Seeing Things: Quick Thinking

A former boss, a Protestant with a strong religious sense of the importance of not wasting time, passed out a copy of The One- Minute Manager to the whole staff at an organization where I worked some years ago. It was a pious effort to get us all to consult with him, and for him to delegate tasks to us, in a more efficient way. In certain business settings, there may be a method to such brief madness. But since the institution dealt with questions of ethics and politics— none of which could be settled in one minute—the little guidebook was of virtually no value to anyone.

That experience added to my prejudice against anything or anyone promising quick solutions to modern problems. Most of what we need to do today does not call for greater efficiency so much as greater reflection. Reflection is hard, which is why few people can do it well. But at the same time, the general decline in schooling has made it necessary to spoon-feed subjects to people who have already finished their formal education and are beset by many hard questions. I believe that a popular series now even has a volume titled The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism.

Now, humility is a good thing, and all of us are woefully ignorant of the most basic truths. But whether—even in jest—it is a good idea to look at things from this hyper-demotic angle remains to be seen. If it leads to further study and better behavior, fine. If not, perhaps we need another way to approach the highest things from our generally low starting point.

One candidate for this high honor has just appeared: Montague Brown’s The One-Minute Philosopher. The publisher, Sophia Institute Press, clearly is interested in wisdom, as its very name attests. And most of its other publications do not in the least suggest that we may become wise quickly or effortlessly. Philosophy and the one-minute method seem opposed to one another by nature. Yet this little gem by Brown may be just what the doctor ordered on a variety of fronts.

Brown presents his material in about 75 pairs of basic ideas that are commonly confused in disputes today. Some examples: Pain is “bad suffered,” while evil is “bad done”; open-mindedness is “refusal to prejudge ideas,” while indiscrimination is “inability or refusal to judge ideas”; progress is “becoming better,” while change is “becoming different”; tradition is “the presence of the past,” while the past is “the lost present”; mercy is “pardon for wrong done,” while laxness is “indifference to wrong done”; wonder is “uncertainty that awakens the intellect,” while bewilderment is “uncertainty that frustrates the intellect”; morality is “what we should do,” while custom is “what we do”; and so on.

Each item is treated on a single page with its frequently deceptive twin facing it. So by opening the book at any point, you get a neat distinction in a mere two pages between two things that are often disastrously mixed together in current arguments. For example, the entry on “reality” begins: “Reality includes the material universe experienced by our senses and studied by science, but also such things as thought, free will, moral principles, and love. If these things are not real, then human life is meaningless.” Brown contrasts this with “matter,” which is “that which can be explored and measured by science. Science combines mathematics and experiment, considering only things that are quantifiable and ultimately verifiable by sense experience.”

Each term has its proper uses and, properly understood, prevents us from misleading ourselves, often enough to our great sorrow. There is probably no more succinct, user-friendly, and consistently relevant guide to key questions about human life than Brown’s one-page essays.

Each pair is also accompanied by two quotations, usually from a Christian source and a non-Christian source. “Good vs. Useful” has this from John Henry Newman: “Though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.” Boethius adds: “Since all things are sought on account of the good, it is the good itself, not the other things, which is desired by everyone? ” At the foot of each page, we are given questions that should help us make up our minds about what we are really doing. For instance: “Do I seek complete human fulfillment? Does meaning matter? If so, I am pursuing happiness,” as opposed to mere pleasure.

Some of the promotional materials for this book may go a bit too far in trying to attract a popular audience. If you start seeing ads that seem to offer a quick and easy fix, don’t be deterred by them. One shows a scuzz in a dirty T- shirt. The caption reads: “This guy just told your 15-year-old daughter he loves her! You’ve got one minute to teach her the difference between love and lust. Then she’ll tune you out. Can you do it?” If you haven’t already instilled that lesson in your children, you probably can’t do it in one minute, even with the help of this book. But as a way to head off an evil day, you could do a lot worse than master the material so usefully condensed here.

Brown does not think that most of us will become fully formed disputants merely on the basis of what he presents. Suggestions for further reading at the end of the book give numerous references to other sources for anyone who wants to pursue a particular problem. “Virtue vs. Hypocrisy,” for example, directs you to exactly the right places in Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues.

Any attempt to clear up our immense intellectual and moral con-fusion in the modern world will require more than a minute here and there. Brown concedes as much in his introduction: “Sure, there’s a great deal more that could be said about these topics, but we have to start somewhere: this book is a point of departure. Let it be for you a beginning.”

Amen. And start soon.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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