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On Not Settling for Less: The Cognitive Guide to Happiness

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 04, 2014

This essay explores the relationship between human experience, human knowing, and human happiness. It grew to some six thousand words, so I divided it into sections, with a table of contents and links to jump between contents and text. It should be easy to read at intervals, in parts.


1. The Denial of Transcendence
2. Missing the Big Picture
3. Human Experience
4. Knowing Your “I”
5. The Truncation of Desire
6. Evading the Self-Evident
7. Figuring Out Happiness


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1. The Denial of Transcendence

Modern man believes he has rid himself of mythology so that he can see reality clearly. The truth is that he wears blinders. Our culture is deeply afflicted by a simple decision to ignore the deepest aspects of reality, that is, everything that transcends the material surface of life. I am of course referring to “meaning”, which is inescapably spiritual. Modern man regards spirit as a myth, and so necessarily denies that there is ultimate meaning to anything. It is an astonishing rejection.

Think about it. What is the argument against the existence of spirit—against the existence of the soul, or of angels, or of God Himself? The answer is that there is no argument, none at all. Rather, modern man has made a decision to ignore or deny the spiritual. The closest thing he comes to an argument is the assertion that we know spirit does not exist because we cannot explore it using the scientific method. But this is a colossal category mistake. It is exactly like saying that we know music does not exist because we cannot measure it with a ruler.

I said in the opening paragraph that this attitude was based on a “simple decision”, but I admit that this simplicity depends somewhat on how you look at it. Intellectually, it is a very simple decision, a denial, a refusal. But in the life of each person, this decision is far more complex, and frequently even unrecognized. There are many reasons for the modern disinclination to take the spiritual seriously—particularly historical, cultural and psychological reasons.

There is, for example, the wonderful success of science and technology in the modern West, which has caused us to put enormous energies into understanding and manipulating matter, and to be somewhat preoccupied with the results. This success has also filled us with a sense that we can be our own God, controlling and reformulating nature—including even ourselves—as we see fit. Thus we are under the impression that, given time and resources, there is nothing at all we cannot do. Unfortunately, this impression is closely tied to an obsessive narrowing of focus, a forgetfulness about spiritual reality—that is, about purpose, meaning and, therefore, morality.

We have also inherited a peculiar disinclination to resolve religious disagreements, in marked contrast to the methods we have developed for resolving disagreements about matter. Our energies are not unlimited; we want to invest them prudently. We have a tendency, therefore, to ignore the spiritual as a source of irresolvable conflict. Ultimately, we face a massive cultural temptation to regard it as a waste of time.

There is also a factor at work here which is not dependent on history or culture, but present in everyone and at all times: Selfishness. It is precisely because man has a spiritual dimension that he can be “selfish”. Nobody calls a leopard or a spider selfish. We would not be wrong to appreciate in this the unique reality of man, among all embodied beings, as a moral actor. But we should not miss the fundamental implications of the word itself. The leopard and the spider cannot be selfish, no matter how they act, because they have (at least as far as we can tell) absolutely no sense of “self”. Awareness of the self is impossible in a purely material world, an absurd tautology. Self-awareness is a spiritual power.

For this reason, the deterioration of self-awareness into selfishness is a classic human weakness. In the West, the historically dominant influence of Judaism and Christianity has carried with it a moral tradition which, in effect, attempts to regulate the relationship between our higher and lower natures (what St. Paul calls the spirit and the flesh). This moral tradition seems especially hard for those who, in other areas of life, have become used to instant gratification. For reasons that are very likely obvious, worldly success seems always to involve an erosion of discipline and an exaggeration of our human powers. When a whole culture experiences it, there is a strong tendency to ignore our deeper desires in favor of more tangible and immediate satisfactions.

These inordinate attachments lead us to resist and reject anything that claims to judge and limit them. Clearly, the ultimate claimant is God.

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2. Missing the Big Picture

The result of all these trends and tendencies is a narrowing of vision which, paradoxically, leads to a kind of cognitive overload. Modern Western material success—success in terms of both knowledge and exploitation of the material world—has led to an explosion of knowledge, including an ever more specialized set of disciplines to manage that explosion. This focus on the material can be very satisfying because the results are so concrete—which is, after all, the very nature of the material. But as we go deeper and deeper in this one area, we may be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the task.

On a cognitive scale, this may actually be very similar to what happens when we become overwhelmed by the modern demands of “making a living”. In both cases, we feel that there is no time for anything else. Our patience diminishes. It appears to be a waste of valuable time to bother with questions which cannot be answered empirically or which are not directly related to our financial success. In a rather telling choice of words, we learn to dismiss any other questions as immaterial.

The contributing factors are legion, but the result is usually the same. We become preoccupied with material details, with the bewildering array of material details which must be put together in some kind of “order” to be “useful”. Never mind for the moment that both order and utility are essentially spiritual terms; both depend on “meaning”. The point here is that, both in advanced study and in our daily lives, we become so intent on material details that we really do succumb to a kind of tunnel vision. We simply no longer see anything else.

Most of us do not operate at the level of advanced study. But an entire culture has developed around this preoccupation with the material world, and at a certain point a nearly exclusive focus on material things has become a broad cultural habit, inculcated in everyone. Thus Westerners, unless they more or less deliberately cast off these blinders, no longer perceive that there is any non-material reality to study. But “in reality”, they have simply shifted their attention away from it.

In some, like the so-called New Atheists, there is a serious refusal to engage the spiritual. But in many this is the result of either convenience or forgetfulness. This tunnel vision is a cultural and personal convenience for anyone happily attached to the kinds of self-indulgences which serious moral reflection would upset. And it is a cultural and personal forgetfulness for anyone bewildered by the shallowness of so much of modern life without understanding what causes this shallowness.

But it is always also more than a convenience or a forgetfulness. It is also a wound. The pain of that wound is experienced by all who secretly yearn for escape from their unsatisfying preoccupations—with the material, with the body, with measurable utility, with pleasure—but who really do not know that escape is possible without suicide. This is very much like being inside a box, aware of only whatever the box contains. If we are habituated to imagine that the box is all there is, then it is extraordinarily difficult to think outside the box.

There are many forces in the modern world which press the lid firmly onto our box. We might consider two questions here: Do so many famous and fashionable people attempt to debunk or dismiss the spiritual because they at least dimly perceive that their prominence depends on its absence? Are so many secular governments, including especially Western governments, engaged in a protracted struggle to eliminate the spiritual from the social policies, public habits, and hearts of their citizens at least partly because the State dimly grasps that spiritual claims always lead to checks upon political power?

Still, there is no need to resort to conspiracy theories. The very first problem is a personal and cultural unawareness of anything beyond the material. Yes, there are some who insist on denying there is a box while keeping it firmly shut. But most of us participate more benignly in the deception. For most of us most of the time, we simply do not see the forest for the trees.

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3. Human Experience

The problem in all of this is that too many of us have learned to ignore the full range of human experience. This is truly remarkable because it requires that we adopt split personalities. Everyone makes their ordinary judgments in life, and routinely responds to others, based on value assessments. But huge numbers of people protect themselves from the disturbing penetration of the spiritual into their own lives by arguing, when challenged, that all values are relative.

This, to be clear, is the same as saying that there are no values. Nonetheless, when criticized morally or spiritually, people too often take the defensive position that everything any of us values and desires is ultimately meaningless—a random result of a combination of material forces which, in themselves, possess no intrinsic order and no intrinsic purpose whatsoever.

Even the New Atheists have split personalities. Their own passionate insistence on material determinism (and hence an utter absence of meaning) completely undercuts their stated position. They argue for meaninglessness, but how passionately do they argue! A great many people attach enormous value to ideas which destroy the concept of value, which always depends on meaning. Where there is no meaning, there is no value, and where there is nothing spiritual, meaning is not possible. It is a psychological given that these people cling desperately to their denial of meaning so that they will not have to change their own values, refusing to accept Divine guidance in their lives. And it is also a psychological given that we have all, in moments of weakness, been guilty of the very same thing.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that the most powerful exponents of our profoundly secular culture live as if they have split personalities, with one personality oblivious to the existence of the other. This can be true only if they refuse to recognize that, as a practical matter, they live in a way that routinely contradicts their own formal principles. It can be true only if they fail to reflect on the full range of their own experience. It can be true only if they ignore the full range of things of which the human person is naturally aware.

To see the importance of this, it is necessary to recognize that those who assert no meaning is possible in a purely material universe are quite correct. If there is nothing but matter, than the only variations that are possible are variations that arise from either new combinations of matter or the instability of matter. All of this is inherently meaningless. All we can say is that different things happen to happen.

But really, if this were true, we literally could not say anything, for even language clearly depends on aspects of the human person which transcend the material. In any case, the assessment of meaning—of purposes, and ends, and values based on purposes and ends—is a fundamentally non-material operation. Something must exist apart from matter for meaning to exist; and some non-material faculty must exist if meaning is to be grasped.

Now we do not need to be philosophical geniuses to explore these questions. We can explore them from reflection on our own experience. We humans are built to experience reality both materially and spiritually. Always and everywhere, we simultaneously take in sensory information (which is material) and assess its meaning. For example, when we encounter another person, we understand in the same moment that he or she is not just a collection of materials, like a corpse, but a person. And we understand that a person is a being that is more than a mere body.

Again, this is because the human person is built (I would say designed) to see reality whole. As persons we are not only capable of judgment, abstraction, moral value and transcendent desire, but in fact we are incapable of not participating in judgment, abstraction, moral value and transcendent desire, none of which are material qualities. As human beings we do not interact with reality as a natural scientist does, reducing it to empirical study because that is the right way to determine the material nature of things. No, we interact with reality with a wholeness which both encompasses and extends beyond all the different human disciplines that have been devised over time to study reality in its different aspects.

Each discipline uses methods appropriate to the corresponding aspect of reality with which it is concerned. But the human person is capable of employing all the methods, and the reason this is so is because the human person experiences (“sees”) reality whole, before ever he begins to break it down into parts for specialized study.

Until we stop denying that, we will remain mere shadows of who we are supposed to be.

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4. Knowing Your “I”

One of the strongest evidences of the existence of the spiritual, and indeed of meaning, is our own awareness of ourselves. The fact that we are aware of ourselves—that, for example, we can in a sense step outside ourselves to reflect on who we are and to evaluate our own actions—means we have powers that go far beyond the capabilities of matter alone. The power of abstraction itself is essentially immaterial; so is imagination, including, for example, artistic creativity. So too with moral judgments, as I’ve already noted.

This creative self-awareness which lies at the very core of what it means to be human is the defining mark of personhood, and it distinguishes us from every other material reality. It alone is sufficient to let us know that we have a spiritual element to our nature that profoundly conditions how we experience both ourselves and everything around us. This is the first reason that a fully human apprehension of reality—a fully human grasp of the truth—is so much deeper and more complete than any particular focus on the measurement of the material.

Why should we deny this way of knowing? Why should we exchange it for methods which are far more restrictive in scope? Mysteries are not penetrated by ignoring them. We ought to be exploring every aspect of what our human apprehension of reality is telling us, rather than refusing to look further into some forms of knowledge simply because they present challenges that are more difficult to surmount. A child who stops with arithmetic may be very pleased that everything works out “just so”, but he ought not to be regarded as learned. At this level, he is barely able to function as a person.

One of the most striking aspects of our self-knowledge, our consciousness, is that we think of ourselves over time in essentially the same way. What I mean is that, we do not think of ourselves primarily as kids, or teenagers, or young adults, or middle aged, or elderly. We think of ourselves simply as ourselves.

Everywhere I go, and at every stage of life and in every situation, I am still “me”. Moreover, I cannot imagine myself not being in existence. The Thomist philosopher (and mystery writer—a highly relevant fact) Ralph McInerny said he went on feeling immortal even when he was an old man who had lost his wife of fifty years. This perduring sense of ourselves is very significant. I have already mentioned that it means we are not purely material beings. But, if we are to take our experience seriously as an opportunity for the mind to conform to reality (that is, to know the truth), then we have here a very strong indicator that we are not only alive, which ought to be obvious, but also immortal.

Could that be obvious, too? Well, here is a clue: You have to be carefully taught not to believe this. Virtually every culture which has taken the full range of human experience seriously has expressed a conviction that the human person somehow continues even after what we know as death. To know ourselves thoroughly and to take ourselves seriously just may be the first step toward grasping the true fullness of life. Responding respectfully to our own sense of immortality is one aspect of this epistemological seriousness.

Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us of another. He said that every normally sentient human person experiences a sense of living under a judgment. Each person worries about whether he has done right or wrong, for he at least dimly perceives a universal law. What we call his conscience bothers him if he breaks that law. But if our own experience of our most natural perceptions tells us that there is such a law, then its existence implies a law-giver. Newman saw this simple recognition as the most powerful of all arguments for the existence of God.

The argument actually goes substantially farther, but I will not pursue it here. It ought to be obvious by now that our churlish habit of attempting to restrict the cataract of reality by examining only what the thimble of empiricism will hold is an unjustified denial of self, and a cheat to boot. For absolutely no reason at all, this habit dismisses our deepest desires, leaving them all unfulfilled.

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5. The Truncation of Desire

This question of our deepest desires is actually another way of getting at the question of how we experience reality and how seriously we ought to take that experience as a source of truth. It is an axiom of the study of nature, however defined, that nature nowhere creates an appetite for which the fulfillment is categorically impossible. I see no reason to dismiss this useful axiom when it comes to our peculiarly human set of desires.

There is a fascinating book, published in 2002 by a brilliant physicist, theologian, professor and priest named Lorenzo Albacete, which picks up the discussion precisely at this point. Entitled God at the Ritz, the book is Fr. Albacete’s effort to respond deeply and intelligently to the many people who have questioned him about life in social settings where religious faith is seldom on display, such as the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, California.

The subtitle is revealing: “Attraction to infinity”. The key idea is that we humans do indeed have an attraction to infinity which is deeply reflected in all our desires, and perhaps especially in our desire for ultimate fulfillment. Surely this includes the satisfaction of participating positively in something that has enduring significance and genuine meaning. What bothers Fr. Albacete most about our culture’s dense empiricism is its insistence on promoting contentment by denying our deepest aspirations.

One chapter which captures this very well (“The Face of the Other”) makes the important point that in our first moment of encountering another person we are struck by their indecipherable otherness. The initial response (if we are healthy) is a kind of wonder, a recognition of a mystery—in fact, a kind of kindred mystery. Only secondarily—and often selfishly—do we start dissecting, analyzing, and classifying the person we have just met. Quite frequently this is part of an unjustified process of paring down in order to protect against the mysterious claims upon us that the fully-encountered “other” always seems to have.

Things are a bit different when we are “smitten”. If there is a romantic spark, the sense of otherness initially blossoms even as it attracts. We revel in the mystery (even if we may selfishly fail to revere it later on). This is also true when deeper friendships develop. We become more aware of the mysterious otherness of our friend, even as love and respect grow. Good parents have the same response, in different ways, to their children. Wherever there is any genuine form of love, the dismissals inherent in superficial classification will not be tolerated. The “other” is a mystery, and therefore a treasure.

Fr. Albacete explains that with this sense of mystery comes a certain vulnerability—a fresh openness to suffering, which is the inescapable consequence of love. Our investment in another not only immensely enriches our participation in reality, but opens us to so much that can cause disappointment and pain! But this only increases our sense that ultimate fulfillment is somehow just out of grasp, that there is always something more. We become ever more convinced that there has to be a truth, a goodness and a beauty that is completely unflawed, to be possessed in perfect peace.

In a closely-related chapter (“Religious Freedom and Real Estate”), Fr. Albacete explores our desire to do productive work. For the human person, creativity is expressed both sexually (in the service of procreative love) and through work, in which we find a certain meaning and make a certain contribution to the good. Even when we must do “mindless work”, we find ways to invest it with a deeper meaning, especially if we are doing it as a direct service or as a way of sustaining (of loving) our spouse, our children, our friends. The Church teaches us that work is a participation in the creative power of God in bringing creation to perfection. Which of us has not considered this perfection as at least one part of the ultimate fulfillment for which we yearn?

God at the Ritz concludes with a telling observation of something at which we have already hinted. Atheism, totalitarianism and the modern secular state all refuse to engage the key questions of human perception and desire. They do this by dismissing our deepest desires as “infantile” or “imaginary” or “subversive” or “of no practical merit” or “of no service to the people”. The goal, it seems, is to build a world in which our deepest desires are neither allowed nor acknowledged.

Fr. Albacete also notices that the suppression of religion and the suppression of human desire are one and the same.

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6. Evading the Self-Evident

Reading God at the Ritz has something important in common with reading this essay. I am pretty sure the reader of both will feel frustrated by the lack of a succinct and precise argument which demonstrates beyond any doubt that what the author has been saying is true. The reader may see the point quite clearly when the central issue is treated under one aspect in one section of the discussion only to lose the thread when considering another aspect in another section. This will be frustrating, and it may create doubts.

But there is a perfectly good reason for this difficulty. It is because we are not really dealing here with a logical argument from first principles. What we are dealing with is the first principles themselves. We are examining the “givens” from which we ought to begin to explore reality and, indeed, to construct arguments. We are bearing witness to the truths that we call “self-evident”, the basic building blocks of understanding that there is no way to know unless we “see”.

Unfortunately, the human mind is seldom perfectly clear. Sometimes when we cannot reach a truth through a demonstrable argument we mistakenly begin to doubt that we can really see it after all. This is why the constant challenge by those who wish to deny the obvious is to say, “Prove it!”, as if we could ever prove the existence of what we see if we could not place a general trust in our perceptions. Logic does not lead to the self-evident; it depends on it.

This raises an obvious question: If these things are truly self-evident, why are they everywhere denied? The answer is that they are never denied in practice; they are denied only in theory. They are denied only at the level of rationalization. Recall the split personality I described earlier.

Look closely: No sane person lives his life as if his innate understanding of his own personhood (an intensely moral and spiritual concept) is false or irrelevant. Nobody lives his life as if his relationships to others do not matter, as if how he spends his time does not matter, as if his aspirations and those of the people he loves do not matter. Nobody stops at the level of matter and refuses to seek the non-material satisfactions of purpose and meaning, or even the non-material satisfaction of knowledge itself. Nobody pretends that there is no such thing as morality (at least when it comes to others!), or that this moral order is not built into nature itself (consider, for example, our sense of “fairness”)—even though everybody certainly knows that mere matter is incapable of morality.

Even the most ardent of materialists and empiricists has his or her causes, his or her passions. Each materialist praises and condemns just like everybody else. All live as if they are in touch with a fundamental spiritual order of truth, goodness and beauty against which they have the right to judge everyone. Many of them deny this when it comes to expressing their theories. But they give full expression to it in their own fundamental yearnings and passions and judgments. In reality, if materialism were true, the very existence of a being who could argue about it would be impossible.

In fact, if anyone loses contact with this most fundamental of realities—if, that is, a person becomes divorced from coherent meaning—then one of two conditions is inevitable. Either the person will be classified as mentally ill (exhibiting erratic behavior without the realization that it is disconnected from purpose and meaning) or he will be suicidal (if he feels somehow cheated of the meaning and purpose that he rightly senses is necessary to happiness). No person with full possession of his faculties can continue without a recognition of purpose and meaning—which are, again, inherently spiritual concepts.

The fact that we find on every side a formal denial of intrinsic purpose, meaning, value and order ought not to trouble us at the level of theory precisely because this denial is expressed only at the level of theory. Everyone lives as if his own purposes and values are more than justified, and attempts to justify them to others. This explains the bull market in rationalization. Such conflicts do not reveal that there is no meaning, but only that people cannot bear to see their behavior at variance with their conscious cognitive faculties.

It is useful to recall here that when we consider a course of action, our intellect provides us with reasons for acting one way or another. But if our will becomes passionately engaged to one choice before the analysis is decisive, the will in effect instructs the intellect to stop trying to discern what is right, and instead to concentrate on creating arguments for the pre-determined choice. This, again, is the nature of rationalization. Count on it: If we are unwilling to match our behavior to what we say is true, we will quickly redefine the truth.

For this reason, a great many people, very often unconsciously, habitually create alternative descriptions of reality to justify their own weaknesses. (Which of us has not done this at least occasionally?) The easiest way to do this in a materialistic culture—the shortest distance between two points—is to deny the very existence of the spiritual and the moral. Having done this, such persons turn around and live as if they are sure they are right and that their critics should be silenced because they are wrong. All materialists certainly seem to do this. And yet, right and wrong are non-material categories!

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7. Figuring Out Happiness

When it comes to the reality of human perception, experience and desire, such self-deception does not suggest the absence of meaning. It simply reveals that we are somehow at war with ourselves. What we should be doing is not rationalizing the spiritual into nothingness but seriously engaging our total experience of reality by utilizing suitable methods of inquiry for each aspect of the total reality which we innately perceive.

Unfortunately, our own personal evasions of the self-evident can develop into cultural habits. Not only do we too often deny the self-evident in our personal lives when we ignore our conscience—that faculty which seeks to ground us properly in moral reality—but we also typically deny the self-evident whenever we perceive this will help us to “fit in” or “get ahead”.

We are horrified or amused by turns at the ridiculous failures of other societies and previous ages to recognize the obvious. When it comes to slavery or human sacrifice, for example, we ask incredulously how they could possibly not see. But we are undisturbed by the rapidity with which we unreflectively adopt the prevailing orthodoxies of our time, even as they change from decade to decade. When we perceive that moral “progress” is to our social advantage, we tend to embrace it. In such cases we are all too happy to argue for moral relativism if that theory will eliminate opposition, even while denouncing the evil motives of all who disagree!

Now clearly, every human culture has been perpetually in danger of losing its spiritual and moral grip, and sliding into whatever is convenient and profitable, typically led by those who have achieved positions of prominence and power. This proceeds by degrees, and it is always accompanied by a narrative which explains why the slippage is a necessary improvement. Especially as strong reference points to the transcendent are progressively removed or distorted (remember the earlier comment about the suppression of religion), cultures tend to drift into denial of reality at many levels.

Given the history of the West, including the fracturing of Christian unity, our encounter with many different cultural values, and the success of the physical sciences which have helped to bring about astonishing material improvements, it is hardly surprising that we now live in a culture that strongly “values” the apparent convenience of denying large portions of reality. And so we come full circle, back to the our preoccupation with the material world even when it leads to the denial of what is self-evident to all human persons: Reality is far more than material, and every person lives, breathes and yearns in and for something more.

Once again, what ought to be self-evident is the uniquely developed and even transcendent perception which the human person possesses. Our native mode of knowing enables us to actually interact with reality on a great variety of levels at one and the same time. We handle many aspects of the truth simultaneously in ways that empirical science cannot approach. In consequence, we ought not to permit the dumbing down of reality into a mere collection of material relationships.

Let us take but one example of our native mode of perception. As we walk through a department store, we have no trouble instantly distinguishing a particular woman from the manikin in the next aisle, contemplating her mysterious nature, admiring her general beauty and grace, clinically noticing the pimple on her nose, and being shocked by her furtive efforts to stuff jewelry into her purse—all in the same process of encounter. All of our modes of perception are simultaneously engaged. One could probably enumerate more modes. But of those listed, the physical sciences and their resultant technology can fruitfully explore exactly one: the pimple.

Again, we must recognize the need to engage in a variety of special studies to probe more deeply into each of these aspects of the reality we have perceived, with methods suited to each field. But if we do not choose to study this or that aspect for the time being, this ought not to lead anyone to assume that we have never encountered those aspects of reality which, for some restricted purpose, we intend for the moment to put to one aside. It is a grave wrong to permit any field of study to usurp the authority of another. The result is the use of inappropriate methods in a field which does not lend itself to them, and a constant repetition of falsehoods about what, for this very reason, lies all undiscovered.

Our perceptions of others, our yearning for fulfillment, our sense of our own identity, our recognition of morality, our awareness of different kinds of order in everything we encounter, our tenacious hold on life, our discernment of transcendentals, our infinite desire: All of these, plus the shadowed inkling of the Mystery in which they all participate, are self-evidently vital aspects of human knowing. This recognition is absolutely critical. We can never be happy if we settle for less.

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Lorenzo Albacete’s book God at the Ritz, highlighted in section 5 above, is intriguingly deep yet very manageable. Each of its forty-two insightful chapters is about the same length as the individual sections of this essay. It is a serious and even entertaining examination of human desire which lends itself to reading in short bursts.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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