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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 4: The Classical Virtues

My copy of “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” by Louis Markos (Moody

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Publishers, 2012) is dog-eared and underlined front to back. I’m finding that as I go through it again while writing this review I’m adding even more markings. This is especially true in the section on The Classical Virtues which follows Markos’ examination of The Road.

The four classic, or cardinal, virtues are not unique to Christianity. Courage, Temperance, Wisdom and Justice were also recognized by Plato and other pre-Christian thinkers as necessary to civilization and a just state. This is worrisome since these basic virtues seem to be absent from our national consciousness. Markos laments that our public schools only seem to teach the “virtues” of multiculturalism, tolerance and environmentalism. While I agree with him about what our schools are teaching, I would label multiculturalism etc. as values rather than virtues. I have to admit I was surprised that Markos offers no specific definition of “virtue” in his book, as if people still understand what it means. Given that we live in “an age that has in many ways sunk beneath the pagans in its understanding of virtue,” a clear, fresh definition for today’s world would have been nice.

Before I go further, let me refresh your memory about virtue. The word comes from the Latin virtus, meaning strength or manliness, and virtus comes from the Latin root, vir, which means man. Virtue itself means conforming to a moral standard of right, or it can refer to a specific moral excellence, such as temperance. The ancients obviously considered it a quality of strength and cultivated it, especially in their leaders. Would that we did the same.

With this brief definition in mind, let me give you a quick survey of the classic virtues as laid out by Markos:

Courage – While many think of this as a type of bravery in the face of danger to oneself or loved ones,           Markos likens it more to fortitude, the ability to endure life’s pains and adversities. He makes the point that the true courage of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings was their ability to endure the trials and dangers of the long journey to Mordor and keep going.

Temperance – This word always brings to mind the temperance movement in America when people were trying to ban the use of alcohol. Trust me, temperance isn’t that. Markos defines it in terms of Aristotle’s “golden mean” as in “the mean between the extremes.” It can be described as the middle path between total self-indulgence and total abstinence. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both Christians, yet “they rejected the notion that a Christian must refrain from all fleshly pleasures as a sign of purity and devotion.” God gave us the fruits of the earth for our pleasure, but we must use them with wisdom.

Wisdom – Sadly, wisdom is a virtue that is largely misunderstood or even ignored these days. Many people consider it simply an accumulation of knowledge, but it is much more than that. For Markos, the key element of wisdom is discernment as personified in the Bible by Solomon. This discernment is basically common sense combined with healthy amounts of insight, discretion and righteousness. Conversely, a foolish person isn’t necessarily stupid but mainly lacking in discernment and common sense.

Justice – This virtue is not as easily defined as the previous three, perhaps because it is the most transcendent of them all. Many of us moderns mistake the concept of egalitarianism, making everything perfectly equal for everybody, for justice. Markos suggests that to understand justice we must at least have a notion of hierarchy, which is basically the arranging of people, rulers or things into some form of rank or order. In this order there is a sense of rightness that is a key to understanding what justice really is. In addition to order, the sense of consummation and fulfillment must be present, as exemplified in The Lord of the Rings when the rough Strider finally becomes the magnificent King Aragorn. There is much to learn in this chapter of Markos’ book.

OK, kids, the lecture is over for now. But the course is far from finished. Next time we’ll look into the Theological Virtues as presented in this book.

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Book Review

 

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Whose Responsibility?

Miserere

Miserere (Photo credit: The Wandering Angel)

Organized welfare work is, of course, necessary; but the gaps in it must be filled by personal service, performed with loving kindness.

We cannot abdicate our conscience to an organization, nor to a government. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Most certainly I am! I cannot escape my responsibility by saying the State will do all that is necessary. It is a tragedy that nowadays so many think and feel otherwise.

Albert Schweitzer, as quoted in “The Moral Compass” edited by William J. Bennett

 

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2013 in Quotations

 

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I Think I’ve Found “Soma” the Problem

Huxley autograph of 1942 book "The Art of Seeing."

Huxley autograph of 1942 book “The Art of Seeing.”

OK. That was bad. Really bad. I apologize sincerely for that. Now back to my post.

The other day I was surfing around and I saw a picture of a young lady staring dreamily into her IPhone/ Android/ whatever. It was an ad for a social media site touting its portability. You, too, can flat-line your mind anywhere you go. And then it occurred to me: this is our society’s version of “Soma.” Huxley wasn’t too far off!

I’m sure some of you have read “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Without recounting the whole novel, Soma is an hallucinogenic drug that the future World State gives to its citizens so they can take hangover-free “vacations” to relieve stress and distract them from the oppressive, totalitarian world they live in. After reading BNW, I wondered when, if ever, our society would start to do something like that. When I saw the photo of the girl and her tech device, I said to myself, “It’s already here!”

Think about it. Our culture is very chemical/drug averse, for any number of reasons going back hundreds of years. But video and internet content, delivered via electronic IVs which we take with us anywhere, is the perfect solution. Using this technology people can watch television programs, movies or music videos. They can communicate with friends, play games, read books, magazines or newspapers, anywhere they go and at anytime they want. And it can be highly addictive. What better way to distract people from what’s going on in their world?

George Orwell wasn’t the only one who knew what he was writing about.

__________

By the way, that Aldous Huxley autograph you see above is from one of my books. I found it in a thrift store in Anaheim, CA maybe 20 years ago or so. I paid 50 cents for it. Unfortunately, the book isn’t “Brave New World,” but it is a first edition, in perfect condition, of Huxley’s “The Art of Seeing” signed and dated by the author.

I like it.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Ideas, Old Books, Uncategorized

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 3: On the Road

The Road Home

The Road Home (Photo credit: keeva999)

“Life is a journey” is one cliché all of us have heard many times. Equally true, but not heard nearly as often, is the saying that “life is a story.” In his book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits,” Professor Louis Markos uses these two truths to frame his exploration of virtues as they are found in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

In the first four chapters of the book, Markos takes these journeys and stories and places them right in the middle of where they so often take place: The Road. Anyone who has read “The Lord of the Rings” knows that it is one of the greatest road epics ever written. In this it has much in common with such legendary works as Homer’s The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, even Huckleberry Finn. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” while not a single tale of a long journey, contains many shorter stories involving all sorts of journeys, some intentional and some not. But long or short, all trips involve four parts: the lure or the call, the response to that call, the dangers and events encountered and finally, the end.

It doesn’t take much to lure us to the highways. We have a built-in restlessness that disposes us to go exploring, though some are easier to persuade than others. In Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Bilbo, as the author points out, is downright resistant to any idea of leaving his comfortable Hobbit-hole or his beloved Shire, though Gandalf and a boisterous band of dwarves prove to be very persuasive. Shasta, in Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy,” also resists the call of the road, but out of fear rather than love of comfort. Whether hesitant or enthusiastic, everyone feels the pull of the journey.

In medieval times travelers weren’t tourists in the sense we use the word today. They were merchants, soldiers, nobles or pilgrims and their journeys weren’t taken frivolously. Travel wasn’t as easy or safe as it is today. Good roads weren’t common, there were no planes, trains or automobiles, and there was a good deal of danger involved in leaving home. Taking to the road was literally an adventure in the truest sense of the word. The reason to go had to be a good one. In the ancient Hero tales there was usually a distinct “call” that the hero had to respond to. Gandalf called Bilbo and Frodo. In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, God called Abraham and Moses to grand journeys. But what about the common person?

If you’re alive, you’re on a journey. You weren’t called to it so much as thrust into it. You’re on the Road, and you have to face the challenges and dangers you’ll encounter along the way. Oh, there will be good things that happen on the trip too, things that Tolkien called “eucatastrophes”, those exhilarating moments when some disastrous event that seemed unavoidable is suddenly eclipsed by a surprising good outcome. But by their very nature, eucatastrophes can’t be planned or counted on. So what’s a traveler to do?

As in the great stories, so in life; one keeps on going. There is help, however. In Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” Aslan the great Lion instructs Jill to memorize four Signs that will help her on her quest. “Remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night.” If that sounds familiar, it is because it was patterned after Deuteronomy 6:7 and 11:19 where God is instructing His people in preparation for their journey. God has given all of us Signs, or directions, in His Word. From the Ten Commandments, to the Mosaic Law, to the Sermon on the Mount, God provides us with instructions on how to travel the Road of life.

There’s something else we need to remember about the Road. As Markos puts it: “In The Lord of the Rings, the Road is more than a path: it is a character.” In other words, it is a living, active participant in our journeys. The way we interact with the Road tells us a lot about our view of life. Do we carefully observe the events in our path and try to understand what’s happening? Or do we push forward without a thought, trying to force the Road to bend to our will? Though the comparison isn’t drawn directly in the book, this idea of the Road as a character brings to mind the concept of divine Providence, of God’s careful guidance of our lives. This belief in a living Road is critical to our journeys. We must never lose that belief and fall into a “postmodern, existential nihilism that says that there is neither beginning nor end, that we are all adrift in a world without Purpose, Direction, or Call.”

Eventually, the end of the Road arrives and for our life’s journey that means death. Markos reminds us of Pope John Paul II’s observation that we are living in a culture of death today. The issues of abortion and euthanasia, the unrelenting violence in films, television, music and art, all point to a darkness creeping over our civilization. And though we may seem to welcome it, our society has a very bad case of thanatophobia: a primal fear of death. We obsess about health, spending billions of dollars on diet and exercise and medicine, all to trick ourselves into believing that we can be immortal through our own efforts, that our journey never has to end. But it does. The purpose of the journey is not to keep traveling, but to grow and arrive at the place the Lord of the Road has been leading us to. And thus:

We bring our years to an end,

as it were a tale that is told.     (Psalm 90:9, from the Book of Common Prayer)

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Book Review

 

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