Tuesday, October 25, 2011
For every entity in existence, there are four causes which make the thing to be what it is. A material cause: the bronze of the statue, the water and fat in the milk spilled on the floor, the carbon and water of man. A formal cause: the shape of Michelangelo's Moses, the location of the spilled liquid, and the chemical ratios of a human being. An efficient cause: the agent behind all these things; sculptor, toddler, and parents. A final cause: the reason for the existence of anything; the desire for beauty, the impulse to test his momma, and the unique calling of the individual person.

What then is the final end of that energy in man (unconnected with, and occasionally contrary to, his instinct to survive) which is his desire for heroism and adventure? Can we deny that it exists? When we replace our time cards or rosters in their slots at work, or prepare the food procured so easily for our meals, are we not haunted by the taunt: 'You are not living the life that is in you.' What greatness is there in making a meal for one's self, working to sustain one's self, exercising to maintain one's self, or even reading to illumine one's self? If only we could break that self, shed the old man, and burst into the flame of something greater. To be a valkyrie hunting for the souls of the brave from mountain steppes, a wise, cunning siren plumbing the sea's depths, or a wild sidhe, one with the trees offered to God by earth. Be it union with man, wisdom, or creation, we desire our mettle to be tested. For one resplendent moment, we wish to be the silver in the crucible and to emerge as a lustrous star.

Is this not something one should outgrow though? Is not its presence in an adult the sign of perpetual childhood or arrested adolescence? Is the mere existence of this hunger a justification for indulging it?

'The Philosopher's' school of ethics, Aristotelian vitalism, demands that a thing must be able to fulfill the end for which it was intended. If it cannot perform that for the sake of which it exists, then it is defunct in its very being. Its essence would be negative in and of itself, and such a possibility is untenable for a rational person. A thing, in so far as it exists, is good. For if not, then reality is not necessarily good, and the rules lying at the root of all motions may very well be bad ones. Truth is no longer to be embraced without reservation, and nothing is left to trust. There is no God--at least not one defining Himself as Being--to cling to, and in the end no effective resource at all.

Accepting such a premise would invalidate the search for truth itself, as it may be a contrary or undesirable thing. If that is the right course, then the essay should end here, for argument in general has been overthrown. Yet, for the sake of this particular argument, let us proceed from the thesis that creation is rational and ordered. It would follow that all human passions are--at their root--something good. The tongue's inclination for the sweet and salty should lead us to eating vitamin-rich fruits and meats that are plump with iron and protein. That a man may instead choose candy bars and crisps does not invalidate this. He has merely selected excess rather than striving for the Golden Mean, and so has twisted his natural and good inclination. Only that which is good is corruptible.

In the case of hunger for the epic, the virtuous mean is more mercurial, because it as yet unnamed. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues for its mere existence more by the process of elimination than by synthesis:

We blame both the ambitious man as loving honour more than is right and from wrong sources, and the unambitious man as not willing to be honoured even for noble reasons. But sometimes we praise the ambitious man as being manly and a lover of what is noble, and the unambitious man as being moderate and self-controlled, as we said in our first treatment of the subject. Evidently, since 'fond of such and such an object' has more than one meaning, we do not assign the term 'ambition' or 'love of honour' always to the same thing, but when we praise the quality we think of the man who loves honour more than most people, and when we blame it we think of him who loves it more than is right. The mean being without a name, the extremes seem to dispute for its place as though that were vacant by default. But where there is excess and defect, there is also an intermediate. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter IV) 

But what is the mean to be found in the desire to excel? To wring out of one's being the best in the cause of the noblest? Alas, one hardly need worry about participating excessively in heroism. Lack of opportunity in day to day life usually cripples the impulse. As George Eliot observed, we cannot, as the child St. Teresa of Avila discovered, set forth from our homes to immediately pursue a glorious martyrdom.

How did the seraphic woman strive to such heights then?

...Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order. (George Eliot, Middlemarch; Prelude)

Yet, here Eliot introduces a new aspect of the argument: that a varying degree in which the heroic impulse appears in individuals (i.e. 'Theresa's passionate, ideal nature' could not abide the mediocre). Human experience would confirm this, as every man has known individuals with more or less skill or energy. The question here concerns opportunity. Can it be the factor which determines the greatness of a life? 

Mary Anne Evans opines that it could:

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion....(ibid.)

Experience would appear to confirm this, as well, but for two flaws in the writer's argument. First: that these failures were in fact spiritual giants, and second: their failures were not their fault. In the light of Aristotelian thought, both of these premises cannot be right. A truly strong and stalwart giant can only blame himself for being defeated in combat, barring outright treachery. If he was completely overwhelmed by his opponent, it must have been because relative to this fighter, he was not a giant at all. One must be deficient in either ability or execution to fail or subject to deliberate malice. A man with talent who employs it well will succeed in some way. Cream rises.

Yet, what of the rest of us? We who are most certainly not giants, but to some extent possess this vital spark? Surely we are at the mercy of the chances fate presents?

If one considers Eliot's two failed heroes, her champions of this argument, one is still compelled to answer no. Concerning Tertius Lydgate, he is plagued by an animus too strong for him to confront without breaking his heart, for he is thwarted in everyway and at last subjugated by a wife so selfish and soulless that she hardly seems real. Deaf to the desires of any human heart but her own, she certainly succeeds in crushing her husband's great medical ambition. The culprit here however is something darker than the randomness of fate, which Eliot had proposed. It is the combination of sensual stupidity on the one hand and wretched cupidity on the other.

As to Dorothea Brooke, one cannot be too sure how pure her intentions truly are. Her sister Cecilia, who is not (as Eliot tries very hard to convince the reader), so sensible as her sister, somehow truthfully points out to her elder sibling in many instances that Dorothea could never achieve the greatness she wanted, because she always 'wanted things that wouldn't do.' 

First, she marries a pitiful, small man. It would seem the reader is meant to pity her, though her husband, et al., had given her plenty of warning of what he expected from marriage. In her personal dissatisfaction, she brutally wounds his ego, which prompts a drastic decline in his equilibrium (though admittedly she later strives to atone for her errors). Second, after his death, she desires to build a self-sustaining colony on her estate as her great project. Does this rather not indicate a desire to remake the world in her own image, though on a miniature scale? She seems more a creature that needs guidance and curbing. Ending the novel as the wife of a poor, honest politician really seemed the best thing for her, and no one other than the most militant feminist would shed any tears over her fate.

Still, one may hear a multitude of souls protesting against this dismissal of hardships and circumstances and the effect they have on greatness of soul. My own voice is in that chorus, and it cries: 'You do not know how hampered I am! I wake in the morning with the desire to scale mountains, elude an enemy, write a ballad, save a damsel, or to have a child, but my state in life does not allow for greatness!'

There is the rub. As this virtue hinges upon the sphere of action, there seems to be little one can do to cultivate the proper disposition necessary to attain it. Confusion, distraction, and necessity challenge this urge as they do not challenge our striving for temperance, justice, prudence, or fortitude. Combine those enemies with human weakness and though we begin 'the delightful day' determined to be strong and no more to yield to wrong, we often end the day as hopeless and remorseful as Alfred Housman in his poem, XVI (from More Poems).

Self-reproach and discontent with one's lot however are the best impediments to starting anew and working to be better. The only way to stop this downward pattern is to take one's self more lightly. I shall fall short, because I am nothing. It is not good, nor is it worthy when I do not bring my potency to fruition, but I should not make so much over my failures. The Catholic Church provides the best comfort in this matter, for she teaches that elsewhere, in a moment outside time, all our pettiness was made up for in that Moment when Heaven was wedded with earth. The heroism we would have performed, our noble destiny specifically, has indeed been performed, and lives in eternity.

And yet, the story of salvation still manages to achieve what no fairytale or novel ever could. The glory projects beyond the happy ending. Like Armand St. Just after he had betrayed the Scarlet Pimpernel, we find that not only has our sin been forgiven, our mistake rectified, and a grander thing resulting from it, but that we have not even been suspended from participation in the economy of salvation: 

...whereof I Paul, am made a minister, who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church (Colossians 1:24)

How is this possible? Like so many of the truths concerning God, this is a rich paradox and ultimately a mystery. We only know that God has commanded us to labour with Him, and that in some way it follows that we who are not remain indispensable to He who Is:

God needs you. The Creator actually needs the creature. The only independent Being in existence needs you whose very essence and existence spells dependence; and He needs you so that He may exist on earth. Omnipotence, then, is calling to impotence so that He may exercise His power. The Infinite leans on you who are finite so that the Eternal may have expression in time. (Father M. Raymond, O.C.S.O., You, Chapter II: You are on whom Almight God needs)

It would be appropriate, after having gone through life waving a pathetic, cardboard sword, to (realizing how ridiculously puerile it is) lay it down before a true lord. Yet, what a strange thing it would be for the lord to pick it up, and taking a true sword, dub the kneeling child before him. What a lightning bolt it is to realize that the sword we finally ceded has given way to a knightly crucifix in our once grubby hands!

A priest once humbly wrote to Leon Bloy, requesting prayers. Apparently they would be needed, because the consecrated man 'did not possess the soul of a saint.' The philosopher wrote back an electrifying reply:

You say, 'I do not have the soul of a saint.'...Well, then, I answer you with certainty that I have the soul of saint; that my fearful bourgeouis of a landlord, my baker, my butcher, my grocer, all of whom may be horrible scoundrels, have the souls of saints, having all been called, as fully as you or I...to eternal life, and having been bought at the same price...(ibid, Chapter IV: You are one who breathes by God's Spirit)

Indeed, mediocrity would not be so despised, if all were not called to greatness. Some of us may be heroes in that more evident, worldly sense, but even then it is due to the same Source who makes all saints to be as they are. And while the hero and heroine are to be praised, it is only saints that merit veneration:‎

'I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.' 

'Do you think it easier to be a heroine?' 

'Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history. I'm capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation - but steady every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!' (Mrs. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, Chapter XIX: Cynthia's Arrival)

Sanctus, magnus sanctus, cito sanctus! Amen. 
'I wish to be a saint, a great saint, and quickly a saint!' There is our great commission, and there lies the cleft in the stone, through which we may pass into the realm of great deeds. Perhaps we have fallen from Pegasus, but we have risen with Christ. The adventure has begun; now one must strive not to let the enemy close his eyes to that truth.

Yet, as one strives to become this every-day hero, it must be kept in mind that in a world mostly peopled by the selfish and the evildoers, sensible failure is likely to be the reward for that heroism.

...and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter, with murder on a garbage heap

...go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls,
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh, Hektor, Roland,
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes.

Be faithful. Go.
(Zbigniew Herbert, The Envoy of Mr. Cogito)

At the last, let the catechism of the Roman Missal tell us how and where to go:

Remember, Christian soul, that thou hast this day, and every day of thy life:

God to glorify, 
Jesus to imitate,
The Angels and Saints to invoke,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to expiate,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbours to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death perhaps to suffer,
Judgement to undergo.


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Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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