I've spent much of my free time over the past two weeks watching the AMC series The Walking Dead. I had avoided the series for some time on account of its gore, but since starting it I have (with some prudent skimming and skipping) found it engaging and reasonably thoughtful. Meanwhile, on the strength of Eamon Duffy's review in the current issue of First Things, I have been reading Carlos Eire’s new history Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Eire's history has some of the same features that I noticed in his teaching during my time as his student at Yale. He is very humble and remains close to the facts and sources behind his work, but has a way (off-putting to a fellow Catholic) of maintaining a kind of secular mask when he talks about matters of religion. I suppose this is a matter of being a responsible academic historian in the modern university, but I would rather Eire wrote history from an objective, Catholic perspective, instead of relativizing all the elements of faith to “what people believed.” In the present climate, perhaps this is too much to ask.
In my final semester of undergraduate studies, my under-the-desk novel was Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (hot tip to undergrads, unlike phones, books do not throw a suspicious blue light on your face). In his discursive Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, R. J. Snell makes much of that novel’s central conflict, between the lightness of freedom and the weight of commitment and deep human entanglement. He quotes from Kundera:
The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth, . . . and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Boredom, writes Snell, is the lightness of being free from commitment, the destructive freedom to do as we like with the world, which leaves us impoverished. Acedia, or sloth, is not laziness, but spiritual despair: “in sloth one rejects the weight and density of living in an ordered tradition.”
Despite its weighty title, Acedia and its Discontents is a light read. It has a mosaic-like quality, drawing from, in rapid succession, a Methodist hymn, Charles Taylor, Evagrius of Ponticus, Aquinas, Josef Pieper, Heidegger, and Pope John Paul II. Snell allows the themes to take him where they will, and the result is glorified annotated bibliography.
I mean no disrespect by this: Snell is a master at teaching by delight. The fragments that he includes and weaves together are tantalizing. Take the chapter “Bleaching Things.” Rather than spend pages railing against the way modern thought bleached the cosmos of meaning, reducing it to a “standing reserve” of resources, Snell quotes people who take the stance of wonder. He teaches (or reminds) us to marvel at the beauty of a tangerine peel by quoting M. F. K. Fisher, and then Gerard Manley Hopkins. If we retain a stance of awe toward creation, and ultimately the Creator, we are immune to acedia’s advances.
In other words, there is nothing earthshaking or new here, but I can thank Snell for some additions to my to-read list.
I’ve been reading Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. The first third of the work—a series of aphoristic reflections on man’s “vanity” and “wretchedness,” as well as his “greatness”—culminates in a series of paradoxes under the chapter heading “Contradictions,” in which Pascal attempts a religious synthesis of these two contrasting themes. Here are a few of my favorites:
It is dangerous to make man too aware that he is on the same level as animals without demonstrating to him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him too aware of his greatness without showing him his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him ignorant of either state, but very helpful to demonstrate both of them to him.
You cannot be a Pyrrhonist without stifling nature, nor a dogmatist without repudiating reason. Nature confounds Pyrrhonists and reason confounds dogmatists.
In the end, if man had never been corrupted, he would enjoy in his innocent state both truth and happiness with confidence. And if man had never been other than corrupted, he would have no notion of either truth or beatitude. But in the wretched state in which we are, more wretched even than if there were no dignity in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and we cannot achieve it, we feel an image of truth and we possess only untruth. We are incapable both of ignorance and certain knowledge, so obvious it is that we were once in a state of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.
There are two equally and constant truths of faith: one is that man in the state of creation or of grace is on a level above all nature, as if godlike and participating in the divinity. The other is that, corrupt and sinful, he has fallen from this state and been put on the level of the beasts. Both of these propositions are equally solid and certain.