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Modern Philosophy

The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction...In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts, and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having done so, we must then restore our conceptions to the unity in which the actually co-exist, and this is the result of philosophy.



To acquire wisdom, however difficult that term may be to define, is to understand that no discipline exists in isolation. It is an unfortunate consequence of contemporary education that students and teachers go from class to class, often failing to make appropriate synthesizing connection so that a glimpse of the totality may be observed. Hegel observed that, "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," a point not lost on Elie Wiesel when he dedicated the Holocaust Museum. Thus to conclude a philosophy course is to acknowledge that it is just beginning, so please consider these attempts at synthesis...

The following two poems and a novel embody the philosophical themes discussed in this course:

  • CARGOES by John Masefiled

Cargoes by John Masefield has many metaphors in its three short stanzas. If we look at them comparatively, what issues in this class have we studied that the poem dramatizes? Why, for instance, is chronology so important and the poet's use of connotation?:


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

-- John Masefield

Maya Angelou wrote On the Pulse of the Morning for President Clinton's inaugural. What does Angelou believe about history, and man's hope for the future? What philosophers have we discussed whose beliefs are embodied in the poem?

On The Pulse Of Morning
by Maya Angelou

(Delivered January 19, 1993 at the Inauguration of President Clinton)
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers--
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours--your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
Into your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter Miller suggests a view of history and philosophy that this course seemed to suggest. Critics have reacted very favorably to the book comparing it, for instance, to Brave New World. Classification is difficult: it is a novel of mystery, adventure, gothic horror, science fiction, philosophy, religion, Catholicism, and for us it is all of these plus a complete summary of the content of this course. Every idea we have discussed is reflected in this book.

Click HERE to find a comprehensive Study Guide to Canticle


1. Find out some information about Walter Miller, especially regarding his career in World War II.

2. Why was Monte Casino so important in the writing of the novel?

3. What do you consider to be several important philosophical ideas Miller dramatizes?--see notes for each epoch below.

4. Note that the novel covers several historical / philosophical epochs--what are they, and how is each characterized?

5. How do the historical / philosophical epochs relate to each other?

6. How are rationalism and empiricism reflected in the book?

7. For each epoch, identify the characters who are Platonists, Aristotelians, Rationalists, Empiricists, or some synthesis. Why does it matter who believes what?

8. An important figure of speech is (Socratic) irony. Find examples of its use.

9. Relate ideas in the novel to each of the philosophical periods we have covered.

10. There are many allusions to the Bible and common Catholic Church prayers: Note them.

11. When was the novel written, and what great event in church history was about to occur?

PART ONE--FIAT HOMO: some key characters: Arkos - Cheroki - Leibowitz - Francis - Simpletons

date: where and when are we, and what came before?
Medieval Culture
flame deluge simplification memorabilia
scholasticism nominalism and realism
fallout metaphysics induction
printing press canonization
irony of plenitude
transition to the next epoch

PART TWO-FIAT LUX: some key characters: Apollo - Paulo - Korhhoer - Hannegan - Thon Taddeo - Armbruster

date: where and when are we, and how does this epoch relate to
the previous one?
Renaissance Culture
epistemology and Descartes / Locke-- rationalism / empiricism
the cross and the arc lamp
philosophical values
the statue

the theme of the cycle
the role of knowledge and its guardianship
the relationship between scripture and science technology
war and its causes
Genesis and the creation of man

PART THREE-FIAT VOLUTAS TUA: some key characters: Zerchi - Cors - Grales - Rachel - mother and child

date: where are we, and how does this epoch relate to the previous one?
Modern culture
nuclear war the theme of historical cycle
the statue
the importance of the starship and the church
the role of God and human suffering
the debate between theology and science
mercy killing
pain and suffering and the church and ethics

What character seems to be common to all three epochs? Why? What is his importance?

How does the novel embody the history of philosophy?