Archives For Philosophy

For the Love of Words

November 23, 2021 — 17 Comments

Most writers, including the majority of bloggers, share a common affection. We love words, don’t we?

That love extends beyond mere fondness. We can find ourselves in a state of genuine wonder as we ponder definitions, etymologies (evolutions through diverse languages), and phonesthetics (how they sound). As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you – almost apart from their meaning – a thrill like music?”

This is one aspect of a great article in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness.* In “For the Love of Words,” editor Roy Askins uses C.S. Lewis’ classic The Four Loves to explore the relationship we have with words. He does so from a Christian perspective shared by the Oxford don.

Words shape us in profound ways. God formed creation and continues to sustain it by the Word of His mouth. . . . Words, then, are not incidental to our lives, but form a central part and core of our identity as God’s people. It’s certainly appropriate for us to talk about “loving words.”

The very word for a lover of words – logophile – combines the Greek logos (word) with philia, which Lewis deems priceless, like “that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book.”

[Coincidentally, I have an article about ministry to those who are mourning in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness, as well. I assure you, however, that’s not why I’m citing “For the Love of Words.”] Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well acquainted with my personal fascination with words and wordplay.

Many of you share this predilection. C.S. Lewis describes us in Studies in Words.

I am sometimes told, that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion.

Literature, Lewis argues, is not simply the sum of its words. It involves the history of the words, their complex shades of meaning, and even what those very words meant to their original writers.

The Uniquely Christian Perspective

God pours out his gifts of writing quite broadly. Countless styluses, quills and pens have been wielded by talented pagans and atheists over the centuries.

Still, as Askins’ article alludes, Christians have a unique connection to words. Not only did God speak all creation into existence through his Word, but that Logos, that Word became incarnate and suffered an innocent death so that humanity might be redeemed. Askins concludes his article with a joyful truth.

When we seek to love words, then, we do not seek to love them as words in themselves. This danger we editors and writers must mark and avoid. No, we love words because in them and by them, we hear of and share God’s love for us in Christ. He alone makes words holy and precious; He alone makes words worth loving.

I love these closing words. And I strongly believe C.S. Lewis would too.


* The Lutheran Witness is the magazine of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Some of us had the sad misfortune of growing up without parents. A larger number had mothers, but absent fathers. For a few, there was a dad, but the home lacked the presence of a mother. And then there are those who were blessed with the presence of a loving mother and father.

Each of these circumstances (and there are even more, of course), generates a different dynamic in a home. I am persuaded that God’s ideal of a father and mother, joined together as a “single flesh,” is best for nurturing healthy children. Thankfully, God loves every child, and living in less than ideal situations does not mean a person will grow up handicapped.

C.S. Lewis provides an amazing example of a boy who lost his mother to disease, and was raised by an emotionally distant father. Lewis’ father resorted to sending his sons off to boarding school rather than attempting to work through their shared grief together, in their home.

As an echo of that decision, C.S. Lewis sent his own sons away to school after their mother succumbed to her own battle with cancer. The situation was different, since Joy was raising the boys alone before Lewis married her, and Lewis who had imagined he would die a bachelor, was ill-equipped to provide a suitable environment for the children once their mother died.

I would be a different man today, if I had been raised in a home with parents whose love for one another overflowed. Perhaps my own family background is the reason I kept a plaque in my office that proclaimed that “the most precious gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”

I was thinking about parenting because of a wonderful quote I read this morning in a interview with British comedian, Ricky Gervais. He was talking about growing up in a working class family, but being unconscious of their relative poverty.

I didn’t know I was poor, because my mother knitted all my jumpers, she made our Christmas presents, did all the decorating, grew things in the garden that she then cooked. I always thought, men work hard, but women work miracles.

Now that’s certainly a humorous way to express something that is quite frequently true.

What Kind of a Parent Am I?

Not all of us are blessed to be parents. Some consciously choose that path. Others, with whom I sincerely sympathize, wish to, but are never given the opportunity.

Some men simply contribute to the physical process and go merrily on their way, often carelessly impregnating others. These individuals can be considered “biological” parents, but they are not fathers. On the other hand, a woman who feels compelled by circumstances to allow her child to be raised by others, displays the compassion of a true mother.

I’ve seen some great fathers in my day. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them while I was growing up. So I had to “learn on the job.” I consider my early years as a dad “above average,” but my later years have actually been pretty decent. It’s been far easier than for many people, because my wife brings out the best in me. I wouldn’t care to postulate what kind of dad I would be without her counsel and encouragement.

I always imagined I’d be a husband and father someday. I see that is becoming less true with each generation.

If you are considering the question of “what kind of parent” you are, I’d like to caution you about two dangers. First, don’t get cocky. You aren’t perfect, not by a long stretch. There’s definitely room for some improvement.

Second, don’t get discouraged. We can all improve as parents, even after serious stumbles. Give parenting the attention it deserves. Seek advice from those who appear more successful – and are willing to be honest about their struggles. Choose schools and social activities that reinforce your efforts to raise healthy human beings. Adding prayer to the formula is often a wise choice.

There are a vast number of parental resources available online. The best of them are framed by a biblical worldview. Many address specific contexts, while others are more general. One I just visited for the first time is Philosophy for Parents.

Holly Hamilton-Bleakley teaches philosophy at the University of San Diego. Although she hasn’t posted recently, there is a wealth of thought-provoking material on her site. The most recent addresses the challenge of “Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction.’”

She confronts a concern that should be at the forefront of every parents’ concern today, saying “It’s taking everything I have to protect my family from the toxic political culture in which we find ourselves.”

One of her earliest columns posed this question: “Could Parenting be More Important than Politics?” I highly recommend the piece, which begins with a pertinent passage from a letter C.S. Lewis wrote in 1955.

Quoting Lewis: “I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, ‘To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor’ … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist.”

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

And the discussion she provides is excellent. Regular readers of Mere Inkling know I’m no particular fan of “philosophy,” but these articles possess practical value! Something I’m confident C.S. Lewis would also commend.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 14 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

Mensa & C.S. Lewis

July 25, 2013 — 18 Comments

crossword puzzleSeveral decades ago, I worked with a Roman Catholic priest, who just happened to be a member of Mensa.

We were good friends, a relationship reinforced by the fact that our bigoted boss thought that both our eternal destinies were in definite jeopardy . . . Pete’s because he was “Catholic,” and mine because Lutherans are “almost Catholic.”

Well, Pete and I got along quite well, although there were two issues we never could resolve. The first was that he smoked large, smelly stogies. Yes, this was long enough ago that you were still allowed to smoke in government buildings.

Even when the rest of the staff successfully begged him to stop parading the halls with his billowing cigars, my friend continued to fill his own office with clouds that would billow out whenever the door was opened.* I had great sympathy for the lungs of the Roman Catholic laity who entered his smoking lounge for counseling.

Aside from the tobacco, there was only a single matter we really disagreed on.

As I mentioned above, Father Pete was a member of Mensa. That’s commendable, in itself. The problem is that he always left his Mensa magazines lying (alone) on the coffee table in the center of his office. He would only smile in a patronizing way when I would (repeatedly) warn him that there could be only two consequences of such brazen self-aggrandizement.

“The first,” I said, “is that they won’t know what Mensa is . . .  and your braggadocio is wasted. The second is worse. They might know what the magazine represents and think to themselves, my, our priest is rather full of himself.” **

At any rate, I have no misconception that I could pass Mensa’s muster. My brain, adequate as it is, simply doesn’t work the way that I guess those of genius’ do. A perfect example of that truth was displayed just a few moments ago, as I read through a few pages of a 2010 Mensa Puzzle Calendar I found among my father’s papers.

I have no doubt that some of you will easily solve this puzzle, but I have to be honest—I missed answering it by a mile.

What do all the words below have in common?

Environment

Bedcovers

Responsibility

Outsource

Confederacy

Slugfest

Jihad

Nunavut

I actually had to look one of the words up. It turns out that “bedcovers” means a bedspread, or anything else one uses to cover a bed. No, seriously, I re-learned that Nunavut is a territory in northern Canada, but I imagine all of you knew that.

Okay, have you taken the time to try to determine what the words have in common? Easy, right?

It turns out that each of them contains a three-letter sequence of adjacent letters in the alphabet, going in reverse. For example, the gfe in “slugfest.”

I doubt I would have been able to figure it out, even if I understood the question, but I must admit my utter ignorance in not even reading the question properly!

I was so enamored by this eclectic collection of words—superficial links between the three combative terms leapt out at me—that I was distracted by seeking bonds between the meanings of the words, rather than in the words themselves. (And, I suspect that may be precisely what those inscrutable devils at Mensa Headquarters intended for simpletons like me.)

Alas, it will take a few days for my bruised ego to rebound. Fortunately, since my memory isn’t as keen as it used to be, I may forget all about this humiliation before the week is out.

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man. I believe he was a genius. I imagine he could have solved this word puzzle with three-quarters of his mind occupied by higher matters, like watching a wary hedgehog scurry between bushes.

Lewis recognized that our minds are, in fact, a gift from God, to be exercised and celebrated. But, at the same time, he knew better than most the dangers of seeking ultimate meaning in mental pursuits that erect nearly impervious walls to God’s gracious revelation of his love in his only begotten Son.

In The Weight of Glory Lewis explains how those Christians who are blessed with exceptional intelligence owe a duty to their sisters and brothers in the faith. (This, of course, has nothing to do with the subject of holiness or spiritual maturity; there is little or no correlation between piety and intellect.) What he says is, however, worthy of our reflection.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

So, let this be a reminder to those of you who qualify for membership in the aforementioned society, but still love Jesus despite your vast intellects. After all, as Jesus once said, from “everyone to whom much was given . . . much will be required” (Luke 12:48, ESV).

_____

* I must confess this is a slight exaggeration, lest I be held accountable for breaking the eighth commandment (or the ninth, if you are Jewish or a Christian of the Reformed persuasion).

** This might not be a verbatim account of the way I said it, although I’m pretty confident that I did use the word “braggadocio.”