Intellectually Luxurious

The phrase “intellectually luxurious” occurred to me recently. It was in reference to a reading project I have in mind for myself.

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It seems to me that it’s also a perfect phrase to capture the essence of the happy philosophical life.

The reading project involves spending just a few minutes a day reading ancient books and texts. I will roam about however interest and relevance should lead me, but I’ll plan to start in the texts of the Hebrew Bible and classical Greece, and will move around into the Latin intellectual tradition and the New Testament and Church Fathers, then into peripateticism and neoplatonism, and early scholasticism. But there will be no urgency. I will read and reread, unhurried, enjoying myself, learning, and in this way slowly, relentlessly, accumulating familiarity with the personalities and events and thoughts of these ancient times.

I will luxuriate in the reading project. It will be intellectually luxurious.

At my alma mater, “intellectually rigorous” was the catchphrase du jour. This phrase captured the strenuous effort of reading large quantities of assigned texts and, even more, getting practice at writing many large and small assignments judged by a strict set of standards. It was stressful and unsustainable. I learned some good things along the way, but I also developed some problems and bad habits in the process that it have taken time to reverse.

It feels so much better to live in an intellectually luxurious way than did my experience of trying to live in what I believed to be an intellectually rigorous way. It’s healthier, I think, and in the long run more effective. To have an endless habit of enjoying relatively small amounts of daily intellectual reading and writing will do more for our growth than will briefer periods of much more intense study.

I don’t blame schools for failing to focus on the intellectually luxurious path for their students. Give college-age students free time and we know it’ll probably be misused. The goal of a school is to impart as much information in as little time as possible, so that students can go and work during their lengthy summers, so that they can pay to come back and study for another year.

Still, I do believe schools should try to find a way to move toward something more like an intellectually luxurious approach. Maybe some already are. I hope so. In my view, that would be the best thing they could do for their students and for their political communities, and thus also, for themselves.

But until that becomes the new academic norm, we still can and must pursue that goal for ourselves. If no one will teach us, we can learn on our own. It’s actually not so hard.

Choose the pleasant way of endless, ever-increasing knowledge.

Don’t Deny Everything — Affirm

Affirm everything, or at least, as much as possible. Don’t affirm that triangles have four corners or that two and two makes five, but try to find ways to affirm as many other things as it’s reasonable to affirm.

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To deny everything that it’s possible to deny is the way of the lazy person. “Prove it to me. I won’t believe it until you force me to believe it. By the most airtight, unambiguous argumentation, if you please, and probably not even then. I’ll find a way to weasel out. But try anyways, because otherwise I definitely won’t believe it!” Yes, we might seem to win more arguments by being closed and uninterested, but to what end?

The people who try to deny others’ arguments in that way never allow their own arguments to taste the same standards. If their own views are subjected to the same standards, they roll their eyes at the questioner and laugh scornfully. “Well, obviously you have to believe something. Otherwise you could never get on with your life. Now you’re just being ridiculous!”

In other words, the people who are in the mode of denial will continue to believe whatever they want to believe (not because they have any great proofs for their beliefs, but because this set of beliefs is just what they think is the best way for getting along in the world, and that because it’s probably the only way they’ve ever really bothered to try). There is no room for growth, for learning, or for understanding, or at least not without massive pressure being exerted from outside. It doesn’t even matter how well-informed these people are, whether they spend their days consuming news stories or books or peer-reviewed articles. As long as they are focused on denial, on not believing anything but what they have chosen to believe, then no amount of reading or studying will broaden their mind.

What then are the alternatives? Denying everything seems obviously silly, but so does affirming everything, so shouldn’t we seek a middle way? Shouldn’t we try to affirm the things that make sense to affirm and deny everything else?

Except, that’s what we already think we’re doing. By pseudo-intellectually denying everything and then agreeing with whatever we want to think, we already convince ourselves we’re denying what it doesn’t make sense to believe, and affirming what is reasonable. A summons to take the middle path will be enthusiastically embraced, and then will lead to negligible benefit.

The best way to trick our biases that keep us from learning, and to make sure that we are not applying a double standard to our beliefs and other potential beliefs, is to seek to affirm everything. We will try to think up or search out the best arguments for the things we didn’t previously believe, and once they’re found we’ll make sure to try and give them the strongest articulation we can think of rather than allowing them to be strawmanned and nitpicked, and even in the time before we have a chance to search out such arguments we’ll say only that we’re favourably disposed toward that conclusion, attracted by many facets of it, but unwilling to argue it for now since we feel not yet ready.

Without this shift in perspective, we will learn and grow so slowly that by the end of our life we’ll have had a chance to make very little progress at all, and in old age we may be even more inflexible on account of all our years habituating ourselves to reject whatever isn’t familiar and comfortable.

With the shift in perspective, however, we can trick ourselves into learning at a fantastic rate.

Now, some who have had the experience of debating a question with me in the past will be itching to call me a liar. I can hear it now. Perhaps it would be something like, “Remember, John, when I said that capitalism is the only good system and you disagreed? I was making a positive argument, and you were disagreeing.” This is one out of many examples I could have come up with, but let’s stick with it for a moment, because I’ve had this conversation with a few friends over the past several years. If I’m disagreeing with someone who says that capitalism is the only good system, the point is that I’m disagreeing because of the “only.” I’m trying to stress that while capitalism is good and useful up to a certain point, this apparently positive assertion we’ve heard ends up rejecting a great many interesting and promising alternatives from which we might learn a great deal as well if we could be open to it. In the course of the conversation, the debating won’t be driven by me demanding that the capitalist prove capitalism is good, because I already accept that; much more, it will be driven by the capitalist asking me to prove that capitalism isn’t the only good thing. I will be the person arguing for positive things, and the other person seeking to deny them.

Be the person searching for the best arguments, and do it for your own benefit, even though it’s easier to win debates by being the denier; don’t be the person who imperiously demands that someone else must produce the very best arguments for your enjoyment or else must concede defeat. Don’t be that person.

Try to affirm everything. Deny something only with the greatest reluctance, after great effort to keep it, and even then remain always hopeful that someone else will provide you with a way to get it back after it’s been lost.

This is a marvellously rich world to live in, full of all the things that could conceivably be believed. It’s the opposite of Ockham’s razor, in a way. It’s an exciting and collaborative way of thinking, rather than competitive and fearful and angry.

It’s the way to be. Give it a try.

Thomas Aquinas the Platonist

For many of those who give St Thomas a place of pride, it is not only the angelic doctor himself, but also a particular interpretation of him, that is held in esteem.

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It is not enough to admire and learn from Thomas Aquinas, for these folks. Instead, we must learn from him as interpreted by a particular tradition of thinkers. Any thoughts about St Thomas that stray out of those lines must be lopped off, and quick.

The party line is that Thomas Aquinas is the Christian Aristotle. He’s the consummate, quintessential Aristotelian, on this account, and all he ever really did was to explain Aristotle more clearly than Aristotle ever explained himself, and to show how Aristotle’s thought was compatible with Christian faith. Anything else he seemed to be doing or trying to do is just window dressing, a distraction from that authentic core. Well, maybe there was a tiny bit of Augustine mixed in there inspiring some of his thoughts, but that’s really it. Nothing more.

In the “Aquinas as pure Aristotle” model, there is incompatibility projected backward and forward from the mind of St Thomas. He rescued philosophy in the first place from the irrational, body-hating clutches of the platonisms that preceded him, and he also gave us the armaments to defend against the strands of modern thought that were soon to begin grasping at the mind of the West.

This account is especially attractive to some good-natured religious folk who are interested in philosophy but are tempted by easy, prepackaged answers and so prevented from thinking more deeply.

I was among their number for a time, and I still have a great appreciation for the sorts of people who see things this way. If I were to sit down and have a detailed conversation with one of them on this subject, though, it probably would not be so full of agreement, once they learned what I think.

So then, what do I think? What is the problem with the above portrayal of St Thomas?

First, a brief word about Thomism and modern philosophers. There is nothing these self-assured people like to do more than to compare St Thomas to someone like Descartes (or rather, a terribly misshapen caricature of Descartes), in order to show how the one was right about everything and the other wrong.

In spite of the myriad of things I want to criticize about such an approach, I will limit myself to a single thing: it is not how St Thomas himself approached major thinkers. “It’s all wrong! Everything is stupid because it’s different than what I learned. Let’s see if I can find any plausible reason to say why it’s bad. Look, after he said that stuff then the whole world went downhill, and doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?” Those are the sorts of things St Thomas never said. He wasn’t afraid to disagree with a thinker, but he always expended much more effort understanding and learning from and explaining those thinkers than he did smirking at them. And thank goodness for that! The truly Thomistic thing to do with Descartes is to seek to understand him as well as possible, to find as much agreement and overlap as possible between his views and one’s own, and to learn from him everything that can possibly be learned, to gain any insights that it is possible to gain, and then at the end of all that to consider whether or not there might be a few very specific points in his thought that seem to be unacceptable for some particular reason.

And this leads nicely into what I was saying about Platonism. The person who thinks St Thomas has nothing in common with historic Platonism must either know very little about St Thomas or very little about Platonism (or, likely, very little about either).

It’s true that he did sometimes disagree with the Platonists, just as he sometimes differed with Aristotle, and yet his own philosophical project has a distinctively Platonic shape. (Indeed, it’s not at all clear that even Aristotle himself differed from Platonic thinking nearly so much as is often assumed today.) If we are determined to see Thomism and Platonism as opponents, then our attempt to read either will end up warped, distorted, unfaithful.

If we want to understand St Thomas well, we have to be open to all the glorious agreements between his thoughts and those of the Platonists who came before him.

My Top Languages

I think that it’s incredibly valuable to have a language-learning habit. Over the past few years I have developed such a habit for myself, and I hope it will stay with me for a very long time.

Manarola, Italy
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However, once the decision to strive for such a habit has been made, we are faced with the miserable task of having to choose which language or languages we will focus on.

We can’t learn all of them! At least not all at once. And there are so many that are worth learning. A number of possible principles for choosing come immediately to mind.

Career is an obvious one. If it is advantageous to know a language in a person’s line of work, maybe French or Spanish, that’s an obvious choice. Then again, precisely because it’s so obvious or because so many people do it, there may be a little interior resistance to this one.

I guess travel is a common reason too. If someone’s going to be spending time in Portugal, it makes sense to learn some Portuguese.

Heritage is another strong one. Half of my family tree goes back to the Netherlands, and any time I spend studying a language that’s not Dutch makes me feel a hint of guilt.

A sense of wonder or romance is surprisingly motivating as well. Studying Celtic would be completely useless to me, but I’ve always wanted to learn it anyway, given how it is suffused in my mind with an air of mystery and lushness and magic and antiquity.

A desire to look cool is a possible reason too. This was actually the path by which I first established a language-learning habit a first years ago. I thought that it would be mind-bendingly cool if I secretly knew Russian or Mandarin. It would make me feel like James Bond. That was good enough for me.

But the lens I’ve settled on is to ask the question, which language opens up possibilities of study, of gaining language and wisdom?

Having spent months reflecting on that question, the list I have in mind is something like this (though the order is somewhat arbitrary and always subject to change):

  • German
  • French
  • Greek
  • Latin
  • Italian
  • Arabic
  • Hebrew
  • Russian
  • Mandarin

The first three or four are the ones I’m most looking forward to having greater fluency in. German and French open up quite a bit of scholarship as well as some interesting original philosophical works. Greek and Latin are more exclusively able to make available the earlier history of philosophy.

Even once I have polished up those four, though, I’ll still want to keep the language-learning habit going, and there are always more languages that will further enrich the understanding. My list actually even extends beyond the nine listed above, but I think this is a pretty good start, and even getting this far will take many years of hard work.

I have no idea how far I’ll get with this list, but wherever I stop, I’ll be glad to have gone as far as I can, and glad for all I’ll have learned in the process.

Visiting an Ancient Cosmology

I used to travel to an ancient world for short visits. It took some effort, but it was worth it.

sunrise under sky
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For the Ancient Near Eastern world, cosmology was closely related to common human perception, as reflected for instance in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Above us, but not so far above us, was the sky, a layer of material that enclosed the world. Below us is the earth, which has beneath it the underworld, a shadowy, damp place, like the caves we sometimes find. Around the edges of the earth there is water, and this water wraps around all the way beneath the earth, holding it up.

Above the sky, not so far from here, is the realm of heaven, with God enthroned in the celestial court, surrounded by the armies of worshipping angels.

When we today tell ourselves what the world is like, we contradict our senses, saying that the world is huge and basically spherical, that compared to us the sun is what’s stationary, that the sky shows us outer space that’s extended out to mind-boggling distances, filled with countless stars of which most are invisible to us.

It’s a strange world we live in today. We take it to be superior to the world imagined by our ancestors, and from the perspective of science it certainly is.

But when I was younger, I used to walk by myself to the edge of the town where I lived, and I looked out over the fields, at the clouds bunched on the horizon and the streaks of light overhead, and I let go of what science told me, only for a minute.

Standing there, I let the world around me infuse itself with the mind of the ancient world, so that I might see what they saw, and remember with them what it meant to be them.

I stood on an expanse of ground that was held up by the waters deep below, and which hid a place of shadow and shades not far beneath me. I looked up at a sky that I could almost reach, if I could find a high enough mountain to scale. I looked around at a world that was laid bare, completely known and completely vulnerable to us and to the heavenly hosts above.

I’d guess that most could not imagine wanting to visit such a world, let alone making an attempt, due to our bias toward science. If, however, we cultivate an affection and respect for the ancestral, it is not such an unthinkable thing to attempt.

And I always found it refreshing, restful. To treat our senses as liars whom we must distrust and contradict is subtly tiresome. To call our senses faithful friends, in whose communications we can take a simple delight, is a real joy, even if it can only be savoured for brief moments.

Food and Thought

In recent years I’ve been researching different ways of eating and trying some out. For a long time I ate thoughtlessly, whatever felt good and was convenient, not giving much thought to my health.

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That way of eating seemed at the time like a sort of relief from the often stressful circumstances of daily life, but in hindsight I realized that it was probably only contributing to the stress.

The way of eating that I’ve settled on is in a way not so radical. It basically follows what public health guidelines have been recommending for some time now. I admit that early on I fell down the rabbit-hole of notions about how the public health community is living in the Stone Age and they probably just haven’t heard about the really good science that says that butter is back, bacon is brilliant, saturated fat and salt and cholesterol are all healthy and everything with carbs is bad. Thankfully, that phase of mine lasted only a year or two.

I find that eating well has had many benefits for me, but one of the most dear has been how it has helped me think more clearly. Thinking is less foggy, is less often painful, is less interrupted by the sorts of emotional responses that make it hard to keep perspective.

I’ve been trying to distill down the essence of the changes that I’ve found most valuable. A few practical recommendations, then, based on my research and experience:

  • More fibre. We eat extremely fibre-deficient diets, and rectifying that problem can do a lot for our health and for our sense of well-being. If you’re like me, you probably hear that and think of buying All-bran or Metamucil, something that’s refined the fibre to be by itself. Don’t do it. It’s both much cheaper and much healthier (and, believe me, much tastier) to get them as part of whole foods with all the other nutrients that naturally come with them. Whole grains (eg oatmeal), legumes (eg black beans), fruits (eg blueberries), vegetables (eg kale), and seeds or nuts (eg walnuts) are great healthy ways to get some fibre into the diet.
  • Less saturated fat. Saturated fat, along with trans fat and dietary cholesterol, are known to worsen the main risk factor for heart disease, so for that reason alone they’re worth avoiding, but those same components for the same reasons are bad for brain health (cutting down blood flow to the brain over time). Saturated fat is also extremely pro-inflammatory. So finding ways to decrease these things in our diet can be beneficial. They show up in processed food, in animal products (especially cheese), and saturated fat also is in some tropical oils like coconut oil.
  • Less salt. Blood pressure of course is affected by sodium intake, and also some cancers. Add minimally, and eat processed food and restaurant food more infrequently, since we can’t control how much salt gets used in those things. Chicken from the grocery store, incidentally, often has quite a bit of salt water injected into it, making it a significant source of sodium as well.
  • More antioxidants. Herbs and spices should be used generously! Berries and leafy greens are also good options. Antioxidants are protective for brain health, as well as all sorts of other parts of our health. It’s far inferior to get antioxidants by vitamin pills, not nearly as beneficial. There’s very little antioxidant presence in animal products.
  • Less oil. Even oil that doesn’t have much saturated fat in it is really pretty much nothing more than empty fat calories. Use sparingly.
  • Fewer refined carbohydrates. Added sugar, white flour, these are the sorts of things I’m thinking of in this category. They’ve had the healthy stuff (especially fibre, but not only that) removed and only the empty calories left behind. Not so good for us.

There are some other facets as well that are worth paying attention to — animal protein has some health downsides for kidneys and cancer risk, for instance, and some foods have more of the sorts of heavy metals and pollutants that we should be avoiding, and that’s not even getting into the disease risks that come from factory farming and the environmental benefits of some diets over others. It’s possible to dive pretty deep!

But I think that focusing on my above list of six things to watch out for moves us a long way in the right direction, toward being healthier and feeling our best. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve found nutritionfacts.org to be an excellent resource.

I know some people might be critical of such a focus on food, or health, or risk. “Be brave,” they’ll say, “and just eat what you want! Stop living in fear! The body is made for man, not man for the body!”

If needlessly eating a diet that makes them feel unwell and dramatically increases the chance of ill health is how they manifest the virtue of courage, I will happily leave them to it.

Charismatic “Worship Songs”

When I was a teenager, the joke was that Christian music always seemed to be either old-fashioned or inauthentically derivative. If that was true then, I do not think it is true anymore.

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Worship music has carved out its own genre, which might adopt certain conventions of other genres in one band or another, but which is held together by something that is its own and is not obviously stolen or smuggled in from other musical traditions. To someone on the outside looking in it might still seem kind of boring, or funny, I couldn’t say. But musically, I think, there is something distinctive and not intrinsically objectionable holding this genre together.

I’m not an expert on worship music. I haven’t listened to a great deal of it in the last few years.

But when I do listen to it, I love thinking the thoughts it expresses, thoughts often but not always adopted from the phrases of Christian Scripture, and to seek to join those thoughts to the thoughts that are rolling around in my own mind.

This attempt has taken different forms over the years.

For a time, I tried to ground these songs in the history of the worshipping community. Around that time I had been exposed to some opinions about how individualism and hyperindividualism are rampant in the Western world and are showing up even all over our worship songs, and we need to resist them. I actually regret being so accepting of a teaching that was really conceptually imprecise, and thereby quite misleading and destructive (more on that another time, perhaps), but it did open up for me the imaginative possibility of trying to listen to these songs in a way that was removed from my own personal experience.

And so, for instance, when I heard a lyric about how God has saved me, I wouldn’t relate it to some moment or event in my own life but would think of how these words might resonate in the Exodus, or the return to Jerusalem after Babylonian exile, or to those present at the events surrounding the life of Jesus.

These days, I tend to do something that I think is closer to what Christian thinkers have done since the early Church (though most of them would not have articulated it quite like this). I try to think through how the lyrics might resonate with an ancient Neoplatonist.

Neoplatonism (as we use the word today) did not yet exist during the very earliest years of the Church, but the intellectual seeds from which it was to grow were widespread and already flourishing. Once it did come into existence, it exerted a powerful influence on Christian thinkers.

To take one famous example, Augustine found the Christian faith unthinkable until he was first charmed by the viewpoint of some Neoplatonist writers. This certainly isn’t to say that Christian belief and Neoplatonic philosophy were thought to be identical, or even compatible on every point, but they did seem to be mutually illuminative in a unique way, and much of what has become traditional Christian theology bears the imprint of its engagement with Neoplatonism.

And so that intertwining has become characteristic of the way I often hear and think of worship music now. Something about the sound of it makes it really attractive for listening to and thinking through in this way.

I would recommend that it could be worthwhile, or at least interesting, for even an irreligious person to try listening to such worship songs with an open mind, if they aren’t stylistically too far from what is agreeable to the listener, to see what meaning and agreement can be found from that perspective, and to see whether there isn’t some kind of benefit from the experience.

And if that’s what I recommend to an irreligious person, then of course I will encourage any jaded or self-satisfied Christian friends who have a list of complaints about how such music is overly simplistic or emotionally manipulative, to consider giving it another listen and see if there isn’t something of merit to be found as well.

Mysticism and Religion

Does a Christian expect that ultimate reality, when and if we get to experience it, will really be like what we might experience or discuss in a church?

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Yes and no. When we hear about Moses and the prophets brought into the presence of God, hear of the disciples at the Transfiguration, of John seeing visions in Patmos, the Christian does not then think, “Oh yes of course, that’s precisely what I experience every Sunday at eleven.” There is a distance between the experience of ordinary Christian life and the direct and full awareness of God.

Still, the Christian understanding will want to insist there is some direct relationship between the prayers and teachings and rituals of the faith on the one hand, and that ultimate eternal reality on the other side. The faith stands as a preparation, an anticipation, an approximation, a guarantee, a glimpse.

As C. S. Lewis wrote, what the Christian faith says about God and the last things might be more like the outline of the coast on a map, than it is like the coast itself. Thus, it’s still valuable for its purposes, but it’s is completely impossible to get it confused with that toward which it is pointing us.

Still, that doesn’t mean that some kind of an experience of ultimate reality is not available in this life. As the list above (Moses, the prophets, the apostles, etc) should indicate, it is indeed possible from a Christian standpoint, even though human speech is not entirely adequate to communicating what may be found there.

So, in some way there is the possibility of a Christian mysticism. But then, what about non-Christian mystics? What is the relationship of their experience to reality, and to Christian teaching? What may initially seem like a deeply perplexing problem, here, turns out to have a simple answer.

We might first think that the Christian is faced with the unhappy decision of having to say either that the non-Christian mystic is some sort of misguided counterfeit, or else that Christianity itself is dispensable and unnecessary. However, the Christian is actually able to respond simply that on the Christian account, the divine will is free to bestow grace on whomever God wishes. Thus, we need not discount or reject the testimony of non-Christian mystics entirely, even if their interpretations of their own experiences won’t always line up with how a Christian would want to express them.

There’s been suspicion toward the term “mysticism” among some groups of Christians in recent decades, because it has come to be associated with a variety of strange and not-greatly-admired movements. Still, as a term with a long philosophical and religious history before the recent shift, and as a term that captures such an important part of the religious way of approaching the world, I really believe it deserves to be renewed.