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A Philosophical Inquiry into Facts

What is a fact? The English word, used so commonly throughout the modern world, comes from its Latin cognate, factum: an event, occurrence, a deed, an achievement. But since the mid-17th century, under the auspices of the Enlightenment’s so-called “empiricism”, the word has been taken to be a “reality” known as independent of observation. The fact is Absolute. Facts, therefore, are discovered by and studied within “science”. They are “objective”. They are “verifiable”. That water at sea level boils at 212° Fahrenheit; that Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492; that Chicago is west of New York: most people regard these as facts.

Other claims may be disputed, such as that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; or that Domingo de Soto was the first to introduce the distinction between formal and instrumental signs. These disputes hinge upon the evidence: given the right data, it is thought, we could decide definitively one way or another. Other claims are not disputed as to their factuality, but regarded as irresoluble to facts. For instance, the claim that socialism is evil, or that capitalism drives moral flaw; that Aquinas was a better philosopher than Wittgenstein, or that a particular pope has undermined the Catholic faith.

Pseudo-Philosophical Presuppositions

This bifurcation into what is or is not a fact, however, presupposes much. Arguments often appeal to facts (or “evidence”). Arguments structured through or upon factual bases typically appear stronger. Contrariwise, if someone lacks a factual basis for his argument, others will regard that argument as “subjective”, a matter of opinion, and therefore as weak. To give an example, consider the claim that socialism is evil. The commonest way to defend this claim consists in examining facts about the Soviet Union. We advance the argument by pointing to the number of people killed, or the churches destroyed. We look at the facts of the Gulag. The Soviets themselves did all they could to hide these facts from much of the world.

Curiously enough, however, the Soviets (at least those making the decisions), despite their efforts to hide the facts did not seem overly troubled by them. Indeed: commonly, “facts” seem themselves always embedded in social contexts of interpretation. Bruno Latour has argued that what we regard as “facts” are not mind-independent truths discovered through science but socially-constructed fictions premised upon some observation. That is: circumstances and instruments, as well as often-tacit social agreements, contextualize every purported discovery of “fact”.

Discussing the Philosophical Reality of “Facts”

Yet the idea of the “fact”, despite such challenges, remains powerful in our contemporary social imaginary. Facts, as oft-repeated by a certain fast-talking pundit, do not care about your feelings.

But, we have to ask—we ought to ask—is there even really such a thing as a “fact”? What makes something to be a fact? How do we discover them, share them, interpret them? Can we gain “factual knowledge” without interpretation?

Join us this evening to discuss facts—and philosophy!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Whose Tradition? Which Nostalgia?

Our next Philosophical Happy Hour continues our discussion of modernity. We turn to the topics of tradition and nostalgia, with a focus on the potential role of nostalgia in the increasing number of “return to tradition” and “create a new tradition” movements arising within contemporary societies.

Though “modernity” is a difficult term to define, it is uncontroversial to claim that modernity has a “tradition” of being in tension with tradition. As many of us have encountered, any reference to the topic of tradition (or traditions) is likely to spark some degree of controversy. For instance:

  • Some think tradition to be a necessary good which advances the wellbeing of both  individuals and society; others think it to be a loathsome vice which is used to suppress individual freedom(s); others yet accept tradition more neutrally as a practical necessity used to prevent cultural decay and disarray.
  • Some think tradition to be an affirmation of truth, while others think it a mere cultural construct.
  • Among those who think tradition to be a good (or at least an acceptable necessity), there remain disagreements about which tradition(s) to follow. Moreover, ought we accept readily our tradition(s) as presented, or ought we introduce reforms, whether minor or extreme?
  • Some are keen to distinguish an appreciation of existing tradition(s) from the adopted ideology of “traditionalism.” Moreover: some think traditionalism to be a needed mindset to correct the errors of our age, while others think it to be a reductive, seductive means of control.
  • Some may laud the tradition(s) of one or more disciplines—theology, politics, education, the fine arts, to name a few—yet demand progress in others, or vice versa.

Regardless of our views of tradition, it is also uncontroversial to note that ours is increasingly an “age of nostalgia.” We commonly encounter appeals to nostalgia not only in advertising and the arts, but also in political and religious messaging, especially with the goal of rekindling a sense of the wholesome, “good old days.” So too, this appeal to nostalgia is common in defenses for tradition(s), especially traditionalist movements. As with tradition, we may ask some questions about nostalgia:

  • What is nostalgia? Is it a mere emotion, or perhaps more of a mindset?
  • How do we distinguish when nostalgia is a helpful rather than harmful inspiration?
  • Is there a particularly “modern” notion of nostalgia, in contrast to that of our predecessors?
  • Is nostalgia a legitimate justification for a return to tradition? Conversely, is a lack of nostalgia a legitimate cause to reject tradition?


Join us this evening (9/20/2023, 5:45-7:15 pm ET) as we explore these questions and themes, with particular reference to the thought of Yves Congar, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Josef Pieper.

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Last Chance to Register for Fall Seminars

With discussion sessions beginning this coming Saturday (9/23), I would be remiss if I did not put out a final call for registration in our Fall seminars. We have three provocative offerings, each of which promises to confront the errors of modernity in radically differing ways.

Registration for all seminars closes on 21 September 2023 at 11pm ET!

Medieval Semiotics

Though “semiotics” is a word coined only in the late 17th century—and used consistently and meaningfully beginning only in the late 19th—the study of signs and their actions goes back millennia. During those thousands of years, some of the most important contributions were made during the age often called “Medieval” (though it would be better termed “Latin”) and especially by the Scholastic thinkers. Listen to this two-part podcast as Brian Kemple joins Hunter Olson to discuss the key figures and ideas from this period.

And be sure to check out all the great interviews on the Dogs with Torches podcast!

On the Philosophy of Boredom

Who does not dislike the experience of boredom?  To be bored is to feel one’s time, one’s energy, one’s capacities are wasted, withering away on nothing.  But, at times, the boredom that seizes us disregards even our greatest loves: no matter the diversion attempted, boredom takes sway.  We might pick up a favorite book, only to put it down with a sigh after a few pages; or begin to watch a movie, a television show, even a live sport—and yet care not a whit for word or action on the screen, no matter how compelling the plot or play.  Chores and to-do’s are often a last resort, for at least the hope that something productive will be done and accomplished: but they seem little more than means to “pass the time”.

But this experience, with which no doubt we all are familiar, serves it seems only to cover up the fundamental and seldom-asked question—and which we intend to discuss in this week’s Philosophical Happy Hour—namely: what is boredom itself?

Kierkegaard and the Root of All Evil

“Boredom”, infamously writes Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), “is the root of all evil.”  Interpreting Kierkegaard never presents an easy task.  Is he being ironic?  Literal?  A mixture of the two?  This last seems often to be the case.  It is not, in other words, that boredom causes in the most literal sense all the evils attributed to it; but there is, no doubt, something pernicious about boredom.  What else does he have to say?

Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and stolid, should have such power to set in motion.  The influence it exerts is altogether magical, except that it is not the influence of attraction, but of repulsion.

In the case of children, the ruinous character of boredom is universally acknowledged.  Children are always well-behaved as long as they are enjoying themselves.  This is true in the strictest sense; for if they sometimes become unruly in their play, it is because they are already beginning to be bored—boredom is already approaching, through from a different direction.

1843: Either/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.281.

We will pick Søren back up momentarily, but this merits a pause: do we not observe today, in the era of constant distraction from distraction by distraction, a rising unruliness in youth?  Is this indeed because they are bored—or because they do not know how to quiet their sense of boredom?  But this raises the question: what is the experience of boredom itself?  Continuing:

The history of this [world going from bad to worse, its evils increasing more and more as boredom increases] can be traced from the very beginning of the world.  The gods were bored, and so they created man.  Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created.  Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population.  Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse.   To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens.  This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.

1843: EIther/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.282.

Here we sense, no doubt, some of Kierkegaard’s characteristic irony.  But though the irony rises to the fore, laced throughout we sense a certain truth.  Much of what we do, much of what we seek, seems motivated—somehow—out of boredom; out of a kind of dissatisfaction with what we have, or a failure of that which we have to satisfy—something.  We may not even ourselves know what.  Is that vagueness itself not a part of the experience of boredom?  That is, we feel ourselves bored when we know not what would get rid of the feeling of being bored; or, if we believe something would, we do not know how to get it.

Still, this does not answer the question: what is boredom?

Heidegger and Indifference

In a lecture course given some 74 years after Kierkegaard passed, Martin Heidegger offered his own extended thoughts on boredom.  Like much of Heidegger’s work—indeed, I’d dare to say, all of it—ultimately he resolves the question into that of being and of time.  But this resolution is not without reason, and, moreover, the path he takes toward it sheds important light on the question itself.  Boredom, as he describes it, has come to the fore in our world precisely through the structures of culture.  As he writes:

Have we become too insignificant to ourselves, that we require a role?  Why do we find no meaning for ourselves any more, i.e., no essential possibility of being?  Is it because an indifference yawns at us out of all things, an indifference whose grounds we do not know?  Yet who can speak in such a way when world trade, technology, and the economy seize hold of man and keep him moving?  And nevertheless we seek a role for ourselves.  What is happening here?, we ask anew.  Must we first make ourselves interesting to ourselves again?  Why must we do this?  Perhaps because we ourselves have become bored with ourselves?  Is man himself no supposed to have become bored with himself?  Why so?  Do things ultimately stand in such a way with us that a profound boredom draws back and forth like a silent fog in the abysses of Dasein [i.e., the intentional structure of human living]?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.77 in the English translation.

Heidegger goes on for quite some time (roughly 80 pages in the English translation) inquiring into the nature of boredom—examining differences of being bored and bored with and boredom itself, between superficial and profound boredom, and so on and so forth.  It is not at all, for seriously-inquiring minds (especially those already familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy), a boring read.

Homesickness and Boredom

But among the many wanderings undertaken through this contemplation, one today caught my attention.  First, he draws attention to the German word and its rather obvious etymology: Langeweile.  The English cognate—“long while”—speaks true.  But within this context, he draws an interesting and, I think, rather profound connection:

We pass the time in order to master [profound boredom], because time becomes long in boredom.  Time becomes long for us.  Is it supposed to be short, then?  Does not each of us wish for a truly long time for ourselves?  And whenever it does become long for us, we pass the time and ward off its becoming long!  We do not want to have a long time, but we have it nevertheless.  Boredom, long time: especially in Alemannic [a group of High German dialects] usage, it is no accident that ‘to have long time’ means the same as ‘to be homesick’.  In this German usage, if someone has long-time for… this means he is home sick for… Is this accidental?  Or is it only with difficulty that we are able to grasp and draw upon the wisdom of language?  Profound boredom—a homesickness.  Homesickness—philosophizing, we heard somewhere, is supposed to be a homesickness.  Boredom—a fundamental attunement of philosophizing.  Boredom—what is it?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.80.

Boredom—homesickness—philosophizing.  The reference of “we heard somewhere” may be a bit of a joke, as the word used for “homesickness” here is unheimlichkeit, literally, “not-at-home-ness”.  In other works of Heidegger, such as his then-famous Being and Time, it will be translated inadequately as “uncanniness”.  But, at any rate, this merits our contemplation.  Is boredom essentially an experience of being homesick, of being “not at home”?  Homesickness itself can tell us something, I believe, about boredom.  When we are homesick, we are uncomfortable: not with the things around us, but with the absence of home.  Our attunement is to the absent and not the present.  We might lash out at the present—in the form of persons or things, in actions or thoughts—but less because of what they are than because of what they aren’t.

So too, I believe, when we are bored, we might become bored with this or that object, but less because of what it is and more because of what it isn’t.  But whereas homesickness has a specified object that it desires (even if we seldom know precisely what it is or why home satisfies us), boredom seems more fundamentally lost.  We seek, therefore, not to alleviate boredom by satisfying its fundamental desire, but by quieting it, putting it to sleep—as Heidegger says—through some distraction, some temporary movement which alleviates that sense of “not being at home”.

Philosophizing at Home

So what is it we are missing when we are bored?  And are we condemned—like Freud’s civilizational discontents—to perennial dissatisfaction, to naught but inadequate sublimations of our fundamental desire to not be bored?

Join us this Wednesday (9/13/2023) for a Philosophical Happy Hour on the topic of boredom: what is it, why do we experience, and what should we do about it?

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Ignorance of History and Moral Weakness

“Those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it” — an oft-iterated maxim that is both often ignored, and, perhaps, misleads. Some history ought, perhaps, to be repeated. (Originality is seldom all that it is praised for being.) Nevertheless, an ignorance of history does have pernicious consequences. It makes us narrow-minded, arrogant, selfish, and ungrateful. Moreover, it seems to render us lacking in fortitude, a vicious absence notable today. Most especially conducing to that lack of fortitude, it seems, is the contemporary disdain for historical accounts of war and the inherent dangers of antiquity. This will be our topic for today’s Philosophical Happy Hour.

Life or Death in the Ancient World

Consider this passage from Edith Hamilton’s Roman Way:

“To the people of Romulus I set no fixed goal to achievement,” Virgil makes Jupiter in the Aeneid say of Rome’s future glory, “no end to empire. I have given them authority without limit.” Unlimited is what the Romans were, in desires, in ambitions, in appetites, as well as in power and extent of empire. There is a note of exaggeration in Rome, contradicting on first sight the outstanding national quality of practical sagacity which made them great empire builders. But upon closer view it ceases to be a contradiction. The Romans were pre-eminently men of war. They only choice they had for centuries was to conquer or be conquered. Possibly war was their most natural expression; certainly it was the price they must pay for being a nation. Under the spur of its desperate necessities in eight hundred years of fighting, as Livy reckons them, from the founding of the city to his own day, they developed extraordinarily one side of their genius, a sure, keen-sighted, steady common sense, but war, with its alternations of stern repression and orgies of rapine and plunder, was not a training to modify violent desires. Always rude, primitive, physical appetites were will to the fore.

What constitutes Rome’s greatness, in the last analysis, is that powerful as these were in her people there was something still more powerful; ingrained in them was the idea of discipline, the soldier’s fundamental idea. However fierce the urge of their nature was, the feeling for law and order was deeper, the deepest thing in them. Their outbreaks were terrible; civil wars such as our world has not seen again; dealings with conquered enemies which are a fearful page in history. Nevertheless, the outstanding fact about Rome is her unwavering adherence to the idea of a controlled life, subject not to this or that individual, but to a system embodying the principles of justice and fair dealing.

Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

-Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

Or consider this from Herodotus’ account of Thermopylae:

Xerxes listened [to his scout] but could not understand: that the Lacedaemonians [the Spartans] were really preparing to kill or be killed, to fight as much as was in their power, seemed to him to be the height of folly, the action of fools. So he sent for Demaratos son of Ariston [exiled king of Sparta], who was in the camp, and when Demaratos arrived, Xerxes questioned him about everything he had been told, trying to understand the meaning behind what the Lacedaemonians were doing. Demaratos answered, “You heard what I said about these men before, when we ere just setting out against Hellas, and you made me a laughingstock when you heard my view of how these matters would turn out. But it is my greatest goal to tell the truth in your presence, so hear me now once again. These men have come to fight us for control of the road, and that is really what they are preparing to do. For it is their tradition that they groom their hair whenever they are about to put their lives in danger. Now know this: if you subjugate these men and those who have remained behind in Sparta, there is no other race of human beings that will be left to raise their hands against you. For you are now attacking the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes, and the best of men.” What Demaratos said seemed quite incredible to Xerxes, and he asked for the second time how they could possibly intend to fight his whole army, since there were so few of them. Demaratos replied, “Sire, if things do not turn out just as I claim they will, treat me like a liar.” But even by saying this he did not convince Xerxes.

Herodotus

Herodotus c.430BC: The Histories (Landmark edition), 585-86.

Do we today understand the concept of conquer or be conquered or of kill or be killed? Not long ago the notion, doubtless, was familiar to the Western mind: the Great Wars of the 20th century were waged against this threat. (Many, it seems, are ignorant enough to believe that World War II was fought because of the Holocaust.) But we see, in most of our contemporary media representations even of these events an idealism at work which would have been incomprehensible to our ancient forefathers. The movie 300, an absurd exaggerated re-telling of the Persians pyrrhic victory at Thermopylae, portrays Xerxes as something of an alien; of their army as monsters. That men could choose evil through natural circumstances—this truth is obscured. That one might have to choose to kill ordinary human beings, following an ordinary human leader: this painful truth of courage as a virtue is removed.

Retrieving Historical Understanding

It is right that we study philosophy, and theology; that we retrieve the arts and the disciplines that go with them. But we need also to make present again in our curricula a direct encounter with great history. Mostly, the great history relates sacrifices undertaken because someone believes in truths greater than themselves. Join us this evening as we explore the historical heritage all-too-readily abandoned in our modern Western world. Links below!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Columbanus Fellowship – 2024/25 Application

What makes a person to be educated?  Institutions of higher learning in the United States of America, in recent decades, have answered this question with narrowed focus on specializations, often at the cost of both deep and comprehensive intellectual development.  The Lyceum Institute offers a different path: one which strives both to plant deep and nourish continually in the human mind those habits which grow into insight and meaning for all of life. 

St. Columban

Among our inspirations for this approach is St. Columban, (c.543–615ad), an Irish monk, missionary, and dedicated student of language and the Trivium.   So that his education would not be in vain, St. Columban turned away from all the fruitless pleasures of the world and practiced a rigorous self-discipline, “that he who was to instruct others might first instruct himself.”  The Lyceum Institute wishes to nourish those who are inclined to this humble pursuit of learning without the vanities of more conventional paths.

In an effort to provide this opportunity to serious students, we hereby announce the 2024-2025 Columbanus Fellowship.  This Fellowship, the first we are offering, is open to applications from the public and currently-enrolled Lyceum members alike.  Each recipient will become a full member of the Lyceum Institute, free of charge, for two years.  During those two years, the Fellow will take a rigorous course of study in the Classical Trivium—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—take at least two Philosophy Seminars, study either Latin, Greek, or a combination of the two, and defend a Quaestio Disputata.

Fellowship Details

Columbanus Fellows will be expected to dedicate no fewer than 10 hours (and likely more than 20) per week to study at the Lyceum Institute.  They will also limit all exposure to and usage of social media and be expected to keep their entertainment consumption to a minimum, pursuing instead true leisure: that betterment of the mind and soul discussed so admirably by Josef Pieper.

To apply for the Columbanus Fellowship, you must fill out the application form on this page.  Applicants must be between the ages of 18–40 and a citizen of the United States of America.    The application period will be open from September 1—21 November 2023.  Applicants will be notified of their acceptance or rejection by 12 December 2023.

Program

The Columbanus Fellowship combines core Trivium requirements with a selection of language and philosophy courses.  Courses required of all Fellows are in bold.  Students may take either Latin or Greek but must take one or the other.  Students who have taken Latin I-II must either declare to continue with Latin III or switch to Greek I.

First Year

  • Winter
    • Art of Grammar I: Foundations
    • Latin I: Foundations
  • Spring
    • Art of Logic I: Basics of Argumentation
    • Latin II: Foundations
  • Summer
    • Latin III: Foundations or Greek I: Foundations
    • Philosophy Seminar
      • Introduction to Philosophical Thinking, Introduction to a Living Thomism, Aquinas’ Cosmological Vision, or Aristotle’s Organon
  • Fall
    • Art of Rhetoric I: Discovery of Arguments
    • Greek II: Foundations
    • Quaestiones DisputataeInquirere

Second Year

  • Winter
    • Art of Grammar II: Composition
    • Advanced Latin or Greek III: Foundations
  • Spring
    • Art of Logic II: Advanced Argumentation
    • Quaestiones Disputatae – Formal Preparation
  • Summer
    • Advanced Latin or Greek
    • Philosophy Seminar
      • Any primary seminar in Ethics, Thomistic Psychology, Semiotics, or Politics and Culture
  • Fall
    • Art of Rhetoric II: Styles of Persuasion
    • Quaestiones DisputataeDefensio

Symbolism at the Nadir of Modernity

Our late-modern world, to borrow a phrase from Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, dwells in petty enchantments. That is, the rise of modernity, and especially industrial modernity, affected what Max Weber termed a disenchantment: we no longer saw vitality and power in nature and its operations but a mere mechanicism. The ability to explain through scientific experiment and inquiry the opaque processes of growth, life, death—this deprives them of magic, and us of wonder.

But, it may be argued, enchantment proves inevitable for human life. We want to wonder; we want to believe that there exists mystery and power in the universe. Too much of our experience defies mechanicist reductionism. You may identify the neurological pathways that light up when I pray. You may explain the chemicals that are released when I hug a beloved. But these physical phenomena fall far short in explaining the experience we have of faith and love. And so, having cast off the ritual practices of our forebears, we find ourselves enchanted nonetheless. Persons declare themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. Like an invocation, they chant: “Love is love!” Star Wars turns from entertainment to religion. The Sacred Mass is displaced by binge watching a favorite Netflix show. The font of holy water and kyrie eleison are dismissed in favor of Purell and “trust the science”.

Symbolic Vestiture

Put otherwise, even the most ardent materialist seems, inevitably, to locate the meaning of life in symbolic objects. It is little accident that the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen, for instance, the re-adoption of tribalistic behavior. By this, we mean not only adoption of the “me and mine contra mundum” mentality (though this undoubtedly has become quite common), but also of visual totems. As Mark Stahlmann (President of the Center for the Study of Digital Life) said to me yesterday in a rhetorical question, “Why are attractive young women covering themselves in tattoos?” Indeed: many are attractive enough that, if all they are seeking is attention, they need no outlandish designs drawn on their bodies. Nor, in a world where tattoos now are common, can it merely be an expression of “individuality”.

To the contrary, this self-adornment seeks permanence and belonging. As Byung-Chul Han writes:

Symbolic perception, as recognition, is a perception of the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability. Today, the world is symbol-poor. Data and information do not possess symbolic force and so do not allow for recognition. Those images and metaphors which found meaning and community, and stabilize life, are lost in symbolic emptiness. The experience of duration diminishes, and contingency dramatically proliferates.

Byung-Chul Han 2019: The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, 2.

As he goes on, rituals are a symbolic technique of making ourselves at home, comfortable in the world where we live. Rituals are to actions what symbols are to appearances. We put on symbols (whether in ink or clothing) as enduring continuation of ritualistic action. We want stability and belonging. Isolated individuality distresses us. Thus, as Northrop Frye writes (1947: The Educated Imagination, 33), “the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know.” If our culture lacks symbols to give us, we will seek them out—or create them.

Escaping the Nadir of Modernity

The prevailing contemporary attraction to symbolic vestiture—evidenced by the popular of figures such as Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau, a return to perennialism, mysticism, paganism, etc.—I would argue, consists in its apparent provision of a path out of the petty enchantments of modernity. Contemporary science claims everything is in perpetual motion. Digital life bombards us with constant newness. But the human mind seeks that which is unchanging. We are naturally left dissatisfied by the ephemeral.

Little surprise should be had, then, that when Pageau waxes rhapsodic about a mountain, or that a disaffected youth stumbles across René Guénon ever-uncoiling the mysteries of esoteric Hindu interpretation, something resonates in the human soul. Symbolism seems a ladder out of the modern muck.

But is it? Or might it merely be an effective illusion? Does it bring us to the truth? Or does it become merely a kind of spiritual tattoo? Do we escape modernity’s nadir—or do we merely place a box filled with pretty pictures over our heads?

What is a Symbol?

Too often, the term “symbol” conveys only a vague and nebulous idea. For attracting audiences of the disaffected, vagueness and mystery prove effective. They allow the audience to believe themselves entering something grand. Everyone likes to be an initiate of a higher order. But in the absence of a clear conception of what constitutes a symbol, I am afraid that one has truly been initiated, indeed, only by putting a pretty-pictured box over his or her head.

Countless writers have offered theories as to what symbols are, from antiquity to the present. Among relatively recent philosophically-minded contributors we find, notably, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ernst Cassirer, and Susanne Langer. Literary theorists, such as Allen Tate, Warren & Wellek, Northrop Frye, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren have offered their own. Psychoanalytic thinkers such as Freud and Jung and Lacan have all opined as well. At the nexus of these traditions, I find only confusion and chaos. Let us try to bring some light and fresh air to the question—won’t you join us?

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Studiousness vs. Curiosity

I begin this inquiry into the contrast of studiousness vs. curiosity by quoting from a perspicacious essay of the literary theorist Allen Tate, penned in 1945, titled, “The New Provincialism”.  Tate writes:

The provincial attitude is limited in time but not in space.  When the regional man, in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, of the world, extends his own immediate necessities into the world, and assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes the provincial man.  He cuts himself off from the past, and without benefit of the fund of traditional wisdom approaches the simplest problems of life as if nobody had ever heard of them before.  A society without arts, said Plato, lives by chance.  The provincial man, locked in the present, lives by chance.

Allen Tate, 1945: “The New Provincialism” in Essays of Four Decades, 539.

Perhaps, at first glance, this passage seems only tangentially related to the theme of our inquiry.  What does study, or studiousness, have to do with provincialism?  There are, in fact, many good answers to this question: for provincialism, in essence, consists in the belief that me and mine (whether of a “here” or a “now”) need neither study nor the humility which makes genuine learning possible.

Today our culture suffers a temporal provincialism—“It’s 2023!”; “Your model is outdated”; “What does the latest research say?”—that doubtless pains any person not captured by it.  That is, to approach the works and words of tradition with humility reveals how small our knowledge and weak our understanding.  But the provincialism of the present mangles the wisdom of the past through superficial readings and anachronistic interpretations.

Idle Minds

What imposed this provincialist perspective upon us?  One can, as so often is the case, point fingers at the moderns, the Enlightenment, the adulation of innovation and progress and so on and on.  And one would be correct in doing so.  But we must note that human beings tend toward provincialism regardless of time or place.  The human mind, given license, will slide eagerly towards adopting the easiest of perspectives—that is, whichever requires the least effort to attain the most-immediately pleasant results.

Is it easier to dismiss the Scholastics as backwards-thinking theocratic sophists, or to read the millions of pages of subtle argumentation through which their studies and disputes were crafted?

Should we wrestle with the enigmatic thinking of Martin Heidegger—itself a complex compound of efforts at originality and hidden borrowing from the tradition—or can we just call him a Nazi and be done with it?

Can we bypass close study of Aristotle’s Physics by pointing out that he misunderstood the structure of the cosmos, or that he had no knowledge of quantum physics (as though the average person today understands what it means that bosons have an integer spin while fermions have a half-integer spin)?

The questions are, of course, rhetorical.  Given the choice, most people will ignore or vilify whatever might challenge their beliefs.  This dismissiveness produces a host of vicious qualities: most especially that of acedia—a despair of spiritual good, as Thomas Aquinas says.  Such despair discourages real and meaningful inquiry.  Correlatively, it encourages curiosity: which is the vice opposed to studiousness.

Curiosity

Likely this sounds a bit odd to our modern ears (suffered as they have at that provincialism!).  What is wrong, what could be wrong, with being curious?  While it may incidentally get someone into trouble—finding out some truth that others would rather we not—it seems to designate a search for knowledge.

Historically, however, the term was used to specify an inordinate seeking of knowledge.  In other words, while knowledge is certainly good in its own right, it does not come to us in a vacuum.  Thomas Aquinas distinguishes a multitude of ways, therefore, in which we can be ordered incorrectly to the good of knowledge.

First, he says, we can have some evil annexed to our study: as someone who might wish to learn medicine that he might poison more effectively, or—far more commonly—that someone might take pride in being educated.  (I think here of every social media post that begins, “As a PhD/sociologist/philosopher/super smart person”.)  In such cases, the growth in knowledge and therefore goodness is not the end of one’s inquiries, but, rather, some malicious purpose.  Second, he goes on, the desire to learn the truth itself can be inordinate, even if knowledge is the end of one’s study.  This disordered pursuit happens in four ways:

  1. By being drawn from a better study (which is an obligation or true good) into a lesser pursuit: as the student who, rather than study, watches interesting documentaries on YouTube.
  2. Through superstition, when one wishes to learn by illegitimate and supernatural forces (divination, astrology, seances, etc.).
  3. Without a due order of that knowledge: that is, if we wish to catalogue the facts of the world without recognition of the order to which they belong (and thus the ultimate truths and goods which they reveal).
  4. Finally, when we seek to know things above our own capacity and thereby fall into error.

The first and the last, I think, are the most difficult today for us to understand.  But why?  Why are we so easily drawn to lesser things?  How do we err by trying to know things “above our own capacity”?  Are things truly “above our capacity” to know?

Studiousness

By contrast, the virtue of studiousness is, as Aquinas defines it, “vigorous application of the mind in relation to something.”  But this virtue, despite its vigor, belongs as Aquinas says to the cardinal virtue of temperance.  Despite being concerned with discovery and understanding of the truth, that is, studiousness is not an intellectual but rather a moral virtue, for it concerns our appetite for knowledge.  But all goods may be inordinately desired—as in the above instances of curiosity.  Thus, our appetite for knowledge needs to be rightly disposed, not only with respect to the things we experience in sensation (where there are many particulars we should not seek) but also with regard to intellectual knowledge.

Virtues, of course, consist always in the mean.  What, then, is the mean of studiousness—where does it lie between the extremes, between the excess and the deficiency?  What is this vigor—this vehemens—of the virtue? More pertinently, I believe, we may be hindered today by societal ills in our pursuit of this virtue.  Is this hindrance truly the case?  Why?  What can we do about it?

Further Reading

Join Us

This week we’ll be discussing these questions and more at our Philosophical Happy Hour – and you’re invited to join us!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Fall 2023: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Rosenstock-Huessy’s is a powerful and original mind. What is most important in his work is the understanding of the relevance of traditional values to a civilization still undergoing revolutionary transformations; and this contribution will gain rather than lose significance in the future.

Lewis Mumford

“Rosenstock-Huessy, Who Is He?”

Join us for an invigorating seminar that delves into the profound thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Jewish convert to Christianity, World War I veteran, and multifaceted thinker of the 20th century. A maverick philosopher and teacher, Rosenstock-Huessy emigrated from Nazi Germany to Harvard—where he was marginalized both for an interdisciplinary approach (before it was fashionable) and for unapologetically using the word “God” frequently in class. Thankfully he found a congenial home at Dartmouth College where his thought was given free reign until his death in 1973. Despite often being overlooked by conventional academia, his vast collection of works continues to resonate with contemporary scholars and has been praised as seminal by many critics.

The seminar promises to unlock the sui generis insights and methodologies that set Rosenstock-Huessy apart. His philosophical contributions defy easy categorization but open doors to understanding aspects of reality previously unnoticed. His ideas, stemming from unexpected cultural corners, offer a refreshing perspective on time, speech, and history—topics notoriously challenging to pin down.

Seminar Goals

Participants will explore Rosenstock’s enduring insights, focusing on his unique “grammatical method” of understanding. This approach safeguards against the modern tendency to reduce human reality to mere “scientific” statements. The discussion will also probe his perspective on the precedence of the second person over the first in our encounter with reality, his critique of prioritizing space over time, and his innovative “Cross of Reality” to reorient human consciousness.

Furthermore, the seminar will address Rosenstock-Huessy’s theories on the origin of language, emphasizing the primacy of hearing over seeing. It will also explore his alignment with other “speech thinkers” of the last century and his intricate understanding of history as a central theme converging all his insights.

This seminar invites scholars, students, and curious minds to engage with the challenging and inspiring works of this often-underappreciated thinker. It offers a stimulating journey into philosophical realms that continue to enrich and provoke our modern understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. Join us for this enlightening exploration that promises to be both intellectual revelation and tribute to one of the past century’s most intriguing and neglected minds.

Pricing Comparison

Standard priceBasic Lyceum
Enrollment
Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
Benefactor$200 per seminar$903 seminars included
$90 after
8 seminars included
$90 after
Patron$135 per seminar$653 seminars included
$65 after
8 seminars included
$65 after
Participant$80 per seminar$403 seminars included
$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after