A Definition of Nobility

To love what is truly lovable, to hate what is truly hateful, to seek the good because it is good, to do right because it is right, and to make of all things the best that can be made.

That is nobility.

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The Choice to Be Noble

What I am finding most difficult in my pursuit of nobility is simply making the choice: resolving that this moment, this right here and right now, is when I start to live this way.

You see, for me, and I think for most of us, though we want to be good, though we want to live lives of nobility and honor, we more wish it were so than seriously want it, much as we want to be in shape in the sense we wish it were so, not that we actually want to do all that is involved in the process.

Part of the problem is that when we speak of a state of being like ‘nobility,’ we are in fact speaking of a pattern of behavior: the content of the idea is a general and ongoing set of actions. To say we want to be noble is like saying we want to be a soldier: the state of being a soldier is appealing to us: the process of being a soldier, with everything that implies for becoming one and living as one, is less so. We like the idea of the state of being, but that comes with a whole pattern and process of behavior which is much more difficult.

Making the choice to seek nobility means starting that process. It’s much easier to resolve that we will start it sometime than to actually begin. But we never achieve it unless we start the process.

The Faith of Virtue

Fear of the dark is one of the most basic of human fears, for the simple reason that you don’t know what you will find in the dark. I have always disliked the common cliche ‘people fear what they don’t understand;’ that seems to me a cop-out (“you just don’t like this because you don’t understand it”), similar to the idea that communication is the key to solving all conflicts. What people fear is not the mere lack of understanding, it is the potential for danger that cannot be foreseen. Lack of understanding only translates to fear if there is a felt potential for danger. Hence the dark is frightening because of what it might contain, from insects crawling about where you might unknowingly put your foot to hidden obstacles to…other things.

Courage is the most obvious of virtues, and venturing into the unknown one of the most obvious forms of courage. It is appropriate that it should be so, since all virtue amounts to stepping out into the unknown.

Virtue is focused primarily on the act itself: it tells us to do the straight thing regardless of what might come of it. Like Sam in The Lord of the Rings forcing himself to stay awake to keep watch over Frodo when they’re guests of Faramir. He knows perfectly well that if these men betrayed them there would be nothing he could do about it, but he also knows it’s his duty to keep watch and so he does it. Or like the Roman soldier during the Punic Wars (can’t remember his name) who was captured by the Carthaginians, then sent to deliver a message to Rome after promising to return when the message was sent. He went, advised the Romans not to accept the Carthaginian demands, then returned, knowing full well they would execute him horribly for it. He did it because he’d given his word to return and preferred to keep his word whatever the consequences.

It is the act itself, not the results, that matter in virtue. Now, since virtue means the proper operation of the human self, it does ultimately have positive results, even if not immediately obvious ones. But the results cannot be the chief reason for virtue, both because they are not obvious and we generally do not start out feeling the connection between the act and the positive result and because if we make the result our aim we are apt to seek it by the wrong means, which defeats the purpose (Consequentialism, therefore, is not only not virtue but is a kind of counterfeit to virtue, akin to cheating on a test without actually learning the material).

Virtue is a form of faith because it requires us to trust that the good results (happiness, confidence etc.) will follow if we sacrifice the present good of immediate indulgence. In order to achieve the desired results, we have to forget the results for a time and simply do what we ought.

This, I find, is one of the marks of the real and the good; that it cannot be reached if you make it your end, but only as a byproduct of a habitual process. A scholar does not arrive at the truth by first deciding the ‘right’ conclusion and then seeking evidence for it, but by following the evidence where it leads. A man does not fall in love by making love his aim, but by spending time with a woman. Nothing really worth having can be had by making it your aim, but only as a byproduct of habit.

In other words, everything that is genuinely good comes about by putting it out of our mind and focusing on doing the present actions as we ought. Which only means virtue, bringing us full circle. It is the mark of greater goods that they are a byproduct of the moment-to-moment enactment of duty. To try to reach them directly spoils them: they can only be coaxed out by doing as we ought moment to moment. To forget about them and trust they will come is a matter of faith.

The Dangers of Planning

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Leonard Pasternak – The Passion of Creation

I’m finding more and more the dangers of planning. Planning is necessary for me, but at the same time it carries a risk; the risk that the satisfaction of having made the plan will mean one doesn’t actually carry it out. We (or at least I) have a tendency to put something down on paper to be done, then assume it will be done sooner or later and so never actually do it. We don’t consciously decide not to do it, we just say ‘not right now.’  The next thing we know, months have passed and we’re wondering what’s wrong with us.

Dickens understood this; there’s a bit in Great Expectations where Pip recounts how, during his prodigal period, he and his friend Herbert would periodically sit down and draw up accounts for themselves of their expenses, debts, and the economies they would have to make. The satisfaction of so doing was enough to calm their nerves to the point where the exercise was useless.

A lot of times making plans functions as an anesthetic to our anxieties: a way to feel like we’re making progress without actually having to put in the work.

The Best We Have

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First Communion by Pablo Picasso

Part of my Christmas charity involved going with my parents to their parish. I don’t presently have a fixed parish of my, since I’m living with them and my life is very unsettled, but I generally go to one of two other churches, one of which is run by the priests of Miles Christi and is very traditional (Sunday mass isn’t in the Tridentine rite, but they do celebrate the Consecration in Latin and ad orientum), the other is more or less a typical novus ordo, though reliably orthodox. My parents’ church I avoid because the pastor, though a very nice man and, I believe, very orthodox gives the worst, most insipid homilies I have ever heard in a Catholic Church. I don’t think they’re in any way heretical, but they’re too banal for that to even be a possibility: they don’t contain enough instruction for the question of heresy to even arise.

Put it this way: his Christmas homily was based on a story in The New York Times that sounded like the treatment for a particularly bad Hallmark channel original movie. I was left thinking that the My Little Pony holiday special I’d just watched was more relevant and theologically rich than this.

I suppose in someways I’m a bit of a snob, especially when it comes to religion. I’m someone who gets annoyed by sloppiness in the liturgy, or smaltziness in homilies. Even when the homilies are better than the ones my parents’ priest gives, I still often find myself thinking that they miss important details, or they focus too much on the congregation, or are too vague. I’m also very critical of Church decor, if it seems drab or ugly I sit thinking about how they could and should do better.

But it’s not just about religious matters: I’m a snob about art and philosophy as well. Well-meaning nonsense irritates me, and attempts by narrow minds to appear broad, or sloppy thinking makes me roll my eyes. In art I frankly give no slack for the ‘bold’ or ‘innovative’ if what it produces is ugly or degrading – I loathe Picasso’s more famous works, for instance and think Duchomp was a charlatan.

Yet, at the same time, many of my favorite works are the frankly popular and low-brow: Disney movies, children’s cartoons, monster movies, fantasy and adventure novels, and so on. I can be extremely critical of a homily that plays too much to the crowd, but I can love a film that does the same.

Is there a disconnect here? I don’t think so. You see, the question is what you’re trying to do, who you’re doing it for, and (most important) whether you’re giving your all. I hate most of Picasso’s work in part because he was a very talented artist: if you look up some of his early work it’s quite beautiful (see the picture that heads this post for instance). But instead he chose, whether for commercial or ideological reasons, to paint hideous crap

On the other hand, I really like the film Freddy vs. Jason because, while it’s not really a ‘good’ movie, it is a movie that tried very hard to be as good as it could possibly be. It knows what it is and simply tries to excel at that.  Moreover, Freddy vs. Jason is a pulpy horror film: it seeks to create some very basic emotions and some very cheap thrills. That’s a low bar, and the film clears it handily while also giving us more than we expected. It is eminently suited to the end for which it was created.

That’s why I’m so harsh in some things and not in others: it’s a question of how much effort is put towards what end. When the end is giving people a few hours of entertainment, or telling stories to children, and the makers put as much effort as they can into it, I’ll sing their praises. When the end is showcasing beauty and truth, and the makers try to pull cheap gimmicks or make only a token effort, I’ll come down on them. When the end is conveying the Word of God and the result is a cutesy story to elicit some warm fuzzies, then I turn my back on it. Not because I have anything against warm fuzzies or even cutesy stories, but because God – and the people come to hear about Him – deserve more.

My point in all this is that I think God’s way of judging us is much the same, as indicated by the parable of the Talents, as well as the story of Cain and Abel. It’s not the work itself that primarily interests Him: He has just as much use for a mason as for a Mozart, which is to say none. All that we have and are come from Him, and we can’t offer Him anything that wasn’t His to begin with. The question isn’t the work itself, but to what end we do it and how hard we try at it.

Nobility, I think, means living as well as we possibly can, which means the more of virtue and beauty and truth that we know of, the more we are obliged to practice them in our lives. In short, whatever else we are obliged to do, we are at least obliged to do it as well as we possibly can. It is that will to do good, to offer the best we have, that really counts.

Step One: Starve

The first steps toward happiness always seem to involve increasing your present misery.

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Perhaps you’ve heard of those experiments where a rat has electrodes hooked up to the pleasure center of its brain and given a button that will stimulate a release of dopamine. Unless it’s removed, the rat starves to death, since it’d rather keep pressing the button than feed itself.

Now, we today have lots of those buttons in the form of TV, internet, video games, and so on, and none of them are necessarily bad (though there are bad instances in all, and probably more than good). The trouble is that they too easily create the illusion of affirmation and accomplishment without the real thing. It’s as if you had a button that, when pressed, gave you a similar feeling to creating a new story: you’d probably never finish your work because not only would it be easier to just press the button, but the same passion that would ordinarily lead you to work also pushes you to the button.

The difference between us and the rats is that we recognize that the desire isn’t really satisfied by pushing the button. Perhaps the purely instinctive or appetitive part of the desire is appeased, but we also want something more out of it; something that can’t be counterfeited so easily. So, there’s a gnawing hunger that isn’t satisfied, and it grows more intense the longer it is starved. Hence the misery and lethargy of addicts: they’re only satisfying part, and that the lowest part, of their craving.

But the first step to truly feeding your desire is, unfortunately, to starve it entirely for a time. In fact, to put the desire second and something else first. That something else is simply your knowledge that this is the way to satisfy it. That is, it requires surrender and trust in something you can’t feel, but only know. In short, Reason must take over and rule as a dictator for a time.

Me, I spend far too much time online rather than writing. I’m searching for some kind of affirmation or satisfaction that simply isn’t there to be had, at least not where I’m looking for it. Trouble is, I also suffer from mild depression, so it’s hard to sacrifice what meager satisfaction I do get for the potential (not even the promise) of better satisfaction later. I tell myself that I just want something to tide me over a bit, then I’ll get to work. But the meager pleasures I get from the experience only further whet my appetite, as if one went to a restaurant and only found appetizers.

So, the first step is to let that pseudo-satisfaction go for now; to accept present emptiness, boredom, and so on and just buckle down to work without the promise of reward.

On Living Well

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Happiness is ‘a working of the soul in the way of excellence,’ according to Aristotle. Or, in other words, Happiness means living well.

Now, when I hear the term ‘living well,’ I always remember an interview I saw with Pierce Brosnan, where he used the phrase to describe James Bond (just in case you thought this blog was going to be consistently high-brow). In the context, he meant that Bond, through his money, his skills, and his job, is able to take a lot of pleasure and have a lot of experiences. That, I think, is what most moderns mean by ‘living well,’ but that’s not what our ancestors meant. They meant by ‘living well’ living as one ought. That is, they had the idea that man has a certain nature, that this nature is properly expressed through certain behaviors, and that by so doing a man becomes what he ought to become and so achieves the satisfaction that we call ‘happiness.’

This was part of a basic assumption that they had, but which we have slowly been jettisoning over the past few hundred years, and which has now been almost completely removed. They thought that the man issue was how to conform man to reality. We, on the other hand, think the man issue is how to make reality conform to our wishes. You will see that this fundamental difference really is just an expression of an even more fundamental issue: whether to worship God or to try to set oneself up as a god. Whether to serve in Heaven or rule in Hell.

For the present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not; the fundamental issue will remain for an atheist as well as for a Christian. That is, whether a man ought to conform himself to reality or seek to make reality to conform to him: whether the moral law is something exterior to him, obliging him to try to acquire a certain character as being proper to his nature, or whether it is something he creates and seeks to impose upon the world for reasons of his own.

Obviously, I believe the former: that our ancestors were right and we are wrong, that it is better to serve in Heaven than to Rule in Hell, and that man is not the center of the universe, nor an equal partner with it, but has his own proper place in the hierarchy of creation.

Now, I don’t think this merely because I’m a Christian. The problem with the modern approach is this (you will find this argument laid out much more thoroughly in Prof. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man): either there is such a thing as objective value, or there is not. If there is, we’re are obliged to seek to conform ourselves to it. If not, then we may and perhaps ought (for whatever meaning the word now holds) to seek to make the world what we would like it to be. But then, why should we want it to be one thing or another? What compels us to choose to make it thus or thus? Since any objective value, any idea of ‘because it is good’ is excluded by hypothesis, the only thing left is because we want it to. Because it is pleasurable for us. In other words, mere appetite. But appetite only means nature: it means the weather, digestion, association, and mood. It is, in fact, the least free and least individual part of ourselves. The James Bond version of living well means, in fact, a wholly servile life; a life subject to advertisements, sensations, and changing circumstance.

On the other hand, if you accept objective value, though you are obliged to obey its law, you are freed from all others. As Mr. Chesterton put it, following the Commandments, we are freed from the conventions. From the doctrine of objective value comes the only source of free inquiry which is not merely the fashionable ideas of the time, the only freedom which is not mere license, and the only obedience which is not slavery.

Nobility means trying to live well in this sense: to conform our lives to the reality of what we are and what the world is.