Category: Philosophy



I’ve long been fascinated by Nietzsche, in the sense that I’ve always found him wildly wrong and wildly right, wildly reckless and wildly insightful. That being said, he’s enough of a nut that I’ve taken the time to read only one of his books (and I can’t recall which) and various excerpts from my Viking Portable Nietzsche. An extensive reading in Nietzsche is on my intellectual bucket list, but alas, that list is so long, it’s more of an intellectual idiot list. Most of my knowledge of Nietzsche comes through the lens of real scholars, mostly de Lubac and his (excellent) Drama of Atheist Humanism.

I’ve long felt a bit guilty that I’m drawn to Nietzsche’s ideas. It turns out I’m not alone. In this piece, Bradley Birzer also identifies Nietzsche as one of his “guilty pleasures.” He then, in the form of a primer, goes on to explain three of Nietzsche’s most important ideas:

1. “All modern drama in western civilization stemmed from the conflict found in the mythology of Apollo (order) and Dionysius (chaos).”

2. “Nietzsche considered Catholicism to be the greatest enemy yet invented and imposed upon the nobility of man. Its most important representative, he feared, was Pascal. . . . Catholicism, he believed, represented the only true Christianity. Lutheranism and Protestantism were merely halfway houses between Catholicism and full-blown paganism.”

3. “Nietzsche himself believed that his ideas had taken him, mystically, into another universe or plane of existence, confirmed later, at least as he believed it, by a vision of Zarathustra, a pre-Christian Persian priest and prophet, within and next to him. Henri de Lubac has done the best job of exploring this side of Nietzsche in his Drama of Atheist Humanism. And though he despised Catholicism, Nietzsche even believed his collected writings … Read the rest

De Lubac and Nietzsche

“God is dead.” Anyone who graduated eighth grade has heard that famous Nietzsche pronouncement. It makes Christians cringe, but Nietzsche meant nothing by it. He was merely pronouncing what the rest of Western civilization had impliedly concluded. He needed to slam shut the book on Christianity so he could make it clear that, now that God was dead, Western civilization was officially screwed (subject to some vague hope in the Superman, a concept I’ve never fully understood . . . and I’m not sure Nietzsche did). Neither science nor humanism would save civilization, and Nietzsche wanted to make sure that those people who cheered God’s death fully appreciated what they had unleashed.

Nietzsche wants to shake [the atheist scoffers] out of their complacency; he wants to make them perceive the void which has been hollowed out within them, and he accosts them in violent terms. Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

Nassim Taleb made similar observations in Antifragile.

[Nietzsche] went after Socrates, whom he called the ‘mystagogue of science,’ for ‘making existence appear comprehensible.’ . . . ‘What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent. Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled?’ . . . It is the very goodness of knowledge that [Nietzsche] questioned.

De Lubac, incidentally, completely agrees with Taleb on this point. Nietzsche didn’t hate Socrates because of Socrates’ moralism, but because of Socrates’ rationalism and the insufficient respect Socrates gave to mysticism and myth. “But man,” notes de Lubac, citing Nietzsche, “starved of myths is a man without roots. He is a man who is ‘perpetually hungry,’ an ‘abstract’ man, devitalised by the ebbing of the sap in him.”

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James the Existentialist

I’ve written a bit about existentialism. In all my reading on the subject (ample for a layman, little for a scholar), I’ve never seen William James referred to as an existentialist thinker. But that’s how Jacques Barzun refers to him in this passage from his excellent biography:

[Such comments] mark him out as what came in the twentieth century to be known as an existential thinker: that is, one who philosophizes from the need to survive intellectually and emotionally in a universe that the collapse of traditional religion and the tyranny of science have laid waste.

It has always struck me that existentialism was the last big philosophical school. It started with Kierkegaard and reached a crescendo in the 1960s. After that, it kind of died away, but it never went away and was never replaced with anything. “Existentialist” still has a cutting edge sound to it that makes a kid look cool in the coffee shops. There are reasons for this, two of which are touched upon in the Barzun quote, but such an exploration defies the size of a conventional blog post. … Read the rest

More Gilson

If I had to come up with a list of books whose title makes the book sound far drier than it really is, I’d nominate Gilson’s The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. Merton fans may recall that he bought the book in his pre-Catholic days, then nearly hurled it out the window when he saw it contained the Imprimatur: “[I]t only offended Merton more to think a fine scholar had been censored–worse, that he had allowed himself to be censored.” Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, 109.

Censored or not, The Spirit is a great book. When you start it, you need to sit at a desk with blinders on, determined to focus on it until you get into the groove. Once you do, you won’t be disappointed. Gilson writes about a difficult subject–one separated from us chronologically by nearly a thousand years and intellectually by an eviternity–with ease. The book is packed with intellectual history and, in the course of unpacking it, Catholic philosophy itself.

Some day, I will go back through it and type of scores of choice quotes. There’s not much more I can do with a book like Spirit. Gilson’s quotes are self-sufficient, requiring little or no elaboration . . . and making a commentator feel wholly inadequate trying to do so (this is the third Gilson post I’ve attempted to write since starting the new TDE, and all three have struck me as lame). For now, I merely offer this fine quote from page 271:

[T]he great fact on which rests the whole Christian conception of love is this: that all human pleasure is desirable but none ever suffices.

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Ralph McInerny

I went to Mass once with Ralph McInerny. Well, that’s an exaggeration. My family and I were sitting in Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame, just as Mass was starting. An older man slipped into the empty spot next to one of my kids. After about twenty minutes, I leaned over to Marie and said, “I’m pretty sure that’s Ralph McInerny.” After Mass, I caught up with him and introduced myself. He was gracious, but unimpressed. I then asked him if I could borrow $100. He was even more unimpressed and tad bit less gracious.

That last sentence was a joke, but the rest of the paragraph is a true recount of another of my brushes with contemporary Catholic greatness. (I trust the reader senses my self-deprecating sarcasm.)

My favorite McInerny book is his St. Thomas Aquinas. I think it’s a masterpiece (whereas his First Glance at Thomas Aquinas is pretty bad, though I can’t remember why I disliked it so much). Unfortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas was hard to find in the past. It first came out in 1977 and had apparently fallen out of print periodically. It’s currently printed by University of Notre Dame Press, and has been for quite a few years now. I’m optimistic it’ll remain in print for a long time.

It’s a nifty little book, about 170 pages, divided into about 35 chapters and sub-sections, so it’s easy to bite off small chunks (such MTV-attention-span approaches weren’t common back in the 1970s). The reader will be rewarded with biography, history, (lots of) philosophy, and theology. My copy is heavily underlined. Expect many quotes from it here at TDE, like this one:

“The will is a power whose object is the end and good. A thing is called good to the degree that it is

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On Deliberate Barbarism

We need myths. They’re irrational signposts in our strange spiritual land: they guide us even when we don’t know we’re being guided. We don’t even necessarily understand them, but only a shallow rationalism (a “defecated rationality” is how Russell Kirk might have referred to it) rejects them.

From de Lubac’s discussion on Nietzsche:

Nietzsche . . . noted that ‘it is impossible to found a civilization on knowledge.’ And immediately after a period in which man has intensively and exclusively cultivated his own conscious powers, and sought to rule the world solely by the laws of reason, there is bound to be a re-emergency, in full force, of those myths ‘which tend to lift the creature out of his solitude and reintegrate him in the general scheme of things.’ In any case the profoundly disturbing question arises which Nietzsche was not the only one to raise: as soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical or religious forces, does he not inevitably come under the yoke of a harsher and blinder force, which leads him to perdition? It is what Vico called the age of “deliberate barbarism,” and it is the age in which we live.”

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Look Homewrad, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists by Bill Kauffman. If there’s been a better book for promoting the Principle of Subsidiarity in the past twenty years, I don’t know of it. I put Kauffman in the same league as John Zmirak: young, brilliant writers who don’t get enough press (they’re in Tom Woods’ league, but Woods gets press).

The whole book pushes a fundamental truth: small is good, especially in the political sphere. I often describe myself as a “regionalist.” When people ask me what that means, I can simply refer to Kauffman’s definition (which he lifted from the artist, Grant Wood): “Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, psychology. . . When different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other, and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow.”

Such a vision, of course, is anathema to the centralists. They don’t want individuality, eccentricity, or regionalism. When they see those things, they see selfishness, bigotry, and racism. If a trait doesn’t fit their vision of how America should be, they ham-handedly try to stomp it out. Selfishness, bigotry, and racism ought to be eliminated, of course, but it’s a delicate thing. By uprooting those weeds, you uproot the entire forest and toss it in the dumpster. It’s far better to let those weeds get eradicated on their own because, far from being noxious weeds that destroy things around it, they more resemble harmless weeds that nobler cultivars in the vicinity can overcome if merely given enough time.

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“The human mind feels shy before a reality of which it can form no proper concept.” Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy.

Too many Christians, of course, know no such shyness. Bible and this morning’s newspaper in hand, they have all the facts and knowledge they need to grasp all reality.

Gilson, though, wasn’t making a psychological statement, nor one about the virtue of humility-infused skepticism, nor even an apologetic one. Rather, he was writing about the concept of “existence.” Mere existence–being and its inverse, nothingness–occupies much of Gilson’s thought, probably because it occupied much of medieval philosophy’s thought. It’s probably edifying to sit back and think about what it means to “just exist,” without regard to any thought about essence (“to exist as X or Y”). Of course, such thought is hardly a productive pursuit, so, like other useless pursuits (e.g., poetry), it has fall out favor, so much so that it’s not even heard of these days.

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