On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 26, 2005
"For praise is given to virtue, since it makes us do fine actions, but celebrations are for successful achievement, either of body or of soul." Aristotle (Ethics, 1101b32-33)
We can, if we so choose, reasonably approach what Catholicism is about from the angle of the Fall, of original sin, of the dire consequences of both natural and human disasters. Such things abide and repeat themselves over the centuries. They recur in most times and places, even under the best regimes, certainly under the worst.
Any careful reading of Scripture, moreover, can be a sobering exercise, making us aware of the dark side of human existence. We recall the chastisements of the Hebrews, the "Woe to you, Capernaum" of the New Testament. We are not spared Gods warnings and His wrath, however much these are downplayed or not even mentioned these days. No doubt, we must ask questions about the prevalence of evil in the world, about Gods, at times, seeing indifference to human fate, indeed about His anger over the deviant deeds of men. On the other hand, we do not want a universe in which our deeds, good or bad, mean absolutely nothing and cannot be properly attributed to us.
We can also read in Thucydides, or Augustine, or Machiavelli, or even in Aristotle and Aquinas for that matter, just how disordered human life can be, not only at a personal level but also at a social and corporate level. Any reading of almost any major newspaper anywhere in the world during any day of the whole modern era would reveal, in spite of "enlightenment," a steady diet of wars and rumors of war, of economic and natural disaster, of corruption, inefficiency, and downright degradation. There are no doubt glimmers of light, but no sober reading of the history of our race can ignore the more puzzling pessimistic side.
The first point I want to emphasize here is that it is not any part of the Catholic tradition to deny or minimize this depressing reality. We are warned to prepare for it, to expect it, to suffer under it. A naive utopianism that refuses to see these possibilities, that thinks that they can be totally eliminated by some rearrangement of property, family, or state is probably the most dangerous ideological background we can imagine, one that causes more grief and sorrow than any other single view.
Secondly, it is also part of the Catholic tradition to insist that this bleak picture is not the only side of reality far from it. But this contrasting, more positive affirmation is not to be seen, in any sense, as obscuring what happens in the history of our kind. The other side of this realistic approach, however, is to wonder about the happier aspect of things, about, as I like to say, "what is to be done when all else is done?" Aristotle, in using a medical analogy, noted that the purpose of a doctor is defined by health, which the doctor does not himself create or define, but only restores or serves, according to what health already is. The last person we want to see when we are healthy is the doctor, qua doctor.
The more important question is not what is it to be healthy when we are sick, however admittedly important this question is. But, we want to know, once we are healthy, what are the "activities" of health? of normalcy? Indeed, I would suggest, that it is perhaps more important to get it right about what are these higher activities than it is to have an adequate understanding of evil and disaster and pain, or even of what it is to be physically and mentally healthy. We are a people obsessed with health rather than what to do with it when we have it. Both sides are necessary in a complete picture, but we are more likely to miss the activities of well-being and what that means than we are to miss considering the suffering and disorder of soul that occur all about us. I have long contended that it is much more difficult in theory to explain joy than sadness, more difficult to understand delight than pain. And it is to this latter observation that I want to extend these remarks on praise and celebration.
On Monday, March 30, 1778, James Boswell was at Streatham, at Samuel Johnsons friends, the Thrales. It was a Monday. Boswell was down at breakfast before Johnson. There he chanced to encounter the lady of the house, Mrs. Thrale, a woman of some literary repute in her own right. Hannah Thrale remarked to Boswell, "I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise anything, even what he likes, extravagantly."
This remark was obviously meant to compliment, yes, to praise of Dr. Johnson. But it also contained a philosophic insight into the very conditions of our well-being, a reminder of Aristotles mean in finding the norm or standard of any virtue. There can be a too much and a too little, both of which were inappropriate. Aristotle said that there could be a too much or a too little, but not too much of the mean. Not even the things we like are to be praised too much, out of proportion, though they are indeed to be highly praised in proportion. We conclude that Johnson did not object to due praise, but delighted in it when he knew that it was deserved, right time, right place.
As in the case of flattery, we do not want too much
of a good thing. But we should want good things. Good things exist to
be wanted, to be desired. We are constituted with appetitive powers to
achieve this purpose to possess as ours what is good. We should
want what is worth wanting. We want what is appropriate, neither too much
nor too little. Oftentimes we think that another virtue, humility, means
that we never acknowledge anything good, especially in ourselves, especially
when noticed by others. But humility, in fact, means giving and receiving
proper acknowledgment to what is, in its own order. Humility is
founded on truth. We are to praise what is to be praised, and this generously.
Nothing gets us outside of ourselves more than our genuine notice, appreciation,
and praise of what is not ourselves. We are beings who know ourselves
first by knowing what is not ourselves.
Read Part 2 of "On Praise and Celebration"
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