today, which is generally what one finds from the great Greeks and those who “know” them.

Philosophy and art have not always been as they are now, and this already was the case in Hamilton’s time.

“A great change has taken place in the intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Plato’s influence through all the centuries up to our own [the mid-20th century] was immensely strong; Platonic philosophy aimed at turning mankind away from baseness, ‘to lift up the wing of the soul,’ Plato wrote, ‘which is renewed and strengthened by the love of the good, the true, the beautiful.'”

Stop and let those words wash over you — ”lift up the wing of the soul” and “love of the good, the true, the beautiful.” There is spiritual uplift in the words. In our time of so much bad behavior, dishonesty, and ugliness of human character it is good to remember to focus on their opposites — the good, the true, the beautiful.

One can say the ugliness has always been with us, dating back to the plucking of that fruit in the first garden. But still, there have been times when humanity reached hard for the good, true, and beautiful.

“‘All things,’ he [Plato] said, ‘poverty or sickness or any other misfortune will work together for good to him who desires to be like God as far as the nature of man allows.’ That voice is not heard now in philosophy. Plato’s solution was to become like God; the solution of modern philosophy is to die.”

The Christian tradition says it a little differently, but it is essentially the same. We Christ followers seek to be more and more like Jesus — God come to earth. We die to self, yes, but it is in order to truly live in God. We do not fly to death; we fly to life.

One more quote from Hamilton, at last for this day:

“In all the great periods of art the artist looked at the world as its Creator did, and found it good. His aim was to make others share in that vision, to clarify for them the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. When he had painted his picture or written his poem, people would see truth and beauty where they had not before.”

The best of artists do help clarify for us “the truth of beauty and beauty of truth.” They are, however, not alone in the world of the creative. There are some artists of amazing creativity who lift up the ugly, who seem to relish it, to swim in it, not to expose it but to be part of it.

As for me, I seek the artists of beauty and truth. I love bright and lively colors in painting. I like inspiring and encouraging music. And I fall in love with writers who can help me see the good. All great artists are aware of and touch the ugliness, but they do not stay there.

I heard someone say the other day that Buddhism does away with hope. I’m not sure if that is true, but how can one live without hope? I want the hope that comes from the truth and beauty that the best of artists capture.

In this storm-driven day, may we hold on to the good, the true, and the beautiful. And may we exemplify them by seeking to be more like the loving and forgiving Divine.

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Welcome to paradise

Driving through the Texas countryside on Easter Sunday, one of my daughters and I stopped at a service station. As we entered the young, scruffy man wearing a bandanna around his head said something like, “Welcome to paradise.”

“Thank you. It’s nice to be in paradise,” I replied.

When we left, I thanked him again for the greeting, and he said something like, “Paradise is all around us if we will just notice.”

As we walked to the car I told Tabitha you don’t expect to meet a philosopher in the middle of the countryside. It’s just another reminder to not be surprised where we might learn something or who might teach us. Remember, Jesus probably looked a bit on the scruffy side.

That meeting also provided a good reminder to take notice of this paradise of creation that God has given us.

By the way, if you don’t think your part of Texas is paradise, you might visit Mexia.

The problem with Ayn Rand

Confession: I haven’t read any of Ayn Rand, so my reaction is to what little I know of her thought, not to her actual work. Heidi Unruh has written a great piece, “Refuting Ayn Rand,” on the web site of Evangelicals for Social Action.

“As with any philosophy,” Unruh says, “there are glimmers of truth in her writings. Some of the values she espoused—personal responsibility, individual liberty, creative entrepreneurship—are consistent with a biblical framework, and even offer a necessary counterweight to social forces that push in the direction of tyranny.”

But glimmers of truth do not make a philosophy true.

Rand offers a extreme conservative philosophy that is “patently anti-Christian,” says conservative Christian author Charles Colson. He calls it a “phony conservatism,” even though Rand is being espoused by some conservative politicians and spokespersons. Rand’s philosophy is called “objectivism,” and Colson said, “followers of objectism are undermining the gospel.”

Rand (1905-1982) authored several novels, including Atlas Shrugged. That book’s visibility, Unruh says, has gotten a boost from a circle of elected officials who embrace her philosophy, such as California’s Rep. John Campbell, who gives interns a copy of the book. Most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan, who was influential in the summer’s budget debate—calls Ayn Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”

“Other leaders who claim Ayn Rand’s influence include Supreme Ct. Justice Clarence Thomas, Senator Rand Paul, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” Unruh says. “References to Atlas Shrugged have shown up in Tea Party rallies and political analysis.”

So what is objectivism? Unruh says it includes the following premises:

  • “Pursuing personal prosperity is the highest value in life. There is no such thing as ‘the common good.’ 
  • “Each person is responsible for her own well-being and happiness. I am not my brother’s keeper. Following a purely rational ethic, no one should sacrifice himself for the sake of others. 
  • “Charity for those in need is not an ethical obligation. Any aid given should be voluntary, private, and not at the expense of the giver’s own well-being.
  • “Aid should be reserved for those truly deserving of charity (i.e. not responsible for their own condition). People should reap the consequences of their choices in life. 
  • “Government exists solely to protect personal liberty and property. Its role should be limited to police and military defense, as well as laws and infrastructure necessary for commerce (e.g., traffic control, anti-fraud laws, contract enforcement). Government overreaches when it provides a social safety net for its citizens or enacts regulations to promote their general welfare.
  • “Laissez-faire capitalism is the highest expression of personal liberty. Society’s progress rests on the shoulders of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and leaders of industry. Nothing must interfere with the workings of the free market—especially not government.”

If you don’t see the problem with that, then it might be best to go back and read Scripture, especially the New Testament.

“Ayn Rand ennobled selfishness, enshrined materialism, and despised altruism,” Unruh says. “Her philosophy portrays the wealthy as the true victims and dismisses many in need as “parasites” and “moochers.” She was vociferously anti-religious, pro-choice, a sexual libertine and critical of the idea of democracy. She kept a journal in which she proclaimed, ‘I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.’ Her journal entries also admire the heroic individualism of a serial killer.”

Toward the end of her life, Unruh says Rand discovered that it doesn’t work so well for those who have less financial resources. “Elderly, sickened by lung cancer (the consequence of a lifetime smoking habit), she turned to Social Security and Medicaid for support in the final eight years of her life. These programs are of course part of the safety net that Rep. Ryan has called “a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” (Ironically, Rep. Ryan himself used Social Security payments after the death of his father to pay for college.)

“Ayn Rand never publicly acknowledged flaws in her thinking. But one of her most prominent and powerful followers, Alan Greenspan, did. ‘I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,’ he admitted to a House oversight and government reform committee. He submitted to a strenuous critique of his faulty decisions, such as obstructing regulation of derivatives, that helped pave the way for the current financial crisis, and that reveal the fingerprints of Rand’s enduring influence.”

I’ve only given some highlights from Unruh’s piece. If this nation goes the way of Ayn Rand, then we are done as the nation we have been through these many years.

Overwhelming importance

Some things to think about from Alfred North Whitehead, writing in 1925 in the preface to Science and the Modern World:

“This study has been guided by the conviction that the mentality of an epoch springs from the view of the world which is, in fact, dominant in the educated sections of the communities in question.” (p. viii)

Philosophy “builds cathedrals before the workmen have moved a stone, and it destroys them before the elements have worn down their arches. It is the architect of the buildings of the spirit, and it is also their solvent: –and the spiritual precedes the material.” (pp. viii-ix)

“The key to the book is the sense of the overwhelming importance of a prevalent philosophy.” (p. x)

I have at times feared philosophy, but I love it — what little I have dabbled in it. It is about knowing, and knowing can be scary, but it is also rewarding.

I love Whitehead’s line: “the spiritual precedes the material.” I fear we do to little spiritual or philosophical thinking.