17 May 2007

Josef Pieper on the virtues of the human heart

Josef Pieper is a German, Catholic theologian in the Thomist tradition, and his writing is beautiful - curious readers of any faith (or none) will find something to appreciate in his insights. I've read three of his books - The Four Cardinal Principles, Divine Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism, and A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. All three are published by Ignatius Press, which produces perhaps the most beautifully bound paperback books I am familiar with.

A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart is a mere 54 pages of thoughts and fragments, so it's a great place to start if you are interested in finding out what Pieper has to say about human life and morality. He must be read patiently, because his style is a bit windy and filled with classicisms. Here are a few excerpts:

The virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it.

The basic attitude of conformity to being, of impartiality, and of objectivity, which is expressed in the classical teaching on prudence, was summarized in the Middle Ages in the marvelously simple sentence, "A man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are."
The man who does good follows the lines of an architectural plan that has not been devised by himself or even totally understood by himself in all its components. This plan is revealed to him moment by moment only through a narrow cleft and a tiny gap; in his transient condition, he never perceives the specific plan for himself in its global and definitive form. Concerning conscience, which to an extent is prudence itself, Paul Claudel says that it is the "forbearing lamp that characterizes for us not the future but the immediate."
Thus, the world reveals itself to the silent listener and only to him; the more silently he listens, the more purely is he able to perceive reality.
One of the most central concepts from the moral philosophy of the High Middle Ages is that of
acedia, which we, very ambiguously, are accustomed to translate as "laziness." Acedia, however, means this: that man denies his effective assent to his true essence, that he closes himself off to the demand that arises from his own dignity, that he is not inclined to claim for himself the grandeur that is imposed on him with his essence's God-given nobility of being.

The "concupiscence of the eyes" reaches its utmost destructive and extirpative power at the point where it has constructed for itself a world in its own image and likeness, where it has surrounded itself with the restlessness of a ceaseless film of meaningless objects for show and with a literally deafening noise of nothing more than impressions and sensations that roar in an uninterrupted chase around every window of the senses. Behind their papery facade of ostentation lies absolute nothingness, a "world" of at most one-day constructs that often become insipid after just one-quarter of an hour and are thrown out like a newspaper that has been read or a magazine that has been paged through; a world which, before the revealing gaze of a sound spirit uninfected by its contagion, shows itself to be like a metropolitan entertainment district in the harsh clarity of a winter morning: barren, bleak, and ghostly to the point of pushing one to despair.

13 May 2007

More incredible lines from Czeslaw Milosz

From In Milan

I could compose, right now, a song
On the taste of peaches, on September in Europe.
No one can accuse me of being without joy
Or of not noticing girls who pass by.

From A Treatise on Poetry

When they put a rope around my neck,
When they choke off my breath with a rope,
I'll turn around once, and what will I be?

When they give me an injection of phenol,
When I walk half a step with phenol in my veins,
What wisdom of the prophets will enlighten me?

When they tear us from this one embrace,
When they destroy forever the shaft of tender light,
What heaven will see us reunited?

From Ode

There is no doubt that many perished, infamously,
Because, like an illiterate discovering chemistry,
They suddenly discovered relativity and time.
For contemplation fades without resistance.
For its own sake, it should be forbidden.
And we, certainly, were happier than those
Who drank sadness from the books of Schopenhauer,
While they listened from their garrets to the din
Of music from the tavern down below.
If we, though our thoughts were merely historical,
Will not receive the laurel of long fame,
So what, after all? Some are given monuments
And mausoleums, yet in a soft May rain,
Covered by a single overcoat, a boy and girl
Rush by, entirely indifferent to that perfection.
And some word of us may remain in any case,
Some remembrance of our half-opened lips:
They did not have time to say what they wanted.
Nothing but ocean which boils and repeats:
In vain, in vain. Nothingness is so strong
We try to master it by thinking of the bones
Of pirates, the silky eyebrows of governors
On which the crabs feast. And our hands grip
Harder at the cool metal of the railing.
Look for help in the smell of paint and soap.
The ship's body, creaking, carries the freight
Of our foolishness, vagueness, and hidden faith,
The dirt of our subjectivity, and the homeless
White faces of the ones who were killed in combat.

Bobo's Metamorphosis

I liked him as he did not look for an ideal object.
When he heard: "Only the object which does not exist
Is perfect and pure," he blushed and turned away.

In every pocket he carried pencils, pads of paper
Together with crumbs of bread, the accidents of life.
They reproached him with marrying one woman and living with another.
Have no time - he answered - for nonsense, a divorce and so on.
A man gets up, a few strokes of a brush and then already it's evening.

(Click here to see Milosz's Collected Poems on Amazon.com - I give it the highest recommendation.)

03 May 2007

Three poems by W.H. Auden

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

From Lay your sleeping head, my love

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Certainly, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

From September 1, 1939

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

-Click here to check out Auden's Wikipedia entry, and here to buy his collected poems.