Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book: The Heresy of Formlessness

I came across this beautifully written book The Heresy of Formlessness by Martin Mosebach, about the Traditional Latin Mass. This is the Mass that was celebrated in every country from 1570 to 1962, and is making a bit of a comeback since Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 document Summorum Pontificum, authorizing a wider use of the old Mass.

I've only read a Kindle sample of the first chapter of Mosebach's book, and it seems to capture the beauty and solemnity of the old Mass (which I'm fortunate to be able to attend in Victoria). Mosebach writes:
Gregorian chant is not art music. It exists to be sung in every village church and every suburban church, in spite of the fact that some of it is difficult and requires practice—and people did practice it, hearing it every Sunday all their lives. Only later did I realize, however, that the liturgy and its music must not be regarded as an occasionally edifying or impressive concert or as a help toward meditation; no, it is something that must be practiced one's whole life long. The obligation to go to church every Sunday should be seen in connection with the liturgy: the liturgy must permeate our lives at a level deeper than deliberation and thought; it must be something that, for us, is “taken for granted”; otherwise it cannot have its full effect on us.
Good stuff.

One more excerpt:
Now it was quiet. Everyone was kneeling, and Professor Gessner was whispering, turning pages in the Missal, and Hermann in his soutane was kneeling beside him, the bell in one hand while, with the other, he held the chasuble up a little. Professor Gessner bent forward and whispered a little more distinctly, then genuflected; the little bell was rung, and he lifted a little, white, round wafer high in the air while the bell rang three times, and Ludwig forgot that Hermann had taken the wafer from the wooden box and put it on the little golden plate on top of the chalice. This white disc in a cloud of incense—he did not see it as something material at all, or rather, he saw it, for one moment, as something very fine and delicate, like solidified light. Then the hands came down and Professor Gessner started reading in a whisper again.
That's a beautiful description of the moment of consecration at a Traditional Latin Mass.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Organizing cables with a cardboard box

Add me to the list of people who think that a cardboard box with holes in it is a superb way to organize cables.

Box closed

It's not going to be fun hunting through this box to pull out the laptop adapter.

Box open

Alternative methods of learning textual material

Some people can absorb information from books by reading them straight through. I cannot – if I simply read a textbook, the information goes in one eye and out the other.

What I have found however is that there are some alternative ways of approaching textual material that do make it stick in my brain. See if one of them works for you.

  • By drawing pictures (visual learning). When confronted with a long or complex text, I often like to create a simple 1-page diagram/infographic showing the main points. Personally, a mind-map of words isn't good enough for me – it has to have some pictures: a silhouette, a hand, a star, whatever. Making this “cheat sheet” imprints the gist of the text on my mind.
  • By discussion. This doesn't happen very often for me, but when I am able to get into a group discussion of a chapter of a book, the ideas really stick in my head. Also, hearing the interpretations of others gives me new insights and sometimes corrects my own interpretations.
  • By examples (inductive learning). Sometimes you are in a class or meeting and the teacher is speaking in abstract terms and you don't get it. Ask the teacher for an example – examples often clarify things. Maybe you're an inductive learner like me and really benefit from concrete examples.
  • By reading aloud. This one doesn't always work for me (especially if the text is long), but sometimes reading a passage aloud can clarify it. Use in small doses.
  • By abridgment. This is my new favourite way to absorb textual material. Basically, abridging a book by selecting a key sentence from each chapter. You don't have to write anything new – you're just selecting existing content. You end up with a nice half-page overview of the book; and in the process of selecting and discarding material, you gain familiarity with it. For example, it took me a little over an hour to abridge the 600-page Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation.

If you're faced with learning an especially long or tedious book, try one of the above alternative ways for getting the information into your head. They lay the groundwork for a more detailed reading of the text.

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to Polish One's Shoes

This 5-minute video inspired me to go out and buy a basic Kiwi shoe polish kit and polish my shoes each month. That was a couple of months ago, but I hope to make it a lifetime habit.

An Ultracompact Abridgement of "Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation"

Below is an extreme abridgement of Timothy McDermott's 600-page Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, itself an abridgement of Thomas Aquinas' 3000-page Summa Theologiae. The intent of this extreme abridgement is to give a bird's eye view of the whole. Interested readers are referred to McDermott's excellent work.

My aim in this book is to introduce beginners to what God taught us [in the scriptures] as concisely and clearly as the subject-matter allows, and in scientific order. Our words for God do not express him as he is in himself; they express him in ways more appropriate to the material creatures we naturally know. God is happiness itself; whatever we desire in any happiness whatsoever, true or imagined, exists in a transcendent way in God's happiness. We had to know about the Trinity, primarily so that we might be clear about the salvation of mankind, which was accomplished by the Son made flesh in the giving of the Spirit. God planned to create many distinct things, in order to share with them and reproduce in them his goodness. That man is made in the image of God's nature implies that all three persons of God are represented in him. God gives form to things, maintains them in existence, applies them to their actions, and is the goal of all activity.

Happiness is above all the activity of contemplating the things of God; virtue is a disposition befitting one's nature, a goodness directed towards good deeds. Three things oppose virtue: sins (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one's nature). The New Law fills up what the Old Law lacked; it primarily consists of the grace of the Holy Spirit showing itself in faith working through love. In charity God is loved and we do the loving. The function of prudence is not to set the goals of moral virtue, but simply to determine means to those goals. Moral virtues do not pursue contemplation of truth; but moral virtues are dispositions to the contemplative life.

We needed God to become flesh if we were to be saved; Christ came into the world to wipe out not only the sin of Adam that we all inherit, but also all subsequent sins. Because Christ's soul did not repel from his body the hurt inflicted on it, but was willing for his bodily nature to suffer, we say he laid down his life, or died willingly. The whole power of the sacraments derives from the sufferings of Christ. The sacraments dispose and strengthen men to worship God according to the religion of Christian life, and to remedy the effects of sin.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Gradually finding my way home [Catholicism]

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot

By degrees, I feel that I am finding my way home. It started with my return to Roman Catholicism during my university years. Catholicism—that ancient faith, the faith of my childhood, and the religion of Dante and Tolkien, Raphael and Michelangelo, Cauchy, Mendel and Lemaître, Haydn and Mozart. And Colbert.

Intellectually, this past year I’ve been finding my way home in the philosophy of Aquinas and Aristotle. This is a sphere of knowledge that I'm just starting to get into. Aristotle concludes in Physics ii.8 that “action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.” It’s an interesting view, coming from philosophy. I wonder why high schools don’t teach ancient philosophy—it seems to have much useful food for thought.

Which brings me to the present. I’m exploring the possibility of becoming a lay member of an 800-year-old Catholic group called the Dominicans. There are a number of reasons for this. I love their focus on study and prayer. Famous Dominicans include St. Thomas Aquinas, one of my heroes, and St. Catherine of Siena, whose Dialogue I am looking forward to studying. There is unfortunately no Dominican group in Victoria, but there is a group in Vancouver, so I'm going to take the ferry there on a weekend in February to see what their meetings are like. I have a feeling that this could be a good place for me.

I saw this on the Lay Dominicans website, and I thought, yes, that’s me:
To discern if you are called to become a Dominican, consider whether the following things describe you: you love to study and are a motivated learner; you long to read more and know more about the life of Christ and the Church, and you cannot contain your desire to share the fruits of your study with others; you prefer good literature that contains universal truths; you appreciate the many avenues through which truth can be taught, whether it be literature, science, theater, or visual art.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Religious Sense: A Concise Summary

Below is a summary of Luigi Giussani's book “The Religious Sense”, in the form of extracts from the book (one sentence per chapter). With all of its digressions, excerpts from poems, and technical language, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. So it is helpful to see the structure of his argument in a few short paragraphs.


Our first premise is the need for realism, and this points to the primacy of the object: the method by which something is approached is determined by the object; it is not imagined at the subject’s whim. The second premise is reasonableness – emphasizing concern and love for rationality, and this brings to light the acting subject, and the manner of the subject’s movements. The third premise is that we must love the truth more than ourselves, we must love the truth of the object more than the image that we have formed of it, we must acquire a poverty of spirit, we must have eyes that confront reality and truth wide open, like the eyes of children.

From a methodological point of view, the starting point for an inquiry into the religious sense is one’s own experience, oneself-in-action. In addition, only the hypothesis of God, only the affirmation of the mystery as a reality existing beyond our capacity to fathom entirely, only this hypothesis corresponds to the human person’s original structure.

People assume “unreasonable” positions before the questions which constitute the religious sense; for example, they attempt to empty the questions of their content. Or they reduce it to positions that do not entirely correspond to all of the factors which experience shows to us to be in play. The consequences of these positions are contrary to nature: the individual breaks with the past, becomes incommunicative, and loses his freedom. Yet people abandon themselves to these positions because of the domination of preconception, the tyranny of prejudice.

The way reality strikes an individual awakens within him a voice which draws him towards a meaning which is further on, further up. The world in its impact with the human being functions as a sign, “demonstrates” something else, it demonstrates “God.” The sign is an event to interpret and freedom is exercised in the interpretation of the sign. The fundamental problem of the great adventure of this “sign” which is the world, is education in freedom because only through this education, this adventure, can destiny become evident.

Reason, in order to be faithful to its nature and to the nature of the calling of reality, is forced to admit the existence of something else underpinning and explaining everything, of the Beyond. This hypothesis of revelation must respect two conditions: it must be a word that is comprehensible to man, and it must not reduce mystery but rather deepen it.

A Shorter Summary, from Chapter 14

The world is a sign. Reality calls us on to another reality. By nature, the human being intuits the Beyond. Reality awakens his religious sense. But it is a suggestion that is misinterpreted. Existentially, the human being is driven to interpret it prematurely, with impatience. The intuition of our relationship with mystery becomes degraded into presumption. Thus, as Aquinas says, it was “necessary to teach men this divine truth with a divine revelation.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Chess

For some reason, I felt like reading some articles about chess today. Here are some Wikipedia articles that are quite interesting:

Deep Blue. The computer that defeated Garry Kasparov.

Bobby Fischer. One of the greatest chess players of all time.

The Game of the Century. One of the most famous games of chess, played by Bobby Fischer at the age of 13.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Agony of Aquinas in Translation

I continue to wring my hands over how best to start studying Aquinas. The approach I now have in mind is to study primarily McDermott's flowing translation of Aquinas' selected works: Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. I am tempted also to get Brian Davies's highly regarded exposition of Aquinas: The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. But perhaps the McDermott will suffice for now. I also wish to conserve time and money somewhat.

I currently have Kreeft's Shorter Summa (on Kindle unfortunately), so I could keep studying that for a while. I don't have to move on to McDermott right away. As I mentioned previously, I am also enjoying Jonathan Lear's delightful Aristotle: The Desire To Understand.

I am also tempted to read W. Norris Clarke's The One And The Many, which is his take on Thomistic metaphysics – especially if it is anything as exciting as Lear's book. But while inspired by St. Thomas, it's not St. Thomas himself, and I want to learn from the master before the disciple.

If I had infinite time, I would read McDermott's SPW, Davies, Clarke, Irwin and Fine's Aristotle: Selections, and McDermott's Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation.

But then Jeanne Follman of Aquinasblog went with Davies + McDermott's STACT: “I settled on the Brian Davies book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. This is still the best summary I've seen, rigorous but readable, and the one that I think brings you closest to the sense of the text of the Summa itself. The Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation, has also been a key resource, as it is the text of the Summa itself (abridged) in a somewhat perkier translation.”

But then on the other hand, Romanus Cessario's Theological Studies review of McDermott's STACT is, while positive, somewhat more measured: “When one chooses an abridgement of a classic, one does not expect to find a faithful rendition of the original. An abridgement gives us some idea about whether or not we might like eventually to pick up the unabridged version, even in translation. As an abridgement, M.'s volume deserves commendation.”

Decisions, decisions.

I guess I'll order McDermott's SPW and study that for a while; if I get bogged down, I may enlist the help of Davies. After a couple of years of this, I might check out Aristotle: Selections or The One And The Many - either of which would be a challenging but satisfying read. Or I may instead do more Aquinas, i.e., STACT.

How To Read A Novel

In How To Read A Book, Adler and Van Doren offer the following advice on reading a novel carefully:

1. "[Compress] the reading of a good story into as short a time as feasible." (p. 218)

2. "Read...with total immersion...Let the characters into your mind and heart...Try as hard as you can to live in his world" (p. 218)

3. "[Grasp] the unity of the whole work" (p. 209) and "discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts" (p. 210). (Try this form from Rafe Esquith's "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire" p. 55: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, plot, climax, denouement, theme.)

4. Say "what is good or bad about the book and why...[You] must objectify your reactions by pointing to those things in the book that caused them." (p. 214)

Friday, January 14, 2011

data_hacks: Command line utilities for data analysis

Someone sent around this link at work a while back: data_hacks (command-line utilities for data analysis).

It can do a few different things – I like it for quickly generating histograms:
$ cat data | --sort-keys
# each * represents a count of 2
19:0 [     1] 
19:1 [    24] ************
19:2 [     3] *
19:3 [     9] ****
19:4 [     5] **
19:5 [    41] ********************
20:0 [   115] *********************************************************
20:1 [   181] ******************************************************************************************
20:2 [   136] ********************************************************************
20:3 [   155] *****************************************************************************
20:4 [   150] ***************************************************************************
20:5 [    79] ***************************************
21:0 [    64] ********************************
21:1 [     8] ****

Monday, January 10, 2011

ReviewBoard, Aquinas, and God

The rationality of Aquinas is blowing my mind. An engineer at work who was getting frustrated with ReviewBoard said on IRC, “*sigh* God hates me.” Immediately I directed her to the Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 20, Article 2, which I reproduce below. The Summa is pure, unadulterated rationality. It's good stuff.

Article 2. Whether God loves all things?

Objection 1. It seems that God does not love all things. For according to Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv, 1), love places the lover outside himself, and causes him to pass, as it were, into the object of his love. But it is not admissible to say that God is placed outside of Himself, and passes into other things. Therefore it is inadmissible to say that God loves things other than Himself.

Objection 2. Further, the love of God is eternal. But things apart from God are not from eternity; except in God. Therefore God does not love anything, except as it exists in Himself. But as existing in Him, it is no other than Himself. Therefore God does not love things other than Himself.

Objection 3. Further, love is twofold--the love, namely, of desire, and the love of friendship. Now God does not love irrational creatures with the love of desire, since He needs no creature outside Himself. Nor with the love of friendship; since there can be no friendship with irrational creatures, as the Philosopher shows (Ethic. viii, 2). Therefore God does not love all things.

Objection 4. Further, it is written (Psalm 5:7): "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity." Now nothing is at the same time hated and loved. Therefore God does not love all things.

On the contrary, It is said (Wisdom 11:25): "Thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made."

I answer that, God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; and likewise, whatever perfection it possesses. Now it has been shown above (Question 19, Article 4) that God's will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence, or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. To every existing thing, then, God wills some good. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists. Yet not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by it as by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness, whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end we direct our actions: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness.

Reply to Objection 1. A lover is placed outside himself, and made to pass into the object of his love, inasmuch as he wills good to the beloved; and works for that good by his providence even as he works for his own. Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv, 1): "On behalf of the truth we must make bold to say even this, that He Himself, the cause of all things, by His abounding love and goodness, is placed outside Himself by His providence for all existing things."

Reply to Objection 2. Although creatures have not existed from eternity, except in God, yet because they have been in Him from eternity, God has known them eternally in their proper natures; and for that reason has loved them, even as we, by the images of things within us, know things existing in themselves.

Reply to Objection 3. Friendship cannot exist except towards rational creatures, who are capable of returning love, and communicating one with another in the various works of life, and who may fare well or ill, according to the changes of fortune and happiness; even as to them is benevolence properly speaking exercised. But irrational creatures cannot attain to loving God, nor to any share in the intellectual and beatific life that He lives. Strictly speaking, therefore, God does not love irrational creatures with the love of friendship; but as it were with the love of desire, in so far as He orders them to rational creatures, and even to Himself. Yet this is not because He stands in need of them; but only on account of His goodness, and of the services they render to us. For we can desire a thing for others as well as for ourselves.

Reply to Objection 4. Nothing prevents one and the same thing being loved under one aspect, while it is hated under another. God loves sinners in so far as they are existing natures; for they have existence and have it from Him. In so far as they are sinners, they have not existence at all, but fall short of it; and this in them is not from God. Hence under this aspect, they are hated by Him.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Teach Like Your Hair Is On Fire

Someone at work recommended this book to me: Teach Like Your Hair Is On Fire. It's about a schoolteacher named Rafe Esquith whose 5th grade class, in a school in a poor neighbourhood, puts on an amazing (unabridged) Shakespeare play each year, and whose students go on to Ivy League universities. Check out these two 5-minute videos on Rafe and his class.

Top 10 Desert-Island Book List

If you were stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life, what 10 books would you like to have on hand?

My list would be:

1. Summa Theologica (transl. Dominican Fathers)
2. Bible (RSV 2nd Catholic ed.)
3. Aristotle: Selections (transl. Irwin and Fine)
4. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (transl. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez)
5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church
6. Introduction to the Devout Life (transl. Ryan)
7. Jane Austen: The Complete Novels
8. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (ed. Bevington)
9. Dante's Divine Comedy (transl. Pinsky, Merwin, and Mandelbaum)
10. The New Penguin Book of English Verse

Sunday, January 02, 2011

How to tackle the Summa?

I'm rather undecided on how to tackle Aquinas' "Summa Theologica".

One approach - let's call it the "traditional" approach - is to read the Dominican Fathers' (accurate but hard-to-understand) translation of Aquinas - approaching it a little at a time, using Kreeft's Shorter Summa to start with, then moving on to Kreeft's Summa of the Summa, then perhaps Pegis's Aquinas in 2 volumes, then, perhaps, on to the full 5 volumes.

Another approach is the "cheater" approach. Here I would read McDermott's paraphrase "The Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation", together with Brian Davies's explanatory "The Thought of Thomas Aquinas" (or Feser's "Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide"). All of these books are well spoken of. But I'm not really reading Aquinas - I'm reading these interpretations of him.

But what is my goal? Is it to get at Aquinas's ideas, or to be an Aquinas scholar? I would say it is to get at his ideas, so if interpretations make it easier, so be it.

On the other hand, Kreeft (in his "Shorter Summa" intro) and Adler (in "How To Read A Book") discourage this approach of using secondary sources, saying to mine the ore from the primary source. And what can I say - Flannery O'Connor read the Dominican Fathers' translation.

Then again, if an easy way presents itself (McDermott's paraphrase), why not take it? I like easy.

So I am torn between ease and ought.

- - - - -

And of course there are other interesting books to read, to "take a break" from the above plan: W. D. Ross's "Aristotle", Irwin and Fine's "Aristotle: Selections", Clarke's "One and the Many", Maritain's "Degrees of Knowledge"... This sounds too ambitious - let's not do it. Well, maybe the W. D. Ross.

- - - - -

Anyway, back to the question: How to approach the Summa?

Life is short. I think I'm going to go with the cheater approach. That is, McDermott's paraphrase, interspersed with Brian Davies when I need to take a break. When done, maybe I'll do the 2-volume Pegis to get at the primary source.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

On the joy of borrowing CDs from the library

Borrowing CDs from the library is a Good Thing, for two reasons. First, buying music can get expensive. Second, you will eventually tire of listening to the music - with the library, you return the CDs and can get different ones.

I'm listening to a delightful CD from the library - it's Bach Arrangements, by pianist Angela Hewitt. The interesting thing about this CD is that it consists of 17 multi-instrumental works of Bach, transcribed into piano pieces. At times, the pieces sound curiously modern when brought to the piano - it's quite cool. Listen to some samples to see what I mean.

CD cover