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"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 

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Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.  


A Few Remarks from Newman

Today everyone in the Ordinariates is rejoicing in the canonization of our hero, Saint John Henry Newman. Well, okay, "everyone" is probably an exaggeration. But "hero" is not. 

I'm referring to the ecclesiastical structures created by Pope Benedict's Anglicanorum coetibus, by which Christians from the Anglican tradition can come into the Catholic Church bringing with them many elements of their worship and spirituality.  "Structures," because there are three, for the UK, Australia, and the Americas. The obvious natural thing to call them is "the Anglican Ordinariates." But we have actually been told not to use that term, or to refer to them in any way that includes the word "Anglican," apparently out of concern that it will appear that we are still Anglican. It's frustrating, as I've found whenever I mention it to what I can't help calling "regular Catholics." If I use the word "Anglican," they think I've left the Church. If I say "the Ordinariate" they just look blank, quite understandably. In general they really just don't get it at all. Which is disappointing. 

But anyway: Newman is our great model, a sort of patron saint long before he was canonized. And of course he's an important writer and thinker by any standard. I have a book called A Newman Treasury, a selection from his prose works which appeared in 1943. It includes a section called "Aphoristic Selections," which has some brief gems. Relatively brief--I don't think I'd call an excerpt which occupies a full page and contains a dozen sentences "aphoristic."

(Attributions: Essays Critical and Historical; The Idea of a University; Oxford University Sermons; Grammar of Assent; Difficulties of Anglicans.)

Man is born to obey quite as much as to command. Remove the true objects, and you do not get rid of a natural propensity: he will make idols instead; remove heaven, and he will put up with earth, rather than honour nothing at all. The principle of respect is as much a part of us as the principle of religion. (ECH)

This is similar to what I was getting at a week or two ago about Downton Abbey.

If literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. (IU)

Of course he's not using the term "Christian Literature" in the sense that we would use it of, say, Flannery O'Connor. But his point gets at the problem with a lot of art produced by Christians.

In morals, as in physics, the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Christianity releases men from earth, for it comes from heaven, but human morality creeps, struts, or frets upon the earth's level, without wings to rise. (DA)

Nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study. (IU)

This stings a bit. I did realize it for myself but not until I was well along in life. I'm always bothered by those people who want children to read as if it that alone were good in itself. It isn't. It may even be a bad thing, if they only or mostly read books that communicate bad things.

When men understand each other's meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless. (OUS)

The current state of our politics.

Whence comes evil? why are we created without our consent? how can the Supreme Being have no beginning? how can he need skill, if He is omnipotent? if He is omnipotent, why does He permit suffering? If He permits suffering, how is He all-loving? if He is all-loving, how can He be just? if He is infinite, what has he to do with the finite? how can the temporary be decisive of the eternal?--these, and a host of like questions, must arise in every thoughtful mind, and, after the best use of reason, must be deliberately put aside, as beyond reason, as (so to speak) no-thoroughfares which, having no outlet themselves, have no ligitimate [sic] power to divert us from the King's highway. (GA)

I take "no-thoroughfare" as meaning the same thing as "dead end." I've known more than one person, as we probably all have, whose impulses toward faith were killed by their inability to answer or move beyond these questions.

One thing, except by an almost miraculous interposition, cannot be; and that is, a return to the universal religious sentiment, the public opinion, of the medieval times. The Pope himself calls those centuries "the ages of faith." Such endemic faith may certainly be decreed for some future time; but, as far as we have the means of judging at present, centuries must run out first. (DA)

Those who seem to think we are on the brink of some widespread return to the faith may be right, but I doubt it. And they are definitely defying the clear tendency of things.

Reason can but ascertain the profound difficulties of our condition, it cannot remove them. (OUS)

A really philosophical mind, if unhappily it has ruined its own religious perceptions, will be silent; it will understand that Religion does not lie in its way: it may disbelieve its truths, it may account belief in them a weakness, or, on the other hand, a happy dream, a delightful error, which it cannot itself enjoy;--any how, it will not usurp. (OUS)

Unbelievers call themselves rational; not because they decide by evidence, but because, after they have made their decision, they merely occupy themselves in sifting it. (OUS)

It is only necessary for Reason to ask many questions; and, while the other party is investigating the real answer to each in detail, to claim the victory, which spectators will not be slow to award, fancying (as is the manner of men) that clear and ready speech is the test of Truth. (OUS)

These last three made me think of the Dawkins-style superficial atheists. They do not have the "really philosophical mind."

The aspect under which Almighty God is presented to us be Nature, is (to use a figure) of One who is angry with us, and threatens evil. Hence its effect is to burden and sadden the religious mind. (GA)

I like this as a counter to our tendency to sentimentalize nature, now that we have gone so far in being able to control it. For most of history man's relationship to nature has been in great part the struggle to stay alive against it.

All men have a reason, but not all men can give a reason. (OUS)

That complements the earlier one about "clear and ready speech." A long time ago I wrote something against the idea that mere intellectual and verbal facility are the determinants of victory in a controversy. I said this was no different from the belief that physical strength should serve that purpose. 

This has been the course of lawless pride and lust:...to lead us, first, to exult in our uncontrollable liberty of will and conduct; then, when we have ruined ourselves, to plead that we are the slaves of necessity. (O.U.S.)

The instance cannot be found in the history of mankind, in which an anti-Christian power could long abstain from persecuting. (O.U.S.)

In spite of my basic pessimism, both temperamental and, as I think, objectively justified with regard to the prospects for Christianity in the West, I think this is in many ways a good time to be a Christian: so much is being clarified. And we have all the wonderful minds and souls like Newman who have penetrated the fog of the times for us. But I have to qualify that. It's a good time to be an old Christian who knows what he believes and is firm in it and no longer has much responsibility--everyday temporal responsibility, I mean--for other people. It is not at all a good time to be a Christian trying to raise Christian children. I should spend more time praying for those who are.

It seems that David Mills, writing at The Stream, had the same notion that I did, to post a number of aphoristic quotations from Newman. There's a bit of overlap with my list, more with the book I was working from.

800px-John_Henry_Newman_by_Sir_John_Everett_Millais _1st_Bt


I'm In Touchstone Again

You can read most of the first paragraph here

Heh. Sorry. It's subscriber-only. But you can see a nice picture of the little Methodist church in which I grew up, and which is the subject of the piece. If you get the magazine, you'll see that the byline says the article is an excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished memoir. That was true when I submitted it, but may not be now, as I'm rewriting the book and aiming to make it roughly half its original length. Which was...I hesitate to say...a bit over 130,000 words. Which I'm told is way too long--roughly the length of Merton's Seven Storey Mountain

I'm touched that the editors went to the trouble of finding a picture of the actual church to include with the article. 


Ahmari and French Debate

It's perhaps a bit wrong of me to post this--or inappropriate, or ill-mannered, or something--because I probably won't actually watch the debate. Well, maybe I'll find a transcript and read it. But I'm posting it for one reason. I guess all conservatives and some others are aware of the intra-conservative argument which is represented by these two; if you're not, see this. For my part I don't really want to take a side, as I think both have pretty strong arguments.

The two met for an in-person debate a couple of weeks ago. Here's a report on it from a reader of Rod Dreher's blog. That page also includes a video of the event. But here is the one thing that really struck me, from the reader who was there:

There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari....

I think that's very significant. The times they are a-changing. Again. I myself have noticed that people of more or less my generation, and maybe a bit younger--let's say people over fifty--tend to see our current politics in more or less classically liberal and constitutionalist terms, as David French does. That framework has less purchase on the minds of younger people. Of course that could be only an effect of age itself; the younger people may change their minds as they get older. And I emphasize "tend to"; I can certainly think of plenty of exceptions, in both directions. 


More AI Nonsense

On stilts. At Vox: "Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral".

I'm slightly surprised that the author is a former religion editor of The Atlantic. Sadly, I'm not at all surprised that a Catholic theologian--a Franciscan sister, no less--is on hand to add some extra touches of fatuousness. 

"So would I want a robot priest? Maybe!” she said. “A robot can be gender-neutral. It might be able to transcend some of those divides and be able to enhance community in a way that’s more liberating.”


Unfortunately, I'm Right

Some twenty-five years ago I wrote a piece for Caelum et Terra in which I asserted that a fundamental weakness of the American system is that it is agnostic on the ultimate questions. The Constitution defines a structure and a set of procedures that are meant to be philosophically and theologically neutral. It assumes a workable consensus on the fundamental questions, and therefore has no mechanism for coping with fundamental disagreements. Now that such disagreements have arrived, and on a scale where each side has enough political power to prevent either from totally dominating the other, we're in trouble.

The current argument raging among conservatives is at least partly about that same question, and it caused me to re-read my essay. And I think I was right. Am right: 

...now that the ethical consensus which underlay [the Constitution] has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.

You can read the whole essay here, though I should note that it's on the long side for online reading (somewhere around 6,000 words). I think it holds up well, though I probably wouldn't write that last section today in a political context. Euthanasia has not made nearly as much progress as I expected it to, but sexual "liberation" has gone much further. It is all too accurate now to say that the people do not agree about what a human being is.

If you haven't heard about it, the argument I'm referring to is between conservatives who are beginning to give up on the whole classical liberal project and those who think it can still be saved.

Political liberals have long been impatient with the Constitution, pushing the concept of a "living Constitution," a sort of secular version of the interpretive technique by which progressive theologians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Political conservatives, aka classical liberals, have defended the Constitution as written and as straightforwardly understood ("strict construction," "original intent," etc.). This argument has been going on for a long time--my high school civics teacher staged a debate on the question fifty years ago. (I took the progressive side.)

In recent years there have been more voices on the left calling either explicitly or implicitly for the whole thing to be disregarded or dumped ("written by dead white males," etc. etc. etc.) Now some on the right are beginning to give up on classical liberalism, which of course has been pretty much the essence of American conservatism. (I know, the terminology is confusing, but you have to use it to talk intelligently about this stuff.) Ross Douthat has a pretty good overview of the controversy in the New York Times. Follow his links if you want to know more.

Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for the David French side of the argument. As I said here quite a few years ago, I would like to preserve and reform the American constitutional order, and I haven't changed my mind about that. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for the idea of Christian/Catholic integralism, especially considering the character of the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy now. But I fear that the argument is becoming irrelevant. Possibly the greater danger is that the citizenry as a whole no longer really care about preserving the republic that the Constitution defines. Many on both the left and the right are looking (mostly unconsciously, but evidently) for some sort of authority figure to lead the forces of good against those of evil. Or, less apocalyptically, to be the benevolent and all-powerful Father of the Nation who will provide for them. As different as Obama and Trump are, you can see the tendency plainly among the enthusiastic followers of both.

OffACliff


Sally Read: Night's Bright Darkness

I've often wondered, when listening to or reading someone who seems to be a really hardened anti-Christian, what it would take to crack that shell. I say "seems" because of course one can never tell from the outside what's going on inside a person. And I say "anti-Christian" rather than "anti-religious" or "anti-theist" because for cultural reasons hostility to theistic religion is in the Western world most often, most explicitly, and most vigorously hostility to Christianity. 

This is not the simple skepticism which has been ascendant in Western culture for a couple of centuries. It's hostility, an engagement of the emotions as much as or more than the intellect, because Christianity is a significant obstacle to what is generally viewed as progress toward liberation, especially sexual liberation.

If I had met Sally Read fifteen or so years ago I might have thought she was just such a person, and wondered about her in just this way. And yet here is this excellent little book (147 pages) which tells just such a story of the breaking of a shell of resistance. Her father was a fairly militant atheist, and from early in life she followed in his intellectual footsteps. In the book she doesn't explicitly go into the question of feminism as such (as far as I recall), but it seems implied in her general outlook, though perhaps not in a fervently ideological way. And feminism is generally hostile, often extremely hostile, to Christianity. (Yes, I know there is such a thing as Christian feminism. I think it's a pretty uneasy and unstable mix, though, in the long run turning into the one thing or the other. Feminism as a complete theory of humanity is simply not compatible with Christianity.) 

Fundamental to her view of the world was something pretty close to contempt for all religion, especially for Christianity, and most especially for the Catholic Church, which she saw as more or less insane. But you can see that the seeds of faith were there. To start with, there is her father's commitment to atheism as truth. However mistaken in its immediate object, commitment to truth is always commitment to God. 

And there are those deep movements of the soul which are often obscure even to ourselves. When she finds herself "sitting on the floor of [her] flat in Belsize Park and saying lucidly, "This is hell. I'm in hell," she resists the impulse to reach toward God: "I thought I could never lower myself to that degree of self-delusion." But having the impulse to reach is itself an implicit reaching. 

Later on, in a conversation with a friend who confesses to believing in God, she makes

...my nonconfession, and it was a courageous bleakness I felt. I knew there was no God above. It was as if I had looked into an empty dish and simply declared it to be empty. 

But she doesn't want this to be true, and that not-wanting is also a way of reaching.

And there is the cunning of providence. She plans to write a book called The Vagina: An Owner's Handbook. And in this book she wants to write about the experiences of absolutely every kind of woman, including nuns--she is living in Italy--but she is unsure of how to approach one, and doesn't want to "spook" those who run the preschool her daughter attends. 

The only other link I had with the Catholic Church was tenuous--a friend of friends, a Canadian Byzantine-rite priest. He was about my age, with black, merry eyes, and seemed approachable. Perhaps he could introduce me to a nun. One day, ticking off chores on my work list, I fired off an email:

    Dear Father, I'm writing a book about the vagina.

So begins a crucial relationship in which, by email and over coffee, she beats Fr. Gregory with every rhetorical club she can lay her hands on. And apparently he sometimes hit back. She describes the weeks that followed as a fight, and it clearly was, and not only with Fr. Gregory.

And then there are the experiences, the direct contacts with the divine. This is where things get really puzzling, where I wonder why her? Why, of all the scornful non-believers in the world, does God come to her, and not to so many others who seem very much like her? Sure, her inner movement and her circumstances prepared her, but that doesn't answer the question, only moves it back a few steps. 

Conversion stories are all similar in many ways, and yet they remain interesting, because that complex interweaving of the personal and the circumstantial and the divine is different in each one. Demographic and sociological categories are irrelevant to God's relationship with any individual. I read this book shortly after reading Dawn Eden Goldstein's (see this post and this one). In one broad respect at least they are quite similar, in that both women are in many ways fairly typical of the sort of person who does not convert, who does not come anywhere near it. And yet here they are. For that matter, here I am, part of a tiny, tiny minority among those who would have seemed, ca. 1970, very much like me. Why me?

That skeptical and often hostile modern mind that I mentioned earlier has for some time been expecting and predicting the death of  Christianity and especially of the Catholic Church. I've heard more than one person in recent years assert with confidence that "the Catholic Church is dying." Setting aside the divine promises which non-Christians naturally do not believe exist, speaking only in human terms, that death is unlikely in the extreme. There will always be people for whom a life of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, whether or not successful in those efforts, will not be enough. It's the way the human person is made. Why is that, I wonder?

I haven't told anything like the whole story here, so don't get the impression that you know the book from reading this notice. It's really very good. I was flipping through it a little while ago and thinking I'd have liked for it to be somewhat longer. I don't think that about many books. 

NightsBrightDarkness


About That Letter From Those Theologians

I mean the one in which they accuse Pope Francis of heresy. I've only read the first page, at which point I scrolled down to see the list of signers. The only one I recognize is Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. I've read several of his books and he is certainly not any sort of crank. Or at least he hasn't been in the past. I can only conclude that either there is something to the charges, or that Fr. Nichols has made a mistake in judgment. 

The first page includes the first charge: that the Pope has "publicly and pertinaciously demonstrated his belief" that

A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin.

I've heard more or less the same charge from people who are theologically educated and are not cranks. It may be justifiable. Nevertheless, I don't plan to get into the controversy any further than the preceding remarks. It's been raised in a Facebook group for the Ordinariates to which I belong, and I posted the following comment there. I guess it's partly or mainly just an occasion for me to say something I've wanted to say for some time. And I want to say it more publicly.

This is a sort of meta-comment, about why I am not going to comment on the letter: as a lay Catholic with no knowledge of theology beyond some basics, I do not consider myself qualified or entitled or obligated to call anyone a heretic on any grounds more subtle than something like denying the physical Resurrection. This is much more emphatically the case where the accused is the pope. The same basic principle applies to the signatories of this letter: I am not qualified to evaluate their arguments. 

And on a personal level I have, in my going-on-40 years as a Catholic, become almost as sick of heresy-hunters as of heretics, especially of self-appointed heresy-hunters among the laity. By "heresy hunters" I mean those who are clearly looking avidly for anything that can be construed as heresy or just savoring of it. I have had a lot of reservations about Pope Francis and in particular about his governance, and have said so publicly. I had misgivings about him from the beginning, initially for nothing any more concrete than "I've got a bad feeling about this," and I think they have been somewhat justified. Somewhat. But I have deeper reservations about the anti-Francis people who seem determined to put the worst possible construction on everything he says.

(That emphasized "Somewhat" was not in the Facebook post, because you can't do italics in Facebook comments.)

The inquisitorial spirit I'm talking about is partly a somewhat (at least) understandable reaction against the toleration and even advocacy of heresy on the part of many elements of the Church, most harmfully within the hierarchy and the academic establishment. I was an enemy of what can loosely be called Modernism as soon as I understood what it was, and I still am. But the inquisitorial impulse quite clearly often has a strong taint of pride and malice. And is probably at least as great a risk to the soul of the person exercising it as the profession of doctrinal error. 

NobodyExpectsEtc(Sorry, couldn't resist.)


First Reformed Is A Good Movie

Not great, but in many ways very good, and definitely worth seeing. It's about the pastor of a small church in a small New York town, a part of what we generally refer to as one of the "mainline" Protestant denominations, presumably the Dutch Reformed (I can't remember whether this is stated explicitly or not). Like so many such churches, its membership has dwindled and its once significant role in the life of the area is now literally a thing of the past: it's not much more than a tourist attraction, complete with souvenir shop. "Sorry, the t-shirts are all 'small.' We're expecting more soon. But the caps are great. One size fits all."

Pastors are not supposed to have to engage in petty merchandising of this sort, and the Reverend Ernst Toller is clearly not happy about it. He's a serious man who takes his faith seriously. He reads Merton and I think I also saw Chesterton's name in the stack of books that is glimpsed briefly. Rubbing salt in the wound of his church's (and therefore his) near-irrelevance is the presence of a nearby mega-church which not only has several thousand attendees but subsidizes First Reformed, which is pretty humiliating for a 250-year-old church.

Toller is having a crisis. I started to say "crisis of faith," which it is, but it's not only that. He is deeply isolated and bears a heavy burden of personal guilt. He is also seriously ill. The crisis begins to come to a head when the wife of a troubled young man comes to him for help. 

At this point, if you know Bergman's masterpiece Winter Light, you start thinking of it, and indeed there are so many important parallels between the two films that it doesn't seem possible for them to be coincidental. There is also at least one strong suggestion of Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest.

Those comparisons, I'm sorry to say, are not really to the benefit of First Reformed. I was somewhat disappointed in its resolution. As my wife said, in the end it sort of side-steps the God question, which is not the same thing as leaving the question unanswered, as I think Winter Light does. Still, it is really, really well done, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise. As I said, it's very much worth seeing.

(Craig Burrell seems to think more of the ending than I did.

FirstReformed

P.S. I should mention a fairly significant problem I had with the DVD (from Netflix). The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. On our flat-screen TV it was displayed in whatever that standard is (16:9 I think). This resulted in that annoying horizontal stretching of the picture which seemed chronic on flat-screen TVs when they first appeared and made me wonder why people wanted them. I didn't have any way to change this on the DVD player (it's messed up, I won't bore you with the details), and it didn't occur to me till the movie was over and I had sealed the disk in its Netflix return envelope that I might have been able to change it in the TV settings. I guess it says a lot for the film that this problem didn't ruin it for me. 


Three Philosophers Discuss Hope

Someone recommended this podcast to me, and I in turn recommend it to you. The topic is Hope:

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the philosophy of hope. To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora's box or jar, in Hesiod's story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, 'what may I hope' was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.

The guests are:

Beatrice Han-Pile, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex

Robert Stern, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews

And they know their stuff. Or at least they were able to convince this non-philosopher that they do. I was especially impressed with Dr. (I assume) Wolfe, who, whether she's Christian or not, certainly has a deep understanding of Christianity. 

Click here to listen. I guess you can also download it to your phone etc. though I did not. I don't do podcasts very often, because usually when I want to listen to something music wins out. 

What struck me most about this discussion is right there in the description: that the hope left in Pandora's jar was originally considered to be a bad thing. As a child I learned of Pandora in the pages of Compton's Pictured Encylopedia, and I thought the significance of the story was that the gods did not make the opening of the jar a complete triumph for evil. I guess I thought that the presence of hope meant that there was actually some chance of its being fulfilled. It never occurred to me that it was a twisting of the knife: that we are condemned to futility while always falling into the illusion that things might be otherwise. Sisyphus will keep pushing that rock forever, but he'll also forever think "I just know it's going to work this time."

Personally I'm inclined to agree with those who consider hope of any except the Christian sort to be at very best something to treat with caution and skepticism. It's like alcohol: too much will only make you sick.

This discussion of hope is part of a BBC radio series called "In Our Time," and judging by this program, and by the titles of others in the series, a great deal of it would be worth hearing: see this list of episodes. "Eclectic" is an understatement: in recent weeks consecutive programs dealt with Samuel Beckett, Papal Infallibility, and Venus (the planet, not the goddess).