When people are asked, “who is your favorite character in The Lord of The Rings?” some say Frodo, or Aragorn, or Gandalf. There is a small group that would be bold to state that Samwise is their favorite character. However, there is an even smaller (and bolder) group that would say that their favorite character in The Lord of The Rings is Boromir. I am one of those few bold ones.
Boromir was the Captain of Gondor’s Military and the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor, Denethor. He was beloved by his people, especially his father, Denethor, and brother, Faramir. But, he was also despisedbyreaders. Whywashesodespised? Because he tried to take the Ring from Frodo? The Nazgul tried the same thing throughout the whole book and nobody despised them as much as they despised Boromir. People despised Boromir because he reminds us of who we really are: flawed.
We love being right and sometimes we delude ourselves into believing that we can never be wrong. We like to be patted on the head and told, “howwiseyouare” or “howgoodyouare,” but get defensive whenever somebody calls us out on our flaws. Boromir was sent by his father with the task of bringing the One Ring back to Gondor to use it against Sauron himself. Boromir had noble ends (saving his people) but his means were warped (using an evil ring to fight evil). He was told constantly by Gandalf that it would be impossible to fight evil with evil without becoming evil yourself. But, Boromir was tempted, and finally, when he was alone with Frodo, he betrayed him and his companions by trying to steal the Ring.
The problems that people have with Boromir are that he,
Falls (Commits an evil act),
Gets back up ( Is resilient, brave),
Lays his life for his friends ( loves selfessly), and,
Confesses his sin (is humble).
Most of us believe that the stairs trippedus after a nasty fall, and some don’t even believe that they fell, only that their perception changed from seeing the end of the hall to seeing the ceiling. The motto, “ToEachHisOwn,” is unmanly and nonsensical. Boromir was no relativist.
He also calls us out for staying down when we fall and for being cowards thinking of ourselves instead of thinking of others. There are those who after falling in their flaws, they turn into themselves, shutting everything and everybody off, like his father, Denethor, or Gollum. On the contrary, Boromir runs to the aid of Merry and Pippin and sacrifices himself trying to save them. Most of us, out of embarrassment, are unable to look out because we are too busy looking in, licking our wounds. Boromir was not selfish, nor was he a coward.
Finally, Boromir, on his deathbed, confessed to Aragorn his sin. He was humble enough to recognize his error, humble enough to confess, and he was humble enough to recognize and accept Aragorn as the rightful king of Gondor (something that would cost him and his family their position of Stewardship). Humilityisthevirtuethatsucksthepoisonofprideandprejudiceoutofourhearts, leaving only a clean heart that leaps for joy at the sight of the King, exclaiming with his last breath, “Iwouldhavefollowedyou. Mybrother. Mycaptain. MyKing.”
It is Boromir who is the hero we sorely need in times like these: Honest to unmask our Relativism,selfless to drive out our selfishness, brave to drive out cowardice, and humble to drive out our pride. He is, in short, a realman.
“I Do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I Love only that which they defend.”
Ask any young person “who is Bad Bunny?” and if they have listened to any kind of urban music in the past 3 to 4 years, they will know who Bad Bunny is. Most of the them, matter of fact, will speak favorably of him, and for good reason. Bad Bunny has not only become one of the most popular urban artists of the 21st century, he has also used that platform to become a humanitarian. He has given aid to his home of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he mobilized young Puerto Ricans to speak out against former Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, and he has spoken up against misogyny and transphobia after a rise in crimes against women and trans people in Puerto Rico.
I must give credit where credit is due, and this man has done a lot of good. However, if we look under the surface, we discover that he has also done a lot of harm to his listeners. Under the make-up he wears for interviews, we discover the make-up of a clown. This musical Remi “the clown” has risen to fame preaching a modern, goofy version of Existentialism, the philosophy that rose in popularity in the West thanks to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Every philosopher has one big idea, and Sartre’s big idea is “existence precedes essence.” In other words, I decide not just who I am, but what I am. In ExistentialismisaHumanism, Sartre states his big idea as the first principle of Existentialism, “man is nothing other than what he makes himself.” (Page 22). From this principle we understand the mindset (or lack thereof) that led Bad Bunny to title is sophomore album, “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” (“I Do Whatever I Want”).
Sartre’s grounds for his big idea come from his rejection of God,
“We mean that man first exists; he first materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards, defines himself… This, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre, ExistetialismisaHumanism, p. 22.
Because there is no God, Sartre argues that we are responsible for our destiny. We are our own God. Hence, we can do whatever we want, because to be God is to always choose correctly. Sartre preaches the idea of a transcendent responsibility. Man is responsible for his passions, his morals, his desires, and ultimately, his happiness. His big idea is the shape of water; we can give our life whatever shape we want.
This Sartrian Primacy of “I” (where who we are has priority over what we are) is clearly expressed by Bad Bunny through his lyrics, his gender-fluid fashion, and through his interviews; and his fans have taken notice.
Our music today is a celebration of Latinx culture. What was once understated is now shouted through the rooftops, or rather rapped to sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden. Latinx Millennials and Gen Z are unapologetically ourselves. We choose our pronouns, our lovers, and express ourselves freely.
-Alex Dvorak, Older Generations May Not Understand Bad Bunny, But Here’s Why His Music Speaks To Me, Pop Sugar, January 31,2020
Even though this idea is popular today, it is an error to say that numbers make ideas right. There is such a thing as human nature ( our “what-ness”) and it does not change. Sartre and Bad Bunny both deny the precedence of human nature. While Bad Bunny might not deny it’s existence at all ( like Sartre does), he certainly maintains that we are free to go against our nature; the freedom to be unrestrained by anything.
Fulton Sheen, in Peace of Soul, refuted this mediocre definition of freedom as being unrestrained by taking it to its logical conclusion,
“If a man is really made better and saner because he gives way to his sexual instincts…. why should not a man be better because he gives way to other instincts, such as the hunting instinct? Why not organize a ‘kill your enemy’ hunt, uninhibited by the moral taboo of the 5th Commandment?”.
– Peace of Soul, page 161
It is certainly a good question for people like Bad Bunny who would tell you to “do whatever you want.” Can a serial killer do whatever he wanted? He might be a fan. How about a pedophile? He also might be a fan. Why would they be excluded from this philosophy? If Bad Bunny is as smart as his fans say he is, he might answer, ” because they hurt others,” which is right to say, but contradicts his message. Bad Bunny preaches on Tolerance and not drawing lines, but in this case, he is drawing a clear line. Take Governor Rossello’s case and Bad Bunny’s protest. Maybe the Governor was also a fan. The point is that when there are no moral absolutes that guide our human nature towards the end that we are made for, anything is permissible, based on who has the loudest voice (or the biggest platform).
If freedom is the basis of our morality, how can I tell you what is right and wrong? I can’t without contradicting myself. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas,
[T]he rational creature is subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way… by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the [very nature of the] rational creature is called the natural law.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 91, 2
Aquinas refutes this notion of freedom as the basis of morality, because human nature (grounded on the natural law) is the basis of how should we live. But he does acknowledge that we are free to reject Providence and our reason for being. But people like Sartre and Bad Bunny think that there is only one way to understand freedom. There are two types of freedom. There is a “freedomfrom” which is the type of freedom Sartre and Bad Bunny talk about as being unrestrained by anything or anybody. But there is also a “freedomfor” which is a commitment to a goal which requires self-constraint and self-discipline. Basically, we say Yes to a great cause by saying No to other things. Just like an athlete says Yes to winning a competition by saying No to eating cereal whenever he has a craving, we also say Yes to God by saying No to other conflicting desires. Just because we desire something doesn’t not mean that it is right to satisfy it whenever we desire it. When we say Yes to a woman in marriage, we say No to pursue our desire of other women.
The reason there is a lot of confusion on Moral Absolutes ( NaturalLaw), is because we often confuse principles with values. Sartre, in his Opus Magnus, Being and Nothingness, makes this shift in the use of terms to describe his big idea on whom destiny, morality, and how we should live reside,
But ontology and existential psychoanalysis…should reveal to the moral agent that he is the being by whom values exists….the theme which made the unity of all choices of possibles was the value or the ideal presence of the ens causa sui.
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
The Latin phrase Sartre uses is key to unlocking his big idea. Some people define ens causa sui as “something generated within itself.” Literally, it means, ” being for the sake of self,” or “being one’s own cause.” Classically, the only ens causa sui is God, or as Aristotle calls Him, “the Uncaused Cause.” If there is no God, then we are our own ens causa sui and get to choose our own destiny, way or purpose. However, if the standard of happiness is freedom, then we cannot call a man who cheats on his wife less of a man or a father who abandons his son less of a father. Just like counterfeit money is not real in its nature even though it is materially real, a counterfeit man is not a real Man (in essence) even though he is a real man physically. The biggest problem with the “freedomfrom” that Sartre and Bad Bunny idolize is that it comes from the same mind of a child who just wants to play football his way, unrestrained by the education that comes from coaches who know the laws of great football. It is utterly ridiculous (and honestly insane) to assume that the freedom to choose leads us to conclude that this kid will be the next Tom Brady. Just like there is a standard that separates great football from mediocre football, so too there is a standard that separates a happy life from a mediocre one. We are free, but we are free to play well or to play badly.
Human Nature as the Basis of Happiness
Once this modern conception of happiness grounded on freedom has been substantially rebutted, we are left with the actual basis of living a good life: humannature. Sartre is right in rebutting atheists who try to say that life has meaning by chance. For human nature to exist, there must be a Creator that designed us for a Reason. There can’t be a design, or blueprint without an Architect. This is why Sartre rejects God. Bad Bunny, on the other hand, only cares for freedom to do whatever you want.
Morality is based on human nature and not freedom. This means that we should act a certain way because it is based on what we are, rather than acting a certain way based on what we want. This is what is known as naturallaw. Nobody in their right mind would ever agree that it would be ok to let John kill Susie just because John wants too. To deny this desire (want) as existing is to deny the existence of serial killers. The same could be said of Jeff who wants to sleep with his co-worker while being married. We understand that human life is sacred and worth protecting just like faithfulness is good and worth saving a marriage.
Natural law does not come from a religious education; it is naturally known by what Thomas Aquinas calls “natural reason” (conscience). Our conscience is to good and evil like hearing is to music. We discern our actions as good or evil using our conscience. Our conscience belongs to our mind and if we are a ship, our minds are our navigators, using the map of human nature to guide the ship to land. Our wills, however, are the captain. The captain decides where to go, even if it leads us to sink. Sartre and Bad Bunny deny the existence of the map or disregard it completely. They will say that the ship did not sink, it just turned into a submarine.
All of us, honestly, desire happiness. And only the map of human nature can lead us to genuine happiness. Just like a good map that show us the dangers ahead, rest stops and the goal we seek, our universal desire for happiness (end, purpose, reason) is the biggest rebuttal to Sartre and Bad Bunny: Wearealltryingtogettosameplace. We are all looking for Treasure Island.
Cumming, Robert Denoon, ed., ThePhilosophyofJean-PaulSartre, New York: Vintage Books (2003)
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism Is A Humanism, New Haven & London: Yale University Press (2007)
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, New York: Citadel Press (2001)
De Caussade, S.J., Jean Pierre, Abandonment to Divine Providence, San Francisco & Greenwood Village: Ignatius Press – Augustine Institute (2011)
Adler, Mortimer, Six Great Ideas, New York: Collier Books (1981)
De Chardin, Pierre Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man, New York: Harper & Row (1959)
Herman, Arthur, The Cave and The Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, New York: Random House (2013)
Sheen, Fulton J., Peace of Soul, New York: Image Books (1954)
“Why is sin possible? Because we are free. You can tell a man he ought to do something, but in his will he can resist. Sin lies in the abuse of freedom. It has something to do with a wrong or an evil choice. We never sin without the will. We can take two attitudes toward freedom, both of which are wrong. We can exaggerate human freedom; we can minimize it.”
– Fulton Sheen, Your Life is Worth Living, New York: Crown Publishing Group (2019) pgs. 260-261
Nobody, in their right mind, can dispute the reality of evil. It’s ugly, cruel, distasteful and what all of us root against in movies. The suffering caused by hideous events in history like slavery, genocide, discrimination by things outside our control, mass shootings, etc., is obvious. What is not so obvious, and the point that Sheen argued against throughout his life, is the evilthatwerelativize in the name of freedom, or the lack thereof.
Today, freedom is misunderstood to mean that we can do whatever it is that we want. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his short lecture made into a book, “ExistentialismisaHumanism,” argued that since we are free to choose our destiny, we cannot choose evil. In other words, everythingwedoiscorrect because it is our choice.
On the other hand, we also have people who denytheabilitytochooseatall. Determinists, for example, maintain the view that mankind is determined to act a certain way based on their genes (Irish are drinkers, Puerto Ricans are loud), or on the circumstances (poor people are criminals, police officers are racists). The point is that ourchoicesareeffectsofcausesoutsideofourcontrol.
In both extremes, we find a coming together, kind of like a horseshoe, in the denialofsin. Because to sin is to miss the mark set by God; it rejects the self invention of morality praised by Sartrians, while defending the freedom of will rejected by Determinists. To have a standard set by someone wiser does not refute the freedom to reject such calling, just like my son can ignore my advice on anything. To reject freedom is to say that we are just like animals, reacting to stimuli by instinct. But sacrifice of self refutes this claim whenever we witness people refusing a meal when they are hungry because they are fasting, or when firefighters run into fires against survival instincts to save others.
To deny sin is, basically, to deny objective morality. By denying objective morality, we destroy responsibility and accountability. Sartre cannot hold dictators accountable because they are doing their own thing, according to Sartre himself. Determinists cannot fight against terrorists, because they are determined to terrorize by either their genes, situation, or culture.
Sheen, finally, stands for one morality, an objective morality. If we are at sea, morality’svirtuesaretheLighthousesthatshowthewaytoland. We do not have the freedom to choose what our genes are or what social class we are born into, but we are free to choose how to respond to that stimuli. But, even though we are free to draw a straight line, we are not free to decide what a straight line looks like. This reality and the acceptance of that reality, frees us to fight against evil, just like the heroes we root for in movies.
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy,” Image Books (1959)
Progressives have solidified their position in politics. As the years go by, progressive policies are rising in popularity, like the rise of the minimum wage to account the rise of cost of living, or the expanding of a social safety net (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare), or the increase in awareness for climate change, among other accomplishments. However, Progressivism has also had an influence in other realms unrelated to politics, namely, social traditions. Traditions in religion, in parenting, in marriage, in ethics, etc.. It makes its case in the name of Tolerance. Every thing must be tolerated, that is, except intolerance.
This leads us to become a society that is not allowed to draw lines, except to draw a line against drawing lines. And what ends up happening is that individuals will draw squares around them to protect themselves against the other. Society ends up, therefore, looking like a chessboard.
The youth is convinced that their ideas are just as brilliant as anybody else’s, or even worse, like Dr. Herbert Spencer in “Re-Animator,” thinking that their idea is the best. When we coddle our youth this way, of course they will rebel against you because eventually there will be a point to argue about. Not to say arguments are not healthy, because they are, but when someone is convinced that their idea is great because it’s theirs, then the argument just becomes a shouting match. When respectforoureldersislost, we lose their best gift to us ——- wisdom.
Progressives are science oriented and they claim that everything must be oriented the same way. Science today is better than science yesterday, therefore, parenting today is better than parenting yesterday.
Chesterton’s cure is, as his book’s title declares, Orthodoxy. It turns this Religion of Self Invention on its head. While some new things, like in science, may be better than Aristotle’s science books, this does not lead us to conclude that new poetry is better than Shakespeare. Wisdom is not disqualified just because it was uttered by someone who is not among us today. On the contrary, wisdom has more appeal from the past because it was uttered by someone who already lived their life in its entirety. The human condition today is no different from the human condition yesterday, and Chesterton argues in favor of listening to Tradition and learning from it.
Left to see the world through the lens of Self Invention, the next generation will seek to design a New World, made in the ImageofaChessboard.
Stories are the oldest way to educate someone. Back in the day, kids from the tribe would gather around at the campfire to listen to their elders tell them about the evil boars, or the vicious snakes that they would learn to watch out for.
As time passed, and mankind became more complex and articulate, we began to notice patterns. Historical patterns are important, but there is one particular pattern that stood out above the rest: the Hero story. A “sacred story” (mythos) that we still tell to this day. But, there was a change in the type of hero that mankind was teaching.
Today’s heroes are lackluster, boring, and unheroic. They are designed to be inhuman, where there is no growth, no learning, no development, and no struggles. Today’s heroes come from the skies; skies that are even better than the heavens Homer’s Greek gods descended from, because even Homer’s gods had flaws that the Greek could relate to. Their inhuman perfection makes them dull.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” however, we find a true hero. Bilbo Baggins—–a Hobbit. Not a hero in the modern sense (too perfect that the adventure is really them correcting everyone else), but a real hero…..one who really needs the journey.
There are plenty of things to talk about Tolkien: his sense of humor, his knowledge of languages, the cohesiveness of his world, his beautiful prose, his love for nature, etc. What I do want to focus on are these themes that are noticeably important,
Happiness does not come from wealth, nor power, nor pleasure, nor honor. Happiness comes from love.
Heroes come from unlikely places
“Dragon sickness” (addiction) is within all of us.
These 3 themes come together in a cohesive understanding of human nature in regard to: where are we going, how are going to get there, and why should we bother going in the first place. These questions were asked before Tolkien’s time, and they are still asked today. They can be summed up to the classical question that all people want answered in their lifetime: “what is the good life?” Tolkien’s answers can be shocking considering how the modern mind sees the human condition. By default, teenagers adopt modern positions, for example,
Happiness is subjective ( I decide what makes me happy);
Heroes are elite; and
Since I decide what is happiness, that means I also decide what is good and bad. Therefore, I cannot do evil.
Tolkien’s book faces these challenges with the unlikeliest of heroes, a Hobbit that starts off, by default, with these positions. He dismisses Gandalf with these arguments, but they all fall flat under the wizard’s scrutiny. Human nature is not designed that way and Tolkien is set out to prove how illogical and morally bankrupt these modern arguments are.
Happiness and its Source
At the beginning of this story, the reader encounters Bilbo; a Hobbit that is respected in the Shire (Power), is rich (Wealth), is surrounded by good food and drink ( Pleasure), and is a Baggins (Fame). He has it all, but he is still unsatisfied. He understands that something is lacking in his life, but this perplexes him because he has every material need fulfilled. Then comes in Gandalf and pushes him into something Bilbo does not want to do, but really needs ——- to go on an adventure.
Comforts are nice to have, but they damage our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. We get sluggish, and we lose sight of what’s really important. Social media, TV, sweets; all these things are Sugar to the Soul. And when someone on the outside intervenes, we get defensive. Subconsciously, however, we do recognize that we do need to break the habits. But if these comforts do not make us happy, what does?
Tolkien’s answer is: love. People are designed to love one another; to desire and do good things for others. To look outside of themselves and see our neighbors as they really are. And this requires us to step out of our comfort zones. In Bilbo’s case, it is the Shire. Gandalf enlists Bilbo to help a group of dwarves get their stolen treasure back. Tolkien is subtle, but effective, in showing us that heroes are born outside their egos.
An Unlikely Hero
In contrast to the modern heroes, Tolkien’s hero is unpolished, sloppy, and unprepared. He starts his adventure dragging along, becoming, essentially, the burden of the expedition. Rarely do we ever start off being like Rey from Star Wars: flawless. She, like all modern heroes, are unrelatable; therefore, unpopular among the masses, but beloved by the elite. Bilbo, on the other hand, is a screw up, constantly getting the expedition in trouble.
Bilbo, like all of us, is left with a choice. To abort mission and return to the hazy, oblivious comfortable life, or push forward for the sake of the others who need him.
By choosing correctly, Bilbo started transforming; gradually, but surely. He gained the approval of Thorin and his group of dwarves, and he even surprised Gandalf with his courage demonstrated in the caves, his prudence for escaping the spiders in Mirkwood, and the love shown risking his life to confront Smaug. Heroes do not all fall from the heavens; sometimes, they come from the comfort of their couch.
Dragon Sickness is Within Us All
Tolkien, by introducing Smaug, made crystal clear what was hinted throughout the rest of the book: we can all become addicted to goods. This addiction, called here “dragon sickness,” turns us into ourselves, getting us, like Smaug, stuck in The Lonely Mountain. Tolkien writes metaphorically: physical acts and appearances represent the condition of the soul. Addiction can get us stuck in a cave: alone, bitter, hating ourselves and everyone else. Our minds and hearts start deforming, like Gollum, making us less than human. We turn into ourselves, disregarding the happiness that comes from the rhythm of love.
Tolkien never argued that goods in themselves were bad. He did, however, demonstrate what happens when we place goods at the center of our lives. The most prized treasure, the Arkenstone, tempted Thorin and he put it over everybody else. He went so far as to try to kill Bilbo over the treasure. Gollum was lost, deformed and so lonely he talked to himself as if there was someone else with him. The Master of Laketown was so into himself, that in the first sign of trouble, he abandoned his people, leaving a hole so big that only Bard could fill it. The elven king of Mirkwood is stuck in his pride and his disdain for dwarves, affecting his leadership.
Dragon sickness is real. It is stopping the flow of life that comes from loving and being loved. Finally, by stopping the rhythm of life, our soul becomes like water that stopped flowing: stagnant. It is this reminder that all of us are stained by this addiction that helps us see the lunacy of self sufficiency, this modern idea that we can be happy on our own. That we can only rely on ourselves. That we always have the last word. Thorin, before dying, apologized to Bilbo, declaring that mankind and the world would be better by unity, and not by isolation.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
-The Return Journey
All these activities are intimate and require the trust that can only be gained with love. They all require letting go of ourselves and opening up to our neighbor. This is Tolkien’s remedy for our illness.
“The Hobbit,” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Penguin Random House, Del Rey Mass Market Edition (2020) J.R.R. Tolkien Estate Ltd.
“You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.” (Confessions, I, 1, 1, Maria Boulding, O.S.B. translation)(italics mine)
When a lawyer makes a case in defense of a client, he does with an end in mind. This end being that the case he has made will be a victory for him and his client. The same thing could be said of a carpenter; if the carpenter makes a table, it is done with the specific end in mind that it will bring people together at dinner.
Everything created has what Aristotle calls, a “final cause,” in other words, the reason they are created. Tables have final causes. Motions filed have final causes. And what Saint Augustine poignantly argues is that we also have a final cause, because we are also created.
What is our final cause? To love and be loved, or in Saint Augustine’s Latin ” amare et amari.” Because to love is to will the Good in the other, or as Henri Nouwen pointed out, becoming bread to feed the multitudes, nourishing the body, mind and hearts of others. By loving we also realize that we must open ourselves to be loved back. And when we climb the levels of happiness (from in to out), we also notice a desire for Complete Beauty, Complete Truth, Complete Goodness, we realize that Being itself can only quiet our hearts. Our souls are restless until they rest in God.
J.R.R. Tolkien holds a special place in my heart. His stories are grounded in the real world as it is, but also grounded in the world as it ought to be. I can’t wait to give my thoughts on this man, his phenomenal stories and how his philosophy has influenced the minds of his readers.
Intellectuals, by popular opinion, are known as out of touch eggheads locked in Ivory Towers that we should not trust. This view, sometimes accurate when the shoe fits, leads us to disdain any sort of education that obviously does not have to do with our jobs. Chefs only learn from chefs, entrepreneurs only learn from entrepreneurs, tradesmen only learn from tradesmen, etc. This specific type of education has fragmented us as individuals and as a community.
This problem stems from a misunderstanding on what it means to be an intellectual, and who is called to be one.
A true intellectual is not an out of touch egghead, and it is not a snobbish few that are called to an intellectual life.
On the contrary, a true intellectual understands the world as it truly is, and all of us are called to live an intellectual life.
I am not saying that all of us are called to dedicate our careers to be professional intellectuals, what the historian Richard Hofstadter calls “mental technicians.” What I am saying is that we do have a calling to cultivate our minds. For example, everybody knows that we need to be physically healthy with the goal of living longer and better, but that does not mean that everyone should be a fitness instructor, or an athlete. There is a difference between being fit and being a professional, just as there is a difference between being an intellectual and using your intelligence for profit.
Education: Properly Understood
Education cannot be avoided in the intellectual life. All of us need it, and in one shape or form receive it. Education comes from the Latin word educere which means “to bring forth, or to complete something already begun.” Our first educators were our parents, who taught us how to speak, how to listen, how to read, how to run, how to play, among other essential activities that make us human. We come to this world not knowing, and this is why we get educated.
Aristotle said that humans are rational animals, that is, animals that can think. And as we grow, our thinking matures. However, just as our bodies grow thanks to physical nutrition, our minds cannot grow unless we are mentally nurtured. This is why we go to school. But, as we get older, we tend to specialize on what we like, and avoid what is difficult and unpopular. Finally, we reach adulthood, where we choose to do only what we enjoy, and think that our education stops because school is over.
Education, nowadays, is misunderstood to be learning for a career. That is not education; that is training. I trained to be a HVAC technician, but that is not where my education should end. It should never end there because to be human is to be more than an employee. If you believe that your education finishes when you get a good job, you are a slave. An automaton. Only good to do what you are hired to do.
Mind and Heart: Knowing and Living the Good Life
In a short but compelling book titled “The Life of the Mind,” the late great James Schall, S.J. argued that the end of a good education is Wisdom. This end is sought after by all true intellectuals —– the knowledge of how to live a good life. The difficulty arises , according to Schall, when we amputate our hearts from our minds; our thoughts from our living; our talk from our walk.
Take the life of my patron saint, Saint Augustine, for example. In his “Confessions,” Augustine discovers the writing of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, and from that moment on, he decides to become a philosopher. However, even though he pursued the intellectual life, he was still unhappy. Finally, one day, he understood why he was unhappy when he picked up Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. Happiness does not only come from knowing the Truth, but also comes from living it.
Augustine understood the reason that people are unhappy was not because they are ignorant of the good life, it’s because their hearts are not on the right place. Bad living does not come from the mind, it comes from the heart. Understanding things as they are guides us when in our hearts we decide to walk that Road to Happiness. J.R.R. Tolkien, in “The Lord of the Rings,” vividly portrays that the road to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power over you is difficult, but not impossible. Hard, but worth it. A true intellectual pursues Wisdom and adjusts his life to living that good life understood by the wise.
Going Beyond the Mind You Already Have
When I talk about an intellectual understanding the world as it is, I mean that they have a clear vision. In other words, they see clearly. The physical act of seeing has always been used symbolically to express understanding. The Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Robert Barron, wrote a book titled “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation,” in which he argued that grasping reality and seeing are one and the same. He also informs us that the word repent comes from the Greek metanoiete.
His point is that the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark include this command to metanoia. “Jesus urges his listeners to change their way of knowing, their way of perceiving and grasping reality, their perspective, their mode of seeing.”
This act of metanoiete is what an intellectual does. By pursuing Wisdom, they seek to go beyond what they understand right now, and with that proper understanding of what the world is and our role in it, they can properly navigate life.
Called to the Good Life
We are called to be intelligent, to go beyond our toddler mindset just like our bodies go beyond our toddler bodies. We are called to see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and live truly happy lives.
A true intellectual understands what is Beauty, what is Good, and what is Truth, and navigates his life according to those Lighthouses. Those Lighthouses provide the guidance that we adventurers need to get home. A true intellectual cannot amputate his heart from his mind, otherwise, he’ll turn into that out of touch egghead that has spent too much time under boiling water.
Mortimer Adler, How To Read A Book
Mortimer Adler, Reforming Education
Robert Barron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation
James Schall, S.J., The Life of the Mind
James Schall, S.J., Another Sort of Learning
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods (translated by Mary Ryan)
Saint Augustine, Confessions (translated by Maria Boulding, O.S.B.)
For everything we do, we do with a goal in mind. The moment we walk out the door, we do so with a purpose. From the most important tasks to the most trivial, we have an end in mind.
The late great Stephen R. Covey, in his highly regarded book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this habit: Beginning with The End In Mind. He separates the regular folk who don’t put too much effort into this habit, and the leaders that do. The line that Covey draws in the sand that separates these people is based on sitting down and actually writing out your goals in the form of a personal Mission Statement.
What does this have to do with reading? Well, when we read, we do so with an end in mind. There are 3 goals we can achieve when we read. These are:
1. Reading for Entertainment
2. Reading for Information
3. Reading for Understanding
Reading for Entertainment
The most common, and the main reason we mentally struggle to grow. Reading is like eating, and reading for Entertainment is like eating sweets. It feels good to relax and read a James Patterson story, but how does this help us mature as men and women? Mark Edmundson, in his book, Why Read?, talks about what he calls Final Narratives. A Final Narrative is that story we tell ourselves on how we should live our lives, and he firmly argues that our Final Narratives can best be developed when we are intellectually challenged.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to read John Grisham, James Patterson, Michael Crichton, etc., but time needs to be made to read challenging books. I am not saying that reading for Entertainment is a cardinal sin, but what I am saying is that our palette needs more exposure to different foods and too much candy can ruin our appetite and our mental fitness.
Reading for Information
The kind of people that read for information read interesting subjects, but they do so superficially. Reading to be informed is reading to just know about something, but the problem starts there because the learning stops at knowing. Great philosophers like Mortimer Adler make a distinction between knowing something and understanding something. In his masterpiece on the art of reading, “How To Read A Book,” Adler talks about the person who reads for information. Adler writes that, for example,
” [a] person who knows some of the facts of American history and understands them in a certain light can readily acquire by reading…. more such facts and understands them in the same light. But suppose he is reading a history that seems not merely to give him some more facts but also to throw a new and perhaps more revealing light on all the facts he knows.”
What Adler is arguing is that when we read for information, the communication done between writer and reader is done as equals, where the writer may be communicating new information to the reader, but they share the same level of understanding.
Reading newspapers, and magazines are good to be informed on what’s going on around us, but they do not help you understand what’s going on under the surface. Is swimming worth it if you only stay on the surface? This question brings me to the last goal in reading.
Reading for Understanding
The former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II wrote a book in 1968 called, Introduction to Christianity, and in it, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who would later on become Pope Benedict XVI) wrote about a philosophical shift on how we view reality that started with Descartés, ended with Kant, but was articulated the best by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. Against the Scholastic formula that verum est ens (being is truth), Vico advanced his own formula, verum esse ipsumfactum ( what is true is precisely what we make).
Basically, society had a shift in belief from objective truth to subjective facts (things that we can sense), and this shift has influenced how we today view this last goal with scepticism. To read for understanding means that we read to view a subject not from a historical perspective ( like, for example, how Jefferson was essential to the Declaration of Independence), but from a philosophical perspective ( like why is Jefferson’s idea about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a right, and not a privilege).
The difference lies in the kinds of questions we, as readers, try to answer. When we read to be informed, we ask, “what?”, “where?”, “who?” and “how?”. But, when we read to understand, we ask the most important question of them all, “why?”
Another example can be given that readers can relate to; readers know that reading is good for them, but non-readers (and some readers too, to be honest) don’t understand why reading is an essential activity.
Reading for Understanding needs to be the main goal for a reader. Reading for Entertainment and for Information are good and necessary, but reading for Understanding should be the main purpose for our reading. Why do we even read if not to water those plants in our minds and hearts so that they can grow to become beautiful and mature trees?
Every choice we make, we do so with an end in mind, and the choices we make are greatly influenced by our Final Narrative. Our Final Narrative is not influenced by Entertainment, nor Information. Our Final Narrative is influenced by Understanding. From the most mundane task to the most important, the way we understand reality, our neighbors, and ourselves will determine the lives we live. Choices are not made in a vacuum.
The road that leads to the end that is reading for Understanding is often the road less traveled, and for an decent reason. It is a difficult road to take, requiring hard work and dedication. But, just like any good story, adventures worth having come with a cross to bear.
Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren, How To Read A Book
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction To Christianity
Mark Edmundson, Why Read?
Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People
In this new digital era, information is at your fingertips. Do you want to know how tall is the Eiffel Tower? Google it. How about if you want to know why is the sky blue? Ask Siri. You get the picture. The point is, to read a physical book has become a relic of the past, like riding a horse. Unnecessary, useless, mundane.
The problem with this idea is the fact that any time you watch an interview on YouTube where a podcaster is interviewing a leader in whatever field it is that they are leading, it is almost guaranteed that behind that leader, you will find a personal library. Not a Kindle, and definitely not Alexa. A personal library. Why are books still relevant in spite of the benefits of the digital age? More specifically, why are personal libraries still relevant when public libraries are available?
What I am not saying is that public libraries are unnecessary. On the contrary, public libraries are essential for providing access to Great Ideas for everybody, regardless of their financial situation. What I am saying, however, is thata Personal Library is better than a Public Library.
Personal books are more sensually engaging than borrowed books
Books are sensually engaging. Studies show that people who grow up in a home where books where present where more likely than those who did not to become readers. According to a study by the University of Nevada, it was shown that the difference in kids who were raised in a bookless home compared to a home filled with books had as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who had a university education (15 to 16 years)(University of Nevada, “Books in home as important as parents’ education in determining children’s education level,” (2010)).
We are, by nature, drawn by mystery. From diving into the depths of the sea to exploring space, we are attracted to the unknown. Looking at unread books, we wonder if they are worth the read, and, eventually, you end up picking them up.
Personal books engage the mind more than borrowed books
Books are mentally engaging. Whenever I listen to a good speech or interview, I always think, “I wish there was a way to have my say while the thoughts are fresh.” Turns out, books provide a way to do that by annotating. By writing in the margins, by underlining and highlighting, you enter into a dialogue with the writer, and this helps sharpen your own ideas about the subject.
There are 4 levels of reading, and these are:
Syntopical Reading (or Comparative Reading)
I will cover more in depth in the future these levels of reading, but I want to mention here that the 2 higher levels of reading (Analytical, and Syntopical) require the reader to own the books that he is analyzing, and making them your own by annotation. This is due in part of the fact that these 2 levels of reading are done to not simply know the book and the subject the writer is writing about, but to understand the book, the writer, and subject he is writing about.
Personal books engage the heart more than borrowed books
Finally, having a personal library moves the heart to action. Borrowing a book from the library is good, but its not personal. In contrast, buying a book is personal because we are making the financial investment, hence, making us more committed on the type of book we are purchasing, making us more committed to listening to the argument the writer is making, and making us more committed to be demanding as a reader and leader.
Just like most people like to collect stuff like coins, toys, knickknacks, etc., leaders like to collect ideas. Having a personal library is literally having an Idea Collection. And this Idea Collection helps leaders sharpen their own ideas on how to solve modern problems. Most readers are not leaders, but most leaders are readers, and I believe that the key distinction here comes from people having an Idea Collection.