Poets, Philosophers, & Other Scoundrels

Ok, the title is facetious, but I do have a serious point to make.  

Nothing here will even remotely resemble some deep/systematic/comprehensive treatment.  I’m kind of playing with a few ideas  and kind of “pondering out loud.”

Lets begin in the spirit of Medieval thinkers, by defining some key terms:

By “poets” I really do mean all artists…but certain craftsmen of language are my primary focus.

By “philosophers” I mean all who try to explore and explain existence in a thoroughly rational way….so this would include scientists, who were called “natural philosophers” a few centuries ago.

By “scoundrels,” well, this one is difficult….borrowing a term from the previous reflection….these are folk who somehow get “paradise” wrong!  This needs some explanation.  First, a controversial claim:  all art and all philosophy takes place “outside the gates of paradise.”  Some of it, however, gives us a hint, a “scent” as it were, of “paradise.”  But most of it lives in the land of chatter and noise, of greed and ambition, of lust and violence, of self-inflation and self-promotion, of pseudo-knowledge and cleverness, etc., etc…..you know, this is what some call the “real world.”  True, a lot of this art and philosophy does do a good job of dissecting this mess, showing its many  layers and the many shades of unreality; but none of this is the same as having some kind of awareness of “paradise.”  

Then there are folk, “poets” and “philosophers,” who are very close to “paradise,” but somehow there is something askew in their vision, or you begin to feel there is something missing here, or even to put it in a seemingly contradictory way,  something is there blocking their path to “paradise.”  I am reminded of that scene from the Gospel, the rich  man comes to Jesus and expresses a desire to “follow him.”  Jesus tells him to drop that load of wealth he’s weighed down by….but, alas, he can’t do it.   And then there is the paradox that for all his wealth he is “lacking one thing”…the need to put it all down….  

In any case, these “poets” and “philosophers” are folk we can truly admire, respect, learn from, etc., but ultimately we will find ourselves disagreeing with them profoundly.  One of these, for me, has been Czeslaw Milosz.

(Milosz was good friends with Merton, and some of their correspondence was published.  It was  interesting to read that.)

Milosz was a giant of modern poetry, a Nobel Prize winner, a scholar and professor of Slavic literature at Berkeley, and a true intellectual.  I became acquainted with him when I studied theology, philosophy and classics at both a seminary and the university in Berkeley.  Needless to say it was none of the above that brought us together….it was the fact that I was Lithuanian and Milosz had this weakness for all things Lithuanian!  Although Polish, he was born in Lithuania and spent his childhood there, and he had a kind of romantic vision of old Lithuania.  He was a man of high culture, so who was I to argue with him!  So, when I told him I had lost my native language, Lithuanian, and he scowled in disapproval, I took my lumps and did not bother to offer a defense or explanation why I had absolutely no regrets of turning my back on that whole milieu.  

But all that is trivial.  I was deeply impressed by his poetry.  You can read a sample of it online at this site:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/czeslaw-milosz

I found it always engaging; at times beautifully insightful; but sometimes puzzling, even troubling.  Take a look at the poem  “Theodicy.”  This is a very important word in Milosz’s intellectual universe, so I will borrow an explanation of it from Wikipedia:

“In the the philosophy of religion, a theodicy, meaning ‘vindication of God’ in Greek, is an argument that attempts to resolve the problem of evil that arises when omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience are all simultaneously ascribed to God.  Unlike a defense, which merely tries to demonstrate that the coexistence of God and evil is logically possible, a theodicy additionally provides a framework wherein God’s existence is considered plausible. The German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though numerous attempts to resolve the problem of evil had previously been proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:

  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus. 

The problem of evil has also been analyzed by theologians and philosophers throughout the history of Islam.

A defense has been proposed by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, which is focused on showing the logical possibility of God’s existence. Plantinga’s version of the free-will defense argued that the coexistence of God and evil is not logically impossible, and that free will further explains the existence of evil without contradicting the existence of God. 

Milosz was a religious person, a practicing Catholic who at the same time was very uncomfortable with his Church.  In Berkeley we often found ourselves at  the same church for Mass, and each time I would see him seated in the very back row for the very early Mass (7am).  Each time the priest would utter some banality or evoke this “happy feel” Catholicism of post-Vatican II, I would wince, knowing he was back there in the shadows scowling!  He scorned the Church’s attempt to embrace modernity, the modern world; but you could not pin an easy label on his attitude and position.  He was even more critical of Catholic history, even more outraged at what it did to people….from its many sell-outs and allegiances with tyrants and dictators to the torture and massacre of countless human beings….like the massacre of thousands, women and children, Cathars and sympathetic Catholics alike, burning alive 200 of their spiritual leaders about the year 1200 in southern France….all to “preserve” the purity of the Catholic doctrine and their status as the “Big Dog” religion.  Milosz knew his stuff; if you were a “conservative” Catholic, you would not fare well arguing with him.  (Hate to think what he would have said about the “sexual predator clergy.”)  One of the things I deeply regret is not sharing with him how much I felt the same about the Church and its history.  I think he had me pegged as a “modern pretend monk” (and who’s to say he was wrong….after all WHAT was I doing in Berkeley?!), but he let that slide because I was Lithuanian!

One of the other deep regrets I have is that I did not have  the courage to challenge him on this “theodicy” issue, where I radically disagreed with him.  You can see that issue appearing in his poetry and in his essays….he wrestled with it all his life.  In this poem, “Theodicy,” he throws down the gauntlet with the opening lines:

“No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.

Desire will not save the morality of God.

If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,

And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,

Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,”

That age-old dilemma…how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow evil…even to coexist with it….?  Milosz was among those few who would not “let God off the hook.”  He had scorn for all those philosophers of religion and theologians who came up with all these various rational arguments that left one wondering if they had any sense of real evil, real suffering.  Sure, you could get some traction out of the “free will” argument….you know, God gives human beings freedom of choice…some choose extremely badly (Adam & Eve)….consequences…the presence of evil….  Milosz doesn’t think much of this argument, and neither do I.  But his focus is on the suffering, the evil inflicted on the innocent, not those who “have it coming.”  Here Milosz can be seen to be standing on a precipice, an abyss of sorts, where reality is structured on two equal principles: the Good (God), and Evil.  The former is purely spiritual; the latter is marked by matter.  Needless to say that makes the whole beautiful natural world very ambiguous, but it does provide an explanation of sorts.  I am not sure that he fully embraced such a view, but certainly two of his favorite people, Albert Camus and Simone Weil, more or less moved more in that direction…at least it seems that way if you read what he wrote about them.

Note these quotes from his essays:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is (although we defend ourselves against that knowledge), no one would be able to stand it.”

“Alas, our fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and God. It is the same with our protest against pain and death.”

I certainly am more than in disagreement with all this; I am kind of speechless about how to address such a problem.  Back in Berkeley, coward that I was and eager to be liked by him, of course I never challenged his views, nor offered any counter arguments.  And that’s just as well because “arguments” is not what is called for here.  You have to understand this about Milosz, the old man’s incredible life experience.  Two world wars, living through the murderous savagery of Hitler and Stalin, millions killed, millions more without homes (like my family), you are not going to easily accept the “happy talk” of either priests or thinkers, not if you have the sensibility, the learning,  and the intelligence that he had.

There is actually no rational way of dealing with this problem…you are not gong to think your way to a solution…reason, as valuable as it is, is not going to be a resource here.  Look at the Zen koan…you do not “untie” that knot by rational analysis.  But you also cannot run away from it….at least not without detriment to your whole way of seeing reality.  So it is with this theodicy dilemma.  At his best Milosz had a sense of this, and at the end of his life his poetry displayed a deeper, more serene vision….could we say a “scent” of paradise?  Through most of his mature, creative years, however,  Milosz was deeply attracted to that ultimate dualism; and it’s truly ironic that this position is a kind of escape hatch for rationality, for intelligence, as it confronts the mystery of evil.  Here you do   not transcend rationality but merely disguise it with a new look.  In any case, how it sometimes warped his understanding and even his intuition is displayed by his treatment of Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, especially as the novel resonated with the theodicy issue and its seeming resolution.  Recall how Dostoevsky puts words into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov that become the most powerful, most sustained, most irrefutable attack on our notion of God that you will find anywhere.  Dostoevsky holds nothing back; he jolts you with a “sledge hammer” and wants to see what you have to say.  I think that a part of Milosz deeply  identifies with Ivan Karamazov.  Let’s listen to just one of Ivan’s discourses to his brother Alyosha:

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level—but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”  “That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Well, Dostoevsky crafts Alyosha and Father Zosima (primarily) as the only possible reply to Ivan’s impassioned challenge.  It is not a rational argument but their very personhood, their state of mind and heart, this is the only answer that Dostoevsky can summon to this side of the dilemma….and the silence of Christ in Ivan’s mysterious dream.   For Milosz, this was a miserable failure.  He calls Alyosha and Father Zosima “sentimentalists.”  For Milosz, Dostoevsky was brilliant on the side of Ivan, but a total failure on the side that was meant as a kind of response.  At the end of the novel we see Alyosha and a group of boys celebrating their koinonia, their communion, even in the face of death.  In a real nasty takedown, Milosz called this “salvation by a troupe of boy scouts.”

 I don’t know what  I could have said to him to change his mind….really nothing….this brilliant, good man had his own journey to make.  But there is a final quote which surprisingly illumines  this whole thing in a marvelous way that not even Dostoevsky can touch.  It is amazingly from Karl Bath’s Church Dogmatics.  (Merton alludes to all this in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.)  Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century.  Barth was a stern, no-frills Protestant who had little sympathy for all the “frills” of Catholicism.  When I was studying theology, I had friends who loved Barth; but in my then narrow-mindedness I avoided Barth as much as possible.  

Barth actually had a lot of critiques of Catholicism, but there was one Catholic who was a kind of constant companion of  his during the  years when he was in his prime:  Mozart!  He would listen to a Mozart piece every morning before beginning work on his theological endeavors.  And we will conclude with Barth reflecting on Mozart in volume 3 of his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics:

‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign?

Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists.

1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any program. He was remarkably free from the mania for self- expression…..

He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfillment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”