Connected by Touch

Fairy tales are the fashionable thing in Hollywood and on TV. Every studio seems to be reinventing the classic tales – mostly with dire results. The successful new Tim Kring TV series Touch is much more original. Like the delightful film August Rush (which is based on the idea that people are mystically connected through music), Touch tells us that the world is built on numbers. The credit sequence alone is a work of art, showing a kaleidoscope of images drawn from the natural world and human society with diagrams of symbolic geometry superimposed. The story is built around a father (played by Keifer Sutherland) and his "autistic" son Jake, who won't speak or allow anyone to touch him. But the son has a gift with numbers. Naturally, in order to heighten the excitement, he is supposed to be "the next step in human evolution", and his gift enables him to predict the future, or "see" possible futures in the patterns of numbers he sees all around him. Once the father realizes his son is trying to communicate with him entirely through numbers, he also learns that the boy is detecting examples of human suffering and potentialities for disaster, which by following the clues his son gives him he can begin to avert. He becomes an "invisible knight", doing good to people without their realizing it. Each episode is constructed around several plot threads involving characters in different continents whose stories interweave and are all resolved in the final moments of the episode. Quite often they involve mobile phones or the internet – maybe the first time these aspects of modernity have been fully integrated into a fairy tale.

Apart from its entertainment value, is there anything educational going on here? As I said in Beauty for Truth's Sake, the idea that the world is built of numbers, that numbers are in a sense "God's thoughts", goes back a long way (at least to Pythagoras) and very deep (the foundations of both art and science). The English writer John Michell once said, "The mathematical rules of the universe are visible to men in the form of beauty." It is this intuition, which I believe is valid, that Touch is trying to evoke (or the cynical might say is trying to exploit), along with the sense of providence, meaningful coincidence, and the natural moral order (though without explicit mention of God). I called it a fairy tale, and like all true fairy tales (according to Tolkien) the final resolution takes place through eucatastrophe. For all I know the series may flounder and lose its way later on, but it is off to a great start, and if it sends people off to look into the mysteries of the Golden Ratio or Fibonacci series, or just to explore the wonders of mathematics with writers like Clifford A. Pickover (see The Loom of God), or Michael S. Schneider (see his Constructing the Universe, that in itself is a good thing.

There is a further humane message in the series. It is that human beings are all connected, that we are all in relationship, and that we are meant to cooperate and work together, to help each other without seeking reward. Mathematics, beauty, and love are all connected. Even in prime time.

Beauty in Trust

The National Trust in Britain is worthy of much praise and thanks for the wonderful work it does preserving and caretaking some of our most beautiful and historically significant buildings, gardens, and landscapes for public use and enjoyment.  Most recently, it successfully fought the Government's ill-considered development plans, which would have threatened our heritage for very little actual gain. The new development guidelines have been extensively rewritten as a result. The Trust's director general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, is preparing to move on to run Emmanuel College, Cambridge, having presided over a growth of the charity's membership from 2.7 to over 4 million members (more than all the major political parties put together). In a recent interview she spoke of the almost "spiritual" need the Trust fulfils – a need for "access to beauty, access to nature, access to history." A good motto for a national movement!

Illustration: Oxfordshire countryside, by Rose-Marie Caldecott

A Certain Faith

A masterpiece of modern apologetics, this book builds upon the fact that there is an intrinsic, formative principle within thought — namely, being. Those unfamiliar with the idea of analogy of being will be amazed by the concept’s depth and compass. After securing it within natural theology, Dr Pearlman goes on to thread the analogy of being through cosmology, Christology, the nature of the Church, and the moral and spiritual life. The book is designed to take the reader from a situation of doubt, then through faith and the understanding of virtue, to arrive finally at the threshold of contemplation with the saints, including Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, and Mother Teresa.

Barry Pearlman has lived and worked in the UK, USA, and Australia, and currently lives in Wales. A Certain Faith is a remarkable achievement, both inspiring and uplifting – an accessible synthesis of traditional metaphysics and fundamental theology that offers the basis for a renewal of apologetics. Such clarity, in such depth and breadth, is exceedingly rare in our time. Nor are theology and philosophy here separated from spirituality and the interior life, as is too often the case. It should find its way into libraries and reading lists.

Music of the Spheres

A useful article on music as '"metaphysics in sound" by Robert R. Reilly is posted among the useful articles in the left-hand column and can also be read here. A good YouTube video on the same subject is here. Meanwhile Quentin de la Bedoyere's Secondsight blog has an interesting thread on the mysteries of mathematics here. And Colin Gormley has an excellent article on Catholic education here.

Our Summer School - 7th to 21st August

Why not join us and students of Thomas More College this summer in a two-week course, based in Oxford and the West country, on the question of Catholic identity and the vocation of the Catholic writer? We also touch on the deeper question of what it means to be human, how a vision of humanity was imperilled by the English Reformation which helped to create the modern world, and how the Literary Revival (from Newman to Tolkien) tried to recover and reclaim it.

The summer school will begin at Downside Abbey, a Benedictine community deep in the heart of the beautiful Somerset countryside, a few hours from Heathrow Airport. There we will immerse ourselves in the history of Christian England, specifically through Benedictine eyes, with a lecture and tour from the Abbot, Dom Aidan Bellenger (author of Medieval Worlds and Medieval Religion). We will then examine the experience of the Reformation and the dissolution of the Abbeys, both historically and through the eyes of writers of the time, notably Shakespeare. Our tutor here will be Lady Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and author of Shadowplay, a book which traces the recusant experience through the poems and plays of our greatest national writer. We are also privileged to be allowed to make a private visit to nearby Mells Manor, the Asquith family home, which has associations both with Glastonbury Abbey (whose ruins we will also visit) and with a number of important Catholic figures such as Evelyn Waugh and Monsignor Ronald Knox (the latter worked on his translation of the Bible here). Knox and the convert-poet Siegfried Sassoon are both buried at Mells. We will also be visiting at least one recusant house in the area.

After a week at Downside, where we will have the opportunity to participate in daily Mass and the Divine Office, we will proceed to Oxford, where we will stay at St Benet’s, a Private Hall of the University and also a Benedictine house. There we will learn about the pivotal role of Oxford in the history of British Christianity, from its time as a recusant centre to the revival of Catholic culture in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and 20th century writers such as Chesterton, Greene, and Waugh. We will also look at the influence of the Inklings, particularly C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and visit sites associated with them as well as with Newman. Finally we will visit the capital, paying our respects near the remains of St Thomas More in the Tower of London and visiting Westminster Abbey and the newly reconstructed Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were once performed.

Further details and registration forms on request from Teresa Caldecott ( For prices and schedule, continue reading.

A Question of Humanity
From Reformation to Catholic Literary Revival

Details are subject to alteration; please check final version. Prices are as follows: full course residential £1,750 (or students £1,400). Non-residential rate: £80 per day, £50 for half a day. The residential rates include three meals a day at Downside, but only breakfast and lunch at St Benet’s Hall, as well as all accommodation. Fees cover tuition and excursions (except London, which involves extra costs). Good spoken English a requirement. Deposit: £300 by 8 April, balance by 1 June 2012.

Tues. 7th August: Arrival at Downside Abbey, near Bath
Tour of the Abbey Church with Dom Aidan Bellenger, Abbot, and the monastic Library with Dr Simon P. Johnson.

Wed 8th: A War on Contemplation: Iconoclasm and Dissolution
Dom Aidan Bellenger (author of Medieval Worlds and Medieval Religion)

Thurs 9th: The Age of Elizabeth through Shakespeare’s Eyes
Lady Oxford, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith (author of Shadowplay)

Friday 10th: The Age of James through Shakespeare’s Eyes
Lady Oxford, continued

Saturday 11th: A Church Suppressed: Penal Times and the Recusant Experience
Gerard Kilroy (author of Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription)

Sunday 12th: Thomas More and the Politics of Christian Humanism
Andre P. Gushurst-Moore (author of The Common Mind)

Monday 13th: Visit to Glastonbury, then Mells Manor as guests of Lady Oxford
Tuesday 14th: Move to St Benet’s Hall, Oxford.
Visit recusant houses of Mapledurham or Lyford Grange on the way.

Wednesday 15th: Visit to the Kilns, then Littlemore, with a seminar on the Marian thread in modern Catholic literature after Newman.

Thursday 16th: The Second Spring Sermon and its context
Historical tour of Oxford with John Whitehead. Lecture by Ian Ker.

Friday 17th: The “Man with the Golden Key” – G.K. Chesterton
Stratford Caldecott, with visit to Chesterton Library

Saturday 18th: Tolkien, Humanity, and Imagination
Stratford Caldecott, with visit to Magdalen and/or Exeter College

Sunday 19th: Optional High Mass at Oratory at 11 am
Talk on C.S. Lewis after lunch at the Eagle and Child

Monday 20th: Excursion to London, visit to Tower (St Thomas More) etc.

Tuesday 21st: Departures

More on the elements

But what are the four (or five) elements that Eliot was so interested in (see previous post)? The idea that the world is composed of just a handful of basic elements is common to all the great civilizations, and in the Egyptian, Greek and Indian traditions these elements are given the names Earth, Air, Fire, and Water – with the addition of a fifth "subtle" element or "quintessence" sometimes called Aether, the first element in creation. This latter is identified with "space" and may be taken as the substratum of all vibration (or "sound" in the broadest metaphysical sense, thus including what we now call electromagnetic radiation or light).

Plato posited an even more basic level of composition to the universe; particulate or geometrical in nature, rooted in the triangle. A footnote in my book All Things Made New reads as follows: "In the Timaeus, Plato
hypothesizes that the elements themselves are made of particles built up from triangles into the forms of the five regular solids. Since the pyramid is the figure with the fewest faces, it must be the most mobile, the sharpest, most penetrating, and lightest. He therefore identifies it as the basic constituent of Fire. Air is composed of octahedrons, Water of icosahedrons. The fifth Platonic solid, the dodecahedron, being the closest in form to the sphere, was associated with the fifth element Aether, the Hindu Akasha, or Space. Though the existence of a too crudely imagined ‘Ether’ as the bearer of electromagnetic waves seemed to have been disproved by Michelson and Morley in 1887, the ancient concept reappeared as Einstein’s notion of a unified space-time continuum. The Platonic elements are basic to our experience of the world. The same can hardly be said of two further ‘states of matter’ recently created in the laboratory by super-refrigeration close to absolute zero, namely Bose-Einstein and fermionic condensates. Symbolically, therefore, the ancient scheme remains intact."

There are four basic states of matter – solid, liquid, gas, and plasma – and four fundamental forces known to physics – termed weak, strong, electromagnetism, and gravity. Neither of these patterns of four seems to capture the full resonance of the ancient elements. Even so, the four-by-four symmetry of the Standard Model of particle physics is intriguing (the gauge bosons in the pink column are the particles that carry the four fundamental forces), with the Higgs field/ boson playing the role of the mysterious "fifth element". The comparison is no doubt superficial, and the Standard Model itself may well fail in years to come, but physics remains Platonist in inspiration so long as it seeks to determine the fundamental elements making up the natural world in the simplest and most elegant combination.

The next issue of Second Spring (due out this summer) will be on the theme of faith and science.

Elements in Eliot

An important book by Benjamin G. Lockerd Jr, Aethereal Rumours: T.S. Eliot's Physics and Poetics, does for The Waste Land and the Four Quartets something of what Michael Ward does for the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis in Planet Narnia. In his book, Michael Ward shows that each of the seven tales of Narnia was intended by Lewis to correspond with one of the seven astrological planets – taking these as spiritual symbols of perennial value (as he does in his academic works on Medieval and Renaissance literature, and in the Space Trilogy). Similarly, Lockerd shows that Eliot was always concerned with reconciling poetry with science, and unlike other modern poets "increasingly placed his poetry quite consciously and deliberately within
the cosmos described by the ancient philosophical physics" of Heraclitus and Aristotle. He was an admirer of modern science, but not of scientism, meaning the cult of a science deemed purely "objective" in contrast to the "subjective" arts. He sought to overcome this false dualism in his own work, and so was drawn to a "science of essences" that he did not believe had been superseded by modern chemistry or physics. The Waste Land has five sections which correspond symbolically and thematically to the five elements (including the fifth, aether, which Plato in Timaeus 55c associated with the fifth regular solid, the dodecahedron, on which the Demiurge embroidered the constellations). Each of the Four Quartets corresponds to one of the four earthly elements with the fifth present throughout; especially, I would speculate, in the fifth section of each poem. Lockerd's book was encouraged by Russell Kirk and partly written at Piety Hill. It is a valuable contribution to the literature connecting ancient and modern science, as well as science and poetry.