31 March 2012

The Theft of Art

The people's art has been stolen — by bureaucrats, engineers and scientists.  It has been obliterated by industry, hidden away by philosophers, and sold for pottage by a billion hungry souls.  In the name of progress and efficiency, our art has been surrendered.  And who does not feel the loss in his artless daily toil?

28 March 2012

Highlight from Yesterday's SCOTUS Arguments

MR. CARVIN: [...] So, Justice Kennedy, even if we were going to create exceptions for people that are outside of commerce and inside of commerce, surely we'd make Congress do a closer nexus and say, look, we're really addressing this problem; We want these 30-year-olds to get catastrophic health insurance.

And not only did they -- they deprived them of that option. And I think that illustrates the dangers of giving Congress these plenary powers, because they can always leverage them. They can always come up with some public policy rationale that converts the power to regulate commerce into the power to promote commerce, which, as I was saying before, is the one that I think is plenary.

: Mr. Carvin, a large part of this argument has concerned the question of whether certain kinds of people are active participants in a market or not active participants in a market. And your test, which is a test that focuses on this activity/inactivity distinction, would force one to confront that problem all the time.

Now, if you look over the history of the Commerce Clause, what you see is that there were sort of unhappy periods when the Court used tests like this, direct versus indirect, commerce versus manufacturing. I think most people would say that those things didn't really work. And the question is, why should this test, inactive versus active, work any better?

MR. CARVIN: The problem you identify is exactly the problem you would create if you bought the government's bogus limiting principles. You'd have to draw a distinction between the insurance industry and the car industry and all of that, returning to the Commerce Clause jurisprudence that bedeviled the Court before the 1930s, where they were drawing all these kinds of distinctions among industries, whereas our test is really very simple. Are you buying the product or is Congress compelling you to buy the product? I can't think of a brighter line.

And again, if Congress has the power to compel you to buy this product, then obviously they have got the power to provide you -- to compel you to buy any product, because any purchase is going to benefit commerce, and this Court is never going to second-guess Congress's policy judgments on how important it is this product versus that product.

JUSTICE ALITO: Do you think that drawing a line between commerce and everything else that is not commerce is drawing an artificial line, like drawing a line between commerce and manufacturing?
MR. CARVIN: The words "inactivity" and "activity" are not in the Constitution. The words "commerce" and "noncommerce" are. And again, it's a distinction that comes, Justice Kagan, directly from the text of the Constitution.

The Framers consciously gave Congress the ability to regulate commerce, because that's not a particularly threatening activity that deprives you of individual freedom.

If you were required, if you were authorized to require A to transfer property to B, you have, as the early cases put it, a monster in legislation which is against all reason and justice, because everyone intuitively understands that regulating people who voluntarily enter into contracts in setting changing conditions does not create the possibility of Congress compelling wealth transfers among the citizenry. And that is precisely why the Framers denied them the power to compel commerce and precisely why they didn't give them plenary power.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Thank you, Mr. Carvin.

27 March 2012

A Little Yeats

HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

24 March 2012

The Extraordinary Fusion in Things

1.  The title of the lengthy post below, "Qualis artifex! Qualis unitor rerum!" is taken from one of St. Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on Christmas, in which he marvels at God's ability to mix and unify spirit and body in man.  St. Bernard, the famous prosecutor of Peter Abelard, would not have been terribly fond of St. Thomas Aquinas, so perhaps he wouldn't appreciate the Thomistic spin I'm about to put on his words.  But now he enjoys the full vision of God's essence he knows (to what extent) St. Thomas was right.  Thus, oh glorious doctor and loving man, I appeal to your perfected judgment and ask that you bless my words as I expound upon your own.

2.  Man is at a midpoint in the universe.  Occupying the foothills between mountain and plain, he has something of simple dust in him and also something of the heights of heaven.  Of the dust is his material body, its organs, the dependence of his mind on physical senses and a bodily power of imagination.  Of the heights are the intellect, the capacity to know universals, and the incorruptibility of his soul.  God created humans as physical beings, however, and thus it would be an error to think of man as identical with his immaterial soul or to imagine the body as a vehicle or coat which he inhabits.  The soul is the formal cause of the body (that which makes it to be what it is — a living human being), and is its life.  In this sense animals too have souls, though the forms which make an animal or plant alive are corruptible per accidens.  In destroying a plant one alters it such that it ceases to be capable of vital functions, and thus no longer has that form ("soul") which made it to be alive.  By contrast one can kill a man and yet that form which made him to be alive will persist apart from the body in a real way, though lacking the capacities natural to it in an embodied state.

3.  The reason that post was titled "Qualis artifex.." is that the abstraction of man from the concrete particularities of his life seems to neglect the proper fusion of things.  Everyone wants to make a big splash, to impact a universal audience.  We make a successful gesture and suddenly our wish is for the entire world to be impacted by this single thought.  And frequently in the process we lose what was good in the action in the first place, and alienate the idea from its natural context, the one in which it might have found complementarity with its neighbors, have grown in humility and been shaped gradually.

4.  In other words, (and forgive the irony), the urge of young people to blast their reforms and ideas across the universe and to institute uniformity of change across all of civilization is foolish and counterproductive and emanates from a kind of pride.

5.  Rather, the proper order of things is particular and mediated.  Humility (which flows from the truth) recognizes the extent to which I, an individual, am capable of ordering things beneath me, and the extent to which I, as an individual, am meant to be a local instrument for the universal order which greater causes have ordained for the universe.  

6.  "I heard exactly the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor," the elder remarked. "He was then an old man, and unquestionably intelligent. He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful heart. 'I love mankind,' he said 'but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. ...In my dreams,' he said, 'I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience.'"

22 March 2012

A Simple Man's Defense of Local Food

1. It seems to me that the main problem at work in industrial societies is that of distribution. There is more food and energy in the world than everyone needs to get by, but a society will stand or fall on its ability to distribute resources adequately among its members.

2. If the problem is distribution, then “the economy” exists to move commodities from the hands of those who have them to the hands of those who don’t. Capitalism is a distribution scheme which enables farmers to get clothes, spreadsheet manipulators to eat, and professors to buy books. Centrally planned economies attempt to do the same thing, either by modifying capitalism through price-setting, or by absorbing the means of production into the state.

3. Since in the last analysis the proper use of nature falls to humanity as a whole, one very good way of analyzing an economic system will then be to look at how effectively it acts as a medium for the communication of both natural and artificial commodities to the people within it. The Marxist (and ultimately Apostolic) adage “from each according to his ability…” is a description of the ideal operation of any economy. The question is which variety of economic structure does that the best, without violating the natural law, while promoting the common good (which is, obviously, not equivalent to the health or wealth that come from tradeable commodities).

4. In a technological society like our own, a huge portion of the population is unnecessary for the production of the goods necessary to sustain life and promote human flourishing. Mass production, both in agriculture and manufacturing, continues to make more and more jobs unnecessary. Internet shopping has obliterated a large portion of the local merchant population while replacing it with a much smaller and more efficient set of computer technicians and warehouse workers.

5. The superfluity of most workers and the abudance of natural resources and military power has led Americans to solve the distribution problem by creating surplus goods: entertainment, gadgetry, vehicles, etc. These inventions have not only produced employment for the growing labor surplus, but have materially improved the quality of life of most people in society. However, our collective dependence on consumption for maintaining a stable flow of resources has led to a kind of compulsive promotion of surplus consumption.

6. This is why we are such awful people on the whole, why vice is communally celebrated, etc. The intemperate person uses more than he needs; the addict consumes without any restraint. The coward will use an abundance of services that are objectively opposed to his flourishing if they allow him to avoid the simple but difficult solution to a common need (consider texting and email).

7. Thus the dominant values in our civilization are: (a) Convenience, (b) Pleasure, (c) Property, (d) Options (i.e., the existence of multiplicity in the objects of desire, frequently confused with “freedom”). Outside of a totalitarian state, a business sector designed to promote consumption, which also has control over the cultural education and moral formation of the populace (both of which happen largely through mass media, which are controlled by business interests), will be almost guaranteed to produce these values in the population at large.

8. If America were populated by genuinely temperate people, unemployment would skyrocket and the present order of things would probably collapse.

9. Consequently it should be clear that the tremendous labor efficiency of our society makes the American spcies of capitalism inefficient as a means of distribution. Far more material resources must be consumed in order to maintain the present system in a way that keeps everyone’s basic needs met. As a result, it is clear that a shift in efficiencies would be necessary to produce a more stable and effective economic system: We need methods of production that are less efficient in terms of labor, in order to yield a system of distribution that is more efficient in terms of stability, consumption and the use of material means.

10. I think local food does this. I think the high cost of local food is a good thing: it expresses not only the real value of food at the center of human life, but also the real need for people to divert their income away from the surplus goods we all consume at the service of vice and excess, toward the support of people doing dignified, skilled labor that promotes the common good in a responsible way. We might complain right now that only yuppies and wealthy yoga mom types can afford local food, but if the mentality behind local food were present in every sector of production, the real cost of everything would skyrocket, as would the demand for labor and (I think) the well-being of the populace at large.

49 Minutes of Glory

A certain professor of Moral Theology delivered this brilliant lecture yesterday on the nature of habitus.  If it seems dull or hard to follow for the first 10 minutes, be patient.  He clarifies everything.


Some Inconclusive and Malformed Thoughts on the Place of Prophets in Cinema

One of the characteristics of a lot of the spiritual leaders beloved of modern American culture is their apparent inoffensiveness. We like Buddhists who claim nothing and believe nothing and are merely striving to empty themselves and attain peace. We like fuzzy Taoists who talk a lot about "the source", and strange "New Age" spiritualists who have ideas about self-realization that I don't really understand. And to a great extent the Americanized versions of these things are all corruptions and consumerized falsifications of whatever the authentic original was, with its distinctive strengths and errors. The main thing is that spiritualists be inoffensive, that they not demand anything which might require people to grow in courage, and that they offer an open-ended fulfillment of everyone's deepest desires (whatever they may be). One wonders at times, whether virtue ethics would have a chance to become popular if we informed people that having prudence and temperance and the rest would enable them to be more free to do what they want in life.

In any case, we have to compare the modern pop guru (think maybe of the popularized version of Gandhi -- a soft-spoken universalist with a taste for poverty and a will welded to non-violence) to the traditional prophet of Israel. Elijah was not very cuddly, and Elisha's lack of youth-appeal is rather disheartening (cf. 2 Kings 2:23-4). We could go on with particulars, but the main thing is that prophets are weird people. Often grouchy, almost always depressive, they seem to have been selected for their ability to make themselves hated. They go around performing strange symbolic acts, wailing at uninterested crowds about the oncoming doom and the need for repentance, offering strange predictions of future redemption, performing miracles that are difficult to interpret, etc. What does Jeremiah have in common with Gandhi? What does John the Baptist have in common with Rhonda Byrne? Virtually nothing.

In this light I find rather odd the idea of taking portraits of holy people and presenting them in a movie theater or comfortable home environment as matter for entertainment. In doing so we are almost guaranteed to lose the prophet, all too likely to convert his power to shiver the soul into some combination of feel-good inspiration and alienation melodrama, limited to the world of the screen, basically stripped of its authority. But then ultimately it seems that the only way to really be a prophet is to speak the truth, and very few screenwriters have their prophets tell us the whole truth. It seems easier for writers/directors to act as quasi-prophets themselves by means of their stories than to place genuine prophets in their movies. Some attempts at this that come to mind:

American Beauty, Caché, Children of Men, The 400 Blows, Citizen Kane, City of God, Good Night, and Good Luck, High Noon, Ikiru, Koyaanisqatsi (and the Qatsi trilogy as a whole), Lost in Translation, Network, Pi, The Graduate, The Last Days of Disco, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Third Man, The Seventh Seal, Whale Rider, Michael Clayton.

Though, now that I've constructed this (pretty arbitrary) list, I really have to admit that I'm more confused about what a prophetic movie would look like than I was at the beginning.

20 March 2012


Whatever is contrary to a natural inclination is a sin, because it is contrary to a law of nature. Now everything has a natural inclination to accomplish an action that is commensurate with its power: as is evident in all natural things, whether animate or inanimate. Now just as presumption makes a man exceed what is proportionate to his power, by striving to do more than he can, so pusillanimity makes a man fall short of what is proportionate to his power, by refusing to tend to that which is commensurate thereto. Wherefore as presumption is a sin, so is pusillanimity. Hence it is that the servant who buried in the earth the money he had received from his master, and did not trade with it through fainthearted fear, was punished by his master (Matthew 25; Luke 19).

Benedictus Dominus

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my arms for battle,
who prepares my hands for war.

He is my love, my fortress;
he is my stronghold, my savior
my shield, my place of refuge.
He brings peoples under my rule.

Lord, what is man that you care for him,
mortal man, that your keep him in mind;
man, who is merely a breath
whose life fades like a passing shadow?

Lower your heavens and come down;
touch the mountains; wreathe them in smoke.
Flash your lightnings; rout the foe,
shoot your arrows and put them to flight.

Reach down from heaven and save me;
draw me out from the mighty waters,
from the hands of alien foes
whose mouths are filled with lies,
whose hands are raised in perjury.

To you, O God, will I sing a new song;
I will play on the ten-stringed Harp
to you who give kings their victory,
who set David your servant free.

18 March 2012

Qualis artifex! Qualis unitor rerum!

One does not want to be a Luddite.  The term carries with it a wealth of negative connotations — naive idealism, impracticality, cranky judgmentalism, smelliness.  One wants to affirm with everyone else, including the mass of our right-minded brethren, that the technological world has brought with it promise and danger in equal measure.  His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has even issued a statement (which, aside from the internet would never have been heard outside Rome) urging all the faithful to utilize technology and virtual social networks for the advancement of the Gospel.  One would like to affirm and comply.*

And yet it is difficult to believe that this latest refinement of urban civilization has done anything particularly good in comparison with its harm.  Consider the chief example of the latter: a century ago pornography was a rare thing and its consumers were clearly and generally seen as perverted.  Today a very large majority of American men are habitual consumers of smut by the age of 20.  And not simply lust-inducing nude shots of voluptuous women, but graphic and violent videos of the sort that one would never have imagined in earlier generations, when the material for such perversity was mostly absent from the culture and had to be sought out with effort.

Again this is simply the worst of it.  The internet, we remind ourselves, has also brought an unprecedented freedom of publication and massive quantities of public knowledge.  The glorious wikipedia is never out of arm's reach, ready to answer any question that could possibly occur.  Never in all of human history have so many had such information available to them.  The legendary library of Alexandria was already minuscule in comparison to any of the major research libraries of the 20th century, but even the greatest of those (the US Library of Congress) pales before the internet.  We should rejoice, it seems, that so much knowledge has been made available in our homes and now even our pockets, occupying a minute fraction of the size and weight of an encyclopedia, but with millions of times more content and far greater ease of use.

But all this extra knowledge in the air is abstracted from the real context of daily living.  In recent weeks I have consumed an inordinate amount of useless information while "browsing".  I scarcely go a day without making the rounds of my usual websites and blogs, checking facebook half a dozen or more times.  All of my closest friends are available primarily through text — short exchanges on the cell phone, comments on facebook or a variety of blogs, brief instant message exchanges.  One cannot help but think of our lives (since so many young people socialize this way) as a weird imitation of David Copperfield, who in that famous passage remarks that
From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company.
How many of our relationships have been reduced in whole or in part to a weird simulation of the 'friendship' so common between living souls and fictions?

In fact the abundance of useless information, the regularity and speed of the news cycle, of viral video transmission, of new streaming movies and TV episodes, all tends to displace the locality of one's life and interests to another place.  We deal in "memes," concepts and issues — on a national and international scale.  We worry more about who will next rule the empire than who will next have care of the community in which we dwell.  We do not know our neighbors or try to meet them, because they do not live near us in the world mediated by our pocket LCDs.  Much closer to me than anyone who lives on my street are people in New York and California and beyond.

We have discussed before — everyone has at some point — the odd locality of the "virtual world", its tendency to liberate soul from body, person from nature, self from identity, etc.  But all too rarely is it pointed out that the virutal world is a myth — that it does not exist.  The virtual world is roughly co-terminous with the nation-state, or in an expanded way with the modernized portions of the globe.  We who are members of it have taken up a double citizenship: no longer mere politai, citizens of the city, we are growing much more to be kosmopolitai, citizens of the world.  And, were we platonists, this alienation from the particular in favor of the abstract would be a sign of elevation.  The truth remains, however, that the "world at large", the nation-state, the orbis terrarum is merely construed according to the wits of man, who reckons things according to particulars.  In other words, the generality of the virtual world supervenes upon the reality of the particular.  Its reality, insofar as it possesses any, is borrowed from something outside the minds of men.  In this light the shift to cosmopolitanism should be all the more interesting.

Consider for example the efforts propagandists like Hamilton and Madison had to exert to sell the idea of the United States to its early citizens.  Consider the years of subsequent educational propaganda, of legal and martial struggles, necessary to imprint the idea that we are first of all Americans upon the people of this country, in a world where news came once a day or less, where reporting was limited to public events, where norms of decency and limitations of interest and space made it difficult to dominate the public consciousness with the tedious sensationalism of distant political activity, to promote endless speculation on everything, to constantly pour out a deluge of opinion for the masses to consume.  And consider by contrast with what ease and universality the identification of citizens as "American" is imprinted on new generations today, not to mention the catchphrases of liberal political ideology which frame public discourse and produce its petty squabbles.  Empires are built on armies and roads, but Rome would never have fallen if it had possessed a fiber optic cable network.  With this we are so much at one with (so deeply dependent on) our national identity that neither a beloved leader nor the threat of force is necessary to reduce the ordinary locality almost to irrelevance.

Today (I write as a city-dweller) engagement in one's physical locality is restricted largely to "activists" who have a worse name even than the luddites.  We flee their sanctimonious odor with a tinge of guilt, nonetheless irritated by their lack of compassion for the comfortable, the reasonably well-off, those of us who would just like to make things a little better for ourselves.  The poor, after all, will always be with us.  But, communism and cliches aside, social justice types find by fighting and feeling pain something extremely natural to the matter-form composite that is man.  They find their neighbors.  They are not tortured like the rest of us by a desire to greet and draw closer to the random passers by on the street or train platform.  They break through (if they know their business) the invisible curtains of private independence and manage somehow to establish a bond with others.

The Doctor Communis teaches that man knows himself, his humanity and essence, by abstraction from particular experience.  How ignorant must we then remain of ourselves the more immerse we are in the virtual world — which portrays man only disembodied in text and constructed images?

The internet, then, for all its apparent promise and real benefits, is a powerful tool for shaping the perceived nature and belonging of man.  I doubt that American national identity has ever been as strong as it is today.  And this shift in loyalty to the distant universal has been at the constant expense of the local and particular.  I do not know the name of any elected leader in my town.  I do not know the interests or needs of my fellow citizens.  I do know, however, a wide range of facts about the history and ideas of a number of men and women who will never know that I exist.  I know their poll ratings and travel schedules, recent faux pas, etc.  I know too much of these things, and I am always drawn to know more of them, to learn more about that TV character, etc., as is everyone else.  And in the process my habit has became the same as everyone's:  browsing, surfing, wiling away the time in a sea of amusements and distractions, in a way that has never been possible for more than a handful of (debased and vicious) people in the history of mankind.  And together with ignorance of self, the surfeit of amusements breeds an equally grievous fault in man: distractedness.

Distraction, which is the great and common enemy of prudence and temperance, causes one to lose sight of proper ends, to dispense with intentions and the right order of one's actions, and to sacrifice one good object after another  for whatever arises before one's eyes or thoughts, whatever is convenient and has the greatest immediate appeal.  This habitual distractedness of mind is properly named curiosity, a terrifying vice condemned universally in the two millennia of Christian moral instruction.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux reads Jeremiah 9:10-20 in light of this vice:
Death has come up through our windows,
Has entered our citadels,
To cut down children in the street
Young people in the squares.
Corpses shall fall like dung in the open field
Like sheaves behind the harvester
With no one to gather them.
St. Bernard comments:
And truly, O Man if you should vigilantly attend to yourself, it is extraordinary if you should ever attend to anything else. Listen, curious man, to the words of Solomon; hear, oh foolish one, what Wisdom says. With all defenses, it is said, guard your heart (Prov 4:23): so that all of your senses may keep watch over that from which life proceeds. For to what do you retire, oh curious man? In the meanwhile to what do you commit yourself? Why do you dare to lift your eyes to the heavens — eyes that sin in the heavens? Look to the earth, so that you may think of yourself. It will show you to yourself, because you are earth and will pass into the earth.
The Doctor Mellifluous goes on to explain how curiosity — the departure from one's proper concerns into the realm of the superfluous — is the root of pride, the cause of Eve's fall and the fall of the Seraphim.  Consider that this seed of vice  which caused the fall of man is now celebrated as a right and even a virtue, and is the daily habit of most members of our civilization.

Even St. Thomas, whose wisdom was encyclopedic and whose interest was in the ordering of all creation to God, contrasts the evil of curiosity with the good of studiousness.  Curiosity is a species of intemperance.  St. Thomas distinguishes six forms of curiosity, under two modes of knowledge.  First, curiosity may concern intellective knowledge: knowledge of principles, universals, causes and kinds.  This happens:
  • When less profitable study causes one to withdraw from what one is obliged by vocation or responsibility to study (students investing hours browsing Wikipedia instead of doing course work; priests cultivating knowledge of Wagnerian opera to the neglect of the Gospels).
  • When one learns from one from whom it is unlawful to learn (Wicked experimentation on humans or perverse treatment of animals, consultation of demons or the use of witchcraft.)
  • When one desires to know about creatures inordinately, without concern for their relation to God, the proper end of all knowledge.
  • When one studies beyond one's capacity, and is thus prone to error. (Neophytes theorizing on the psychological model of the Trinity, old men constructing trisections.)
Again, curiosity can concern sensible knowledge: knowledge both of tastes, touches, sights, sounds and smells, and of the individual things and people known through them.  A desire for this knowledge is wrong:
  • When it is not directed to something useful but turns one away from what is useful or pertinent.  (Facebook browsing, videos of kittens, celebrity and political gossip, tv, etc.) 
  • When it is directed to something harmful or wicked. (Pornography, prying for the sake of gossip or detraction, use of knowledge for exploitation or extortion, consumption of entertainment for the sake of sloth.)
    I hear the unsympathetic reader objecting to all this grim talk of usefulness and obligation.  Surely this is all a bunch of monastic zealotry bent on cowing the individual spirit and bringing unruly willfulness under the firm law of obedience.  After all one needs to let loose a bit!  To such a reader I offer up first of all ST IIaIIae q.167 for examination.  Note in particular the dignity and variety of his sources, and know as well that there are several times as many in the tradition.  But secondly, such an objection, built on a perceived opposition between law and freedom, has lost sight (along with the curious man) of the proper order of human action.  And so we should review this briefly before concluding our reflection.

    Every act is the act of an agent.  Every agent has a nature, which governs the motion of a thing and orders it toward its perfection or end.  Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good,  and the moral law arises from nature by divine ordinance, and thus is ordered directly to the perfection of the agents it governs.  Law is thus perfective of freedom, which tends toward the good.  It guides as much as it governs: revealing nature rather than circumscribing it.  Thus the useful and the obligatory, the proper concerns of man to which curiosity is opposed, are nothing other than the proper expressions of the harmony and beauty of actual virtue, which perfects the soul and disposes man to receive grace.

    And this helps us see how curiosity corrupts human nature.  It removes the intention of the agent from his proper end and opens him up to whatever chance and pleasing influences come along.  But of course the most common influences for the weak are the worst for the soul.  And so curiosity is the "lust of the eyes" by which man falls into the "lust of the flesh", and languishes in the "pride of life".  It abstracts man from himself and places him out in the whirlwind of distraction and sensible delights, makes him a citizen of an unreal country, and ultimately disposes him to a kind of lifeless slavery to images and illusions.  This is the internet at its best, which you probably carry around in your pocket, which you consult on an hourly basis or more, dozens of times a day.

    It is very tempting to be a Luddite.

    * Note that this year's World Communications Day message contains a beautiful reflection on the importance of silence.

    17 March 2012

    Fragments of Unfinished Posts

    "The Tyrannical Past"
    1.  The

    "Allegiance and Ideals"
    [No text.]

    [No title.]
    1.  The perfection of being lies in its likeness to God.
    2.  To know a thing is to possess its form, but intentionally and not materially.
    3.  Prudence is king of the worldly virtues.

    "At Home in the World"
    There is an obvious sense in which one should not be "at home in the world."  If home signifies that set of attachments and interests toward which we are directed and in which we find ourselves at rest, then clearly one should never be at home in the world.

    Still, in an important sense, one should

    "Gnostic Movies"
    Some movies in which the world of the main character is discovered to be an illusion:

    The Matrix
    The Truman Show

    Whether the Species Derived from the End Is Contained under the Species Derived from the Object, As under its Genus, or Conversely?

    The object of the external act can stand in a twofold relation to the end of the will: first, as being of itself ordained thereto; thus to fight well is of itself ordained to victory; secondly, as being ordained thereto accidentally; thus to take what belongs to another is ordained accidentally to the giving of alms. Now the differences that divide a genus, and constitute the species of that genus, must, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. vii, 12), divide that genus essentially: and if they divide it accidentally, the division is incorrect: as, if one were to say: "Animals are divided into rational and irrational; and the irrational into animals with wings, and animals without wings"; for "winged" and "wingless" are not essential determinations of the irrational being. But the following division would be correct: "Some animals have feet, some have no feet: and of those that have feet, some have two feet, some four, some many": because the latter division is an essential determination of the former. Accordingly when the object is not of itself ordained to the end, the specific difference derived from the object is not an essential determination of the species derived from the end, nor is the reverse the case. Wherefore one of these species is not under the other; but then the moral action is contained under two species that are disparate, as it were. Consequently we say that he that commits theft for the sake of adultery, is guilty of a twofold malice in one action. On the other hand, if the object be of itself ordained to the end, one of these differences is an essential determination of the other. Wherefore one of these species will be contained under the other.

    It remains to be considered which of the two is contained under the other. In order to make this clear, we must first of all observe that the more particular the form is from which a difference is taken, the more specific is the difference. Secondly, that the more universal an agent is, the more universal a form does it cause. Thirdly, that the more remote an end is, the more universal the agent to which it corresponds; thus victory, which is the last end of the army, is the end intended by the commander in chief; while the right ordering of this or that regiment is the end intended by one of the lower officers. From all this it follows that the specific difference derived from the end, is more general; and that the difference derived from an object which of itself is ordained to that end, is a specific difference in relation to the former. For the will, the proper object of which is the end, is the universal mover in respect of all the powers of the soul, the proper objects of which are the objects of their particular acts.

    16 March 2012

    Prophecy and Authenticity in Modern Art

    Art is thought of commonly as a class of privileged objects intended for pure aesthetic beholding. The Artist is spoken of as a kind of demi-god, charged with the business of Creating. Art has been sacralized by the culture to the point of receiving its own temples, where the common people go to pay homage to the mystical greatness of the Artists. Because it is treated as an object of disinterested beholding, art is thought to be irrelevant and even immune to judgments related to truth or intrinsic goodness. Rather it is an expression of the artist's inner-truth. The freedom of the artist to voice his own truth — a truth notably private to the artist — is defended under terms of prophetic expression or authenticity.

    If we are asked to see the artist as a prophet, then any objective criticism is silenced as arrogance in the face of prophetic censure. It would, after all be absurd to approach Sophocles' Tiresias with comments on his choice of meter, or to shout down Jeremiah for presenting his material in an overly melodramatic fashion. Doing so would merely implicate us further in our guilt before the prophetic voice. And, since the artist-prophet possesses a uniquely privileged insight into our collective guilt, it is impossible to critique him even on his own terms. This is, however, irrelevant, since the artist is ordinarily inaccessible: he is either on a distant stage or altogether absent. His presence and genius are mediated solely through his Art.

    If, on the other hand, the appeal is to authenticity, then all comment is cut off by a thoroughly alienating dose of "interiority" "alterity" "reifying intentionality" and the ever-looming "Other". To say anything evaluative or objective about Art would be to intrude upon the mystical bond forged between the artist's utterly inscrutable interior state and his inspired expression of it. It is not for us non-artists to approach the Art as an object of intention meant to accomplish something; rather, we are asked to see it as an object of indeterminate significance which has been placed before us for the sake of a personal "encounter" or "experience". The absence of purpose or significance opens up an infinite horizon of interpretation, so that the non-artist is capable (depending on his openness) of receiving an indeterminate amount of insight from his beholding of the Art. Art becomes a bearer of potential meaning rather than determinate function or truth. We say of the artwork, "it means a lot to me".

    What is most curious about this contemporary approach to art is that it is so vulnerable to the simplest criticisms. The very raison d' etre of many art museums seems to flicker out of existence when an uneducated, uncouth person looks at something by Pollock or Cy Twombly and points out not only that it's ridiculous looking, but that with a ladder and some paint he could easily create a canvas with the same formal qualities. In fact, it is one of the miracles of high-brow inculturation that most of the art consuming world manages to repress these thoughts. The museum-goer goes to see things he may not understand, assuming that any failure on his part is due to an inadequacy of subtlety or knowledge, rather than being a fault in the artwork itself.

    15 March 2012


    At one point during the polish film Decalogue 1, a son comments to his aunt that his father thinks the point of working hard is "to make things easier for those who will come after us".  In a film ostensibly about idolatry this statement demands some reflection.  First, we note that "ease" and "difficulty" are terms used to describe the means employed to reach an end.  Thus the father's explanation of life's purpose is transparently circular and illogical: we live so that they might also live, but with less difficulty.  Ease of living is the desired end, and ease of living is presumably understood to mean a lack of physical struggle, material want, etc.  But what would happen if material want were finally eliminated?  What would the point of living be then?  The question sits unanswered, and one suspects a kind of cold Hobbesian reply: there is no purpose; life is a succession of vanities pursued out of whim and impulse.  Human desire is endless because it is not directed toward anything and simply casts about from one chance object to the next.

    Of course, the father doesn't say that, probably because he thinks rarely of such things or has not bothered to dig into his own fundamental moral views.  This much seems clear from his conversation with the son.  But one wonders about idolatrous worldviews generally: do they always rest on this sort of formally empty account of human fulfillment?  There's a popular essay by David Bently Hart that was published in First Things a few years ago entitled "Christ or Nothing".  Is Hart right?  Are we stuck between Christ and nihilism?

    My inclination has generally been to answer this question in the negative.  Not all moral/philosophical alternatives to Christianity amount to a fundamental denial of the existence of goodness in things.  Most of the popular alternatives in the west today do in fact amount to nihilism, but it seems to me that a sincere classical pagan might qualify as something rather different.  And, rejecting Hart's hypothesis that paganism has become impossible in the modern world, I can at least imagine a person who occupies a middle ground that would put him in Dante's first circle. 

    Nihilism, though, does seem difficult to escape on philosophical grounds, especially given the predominance of philosophical idealism and methodological skepticism.  The result of skepticism in particular seems to be that any way of understanding the good will take shape more as a construction from key concepts than as a discovery of some fundamental mode of being.  This follows from the skeptical penchant for extreme conceptual parsimony.  Consider some examples.  Modern physics seems to be a mere ode on the categories of quantity and place, reducing all other categories to these.  Biology on the other hand looms increasingly large over the human sciences, shooting out threatening clouds of conceptual darwinism that seems to promise a materialist psychologism — a term I'm coining here for the reduction of all intellectual phenomena to psychological facts arising from darwinian impulses which can in turn be reduced to material phenomena.  This habit of collapsing distinctions and reducing everything to a single categorical structure (cf. Kant, Hegel, etc.) ends up rendering true the modern prophecy (cf. Kant, Heidegger, Foucault, Gadamer, etc.) that the world depends for its being upon the predetermined structures of the mind.  And in such a world, where one can easily change views and shift around conceptual supports, goodness is all too quickly brought under the service of whim and convenience.  The virtues suffer and character decays and we end up with a bunch of unanchored norms that no longer have any binding value.

    The Daughters of Sloth

    Gregory fittingly assigns the daughters of sloth. For since, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 5,6) "no man can be a long time in company with what is painful and unpleasant," it follows that something arises from sorrow in two ways: first, that man shuns whatever causes sorrow; secondly, that he passes to other things that give him pleasure: thus those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. x, 6). Now in the avoidance of sorrow the order observed is that man at first flies from unpleasant objects, and secondly he even struggles against such things as cause sorrow. Now spiritual goods which are the object of the sorrow of sloth, are both end and means. Avoidance of the end is the result of "despair," while avoidance of those goods which are the means to the end, in matters of difficulty which come under the counsels, is the effect of "faint-heartedness," and in matters of common righteousness, is the effect of "sluggishness about the commandments." The struggle against spiritual goods that cause sorrow is sometimes with men who lead others to spiritual goods, and this is called "spite"; and sometimes it extends to the spiritual goods themselves, when a man goes so far as to detest them, and this is properly called "malice." On so far as a man has recourse to eternal objects of pleasure, the daughter of sloth is called "wandering after unlawful things." From this it is clear how to reply to the objections against each of the daughters: for "malice" does not denote here that which is generic to all vices, but must be understood as explained. Nor is "spite" taken as synonymous with hatred, but for a kind of indignation, as stated above: and the same applies to the others.

    . . . This distinction between sorrow and sloth is also given by Cassian (De Instit. Caenob. x, 1). But Gregory more fittingly (Moral. xxxi, 45) calls sloth a kind of sorrow, because, as stated above (Article 2), sorrow is not a distinct vice, in so far as a man shirks a distasteful and burdensome work, or sorrows on account of any other cause whatever, but only in so far as he is sorry on account of the Divine good, which sorrow belongs essentially to sloth; since sloth seeks undue rest in so far as it spurns the Divine good. Moreover the things which Isidore reckons to arise from sloth and sorrow, are reduced to those mentioned by Gregory: for "bitterness" which Isidore states to be the result of sorrow, is an effect of "spite." "Idleness" and "drowsiness" are reduced to "sluggishness about the precepts": for some are idle and omit them altogether, while others are drowsy and fulfil them with negligence. All the other five which he reckons as effects of sloth, belong to the "wandering of the mind after unlawful things." This tendency to wander, if it reside in the mind itself that is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason, is called "uneasiness of the mind," but if it pertains to the imaginative power, it is called "curiosity"; if it affect the speech it is called "loquacity"; and in so far as it affects a body that changes place, it is called "restlessness of the body," when, to wit, a man shows the unsteadiness of his mind, by the inordinate movements of members of his body; while if it causes the body to move from one place to another, it is called "instability"; or "instability" may denote changeableness of purpose.

    14 March 2012

    Fragment on Moral Dilemmas

    A moral dilemma is a situation in which it is difficult or impossible for a person to choose a morally good course of action.  Dilemmas of this sort are the stuff of tragedy: a character (person) finds himself in a situation from which there is effectively no escape.  If every possible action is evil, then there is nothing left to do but despair.  Now, while there are certainly tragic situations in life, it seems to me that one consequence of the existence of a loving, almighty God is the exclusion of genuine moral dilemmas: i.e., situations in which a person cannot possibly choose to act or not to act without sinning.  Which is to say that, given good character and a good understanding of what is going on, there will always be at least one "right" response. 
    Of course, our capacity to judge what is good is inhibited by disordered appetites, concupisence, and the ignorance which comes from sin.  Thus many situations which do not actually present a grave moral difficulty may seem to do so if right action demands a higher degree of moral perfection than we presently embody.  Generally situations presented as moral dilemmas depend for their problematic nature on a common misevaluation of various goods.  Consider the following set of examples:
    1.  You really ought to have the hit new album by The Wilting Spoon, but you are presently broke.  You could steal it, but stealing is wrong.  Moral dilemma: Do you neglect your own human dignity by going without the new album, or do you steal it?
    2.  You have just been kidnapped by pirates and gradually starved for over a week, only to be deposited without food, money, or map in a vineyard somewhere in the world.  You feel that you are about to surrender to death, surrounded by someone else's food.  Do you steal it or let yourself die?
    3.  Aliens from Zobomb have decided to experiment on humanity and you are their latest subject.  They present you with a five year old child and a hatchet and tell you that if you don't deliver his brain to them in three minutes the planet Earth will be annihilated with all its inhabitants.  Do you sacrifice young Tommy to save humanity?
    Each of these cases plays off of apparently competing norms.  In the first, there's the naive egoist's impulse to self-gratification pitted against the self-evident fact that one ought not steal.  This is easily resolved when we realize the actual value of having the album and its role in character growth, etc. etc.
    In the second case, the norm against stealing is pitted against the will to self-preservation.  It is tempting to say that theft is admissible here because of a "proportionate reason", but really Aquinas's solution (the devolution of property upon all of humanity in states of dire necessity) has the advantage of being reasonable and not opening up a can of (utilitarian) worms.
    The third case is particularly difficult for the average person.  It's tempting to look at all the lives potentially saved and "weigh" them against the life of young Tommy.  A weird moralizing voice might even occur to you: "Do you really value your own conscience over the lives of billions?"  And in many the response might be a kind of heroism: "I will murder the child and do this hard deed but all of humanity will be indebted to me for my sacrifice!"  And yet to the trained conscience these responses are all clearly abominable.  To murder the child would be to cooperate with evil, and what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?
    More signifcant, perhaps more interesting, than the resolution of these particular cases of conscience is the general fact that some situations are ugly and unpleasant to live though, though no guilt may directly accrue to the person who does so.  The person who actually chose to spare Tommy's life and watch the world be blown away would certainly feel an untold amount of horror and pehaps guilt in the process.  But this is due to the evil of the Zobombian aliens and not his own fault.  Right action can even bring about a kind of despair, as when the pregnant college student realizes that she must leave school in order to care for the child she might otherwise have aborted.  Such a choice involves the destruction of an entire future life and the sudden onset of a vast number of commitments and responsibilities, and the thought that one is doing the right thing would probably be little consolation.  (Though the gift of a child ought to be a great one.)  It is always tempting to believe that no right action could demand such a great amount of inconvenience.  (Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons is a great meditation on this problem.)