by Gary Potter
May 2, 2016
Of the many writers I have known, some briefly, others long and well enough to call them friends, and speaking here only of ones who are deceased, perhaps none wrote more that has proved to be of greater lasting value from the Catholic point of view than Frederick Wilhelmsen. A number of his books have been recently published in new softbound editions and for the first time in fifty years I reread his The Metaphysics of Love, and am very happy I did. I suppose maturity and deeper understanding account for some measure of what I got from my rereading, but of how many books can it be said that not merely are they still pertinent, but seem more so, a half-century after their original publication?
Its title should daunt no one who might consider reading the book, or any others by Wilhelmsen. Fritz, as he was known by friends, was a philosopher, a Thomist, but he did not write in turgid professionalese. Writing, or talking, was useless to him if it did not communicate readily, and on subjects worth writing and talking about. Indeed, he saw philosophy itself as useless if it wasn’t about how men actually experience life and didn’t provide answers, including the answer, to the big questions they ask when they are serious. Consider the following:
“The death of children, the carrying of coffins, the advent of age, the failure of memory, the cruelty of change, the parting of lovers, the absence of friends, the passing of youth, the knowledge of evil – all these things shake and sunder the being of man. Turn to whomever he might; seek what comfort he can command; marshal what support he can muster, each man knows that in the final reckoning nothing from without can save him from the groundlessness which is his history and his being. Called in a unique way to care for the things that are, the man who shoulders his task with heroism and realism does so knowing well enough that he is but contingent, that those depending on him depend on a being fragile and without roots.”
As for big questions, which looms larger than the one posed by death? “Man knows his own contingency. Since man is a knowing-being, the knowledge of his contingency is one with his person. No man is really human who does not face the meaning of his own death, and only those men who face it daily are fully human. For this reason the Spanish people have always exalted the saint and the soldier as brothers in a common dignity, comrades in a holy company.”
I am drawing these quotations from “Tragedy, Ecstasy, and History,” one of the three essays of which The Metaphysics of Love consists. Here is another snippet, some lines where Wilhelmsen speaks of “two dimensions of human existence: the tragic and the ecstatic. Granting that some nations emphasize the tragic and others the ecstatic, granting that these drives are rarely found harmonized within any single man, I think it fair enough to insist that both orders are found within all human beings who have reached the age of responsibility and who act sanely in the world. If existentialist philosophy has proved the tragic, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, the supreme effort of the Baroque, the whole Counter Reformation spirit, have lived the ecstatic.”
The reader will infer from these quotations that Wilhelmsen felt an attachment to Spain. He did. He was like the poet Roy Campbell: a non-Spaniard deeply enamored of Spain, the Spanish and Spanish culture. Sometimes he could be a bit too strong in the expression of his love. I recall an evening at a Spanish restaurant in Washington that featured flamenco music and dancing when Fritz became so exuberant with his “olés” that the owner came to our table and asked for less. To be sure, we had drunk quite a lot of Sangre de Toro.
Perhaps I should not have told that story. If it upset anybody who has never gone drinking with a philosopher and wouldn’t if the opportunity arose, I’ll probably make things worse by telling another. I once heard someone meeting Fritz for the first time ask if he spoke Spanish. “Yes,” he replied, “I speak Catholic.” The thing was that, whatever the subject, Fritz always spoke Catholic, even in English, and even with a glass in his hand.
For proof, read the following lines, so clear compared to the equivocations of Amoris Laetitia on the same subject that they could be taken as an antidote:
“The search for personality through identification of the person with the body (as in contemporary mechanized culture and as in any form of materialist civilization) instances the savage reprisal existence visits upon those who tamper with its laws…. Hoping to find peace and union in sexual expression, men have turned the sexual into a thing which stands outside their interior subjectivity. They have turned the sexual into an object manipulated mechanically for the sake of biological reactions which are only hideous puppets of the reality they mimic. Instead of becoming the sexual, they have transformed it into an exterior thing waiting on exploitation and degradation. The final result is that modern industrialized civilization is the most sexless in all history.”
Were Fritz still alive, it’s easy to surmise what he would make of VR now that we seem to be on the verge of its universal availability. He certainly wouldn’t be surprised that the multibillion-dollar porn industry is investing large sums in its development.
It is not irrelevant to Fritz’s point to wonder how Pope Francis could truly suppose that a crisis caused by the collapse of belief in the Church’s religious teaching will be eased by letting local bishops and clergy pretend in the name of compassion that the pronouncement of a justice of the peace will make a couple of previously divorced persons now shacking up fit for Communion. Sure, the pretense was already going on, but is putting the weight of a papal document behind it a means of restoring the sexual to its proper place in balanced Christian living, much less strengthening the marital bond? But I digress.
What about love, the matter Wilhelmsen examines through the lens of metaphysics?
“The attempt to love a person for his or her qualities – be they spiritual or physical, intellectual or temperamental – deteriorates into a kind of prostitution in which the person is used and valued for what he does and has. Relationships based on the mutual admiration of qualities end in disillusion and often in bitterness. Built on the lie that the person is exhausted in his qualities and actions, the ‘love’ in question crashes inexorably on the rocks of reality. Conversely, the attempt to love a person in abstraction from his qualities, be they good or evil or indifferent, results in a cerebral and bloodless relationship which at best is an illusion and at worst a denial of the historical person himself. Richard Weaver has pointed out that great personalities are often loved precisely because of their failings, these last being somehow bound up with their very genius.
“These truths lead me to a single conclusion. The human person is that whole in being who, experiencing himself as finite and contingent, without any grip on his own being, nevertheless exists within an order of being to which his own being is open and in which he must seek his destiny, even to the surmounting of the world and to the giving of himself to a Being who, in no sense needing him, nevertheless gives Himself and thus heals the wounds of contingency.”
Fritz died twenty years ago, but I think of how wonderful it would be to have him sitting here now at the table where I write, with our cigarettes and lighters laid out on it so we don’t have to fish them from our pockets and with a bottle or two of an earthy Spanish red between us, talking Catholic. I’d know, knowing the superb teacher he was, that before the wine and talk were done, I’d gain some portion of his wisdom, the best gift a friend can offer. Fortunately, his books, which are full of that wisdom, are still with us, and will continue to be, I am confident.