Clean Eyes

carnation,lily,lily,rose1

“Again, one time Sophocles, who was Pericles’ fellow-commissioner in the generalship, was going on board with him, and praised the beauty of a youth they met with on the way to the ship. ‘Sophocles,’ said he, ‘a general ought not only to have clean hands but also clean eyes’.”
Plutarch, Life of Pericles

Just what was Pericles’ point? Is there something wrong with praising the beauty of a youth? In some sense, surely not.

But Plutarch relates this story as part of his portrait of Pericles as an upright man. The reader is to conclude that this incident reveals some aspect of Pericles’ good character.

There must have been something in how Sophocles pointed out the beauty of the youth. For there is a way of looking that is actually a way of taking. Just as hands can take what is not their own—and thus be unclean, so can eyes.

Eyes are designed to see. But as a matter of righteousness, and for the sake of seeing, some things should not be looked upon. From some things we need to withhold our glance. Somehow to look upon these things—as an act of selfish grasping—blinds us. It takes away our power to see and to love things as they really are.

Only if we discipline our eyes, if we are willing not to grasp through looking, will we ever really be able to see, and to appreciate, the beauty of others.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Image: “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” by John Singer Sargent

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Remembering Death

Tombstone

“You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis

Some images are striking reminders of death. There are few like seeing your name etched on a gravestone.

In my case it was seeing only part of my name—the one that really counts: the one I share with my father.

Last spring my parents’ gravestone arrived to be placed by the mound of my father’s grave. Not really wanting to look, I braced myself as the boom on the truck swung the block into the air. There it was: CUDDEBACK. All caps in an elegant font, above the Christian names of my parents.

The dates that bookend Dad’s eighty years are inscribed neatly below his name. But there is only the date of birth for Mom, and then a space—empty of everything but foreboding.

As the man put the finishing touches on the cement that holds the marker to its base, I enquired about how the ‘other date’ would be entered for my mother. He answered that they have an etching machine they bring on site, when it comes to that. “But let’s hope that’s not for a good long time,” he politely added.

That is surely a reasonable hope, at least on some level. Yet I wonder how my mother experiences it. I’m not inclined to ask. Her approach might be a little different from the grave worker. After eighty years of life, and the loss of your spouse, do you hope for a ‘good long time?’ Perhaps.

Why might any of us hope for a long life? Isn’t life ultimately a matter of living-together? Life in genuine isolation—from relationships of love—is almost not life at all. So hope for life, it seems, is hope for some kind of living-together.

That day last spring I might as well have seen my own name on a gravestone, accompanied by the first of the dates that will circumscribe my life. Will that other date be in spring, like the beautiful day that my father’s gravestone arrived? Perhaps it will be during a midwinter storm, or a lazy summer day. Will it have been expected, or will it be a matter for alarmed retelling among those that know me?

I think the main question—and one that most significantly hangs in the balance—is whether it will be a day that closes a life truly well-lived in the presence of those for whom and with whom it should be. Will that second date of mine be one of real closure for something reasonably fit to be closed? Or will those who stand around the grave be inclined to think of what could have and should have been?

The answer to this question is fundamentally in my power, though the date itself certainly is not. It is remarkable to consider the contrast: what is in our power, and what is not. That little space on a gravestone points to this contrast. I will try to remember that space.

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The Slavery of Women, and Men

Slave

“But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves…”
Aristotle, Politics

Barbarians can be accused of a number of things, but presumably they cannot be accused of considering themselves civilized. Nor did they see themselves as a society in which the position of woman was improving.

In light of a movie opening this weekend we might make a self-examination through the lens of Aristotle.

The Greeks are not a good example of how to treat women, or of how to treat those they called slaves. But nonetheless, Aristotle could not be clearer on this fundamental point: women are free persons and should not be treated as existing for the sake of another. It is characteristic of slaves to be subject to the designs of another—the master. Not so with women.

For Aristotle a distinctive mark of barbarians is that they do not see this truth about women. They do not distinguish between women and slaves. Much to the detriment of all.

This week many people have been baffled by the warm reception, even hearty defense, of a movie glorifying the sexual subjection of women. Aristotle can give us a helpful if grim angle of insight.

To treat another person fundamentally in terms of one’s own needs or wants, ignoring the person’s dignity, is to treat that person as a slave. Somehow—even in the face of much rhetoric about human rights, and the liberation of women—our society is living a contradiction. In various ways we condone, either explicitly or implicitly, the treatment of women as slaves. An honest assessment of the pervasive presence of pornography, for instance, verifies this point.

The pornography industry itself exploits countless women–a devastating but practically ignored fact. But perhaps more to the point, the use of pornography builds an attitude that women should serve the selfish desires of men. Such an attitude precludes the possibility of a true relationship between man and woman.

Aristotle actually proceeds to make another assertion about barbarians: “They are a community of slaves, male and female.” Perhaps this is a cautionary tale for us: those who treat women as slaves, are actually slaves themselves, unable to distinguish slavery and freedom.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

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Parents Ruling by Love and Age

Fatherwithchild

“For the begetter is the ruler by reason of love and age…” Aristotle, Politics

Perhaps we do not normally think of parents as rulers. Aristotle did.

He seems to think that after giving children life there is nothing more important than giving them direction: direction in how to live; that is, live well. This presupposes that there are right ways of living, and wrong, and that children need to be guided to the right.

Ruling and authority have a bad name today. But for the ancients authority is an office of special beauty and importance in human life. Authority is necessary in order that people—in this case children—be able to find true happiness.

Parental rule is rooted in age, as age denotes a wisdom that comes from experience. A ruler must have knowledge of the real goal of human life, and how to get there.

Parental authority is also rooted in love, and is an exercise of love. It is always fundamentally about the children, and their good.

But if true authority must be exercised with love, it is also the case that parental love must be exercised with authority. Parents need to rule. Not that ruling and making rules are synonymous. Rules have a place; yet praise, encouragement, instruction, gentle correction, not to mention leading by example, are all essential. These can set the nurturing tone of well-exercised parental authority.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: George de la Tour, Joseph the Carpenter, 1642

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The Theologian and the Philosopher

Thomas Aquinas

“So those who use the works of philosophers in sacred doctrine, by bringing them into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”
– St. Thomas Aquinas

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“The scanty conceptions to which we can attain of celestial things give us, from their excellence, more pleasure than all our knowledge of the world in which we live; just as half a glimpse of persons that we love is more delightful than an accurate view of other things, whatever their number and dimension.”
– Aristotle

Thomas Aquinas was a theologian. Sacred science—a systematic, ordered
understanding of divinely revealed truths—was his focus. For him other sciences or
studies have real importance, especially inasmuch as they form habits of insight and
provide the necessary conceptual framework for theology. Philosophy has a unique
place as the handmaid of theology.

Aristotle was a philosopher. For him wisdom culminating in knowledge of the first
cause is the greatest perfection of the human person. And he too cultivated the other
sciences, holding their greatest dignity to be in their fruitful relation to philosophy.

A millennium and a half apart, these two men have a remarkable kinship. It’s as
though in the works of Aquinas they form a team, an incarnation of the relationship
of theology and philosophy. The water of Aristotle irrigates and animates the fertile
field of Aquinas’ mind. And in that field it turns to wine.

For in the worldview of Aquinas, the highest cause, the celestial reality of which
Aristotle was grateful to have some little knowledge from afar, is in fact a person that
we love. This person condescends to offer man more than half a glimpse, and indeed
he offers not only an accurate, but an intimate view of himself.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is considered one of the greatest of medieval theologians. He called Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) ‘the Philosopher’ and wrote commentaries on all his major works.

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No Unsuitable Word

Pericles1

“The truth, however, is, that Pericles himself was very careful what and how he was to speak, insomuch that, whenever he went up to the hustings, he prayed the gods that no one word might unawares slip from him unsuitable to the matter and the occasion.” Plutarch’s Lives

It is interesting that Pericles made this an object of prayer.
Some things are so difficult, and so important, that we especially realize our need for super-human assistance.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

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Being Free from Jealousy

jealousy

“Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men.” Plato’s Timaeus

It is one of the most remarkable lines in all of philosophical literature.

“And being free from all jealousy…”

What an astounding state of being. Reading these words in Plato gives occasion for pause. In reality, I am often motivated by jealousy. Why am I so prone to be jealous?

Plato boldly asserts that ‘the good’ are never jealous of anything. Clearly he uses the term good in a strong sense here. One who is truly good knows he is good, and lo, he wants others to be so too, and rejoices in their goodness. Such is true happiness.

Can I be this way–like the creator about which Plato speaks?

Plato seems to think so. Indeed he thinks this is the whole point of creation: ‘…that all things be as like him as they could be.’ Such is the testimony of wise men, whom we do well to believe.

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

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