Category Archives: Philosophy

The Vocation of a Soldier, Service and the Act of Love

…the soldier ought to train himself in every variety of change and irregularity, and, above all, to bring himself to endure hunger and the loss of sleep without difficulty.” Plutarch

Warfare has always been a part of the human condition and throughout recorded history philosophers and historians have taken a paradoxical, perhaps even schizophrenic take on warfare.  On one hand ancient historians, philosophers and theologians have debated the causes of war, recorded it horrific effects and the morality of governments employing warfare .  On the other hand, people have always been fascinated by the drama of war and our common myths  and histories have reflected this.  Greek historian Thucydides  recorded the horrors of a world-wide thirty year-long Greek civil war (The Peloponnesian Wars) with its terrors of mass destruction of cities, disease and famine while Herodotus records the heroism of outnumbered Greeks defending their polis and families from Xerxes’s Persian armies.   We have been enthralled with the mythical heroism, tragedy and yes, adventure of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey as well as the true adventure of Greek general Xenophon’s successful evacuation of ten thousand Greek mercenary soldiers under his command from deep behind enemy lines in Persia.   War brings out the best, and the worst of us and does so with cold honesty.  As Julius Caesar noted,  the stress of combat would crack open the truth of a man’s hidden inner strengths, virtues and weakness for all to see.  As he observed in the heat of battle:  “It was the hour that proclaimed the man.”

But war had its heroes too and ancient historians noted that war also held the lure of adventure and personnel glory.  It is a recurring theme in Plutarch’sLives of Noble Greeks and Romans” that talented men sought leadership in war as a means of adventure and political ambition.   However, some of Plutarch’s noble Greeks and Romans had more altruistic motives:  Roman General Titus Flamininus  lead an army into Greece, not as a conqueror, but a liberator.  He freed Greece from the invading tyrant King Phillip of Macedonia and took great satisfaction in “reconciling Greeks with Greeks.”

Flamininus  himself sought war only to bring about a more just peace.  Plutarch lauds him as a man of courage and wisdom who knew not only the art of war “but how  to employ that success [of war] to generous and honest purposes.”  Flamininus was one of the first practitioners of nation building and encouraged the newly liberated Greeks to “obedience to law, of constant justice, and unity, and friendship with one another. “

The New Testament has two other examples of soldiers serving in a foreign land engaging in “nation building” with the Roman Centurion of Capernaum from Luke’s Gospel and the Roman Centurion Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles.  As you read through the accounts below notice how the Centurion’s acts of charity towards the Jewish people are acts of love not just duty.  Even more startling,  neither Jesus or the Apostle Peter ask these men to leave the Roman Army  even as they follow God! The Roman Officers’ faith in God and their love of their follow human beings are totally compatible and interwoven into their responsibilities as soldiers and leaders.  The implication is that a soldier,  serving with justice and love toward others, is a vocation.

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Luke Chapter 7 v 1-10

There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman Army.  He and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly. One day at nearly three o’clock in the afternoon, he clearly saw an angel from God in a vision. The angel came to him and said, “Cornelius!”Startled, he stared at the angel and replied, “What is it, Lord?” The angel said, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter.  From the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 10

As I reflect on Titus Famininus, and the two Roman Centurions I recall an insightful and illuminating incident early in my deployment to Afghanistan.  When I first arrived in February of 2006, I like most of my fellow soldiers were filled with thoughts of our upcoming year-long deployment.  We faced a year of danger, hard work and long hours away from our families and comforts of home.  Although we were not filled with self-pity, we were for the moment self focused.  All of that changed when a slightly heavy-set older Afghan man in a rumbled suit insisted on speaking at our commanding general’s assumption of mission ceremony in Bagram Afghanistan.  Our general was visibly flustered being pushed off the center stage.  After all, it was his moment.  He was going to lead American soldiers into battle and it was his right to sound the charge!
The 10th Mountain Division assumes command of Military operations in Afghanistan, Feb 2006

Into this breach of protocol this quiet, unassuming man stepped up to the podium.  He was the Afghan Minister of Defense, Abdul Rahim Wardak and his heart-felt, unprepared remarks changed my perspective on the year ahead in an unexpected way.

He began by saying how amazed he was at the dedication of the American military for traveling thousands of miles from their homes and families, especially since he lived in a country were most people rarely ventured a few miles from the village they were born in.  It was nice of him to notice our sacrifices to deploy to Afghanistan but what he said next changed everything:

The People of Afghanistan are touched by the generosity and bravery of Americans. … Their willingness to leave their families, to sacrifice even their lives so that the people of Afghanistan can have a better future. I am touched by such love and I can only hope that the people of Afghanistan will show themselves worthy of such love shown to them.

– Abdul Rahim Wardak February 2006

I was stunned,  In the mist of war, this man talked about love.  How sacrifice on behalf of those we served as soldiers was love.  From that moment on thru the rest of my deployment, I vowed to see my service in Afghanistan as an opportunity to practice love and not ever allow myself a moment of focus on my circumstances.  Thank you Mr. Wardak, for your words of wisdom and for having the courage to speak out that day even though it ruffled the pomp and circumstance of the moment.

A young boy seeks shelter behind a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne division after gunshots rang out at the scene where just a few minutes earlier a suicide car bomber blew himself up in a busy commercial district in central Baghdad on Monday, May 28, 2007, killing at least 21 people and wounding 66, police and hospital officials said. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed )

Post Script:

I want to take a moment to thank all of my family members who have served with love and honor in the military over the years. They were not only good soldiers, but more importantly they were, and are, good men.

  • Brother David Bolton Lt. Colonel (US Army): Gulf War
  • Brother Peter Bolton Staff Sergeant (US Army): Cold War
  • Cousin John Heslin Lt. Colonel (US Air Force): Afghanistan
  • Cousin Jim Heslin Captain (US Army): Cold War
  • Uncle Thomas Savoie Lt. Colonel (US Army):  Cold War
  • Uncle Paul Savoie  Technical Sergeant (US Air Force) Cold War
  • Uncle Jack Heslin Lt. Colonel (US Army)  multiple tours Vietnam
  • Great Uncle James Bolton Sergeant (USMC)  India and Pacific WWII
  • Great Uncle Thomas Bolton Chief Petty Officer (US Navy) WWII Pacific theater, only survivor of the USS Bain
  • Great Uncle Raymond  Gaffney  Sergeant (US Army)  WWII
  • 5th Great Grandfather Laurent De Soly, Spanish soldier served with a Swiss Regiment in Ft. Louisbourg, Acadia, Canada
  • 18th Great Grandfather Amadeus VI Count of Savoy (Crusades)
  • 47th Great Grandfather Flavius Richomeres General (Roman Army):  At Adrianople he tried to persuade Roman Emperor Valens to wait on additional forces for support before engaging the Goths. When the Gothic leader Fritigern demanded hostages to secure peace from the Romans Flavius Richomeres volunteered and departed the Roman camp to bring the other hostages safely to Fritigern, but before he arrived some elements of the two armies got out of control and engaged, starting the famous Battle of Adrianople. Richomeres ended up at a battlefield in complete chaos but he saved himself and a portion of the Roman Army from annihilation by withdrawing. However the Roman army of Valens was largely destroyed and many officers fell including emperor Valens.

My Uncle Jack is certainly one of my heroes.  When I was a child during the Vietnam War, he took on an almost mythical in stature. He is also a dedicated historian of the Vietnam and hosts an informative website on the Battle of Kontum late in the Vietnam war.  If you have served in Vietnam, or the military or just  have a deep respect of what our Vietnam veterans sacrificed for our country then please visit his website.

It has all of the drama, tragedy and heroism worthy of Plutarch, Thucydides , Herodotus and Xenophon.

Hippocrates on Social Justice

Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity

Hippocrates of Kos 460-370 BC

Hippocrates of Kos was an ancient Greek physician who is considered the father of clinical medicine.  He was the first known healer to understand the importance of observation in the diagnosis of illnesses.  Hippocrates realized that by carefully noting the progression of a disease in patients in the past a physician could predict how that disease would affect a new patient and how they would respond to treatment. He also advocated a holistic approach to medicine, noting that exercise, diet and mental well being had a significant impact on a persons health.

Hippocrates placed the art of healing on a firm scientific foundation by teaching that illnesses had natural, not supernatural causes. Science, not magic or superstition, would help humanity to discover the causes and treatment of ill health.  But Hippocrates was more than an early scientist, he placed medicine on an ethical foundation that was predicated on a love of the patient and of people in general.

Ask someone about the Hippocratic Oath and they will likely tell you that it has two precepts:

  • Do no harm
  • Maintain patient confidentiality

Few people outside of the medical profession have read it and until I picked up Hippocrates in my collection of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World  (Volume 10) neither had I.  Fewer still have ever heard it recited and fewer still have heard in recited in the language that Hippocrates himself would have used.  Before I go any further listen to the Hippocratic oath as spoken in Ancient Greek at the link below.  Close you eyes if you like, and immerse yourself in the poetry that is the common inheritance of all humanity.

Did you listen? You may have been surprised at how long it is and if you read along with the translation you now know that Hippocrates has a lot more to say than: “Do no harm” and “maintain patient confidentiality.” And I would dare say, Hippocrates is speaking to a larger audience than the medical profession.  Let’s take a closer look…

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this covenant:

Notice that Hippocrates doesn’t swear by his fellow Greeks or their laws. Instead he acknowledges that he must ultimately obey higher laws of justice, above the fickle laws of human civilization.

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents; to live in common with him and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine. To look upon his children as my own brothers, and to teach them this art -if they desire to learn it- without fee and covenant;

We need to love our teachers, our mentors, our elders in general who have given us much; their love, their knowledge, wisdom and experience. We are not self made and we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

To give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my own sons, and to those of him who has been my teacher and to disciples who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, and no one else.

In turn, we can not be selfish with the gifts and wisdom that has been entrusted to us. In our past we received the gifts of others, in time we must also be givers to those who come after us. 

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

We must protect those who have been entrusted into our care from the harm or injustice caused by others. Not just as the practitioners of medicine, but also as parents, teachers, coaches, caregivers and supervisors. 

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

Human life is sacred, even 2400 years ago. Its no accident that Hippocrates places his prohibition of subscribing deadly medicine and abortion together.  All human life is to be protected, young and old, the weak and the powerful, rich or poor.

In purity and holiness, I will preserve my life and my art.

We must be pure and unselfish in our motives when we serve others. Our vocations in life, or “Art” as Hippocrates might say, proclaim who we are, not just what we do on the side. 

I will not use the knife, even on suffers from stone, but will let this operation to specialized practitioners.

Our actions must stay within our knowledge and experience of what we can competently do. We must avoid unnecessary risks that could harm others and ourselves.  

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, keeping myself far from all intentional injustice and ill-doing, among others, of sexual deeds on bodies female or male, be they free or slaves.

We must protect the innate dignity of all human beings, revering them as the sons and daughters of the Creator. No person exists, regardless of their origin or status to be used or abused by us. 

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of it in regard to the life of men, which ought not to be spread outside, I will keep secret, considering them improper to talk about.

We don’t gossip and we protect the privacy of others.  We protect the dignity of others while they are vulnerable. 

If I keep this oath and not violate it may I enjoy my life and my art respected by all men and in the time to come.  But if I transgress it and swear falsely, let the reverse be my lot.

The side benefit of conducting ourselves well in our vocations can be the respect of others.  Nevertheless, we need to hold ourselves and well as others accountable. 


Sadly, the Hippocratic Oath no longer seems taken at medical School graduations.  The modern criticism is that “it is sworn to a Pagan god(s)” or that “it’s to restrictive” and that modern doctors don’t like being bound by an Oath that in this litigious society could be used against them.  Others want to be able to perform abortions and euthanasia making the Hippocratic Oath outdated.  I have seen updated versions of a Hippocratic Oath that remove the restrictions on euthanasia and abortions. They lack the poetic power of the original and to be frank, don’t seem to be worth the trouble to swearing to.

Is treating people with respect and God given dignity outdated? If ancient people could at least strive to respect the dignity of human life, could we, who are far more advanced do the same?  As far as I know, Hippocrates never left a commentary on why his Oath says what it says.  Nevertheless, I think my own assessment is close to his intent:

  • Respect the laws of God and man
  • Love others; as individuals and as members of the human race
  • Respect the bodies and personhood of others
  • Protect others from harm or injustice
  • Respect those who came before you and pass on what you know to others who come after you
  • Protect human life, no matter how old, small, sick or vulnerable
  • Respect the privacy of others
  • Hold ourselves and others accountable when we fail to treat others with dignity and justice.

Not a bad creed to live by…


Here is the Hippocratic Oath in its entirety without commentary:

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this covenant:

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents; to live in common with him and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine. To look upon his children as my own brothers, and to teach them this art -if they desire to learn it- without fee and covenant;

To give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my own sons, and to those of him who has been my teacher and to disciples who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, and no one else.

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

In purity and holiness, I will preserve my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, even on suffers from stone, but will let this operation to specialized practitioners.

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, keeping myself far from all intentional injustice and ill-doing, among others, of sexual deeds on bodies female or male, be they free or slaves.

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of it in regard to the life of men, which ought not to be spread outside, I will keep secret, considering them improper to talk about.

If I keep this oath and not violate it may I enjoy my life and my art respected by all men and in the time to come. But if I transgress it and swear falsely, let the reverse be my lot.



Plutarch: Ancient Philosopher reflects on even more Ancient Heroes and their Virtues

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.

Plutarch, Greek historian and biographer, 46 to 120 AD


When I began Augustine’s Alley three years ago after my brother died, my initial  posts were released in a torrent as from a broken dam.  For years I have been thinking about Faith, Reason and Science and how they dance and intertwine with each other in our pursuit of truth and meaning.  Writing the blog was a heartfelt relief from the pressure of keeping those thoughts bottled up and it was an effective therapy from the stress of my brother’s long decline from ALS.  The blog also coincided with the discovery of the Savoie family history confirming our Savoie family legends and discovery our connections to some of Catholicism’s influential and inspiring saints.

I choose Saint Augustine as the blog’s namesake because of his tireless pursuit of truth and ultimately his courage in going to where ever that pursuit of truth would lead him to, even if it cost him personally.  Greek philosopher Aristotle’s maxim “The Unexamined Life isn’t Worth Living” provided Augustine’s Alley with it’s motto.  Aristotle believed that self-reflection, inquiry and contemplation of truth were essential to human nature.  Lurking in the background is medieval philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (Also the Savoie family’s 20th great Uncle).  Great Uncle Saint Thomas, standing on the shoulders of Aristotle and Augustine, put the Catholic faith on a firm foundation of reason.

If this all sounds like a goodbye to Augustine’s Alley it isn’t.  However, it is an admission that that blog writing is hard to sustain in the long run. If you have been a follower of blogs you can count many them that have faded away in neglect.  Nevertheless, Augustine’s Alley is here to stay.

OK, If Augustine’s Alley is staying then what’s the point? It’s fashionable among elites to today to deride the ancients as irrelevant as best, ethnocentric at worse and that there is no value in the study of the lives and thoughts of ancient “dead guys.” After all, the thinking goes, we are modern,  we are hip and enlightened far above anyone born before 1900.

Ironically,  ancient philosophers and historians asked similar questions of those who came hundreds of years before them.  Plutarch began his “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans”  as a project for others and not himself.  Like many of us today, he saw himself as a sufficiently educated and had no need of the wisdom of the past.  A couple of lives in, while writing the beginning of a biographical sketch of Greek general Timoleon, Plutarch had a revelation. As he put it: It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.”

Aristotle noted that the beginning of wisdom is to first acknowledge how little we really know and understand.  True learning takes humility, and without it learning becomes route memorization or even worse just indoctrination without contemplation of truth.  Plutarch himself was humbled studying the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans who came before him. It was only then in that spirit of openness  that Plutarch was able to draw out lessons of virtues and flaws and reflect them to himself and grow in wisdom.

So why the classics? Why study ancient philosophers?  Because true education draws us to truth, makes us grow in virtue as individuals and as a society.  The pursuit of philosophy, in a true spirit of open inquiry and humility, make us truly human. As Plutarch notes:

Education and study, and the favor of the muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them, than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submit to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.

But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and the desire to imitate the doers of them.

So that it becomes a man’s duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.


Post Script Notes:

Augustine’s Alley story on my family history can  be found here..

for my brother Davy’s story…

Anyone who works in a dynamic and stress full office environment can understand the pitfalls of office politics. I found this gem from from Plutarch that I printed and promptly posted on the wall next to my desk:

So true it is that the minds of men are easily shaken and carried off from their own sentiments through the casual commendation or reproof of others, unless the judgments that we make, and the purposes we conceive, be confirmed by reason and philosophy, and thus obtain strength and steadiness.

I certainly have had occasion to glance at it while at work.


So what are you reading now? It’s fashionable to fuss and obsess over what we put in our mouths but ignore the effects of what we are putting in our minds.  As Plutarch noted of the ill effects of junk reading:

With like reason may we blame those who misuse that love of inquiry and observation which nature has implanted in our souls, by expanding it on objects unworthy of the attention either their eyes or their ears, while they disregard such as are excellent in themselves, and would do them some good.

Maybe its time to go on that mental diet for our philosophical health? For some ideas please look at my post of Britannica’s Great Books.

Post Script notes #2:  Plutarch has been posted for a few hours now and after reflecting on what I wrote, I feel I may have shortchanged this man and his work. The Roman and Greeks presented to us by Plutarch are real human beings and not just in a historical sense.  Plutarch conjures up intricate and tangible portraits of real people, all with a mix of virtues and vices, and strengths and weaknesses  navigating a tough and sometimes terrifying world.  It’s good stuff and in my opinion exceeds even Game of Thrones in drama. Why? Because it’s real…

Faith and Doubt

Moderator introduction: I’m please to introduce guest blogger Thomas Savoie. Like his name sake and and 20th great uncle Thomas Aquinas, he reminds us that reason and a searching intellect go hand in hand with us on our journey of faith.


The Nature of Faith and Doubt

Intellectual pain is an underrated cost of following Christ.   If I didn’t care about following Christ, I wouldn’t care so much about being honest, seeking truth, facing reality.   I would be more tempted to simply go with the flow, take the easy way, and maybe anesthetize my intellectual pain instead of persevering through it toward the truth.”                                                                                                                                                                                                    —Brian Mc Laren


Among the more troubling aspects of my Catholic faith have been my misunderstandings and confusion concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  I believed that my doubts weakened my soul, displeased God, and hindered my quest for salvation.  Others around me didn’t seem to experience the number of doubts, disbelief and turmoil in their faith life that I did.  As a child I believed everything I thought Catholicism told me to believe.  How and why did my faith get so far off track?  I began to believe that my lack of faith put my soul in jeopardy.

About two years ago I resolved to carefully examine my beliefs on faith and doubt through a structured reading plan.  I’ve read much of the Catholic Catechism; Catholic Doctrine; Catholic Dogma; and the writings of theologians, early Church Fathers, and contemporary authors.  I learned that many of my assumptions about Faith and Doubt were just flat wrong.  My troubled attitude towards my faith began to lift.

This blog article is a humble attempt to summarize what I’ve taken away from my reading program.  I offer no assurances that the Church would agree with all my findings.  Nor do I recommend you accept my conclusions without doing your own “due diligence”.  If this blog article causes you to prayerfully reflect on your own Catholic beliefs, then publishing this article in Joe’s blog will have been worth my effort.

This article uses a Question and Answer format.  I wanted the article to be an easy but thought-provoking read.  I hope I’ve succeeded.   Your questions and comments are always appreciated.

Q  What conclusions did you find most surprising in your study of faith and doubt?

  1. First, both experts and lay people offer widely differing views concerning the nature of faith and doubt. Some theologians, clergy and religious authors appear to draw opposite conclusions concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  Catholic laity seems to largely rely on grade school religious education to support their adult beliefs.
  2. Second, some Christians, particularly Christian Fundamentalists, consider doubt to be the work of the devil and a hallmark of a troubled or weak faith. Some preach that doubt is something to be cast out if one wants to attain salvation.  Through my studies I now believe every man or woman has experienced doubt as a part of their faith journey.  Popes, saints, even Jesus Christ, struggled with doubt.  St. Teresa of Calcutta suffered spiritual torment and feelings of abandonment by God for nearly 50 years.   During Christ’s anguished night before His death He prayed “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Later, He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Surely we must consider doubt as a benign part of our faith.
  3. Third, doubt can often be a doorway to spiritual growth, but not always. Author Brian McLaren reminds us that all Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means five years from now, your set of beliefs will likely be different from today’s set of beliefs. Hopefully your beliefs will be more judiciously considered, more mature, and more balanced. What causes us to examine a belief and test it?  Perhaps it’s that something inside us isn’t at rest about a particular belief … something in you doubts that belief.
  4. Lastly, many Christians (myself included) who professed a strong faith in God, could not list what they consider the most important or essential beliefs of their faith. This begs a question in my mind. Have I carefully considered which specific beliefs of my faith I am totally committed to believe, and those I disbelieve or doubt?

Q  Is faith an emotion?  Is it the same as belief?

Feelings are of no account.  Faith is not a feeling, but an act of will.  God reveals the truth of his love to us and empowers us to believe and trust.  Though love and faith can sometimes spring from the emotions, they are nourished and sustained in the will.  As one author put it “I am not moved by what I see. I am not moved by what I feel. I am moved only by what I believe.”

Faith is a gift of enlightenment given to us by God.  It’s not the same as belief.   Once enlightened, we then choose to believe truths and make them a part of our faith.

Q  Is doubt the “work of the devil”?

Fundamentalists have little tolerance for any doubt and a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. Some Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian authors warn “Christians with doubts are on a sure path to wickedness because doubt is a device of the Devil.  Satan wants to rob us of our faith in the Word of God because it leads us straight into sin. Satan is the source of all doubt.”  Fundamentalist preach a literal translation of the bible.  “Interpreting the Bible is the bane of Fundamentalism and a primary cause of wicked doubts.”

On the other hand, a Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation points to the importance of considering history, culture, literary forms and the intentions of the sacred writers when interpreting Scripture.

Most mainstream Christian denominations acknowledge that doubt and imperfect faith are part and parcel of every person’s faith journey, saints included.  And it’s more than just possible, even probable, to have a weak faith and to achieve salvation.

Author Madeline L’engle wroteThose who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of the mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.”

My conclusion is that doubts do not necessarily endanger your chance for salvation.  As St Augustine wrote, “Doubt is but another element of faith.”

When Thomas the Apostle required forensic proof of Jesus’s resurrection before he’d believe, Jesus showed immense patience and love toward his doubting Thomas.  I am greatly comforted by that, and firmly believe Jesus accepts our doubts with patient love.  I continue to pray that Jesus will gift me with a deeper faith that will reveal over time other beliefs critical to my faith life.

Q  Isn’t doubt a sign of a weak or flawed faith that could cause you the loss of heaven?

As I mentioned earlier, at one time I was plagued by this fear, and I brooded over my many doubts.  Interestingly, most of my serious doubts had little or nothing to do with Catholic dogma.  The majority of my doubts were focused on elements of Church doctrine, i.e. teachings, traditions, papal pronouncements, church rules, and seemingly endless explanations and embellishments of Jesus’ words and actions.

It may be useful at this point to review the differences between doctrine and dogma.   In general, doctrine is comprised of all Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Dogma is more narrowly defined as that part of doctrine which has been divinely revealed and which the Church has formally defined and declared to be believed as revealed.  An example may illustrate the differences:  Some Catholics have lobbied Rome to elevate Mary’s status beyond Virgin Mother of Jesus.  Some wish Mary to be referred to as the Mother of Salvation, the Co-Redeemer, and the Mediatrix of all Graces.  These titles for Mary are considered by some in the Church to already be a part of Church doctrine.  But the changes haven’t been elevated to Church Dogma.  Supporters say they will not rest until they are successful in their efforts to raise Mary to Co-Redeemer with Jesus.

  1. What are the sources of Catholic Dogma and Catholic Doctrine?

As a result of my study of Faith and Doubt, I’ve tried to narrow what I consider the essential beliefs of Catholicism.  Interestingly, in my opinion, nearly all the essential beliefs are sourced from Church Dogma, the revealed word of God, rather than from Church Doctrine.

The full body of beliefs that define our faith would fill hundreds, if not thousands of volumes.  There is a huge array of sources that have become important for the practicing Catholic to heed.  Sources include Church Dogma and Church Doctrine, with Doctrine being the far more detailed set of the two.  Doctrine includes Church Teachings, Catholic rules, traditions, Pastoral Letters, papal Encyclicals, Papal Bulls, etc.  Conversely, Dogma is the set of beliefs that have been Divinely revealed.  In my opinion, Catholic Dogma comprises most, if not all Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs.

If Catholics simply claim full faith in everything contained in Doctrine and Dogma, without really knowing which specific truths they claim to believe, do they not feel the need for a rational basis for what they claim to believe.   I wonder how many Catholics shrug their shoulders, say that they believe everything a Catholic should believe, and then walk away comforted that they have near perfect faith.   I have come to find it preferable to focus my faith on Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs rather than simply claim that I believe everything the Catholic Church says and teaches.

Q  What specifically does the Church consider the essential elements of Catholic Dogma

The essentials of Church Dogma are, for the most part, clearly laid out for us in clear, concise, terminology.  These are elements of Catholicism that we either fully accept as true and believe, or that we make an explicit act of will to believe.  Further, beyond believing, remember that we are called to live in full accordance with those beliefs.

I’ve made a partial list of dogmatic sources that include essential statements of belief of the Catholic faith.  There are other sources of Dogmatic truths I have not included.  This is just my current list and is enough to fill my plate for the time being.

Some Essential Sources of Dogma:

  1. The New Testament
  2. The Lord’s Prayer
  3. The Nicene Creed
  4. The Apostles Creed
  5. Statement of Faith from the Rite of Catholic Baptism

Celebrant:    Do you reject Satan?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his works?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his empty promises?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth?                                                                   

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?               

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.  We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.                                                      All:  Amen


The New Testament is at the top of my list of sources of Catholic Dogma.  I suggest you reread the four gospels.  They are a treasure trove of dogmatic faith essentials.   As you may know, some New Testament texts are printed with Jesus’ words in a red font.  When you read those words, you are reading our Catholic Dogma.  There are no more essential truths than Jesus’ own words.

I fully embrace the Divinely Revealed Truths of Catholic Dogma as the bedrock of my Catholic faith.  I humbly acknowledge there are parts of Church Doctrine I doubt and that remain as yet unresolved in my heart.  I fully trust that Jesus will have gentle patience with me if I prayerfully remain open to discern other important faith elements that may be gifted to me by Him.


Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!!!

Yes math geeks, it’s March 14th otherwise known as 3.14, the approximation of the number Pi. The number Pi or “π” is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. No matter how big or small  you make the circle that ratio will remain the same.  Pi has been known to the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians although it is through Greek mathematics that Pi has achieved cultural prominence.

Phidias thinks he can do ths

π  is an irrational number. Irrational numbers cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers and their decimal expansions are infinite and non-repeating. In other words, the decimal expansion of π goes on forever. The first fifty digits of π are 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510.

Using computers, mathematicians have calculated the first 10 trillion digits for π ! Now before you get excited about that accomplishment please stand up, reach to the sky and jump straight up. For that brief moment you are immeasurably closer to nearest galaxy 1 million light years away then we are to finding all of the digits of π.  Pi is so huge that no matter how far you go in expanding Pi you are just getting started.

Pi: Transcendental and Irrational

Pi has the extra distinction of not only being Irrational but Transcendental. There are two kinds of Irrational Numbers: plain old Irrational numbers like the square root of 2 and Transcendental Numbers like “e” and “π”.  Transcendental Numbers are not algebraic—that is, it is not a root of a non-constant polynomial equation with rational coefficients. Here is an example of a simple polynomial equation: 0= x2 + 2x +5.  Because π is Transcendental, you could not calculate it exactly using addition, subtraction, division and multiplication using rational numbers in a finite number of steps. You could use any rational number(s) you want but you will never get there.

Though only a few classes of Transcendental numbers are known (in part because it can be extremely difficult to show that a given number is transcendental), Transcendental numbers are not rare. Indeed, almost all real and complex numbers are Transcendental, since the algebraic numbers are countable while the sets of real and complex numbers are both uncountable.

The most Beautiful Equation in Mathematics

Pi is mysteriously linked to other fundamental mathematical constants in Euler’s brilliant equation:

Euler's formula

Here linked together:

– The number 0, the additive identity.

– The number 1, the multiplicative identity.

– The number π

– The number e, the base of natural logarithms, which occurs widely in mathematical and scientific analysis (e = 2.718281828…).

– The number i, the imaginary unit of the complex numbers, a field of numbers that contains the roots of all polynomials (that are not constants), and whose study leads to deeper insights into many areas of algebra and calculus, such as integration in calculus.

 Is Pi normally distributed?

Another mystery of π.  Imagine a 10 sided die with the digits 0 through 9 on the sides and imagine using this die to determine the next digit of Pi.   Roll the die….. a “4”.  What was the odds of getting a 4? Why it’s 1/10 because there are 10 possible outcomes. What are the odds of getting two 4’s in a row? It’s 1/10 times 1/10 or 1/100. How about three in a row? 1/10 x 1/10 x 1/10 or 1/1000.  It’s possible but not very likely. Now imagine a hundred “0”s in row? Or a million? Or even a trillion… The odds of getting the same number on a trillion consecutive rolls of a die are extremely small.  However, If the digits of π are normally distributed like the would be if you rolled a ten sided die than any number sequence you can imagine would eventually show up in Pi if you calculated far enough.  Why? Because the occurrence of any event, not matter how small the odds as long as it isn’t zero, is 100% over infinity.  No one has proved that this is true for Pi or any irrational number but it does appear to be true.  The first 10 trillion digits of Pi look like they are normally distributed though.  Some examples  are the six “9”s at the Feynman Point (762nd digit) and  at the 193,034th place and there is a sequence of 12 zeroes starting at position 1755524129973.

Philosophical implications of Pi.

However, If it the digits of Pi are not normally distributed like we suspect then how are they generated?  Would that imply that there is a pattern?

On the other hand, saying that Pi is normal and the digits of Pi are like the random rolls of a ten sided die raises some problematic questions too.  Does it imply that the digits of Pi are determined  only as mathematicians and their computers calculate them just like the quantum states of sub-atomic particles are determined by our measuring them?  If that’s the case, could a highly advanced civilization  “force” the digits of Pi into patterns as they calculate them?  (Don’t laugh, it’s the premise of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact”). If this is true it then the implications are stunning: There is a mysterious link between consciousness and the mathematical fabric of the universe.

Looking at it from the other side doesn’t let you off easy either.  If the entire infinite set of the digits of Pi are already predetermined then where are they stored? In what fashion does this information exist independent of human thought?

Hmm…Deep questions with even deeper implications for the meaning of human existence and the meaning of truth no matter what direction you go.  It’s probably a good thing that St Patrick’s Day is three days after Pi Day!

Post Script: For a fun way to look at the discovery of irrational numbers check out the Fable of Phidas and Tekton

St Augustine and Serendipity

“He’ll ask more of you than that!    Here… it’s ink.  Remember to use it all.”

Bishop Ambrose to Saint Augustine as he hands him a bottle of ink (from Restless Heart)


Serendipity… 1,500 years ago a troubled young Roman lawyer and orator named Aurelius Augustine had an epiphany and conversion experience and became  one of the most read and influential theologian  and philosopher of Western Civilization.  Last November, I lost a brother and became inspired to write a blog on science, faith and philosophy and posted a review of a dramatic movie on St Augustine, Restless Heart.  Meanwhile, this past year, one of my West Point classmates was experiencing his own remarkable faith journey. Last month, all those threads came together.

Jeff Methvin found this blog, read the Restless Heart review, watched the movie and was inspired to share his own thoughts on how Saint Augustine touched his life. I am pleased to introduce Jeff Methvin’s Restless Heart review as my first guest blogger.

Good literature and philosophy never gets old and there is always a new angle or fresh viewpoint to ponder.   You may recall that I wrote my own review of Restless Heart here:

St Augustine and the Decline of Civilization

However, when Jeff submitted his review I was pleased to read an enlightening write up with ideas and observations that I hadn’t considered before.   Thanks Jeff!

One more point, in addition to a guest blogger, I have a guest artist, my daughter Lydia who will be starting art school in Boston this fall.

The elderly St. Augustine by Lydia Bolton
The elderly St. Augustine by Lydia Bolton

Jeff Methvin’s review of Restless Heart

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions of Saint Augustine


Restless Heart was a gift, given freely, with only one condition – to tell others what I thought about it.  I have never written a movie review, although I have rendered my opinion on countless movies around the water cooler to co-workers on Monday mornings.  Undaunted by this challenge, I reckoned from my past “experience” it would be easy to watch a movie and render an opinion.  I’ve surely spent less time on other, more important, matters and passed judgment just as well.  So I sat down to watch Restless Heart, but instead of passively watching a movie, I experienced it.  The movie was more than a mere movie, much greater than the sum of its production value, directing, editing, costume designing, and acting, all of which were well done.  Be forewarned.  My review will not do the movie justice.  Since I lack the technical expertise to accurately judge how good or bad a director was, or an actor acted, I will instead discuss how the movie affected me.

Restless Heart is foremost the story of a man and his mother.  This bonds the movie to all viewers, as every man or woman has a mother, be she good or bad, as judged by her sons and daughters, or others. So it was with Augustine and Monica, and so it was with my own mother and me.  Good things I know of my own mother, I saw in Monica.  And for others less fortunate than I, Monica Guerritore, in the role of Monica, stands as a wonderful role model.

The greatest compliment I can give to Guerritore is simply that she was Monica, a Christian woman, devoted to her faith in Jesus Christ, to her pagan husband, and to her wandering, narcissistic, son.  She suffered many “arrows and slings of outrageous fortune” with prayer, peace, and faith in the saving Grace of our Lord.  However, even while she calmly endured a cheating husband and Augustine’s scorn, she never lost hope that both would find their own way to Christ.  Her hope was evident at the deathbed of her husband, in her countenance when she first saw Augustine watching Bishop Ambrose preach, and culminated in her ecstasy at Augustine’s baptism.  Monica’s joy in relating her prophetic dream that Augustine would eventually be with her in her Faith, and not she in his Manichaean wandering, was palpable.  I saw my mother’s faith and hope in Monica, a faith unshaken by her son’s sinful ways, and a hope he would find his own way to Jesus Christ.

However, Monica was not passive in her prayers.  She did not hide and whisper her prayers for Augustine and her husband to become Christians; she did not turn the other cheeks at each insult.  Monica challenged Augustine on all his sins, including his disrespect for her and her faith.  Monica was not only a loving and prayerful mother, but also a strong mother, a mother seeking to raise her son with character.  I have read Augustine was one of the first Christians to write about the equality of women as being created in God’s image, not Man’s image.  There is no doubt the strength of his mother, and the ultimate respect he had for her, were essential to him coming to this profound realization.

Augustine was portrayed by several different actors, all of whom did a very good job portraying him as a boisterous, self-absorbed youth, an over-confident, yet troubled, young man, and a secure, peaceful future Saint.  In Augustine’s childhood, I saw my own, unconcerned with anything other than what the now could bring me, and what I could take through my own will, and not with any help from God.  I saw my own conceited self creating problems for my parents through my own sinful ways.  As a youth, Augustine saw no need for God, and neither did I.  Like Augustine, as a young man I struggled with the same temptations as he.  However, Augustine tried to reason away his sins and find peace in the teachings of Mani, and in the logic of the great philosophers.  Like Augustine, I sought absolution in my career, and peace in my hobbies.  Augustine did not believe peace could be found in Jesus Christ, and neither did I.

Augustine’s conversion is gradual, taking almost half his life to occur.  It is the product of his own intellect searching for Truth, the mentoring of Ambrose, and his Mother’s prayers and parenting.  His conversion is symbolized in the movie as the panels of a Church mosaic come together, slowly, to complete a beautiful image.  In this manner, the movie showed me how we can all become beautiful and complete through Faith in Jesus Christ.

Augustine as an old man is finally at peace.  He has found his truth and lived most of his life preaching it and living it.  Ever the good shepherd, when given the chance to leave Hippo and escape the besieging Vandals, he refuses to leave his flock.  Augustine knows Truth lies in Jesus, in serving others and God, and therein he finds peace.  It is in the final stage of his life that Augustine shows all of us the path to Truth, although not easy, can be discovered if we only allow ourselves to listen to our own restless hearts.

Bishop Ambrose plays an important role in Augustine’s development.  He is a perfect role model.  When Ambrose first appears, he interrupts the Roman Emperor’s court to demand Rome repay the debt owed to an indebted, imprisoned soldier.  Ambrose’s selfless desire to help an old soldier who had given most of his life to the service of Rome is timely, as our soldiers now, active and veterans, struggle with long, numerous, tours in far away lands, far away from loved ones, and the current suicide epidemic ravaging our defenders.  Perhaps the movie foretells the saving Grace of our Lord as the answer to such an epidemic?  Ambrose defends his faith against pagans and heretics, while suggesting Augustine allow the Truth he seeks to find him.  This culminates in Ambrose revelation that the Truth Augustine seeks is not an abstract thing, or idea, but is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The movie changed me.  I could not help but examine my own life and own journey of Faith in the light of Augustine’s.  I draw inspiration for my own prayers for the health and safety of my children from Monica.  I will watch it again, and again, and again.  I recommend this movie.


Post Script: My next post is slated for the 1st of May and I will address the discovery of irrational numbers. I promise that it will be more fun than it sounds!

It’s my hope that Jeff will be only the first of many guest bloggers. Got something to share on science, faith and philosophy and would like to try a hand as a guest blogger?  Let me know.

As I read the Great Books series I received for my 50th birthday I am amazed on how by reading books we can actually hear the thoughts of great men women from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Even more amazing, those long dead thinkers and writers are still influencing people today through their works.  Stunning if you think about it.  Perhaps it’s time to pick up that good book on philosophy, science or history that you have been putting off…

More on Britannica’s Great Books series:

Steve Allen and the Great Minds of History

After two great reviews of Restless Heart are you interested in seeing it for yourself? Let me know.

See you in a few weeks!

Steve Allen and the Great Minds of History

When I was child I was fascinated by Steve Allen’s’ show Meeting of Minds where Steve would have a round table discussion with brilliant and intriguing personalities from history.   Steve’s guests included: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and Charles Darwin.

It was delicious fun to watch these historical figures engage in conversation with each other on philosophy, politics, and history.  The illusion was made believable by having the characters use dialog as close as possible to their actual quotes. The result was a lively debate, a talk show for philosophy geeks with history’s “A” team.

Steve’s show is long gone and with it any chance for more Great Conversations with history’s great minds.

Or is it. Yesterday in the mail I received my 50th birthday present from my parents in the form of three heavy boxes. Inside was a complete set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. The hard cover set includes contains 517 works from 130 of the most renowned minds throughout history in a 54 volume set.

Great Books just taken out of the box and laying on my living room floor.
Great Books just taken out of the box and laying on my living room floor.

The roots of the Great Books series goes back to the late 1940’s as an eight year project of a team of scholars lead by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. The works selected include the most influential writings of Western Thought on Philosophy, Science, Mathematics, History and Theology.   The Great Books collection includes writers as diverse in time and thought as Aristotle and Marx, Plato and Freud, Copernicus and Ptolemy, Homer and Melville, Hippocrates and Darwin, Virgil and Cervantes, Plutarch and Gibbon, Euclid and Faraday. It represents, in the words of a Greek Philosopher in the movie Agora: “The Memory of Man.”

Putting a collection of individual books similar to the Great Works isn’t any more difficult than researching Amazon and Barnes and Noble and ordering paperback copies. However, the stunning scope of the Great Book’s collection of works and authors is not what makes this set unique.  What makes this set indispensable is an unusual, almost forgotten concept created just for the Great Books series: The Syntopicon.

The Syntopicon, in two volumes of the set, organizes thirty centuries of thought into 102 Great Ideas, subsequently divided into topics and subtopics to effectively explore the different viewpoints over time. It’s much more than a simple index but a tool to engage in your own “Meeting of the Minds”. Want to know what the great story tellers, philosophers, historians and scientists of history thought about say Punishment, Justice, Mathematics, Nature, God, or Astronomy? Then open up the Syntopicon to that topic.  There you will find a list of authors who addressed that idea and the Syntopicon will point you the Great Books volumes and pages to go to read that author’s own thoughts on that topic. With just a little effort, you can recreate on your own Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds as you go from topic to topic and hear the great minds themselves speak in their own words.

So why now? What place does the Great Books fit into our advanced society sixty-two years after Hutchins and Adler conceived of the series? In the spirit of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds I will let them speak for themselves writing from 1952 when the series was first published:

“…This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit.  We have not seen as our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. …We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.  We want them to be heard again, not because we want to go back to antiquity, or to the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the 18th Century.  We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any time if we could.  We want the voices of the Great Conversation heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live a better now...”

Amen gentlemen…

Post Script: Volume one of this series: The Great Conversation, serves as the preface and introduction. In it Alder and Hutchins propose a 10 year reading plan for the entire series! It sounds daunting until you remember that a Liberal Arts education is not only for everyone but is also a lifetime vocation. The truth is, no one could ever say they have finished the Great Conversation.

Britannica’s Great Books series is out of print with the last editions released about 1972. Sets for sale still pop up on Amazon and Ebay so while a good set is not uncommon it is not unattainable.

I want to thank my Mom and Dad and my Uncle Tom for teaming up to make this wonderful gift possible.  I knew exactly what it was as soon as I ripped open the first of the three heavy boxes. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  I can’t think of a better feeling to have when you turn 50.