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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
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.
The vice of envy, a most subtle vice whose consequences are too often
neglected, arises precisely from our willing refusal to acknowledge what
is good in something, particularly in another human person. This very
vice suggests the too little noticed existence of a spiritual world, as
it were, beyond the surface of the visible world, something with its own
order and exigencies. This spiritual world, in which praise and envy are
elemental functions, indicates that the world and the things in it require
for their completion their own existence, their own standing outside of
nothingness. But they also demand, somehow, the proper acknowledgment
of their existence by us, almost as if to say that we are challenged at
every turn to say of what is that existence is worthy. We are to
know and acknowledge the relative and absolute worth of things. We are
to live and know that we live in an ultimately ordered world.
Catholicism is a religion whose essence directly concerns praise and celebration
not too much praise, not inappropriate praise, but still praise.
Indeed, the very structure of our lives concerns our capacity to praise
what is to be praised. And, as Aristotle has indicated, there is curiously
something beyond praise. Praise is given for virtue accomplished, whereas
celebration is in a way beyond praise, an acknowledgment of something
already in existence beyond ourselves or given to ourselves. It is no
accident, for example, that Catholics say of the Mass that the priest
"celebrates" it, that it contains within itself both a call
to praise on our part and a call to celebration, a rejoicing in what
is. Let us see if we can make sense of these remarks as something
worthy of consideration for what we are about both in this world and in
We tend to look upon religion and philosophy as if they were merely aids
for our living, whereas more properly our living, at its deepest meaning,
is that we may worship, praise, philosophize, and celebrate. We can find
descriptions of heaven that limit themselves to the dark-eyed virgins,
to eating, drinking, and being merry. But without denying the reality
of our corporeal being, even in the Resurrection, we suspect that the
activities of praise and celebration are nearer to what it is all about,
to what C. S. Lewis in Perelandra described as the "Great
Dance." The "Great Dance" is before and within creation
not primarily as something originating from our own making, but as responding
to the discovery and beholding of what is the glory of God in Himself
and in all things, including things fallen and redeemed.
Praises are considered "valuable" in so far as they incite us
to do something worthy. Aristotle himself noted that praise "makes
us do fine actions." By the word "make" here, however,
he did not mean that it "forces" us to do fine actions. An action
that is performed out of strict necessity is not really even a human action.
A human action requires our doing the action because of knowing, of choice,
and in freedom. Aristotle means praise "inspires" us to fine
actions; it encourages us to know that they are fine. It is true that
we praise certain apparently necessary things a sunset, for instance,
or the beauty of a rainbow trout freshly out of the clear water. Yet it
is quite possible, as Chesterton remarked, for such things not to exist.
At the same time, it is quite possible for us to observe before our very
eyes beautiful or noble things and be totally unaffected by them. "Tell
me what you praise, and I will tell you what you are" might be an
apt formula for what I am trying to get at. Education and culture in part
consist not only in learning what is worthy to be praised but to acquire
the discipline or virtue that actually enables or incites to do so.
In a Peanuts cartoon for April, 23, 1994, we see Charlie Brown
in bed at night lying on his back under his thick, stripped comforter.
Snoopy is sleeping contentedly on Charlies stomach. Charlie, however,
is wide awake, pondering the ultimate questions. "Sometimes I lay
awake at night," he says out loud to himself and the sleeping Snoopy,
"and I ask myself, Why am I here? What is the purpose
of it all? Does my life have any meaning?" Sober,
ultimate questions indeed, questions found in many a great mind from Leibniz
to Eric Voegelin to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.
But in the second scene, with a frown on his face, Charlie continues,
"Then a voice comes to me that says, Forget it! I hate questions
like that." But when we laugh at Charlies predicament,
we realize that the questions he asks himself in the night are pretty
fundamental ones that we all should address at one time or another. Why
are we here, indeed? What is the purpose of it all? Does our life have
any meaning? The reason we "hate" questions like that is that
they imply that we are here for a purpose, that meaning can be found if
we look and are ready to live according to this purpose and meaning. We
are not free simply to ignore such questions and remain the kind of beings
we are made to be.
Read Part 2 of "On
Praise and Celebration"
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