The Fundamental Difference between the Catholic and the Pagan Mind

I have become fascinated by a YouTube channel run by a user called Skallagrim.  (His name is drawn from the father of the eponymous hero of Egil’s Saga, which fans of fantasy novels would surely enjoy reading.)  In addition to the cool weapons and topics he presents, his honesty and cheerful personality make his videos enjoyable to watch.  Recently, I stumbled across this video on how monotheism appears to non-believers.  Christians do well to watch it because it very accurately describes the worldview of agnostics—or agnostic pagans as Skallagrim has described himself, though perhaps only semi-seriously.

After watching that, I found that I disagreed with so many things that I did not know where to start.  My original thought was to write about why his impression of God is distorted from the way He really is.  But then, the obvious question he might ask is why my view is any better than a Lutheran’s, Calvinist’s, Muslim’s, Jew’s, etc.  In meditating before the tabernacle (and no, I did not go to the tabernacle in order to ask God how I should write this article, but the article kept surfacing in my mind), the understanding came to me that the essence of agnosticism, which inflicts the entire modern world, is the belief that one cannot know objective metaphysical truth.  I italicize those words because agnostics obviously can believe in objective reality–and Skallagrim certainly does.  However, trying to discern an objective order to the universe beyond what science can tell one is deemed a fool’s errand.

David Hume

David Hume, the philosopher whose work led to the development of Analytical Philosophy.

The pagans of ancient Mediterranean world believed the same thing.  Relativism was as rampant in the ancient world as it is today.  Disparate peoples compared their pagan religions to one another and found commonalities.  They tolerated other pagan religions.  The idea of fighting about religion was absurd to them.  But, the progress of time caused pagans to be less religious, starting with the upper, educated classes.  This culminated in religion being outward show for the majority by the first century before Christ.

Parthenon of Athens

What destroyed the credence pagan had in their religion?  Obviously, it was not Christianity, which had not yet appeared.  The cause lies in the advent of philosophy, particularly the Socratic philosophers.  Socrates changed the world by seeking definitions of things in order to find out universal truths.  No longer would mere dogma be satisfactory!  Statements cannot be accepted on mere authority!  Plato banned poets from his ideal city-state because he thought they perpetuated the lies found in mythology.  Though Plato believed in a plurality of gods, he believed that the divine must be good and harmonious, not evil and discordant as we often see the Greek gods and goddesses act.  Emphasizing this unity, Plato often refers only to one god.  Aristotle further investigates the ideas found in Plato and posited a single “unmoved mover,” who must be God.

School of Athens

Basically, good philosophy–exemplified by Plato and Aristotle rather than the confusing mess offered by modern philosophies–renders the idea of a plurality of gods as untenable.  Platonism and Aristotelianism point to a harmonious metaphysical realm which includes an unmoved mover who set everything else in motion and uncaused cause from whom all other causes derive.  Isn’t it amazing that philosophy contains the similar truths found in the Catholic faith?  So much so that Christianity has been called “Platonism for the masses”?  St. Augustine describes a Platonic philosopher named Victorinus who believed in Christianity upon reading the Scriptures because of the way they connected with his philosophy.  Yet, he hesitated to be baptized.  When he told the Bishop Simplicianus of Milan that he was a Christian, Simplicianus said that he would not believe him until he had entered Church and received the sacraments.  Victorinus’ succinct comeback “do walls make Christians?” is still remembered today.  However, he did decide to get baptized and become a full member of the Catholic Church.


Why is this melding of philosophy and Christianity possible?  It is well known that St. Augustine uses Platonism well to make sense of Christian doctrine, while St. Thomas does the same in his Summa Theologica with Aristotle.  The fact of the matter is that Truth is one and objective.  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–no doubt with God’s Will–discovered parts of the truth and created systems which facilitated the understanding of Christians.  They also share one commonality with early Christians: their fellow citizens persecuted them.  Socrates was executed, Plato was charged in the same way as his master but fined instead, and Aristotle needed to flee Athens lest, as he put it, Athens commit a second crime against philosophy.

Bust of Aristotle

Bust of Aristotle

So, I would wish modern pagans and agnostics to give objective metaphysical truth a chance–to thoroughly test the metaphysical skepticism preached by analytical philosophy and Logical Posivitism by starting at the beginning of that non-authoritarian school known as philosophy.  Read Plato and Aristotle.  If Aristotle is too dry, read his most eloquent disciple, Cicero.  See whether you’re convinced of their faith in objective metaphysical truth.  (I might also add that one should read St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is more Aristotelian than Aristotle and the Churchmen of his time accused him of relying too much on philosophy.)  See how modern philosophers challenge the Socratic Schools.  Read modern defenders of older philosophical traditions like Peter Kreeft, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Mortimer Jerome Adler.

Despite being a Jew for most of his life, he was one of America's most popular Thomists.

Despite being a Jew for most of his life, Mortimer J. Adler was one of America’s most popular Thomists.

The reason I recommend philosophy so much is because it arms one with the tools to discern good theology from bad.  It is difficult to determine which religious truths don’t hold water, but having the tool of philosophy makes it much easier.  So, do not seek religion for religion’s sake, but examine religions for the sake of the Truth.  As I believe Jesus Christ is the Truth itself, seeing you seek Him will only draw Him faster to you: for all our striving, we do not find the Truth, but the Truth finds us–if only we care.

Gintama and Refusing to Surrender

Gintama happens to be one of my favorite shows presently.  I always loved it for its outrageous humor, and its first two episodes are classic.  In the second season, they started creating more serious story arcs, and they succeeded in making them spectacular.  I suppose that the best comedies always have a vein of seriousness in it.  Socrates did argue  with Aristophanes in his Symposium that a writer of comedy should be equally able to write tragedy.  Somehow, the seriousness of a situation always lends more humor to it.  For example, while I was a cadet in the Navy League, my funny bone was surprisingly easy to tickle–but, my laughter often provoked unfortunate consequences, which very misfortunes actually led to a vicious cycle of joviality.


At any rate, one of my favorite arcs deals with the show’s madao, Hasegawa Taizou.  Madao stands for mattaku dame na otoko, which translates to “completely useless guy.”  He finally gets a job by which he hopes to be able to repair his relationship with his wife, with whom he is separated.  However, he discovers that his wife has begun to date another man.  Refusing to let this ruin his good spirits, he goes to work by train only to have the following mishap: he trips on the platform, grabs onto a woman in the attempt to stop his fall, ends up dragging her off, and performs the start of an awkward wrestling move on her.  

The famed Kinniku Buster

The famed Kinniku Buster

This mishap leads to him being arrested as a pervert.  To make his depression worse, the prosecutor happens to be the man dating his wife.  This man offers Hasegawa a chance to have these charges dropped if he signs a letter of divorce.  While Hasegawa refuses this, he does ask Gintoki, the series’ hero, during an interview at the prison for a rope strong enough to hang a man.  To which Gintoki respond with one of the noblest lines in the series: “Next time…I’ll bring the rope. I won’t bring it so that you can hang yourself, but if its a rope to pull you out of the depths of hell, I’ll bring as many as you need.”  From this point, Gintoki becomes Hasegawa’s defense attorney, and one of the most screwball trials ever contemplated ensues. 


But, refusing to surrender to despair stands as one of the central themes in Gintama.  They also crafted a magnificant story in the case of Hijikata, a the vice captain of the Shinsengumi, who takes a demon sword as a temporary replacement only to have it bring him under the curse of extreme otakufication.  But, the series shows that there is always hope no matter what one is struggling against.


De Admiratione vel De Stupore?

Since I wished to write an article on the necessary virtue of wonder, I thought to be Classical in the choice of my title by using Latin.  To my chagrin, the two Latin words Casull’s Latin Dictionary offered for wonder either go too far (stupor) or fall short (admiratio).  What else am I to do?  I suppose that I could have searched for an Ancient Greek word, since Greek has such philosophical and literal accuracy; but, Greek has never been my strong suit and Latin is much preferred.  So, I am left with two words which might be legitimately translated as admiration or stupefaction rather than wonder.


The quotation on which my cogitation centered derives from Socrates: “A feeling of wonder is what marks the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.”  To relate it back to my Latin title, it may indeed begin as admiratio but become stupor when one realizes the vast extent of knowledge which one shall never obtain–not even if one had five lifetimes!  A philosopher is one who loves knowledge, knows that he has very little, and continually searches for it.  In this way one is continually amazed by the new material coming into his mind.


A certain professor of philosophy named Dr. Graham McAleer exemplified this quality for me this semester.  On one occasion, I corrected him when he said that St. Bonaventure must have written The Journey of the Mind to God long after St. Francis’ death since St. Bonaventure was the seventh General of the Order.  I responded that the distance separating them was not long at all because St. Francis gave St. Bonaventure his name when that person was born  (I think that the original story is slightly different–but, that’s what I said, and it was St. Francis who gave St. Bonaventure that name), predicting a happy life for St. Bonaventure, whose name means “Good Journey.”  To this Dr. McAleer’s eyes widened in amazement.  His astonishment was such that it frightened me!  Here was someone who taught Bonaventure and philosophy for such a long time and he could still experience amazement concerning a short work whose pages he has made opaque with marginalia!  I cannot think of a more perfect example of a man with the quality of wonder.

In this picture, Charlemagne is commending the poor children who studied hard, while rebuking the sons of nobles who made poor progress in their studies through negligence.

In this picture, Charlemagne is commending the poor children who studied hard, while rebuking the sons of nobles who made poor progress in their studies through negligence.

The attitude of wonder leads to openness and humility, which has its opposite in pride, close-mindedness, and being domineering.  Many people pride themselves as thinking that they can control their own lives, that they know all they need to, and can put people into boxes to be manipulated or judged at will.  The last is particularly prevalent.  We know someone for a few months and believe that we know all their idiosyncrasies.  We expect them to act and react in certain way.  Rather, we should refrain from putting people in boxes–even when it seems tempting–so that we might continue to marvel at them.  This produces more charity and better relationships between people.  I wonder whether the cause of so many unhappy marriages is that spouses have placed one another in a box and lack interest in them, because they feel that they already know everything about their spouses.  And boredom equals disinterestedness, which ferments annoyance, which flames anger, which pours out divorce.

The father and mother of St. Therese of Lisieux, who happen to both be beatified!  By that, you can surely discern a happy marriage!

The father and mother of St. Therese of Lisieux, who happen to both be beatified! By that, you can surely discern a happy marriage!

But, perhaps the most common ways in which people box one another are in the realms of politics and religion.  How is it that knowing one or both of these things permits us to neatly package up another person and be done with them?  I suppose the most obvious answer is that these ways of thought have consequences in real life and people of these ideologies act in unison.  If Liberals are in power, gun laws are emplaced or guns taken away, abortion florishes, welfare programs increase, business taxes increase, government spending increases, less money is spent on the military, etc.  With Conservatives, the exact opposite occurs.  However, people are much more complex than the ideologies they belong to–and even the ideologies more complex than we imagine!  I doubt very few people are exact caricatures of the ideologies they serve.  This holds even more true in the realm of religion: the practices of religion and each person’s relationship with God vary so much because of the more personal nature of religion.  As St. Faustina said, people are worlds.  Don’t place people in boxes!


I had a vision of this while reading Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s memoirs of his career in the Pacific theater during World War II, Baa Baa Black Sheep.  First, the man in general is difficult for me to understand.  Then, the people he meets are of the same class.  In particular, this passage when over my head, but will likely be understood by some of my dear readers:

                       Thought of seeing the ground crew, and the few of the staff who had waved farewell as we had taken off, came through my mind.  On most of them I had interpreted this wave to mean: “I hope you get back alive.”  I assumed that a few were thinking: “I hope you never get back.”  But to hell with them.  To hell with them all.

I would have understood this had he been referring to the second class of people, but I cannot understand his vexation with all of them.  This condemnation went well above my head.  No doubt, my acquaintance with Pappy Boyington will prove most fruitful.  May you all have someone rather translucent in your lives!  (I avoid saying opaque because–even though one can certainly marvel at a person one has no understanding of–one cannot really have a relationship with someone unless they understand at least a little about them.)

President Truman Presenting the Medal of Honor

We even go so far as to put our own selves in boxes: either we strive for something we’re not or we make ourselves less than we are.  This is all due to our controlling, know-it-all natures.  We ought to rather imitate Padre Pio, who said: “I am a mystery to myself.”  This does not contradict the dictum to know ourselves; but perhaps that our own efforts to understand ourselves ought to lead us to greater wonder concerning ourselves.  With this kind of openness, i.e. not trying to control our own lives but being open to where our gifts and talents lead us, God can take control of our lives and draw us to situations and places we would never have thought possible for us.

St. John of God led a particularly fascinating and varied life.  A great example of humility.

St. John of God led a particularly fascinating and varied life. A great example of humility.

So, do not judge, do not condemn, and forgive all offenses.  And remember St. Gregory of Nyssa’s famous advice: “Concepts create idols, only wonder understands.”

The Forgotten Socrates

I just finished the Memorabilia by Xenophon.  Xenophon is more known for his work Anabasis, which concerns Xenophon’s taking a Greek army of mercenaries, known as The Ten Thousand, who try to aid Cyrus the younger in taking the throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II.  This ended in disaster, and Xenophon along with two other elected leaders must march this band of mercenaries 400 miles through enemy territory before they can find passage back to Greece.  (This provided the idea for the 1979 movie The Warriors.)

A bust of Xenophon.  Isn't that a very honest looking face?

A bust of Xenophon. Isn’t that a very honest looking face?

What people tend to forget about Xenophon is that he provides our second major perspective on Socrates in the Memorabilia.  The main reason for people neglecting Xenophon lies in both Plato providing more material on this figure and that Plato’s Socrates is often more brilliant.  For example, Xenophon’s aristocratic station influences his Socrates’ topics of conversation to focus on things like politics, military campaigns, and hunting.  Also, Socrates’ Xenophon tends to be more moralistic–some people have called him Victorian.  But, the directness of Xenophon’s Socrates comes as a welcome change from the heavy use of Socratic irony we see in Plato; though, I did notice several instances in Xenophon’s work where Socrates seems to make several jumps in logic.  (This can happen to the best thinkers–with the exception of St. Anselm of Canterbury.)  One almost roots for his interlocutor to turn the tables on Socrates or put up some resistance rather than the usual, “yes,” “truly,” “it seems so,” etc.


Bust of Socrates

At any rate, Xenophon’s main point, much like Plato in his Apology and other early works, was to defend Socrates against his detractors.  Against the charge that he was impious, Xenophon showed how devout Socrates was and how much faith he had in divination.  Against the charge that he corrupted the youth, Xenophon shows us a person who was profoundly interested in improving the moral character of his associates.  In regard to the latter charge, Xenophon also defends Socrates’ association with Alcibiades, who notoriously betrayed Athens during the Peloponnesian War.  Plato passes over this association, but Xenophon defends Socrates by saying that Alcibiades never listened to Socrates’ instructions and was more interested in the political power he might gain through mingling with Socrates’ friends.

Plato on left.  Aristotle on right.

Plato on left. Aristotle on right.

One of the most interesting relationships described in the work is between Socrates and Euthymius.  Euthymius interests himself in gaining wisdom, so he visits Socrates and plays close attention to the conversations.  However, he never says a word, which irks Socrates.  One day, Socrates takes it upon himself to show Euthymius the error of not engaging in debate and twists Euthymius’s brain with some of the best sophism the world has ever witnessed.  The end result is, after all the books which Euthymius has read and all the people he’s listened to, Euthymius admits that he knows nothing.  This is perhaps the only example in Xenophon of Socrates playing a sophist.  But after this humiliation, Euthymius actually continues to visit Socrates–this time participating in the debates.  This is a happier result than we ever see when Plato’s Socrates destroys someone in an argument!


I highly recommend everyone to read the Memorabilia.  The work contains some great moral philosophy, several humorous moments, and is well worth comparing to Plato’s works.