Archive for May, 2011

The True Elite

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

“How,” you ask, “can we make modern people skeptical of their enormously successful science?”

I very much doubt we can, not at least taking “modern people” en masse. I’ve certainly never supposed my own teaching or writing would have much of an effect on the masses. It’s the person who is already suspicious of the successes you have in mind, or (better) who already senses that there are modes of “success” quite unknown to contemporary science, one aims to reach. We can only pray for the rest.

If you’ve been especially attentive during your prayers, you will have noticed that there’s a tiny “space” between perceiving and conceiving the world around us, and the question is whether a given person can remain in that space long enough to take a deep breath or two. If he can, or even if he simply wishes he could—and wishes it just as much as a man held under water wishes to breathe—then he can be helped. Otherwise he is beyond what I at least might hope to do for him.

Am I being an “elitist” in saying this? A correspondent recently complained that we traditionalists are “indifferent to the hoi polloi“, and that a Christian traditionalist in particular would have been strongly rebuked by Saint Paul for splitting the Church into the “spiritual” and the “carnal” and thus for repeating the “disastrous divisiveness” of the Gnostics, whom the Apostle attacks in 1 Corinthians.

I pointed out in reply that a certain kind of “divisiveness” has indeed been overcome in the Gospel, for in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). But this surely takes nothing away from the fact—an altogether obvious fact, is it not?—that there is nonetheless a gnosis not accessible to everyone. Saint Paul himself—in 1 Corinthians, in fact—is at some pains to contrast the “spiritual” with the “unspiritual” (or “natural” or “psychic”), and he singles out the “mature” as alone prepared to receive “a secret and hidden wisdom of God”.

The problem, or one problem, with the heretical Gnostics of the first Christian centuries was not their claim that there is a “higher gnosis” but their mistaken assumption that a capacity for this gnosis automatically renders a man superior to other people, as if a childlike faith and spiritual discipline were of no importance. As Schuon observes, true gnosis saves “only when it constitutes a path that works and transforms and wounds our nature as the plough wounds the soil”; and he adds that intelligence alone “does not prevent titanic falls”.

No doubt intellectual pride, like all forms of pride, can lead to “divisiveness”. But the error in this case lies in a misappropriation of gnosis, and not in the existence of gnosis, or gnostics, as such. There is indeed a spiritual elite: it’s for those alone who can make themselves small enough to enter the “space” of prayer.

Some Cooling Words of Thanks

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Thank you very much for your good wishes with regard to my teaching award. God willing, it will provide some encouragement to those, whether fellow professors or students, who have every reason to wonder whether it’s still possible to take a stand for Tradition in the midst of the mess that is modern academia.

Of course, worldly honors such as this can be distracting, if not indeed dangerous. In fact I said as much in the brief acceptance speech I was asked to give last week at the awards ceremony. Though I’m hopeful the university’s announcement of this honor may help to draw more good students to my classes and more attention to our perspective, I’m well aware of the risks it poses to my ego and would be grateful for your prayers. If I mention the award in the public space of my weblog, as I’ve decided to do, it’s on the assumption that the public peril to my soul is no worse, and perhaps somewhat less, than that of a private and “prudential” pride! I’m thinking of Saint John Klimakos: “Vainglory beams on every occupation. I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence.”

In any case, here are a few of my remarks from the awards ceremony:

You have to admit: There’s something a little ridiculous about getting an award just for enjoying yourself, but that’s precisely the situation when someone loves his profession as much as I do. I’m sure the other honorees in the room understand what I’m saying. But there’s also something more than a little dangerous about it. We all know that “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”, and it’s said in the Christian monastic tradition that to praise a man is to send the Devil after him. So in the interest of eluding this ancient Tempter, I’d like to spend just a few moments pouring some cooling words of thanks over the simmering coals of self-importance….

It’s impossible for me to speak on an occasion like this without mentioning the greatest of my own undergraduate mentors, a classicist by the name of John M. Crossett. As many of my students know, whenever the subject of good teaching arises, I’m quick to pay homage to Crossett. Because of his amazing ability to see where each of his students would end up at least 50 dialogical moves in advance—if, that is, they answered his questions honestly—it was easy for this college sophomore to believe that Plato’s picture of Socrates was more than mere fiction. In a post on my weblog I once wrote that Crossett was the best teacher I ever had, and this prompted a comment by another of his former students from a generation or two before me: “Crossett,” he corrected me, “was the best teacher anyone ever had.” Nearly forty years later I can still see him in my mental rearview mirror every time I walk into a classroom.

I’m no Crossett, let alone a Socrates, but I do try to follow their examples by approaching my own classes Socratically. If any of you have ever tried your hand at this pedagogy, you know perfectly well that success, if and when it comes, is due just as much to the students as it is to the professor. With that fact in mind, I’m obliged, and more than obliged I’m delighted, to be able to express my heartfelt thanks to the young people who have been showing up in my classes over the last three decades, several of whom are with us this afternoon. Thank you very much for your friendship and encouragement, but above all for your insights and your passion for truth.

Finally—and this is obviously a case of “last but not least”!—I’m deeply thankful to all the Powers of Heaven for what the Hindu tradition would call a very happy svadharma. This is a Sanskrit term more or less fusing the meanings of social role, spiritual vocation, and cosmic function. A Zen Buddhist master once told me that many people—he was speaking of all my past “selves”—had worked very hard to bring me to the brink of my current life. Whether he was right about that, or whether it’s all owing instead to the compassion of a single, providential Deity, or whether again these are simply two ways of saying the same thing, I leave for some future round of Socratic discussion. What I know for sure is that I’m blessed beyond words to have been given a span of years on this planet in which work and play and family and friends and opportunities for spiritual development have been so seamlessly interwoven.

Needless to say, my list could go on, but I won’t test your patience further by naming all the people—and other Conscious Entities—I feel beholden to. I’ll simply end with this prayer: whenever we lapse into thinking that our egos actually deserve these awards, may we be reminded of our continuing debts to all those who have helped us become who we are … and may this memory keep the Devil at bay!