31 May 2013

A Few Quick-Fire Movie Reviews

1.  The Tree of Life:  A montage of highly stylized memories of childhood in Waco, Texas, recounted as a way of dealing with the problem of evil.  The trailer reflects perfectly what this movie is.  If you like the trailer, see the movie. It's difficult to class this movie, or to say anything about it without launching into a full-scale analysis.  It has the soul of Tarkovsky, and his profundity, though without the brilliant dialogue.  (5)

2.  Terminator: Salvation:  This fourth installment in the Terminator series takes us to the future for the first time.  John Connor is trying to save his father, Kyle Reese, from Skynet (the military computer that has destroyed most of the world).  Sam Worthington plays a resurrected murderer struggling to come to terms with his humanity in the face of his past.  Christian Bale as Connor is kind of lame, but Worthington's character is great.  Self-sacrifice, redemption, and humanity.  (4)

3.  Watchmen:  This is the darkest superhero movie I've seen, without a doubt.  Even in the Nolan trilogy, Batman is only barely tainted by the degradation of his times.  Here we see heroes deliberately atomizing Vietnamese civilians, opening fire on crowds of protesters, etc.  Narrated by Jackie Earle Haley (the little guy from Breaking Away!), who does an amazing job as Rorschach.  You will feel unclean when you're done with it.  It says a lot, though.  (3.5)

4.  Avatar:  Let me confess: I greatly enjoyed this movie.  I've seen it three times, now, and what gets me are two things, mainly.  First, that the Sam Worthington character is paralyzed below the waist.  I like that it was written that way, and I think about 1/3 of the genuine interest of the story derives from his disability.  The other main draw is Sigourney Weaver, who has a personality.  The whole becoming-one-of-the-people, tapping-into-the-world-spirit, achieving-natural-maturity complex doesn't do much for me.  What fun, though! (4)

5.  Somersault: After realizing that Sam Worthington was the best part of two movies I enjoyed a great deal, I looked him up, and found that his first critical success was this Australian movie from 2004.  In it, a teenage girl runs away from home to a ski town and enters into an ambiguous relationship with a local boy, played by Worthington.  The girl, Heidi, strategically uses her ability to connect with people to scrape by, being overly friendly with females and sleeping with males.  She is terrified and miserable.  Worthington does a great job opposite, playing a depressive farm boy who is incapable of connecting with anyone emotionally and seems, as a result, to suspect that he is homosexual.  The movie is saturated with understated emotional agony characteristic of early adulthood.  Several thoroughly un-erotic sex scenes throughout.  Good acting, good writing, good story.  (4)

6.  Irma Vep:  A Chinese actress is brought in for a French remake of a classic silent film.  The director is insane, the production is poorly managed, the costume designer makes awkward sexual advances on her.  Spoof of French cinematic culture with an awesome final scene. (3)

7.  Oblivion:  I wish I could forget this movie faster.  It's not even worth the words necessary to summarize it.  Clichéd, slow, stupid movie. (1)

8.  Star Trek: Into Darkness:  I was bothered by the large number of collateral deaths in this movie, almost all of which are treated as inconsequential in the face of a threat to the life of James Tiberius Kirk and his friends.  Still, fun, and Benedict Cumberbatch did well as expected.  (3)

9.  12 Monkeys:  Terry Gilliam movie.  Bruce Willis is a criminal in the future, given a chance for pardon if he goes on missions to the past to try and find the mysterious source of the deadly virus that wiped out almost all of humanity.  Slow, kind of stupid, Brad Pitt co-stars. (2)

10.  Last Holiday:  Alec Guinness is a farm equipment salesman who receives bad news from his doctor: he has a fatal disease and will drop dead within two or three months.  He decides to liquidate all his assets and spend his last days in a resort hotel.  There he meets a lot of snooty rich people, becomes entangled in their problems, flatly rejects all nonsense, and becomes (for a short while) universally adored.  This movie would be fittingly paired with Ikiru (5).  They have similar themes and are yet very different. (4)

11.  Smiley's People:  This is a mini-series adaptation of the spy novel by John Le Carre.  Worth watching simply for the sake of Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  Wonderful!  (3)

12.  Pom Poko:  A Studio Ghibli film, chronicling the struggle of a population of raccoon dogs in suburban Tokyo to prevent the development of a new residential complex in the middle of their shrinking forest territory.  Clever, funny, and sad.  The film covers a large amount of ground.  Brilliantly executed. (4)

16 May 2013

Thesis Defense Presentation

My interest in Michel Foucault goes back to a seminar I took in 2009 at Yale College. There we focused on three of the main figures of French Post-Structuralist theory: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. To my surprise, the Foucault I had expected to find in the course, based on the rumors which circulated with his name and the stigma associated with his “postmodern” label, seemed not to exist. Instead, I found Foucault a delight to read, and I gladly received from him his cynicism about the politics of sexual liberation, his insistence on treating medieval sources with respect, and his thoroughgoing rejection of Enlightenment philosophical pretensions. Nevertheless, Foucault and Derrida seemed to be sounding the death knell for western philosophy, and I knew that they had no answers to my deeper questions, and no future to offer me if I lingered with them.

Still, as I proceeded to more fruitful studies and became interested in Aquinas, Foucault lingered as a convenient point of contact with the theoretical background of the cultural left. Unlike many of his intellectual progeny and their disciples, Foucault tends to be careful and methodical in his criticism of historical knowledge structures, and does not mince his genealogical deconstructions with poorly thought out appeals to the liberal ideals of justice and equality. He is deeply anti-progressive, and ordinarily as critical of his allies as of his enemies. In short, I have always seen Foucault as the sort of nihilist I could trust to write clearly and frankly, without throwing around phantom ontologies or ethical principles, or deferring comprehension by cloaking himself in a haze of poeticisms. This has led me to return to him periodically when I feel a longing for a good antagonist. It was just such a desire for an intelligent antagonist that led me to write this thesis.

When I first began work on the thesis, the problem which interested me was very clear: between the writings of Michel Foucault and Thomas Aquinas there is a clean inversion of the functions by which order is generated and recognized. For Thomas, the root of all created order is the eternal Wisdom of the Godhead, which grasps all things perfectly in their beginning and end, and which governs them inwardly according to their nature and perfection. Just as Divine Wisdom generates the providential order of the universe, even so the perfection of the habit by which creatures come to know that order is a kind of Wisdom, though infinitely inferior and imperfect. Human wisdom, natural or supernatural, recovers from things the traces of Divinity left in them and, by observation and analogy, broadens its gaze to see the inescapable ordering of the world as it flows from and terminates in God. 

The Thomistic picture of intelligible order clashes cleanly with the portrait drawn by Foucault. Where in Aquinas the root of the actual order of things is the simplicity and perfection of divine providence, Foucault sees order as emerging through an utterly contingent series of brute facts — Facts without permanence or determinate meaning --facts which themselves emerge contingently as the result of the arrangement and production of shared symbols, modes of speaking, social structures, forms of experience, and power relations. And, instead of tending toward some ultimate union with the Eternal, Foucault sees the order of the world as in constant flux, without any direction or guiding intention. The one who grasps most this profusion of things and their order is not “Wise” for Foucault, but is on the contrary most likely to be duped into believing that order is a natural and intrinsic feature of things, and that any particular contingency of history actually hides an eternal truth. “Wisdom”, instead of being a divine gift, is an instrument of power by which existing modes of order and dominance are reinforced through the sacralization of basic presuppositions about the world. In opposition to this attitude, Foucault sets up an alternative ideal, modeled off of his great hero Friedrich Nietzsche. If Wisdom is duped by finding in historical accidents reason to speculate about eternity, then Foucault chooses to embrace a kind of Madness which insists on the irreducibility of historical contingencies and employs them constantly to thwart dominant modes of understanding and ordering.

This fairly straightforward set of contrasts formed the foundation for my project: Foucault’s heroization of madness terminates in a kind of Heraclitean nihilism, and Aquinas’s devotion to Wisdom terminates in the beatific vision of the Divine Essence. A contrast of this variety would be best done in a theological context, because only the full vision of St. Thomas’s theological ordering of the world would allow for Madness and Wisdom to reveal their perfect antagonism.

However, I wanted the thesis to be a dialectical exercise and not simply the exposition of a neat contrast. If my treatment of Foucault and Aquinas on the basis and consummation of intelligibility was to have a dialectical character, it would need to involve the engagement of the two thinkers with each other. At this point the real difficulties emerge. Foucault and Aquinas both have convenient “trap door” mechanisms by which each can dispose of the other without deep engagement. For Foucault, there are two easy options: first, to historicize Aquinas and treat his thought as an object to be genealogized and deconstructed; second, to neuter the attacks of the Thomist by showing how they emerge from various power structures and work as regulative functions for the exclusion of alien forms of speech and thought. For Aquinas, it is easy to see Foucault’s errors as flowing from an excessively pessimistic view of human nature, or from the blindness of the intellect which follows from moral depravity so extreme as to lead him to reject first principles and to attempt to transform the natural aptitude of the mind to truth into a necessary and universal expression of malice. 

Though these responses are interesting and revealing they do not amount to any sort of real dialogue. So the primary methodological question for this project becomes: Is it possible for Aquinas and Foucault to speak to each other? How would such a dialogue proceed? Can any common ground be found between them? Can they learn from each other? Since these questions are closely tied to the original problem about the basis and consummation of intelligibility in human acts of knowing, I was able to use them to provide a dialectical structure for the thesis. Instead of merely comparing Foucault and Aquinas, the goal became to perform the groundwork for a positive intellectual engagement between the two, and to orient them so as to respond adequately to each other. Since Foucault is already historically conscious and writes at several points about late medieval thought, the brunt of the work lay in preparing a Thomistic response to Foucault, a response which managed to show how a Thomist might meet Foucault’s objections at their level without falling victim to them. To this end it was necessary to present Foucault and his background in great detail, and then provide an opposed account of things which navigated all his legitimate concerns and targeted his key errors, while indicating how the strong points of Foucault’s critique of Thomistic ontology can be integrated into an account of philosophical praxis and the mechanics of tradition without destabilizing or delegitimizing the synthesis of Christian truth provided by Aquinas. 

In order to understand Foucault’s work, it is important to see his roots in the development of western thought since Descartes. The Cartesian reorientation of European philosophy introduced two thematic trends in early modern thought: first, a preference for skeptical methodologies that attempt do away with prejudice and reduce knowledge to a skeleton of absolutes. Second, the prioritization of the evidence of reflective self-consciousness over the evidence of experience, custom, and tradition. 

Together, these trends culminate in the critical synthesis of Immanuel Kant. Cartesian philosophical methodology creates a problem: how is the knowing subject to regain access to knowledge of the external world when the content of experience is capable of being doubted? Given the Cartesian prioritization of the evidence of mental states, or "clear and distinct ideas", as he calls them, Kant's solution to the problem of our knowledge of the external world is quite clever. He performs a grand metaphysical shift, choosing to locate the basis of the order, unity, and existence of the world in universal synthetic functions of the mind. By locating the basis of our knowledge in the mind instead of in transcendental, mind-independent objects, Kant circumvents the Cartesian problem: our knowledge of reality is certain because reality as known by the mind is constituted by our act of knowing it. 

In his early work, Friedrich Nietzsche (who wrote about a century after Kant) seizes upon the Kantian account of the genesis of universal judgments about the world and takes it a step further, claiming that these mind-imposed syntheses of sensory particulars come at the cost of the erasure of the particularity and reality of things. In other words, the philosophical ideal of an eternal, universal truth, identified with God since at least the time of Plato, is a delusion by which man strips away the vitality and fecundity of the sensory world and replaces it with an empty, perspective-less, sterile concept of the "Good". The more settled we are in our idea of truth, the more immune we become to the Dionysian chaos of reality. Later on in his career, Nietzsche develops his critique of Truth into a historical reconstruction of the genesis of Christian ethics, which he calls a Genealogy of Morality. The history of Christianity, he says, is the history of a struggle between the weak and the strong, in which the weak have learned to dominate by a clever trick. Christianity makes weakness out to be morally superior, and blames the naturally strong for their excellence. This transvaluation of values leads the west deeper and deeper into nihilism, as the positive expression of power and dominance becomes more carefully denied and negated by the morality of the weak. 

Many of Nietzsche's themes and attitudes are taken up in the early 20th century by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger provides a phenomenological response to the old Cartesian problem, suggesting that Descartes's way of describing reality and ordering philosophical inquiry is fundamentally incorrect. Instead, he proposes an ontology based on the average everyday experience of things: interested, bound up in environments, occupied by particular concerns, and ordered through the general care we have for things, others, and ourselves. Instead of attempting to undo the natural circularity of human understanding, whereby we project prejudicial expectations onto reality and then recover them in experience, Heidegger suggests that the task of the Philosopher is to come to terms with the finitude and contingency of Human Being, to face our anxiety about the indeterminacy and meaninglessness of existence, and settle upon the an authentic recognition of our responsibility for determining by choice the meaning of reality. Becoming thoroughly open to the contingency and finitude of our prejudices amounts, according to Heidegger, to undoing of the tradition of western metaphysics, which has always attempted to cover up the fundamental Question of the Meaning of Being by establishing arbitrary philosophical principles as limits to thought, and hiding behind them. (For example, the principle of non-contradiction, or the principle of sufficient reason.)

Now we turn to Foucault. Foucault's career can be divided into two or three periods, depending on one's scrupulosity, but given the shortness of time, I will focus instead on some aspects of his work on Madness. Foucault's first and longest work, published in 1961, was a History of Madness from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. 

Foucault uses his book to show that various forms of behavior, identities, and ways of experiencing the world classed as "Madness" or "Unreason" during the period covered are in fact wildly divergent. "Madness" is the product of a series of historical exclusions by which a limit is placed on the acceptable moral or intellectual behavior of individuals in society. It develops spontaneously out of ethical and theological theories, political choices, and philosophical ideas, to the extent that the essence of Madness can be seen to have been produced by the mores and convictions of each period, as a kind of anti-norm encircling society and collecting everyone who diverged too far from what was seen as proper. 

Foucault's method for analyzing the production of madness is primarily documentary, covering the various periods of his research as independent and self-contained epistemic worlds, attempting to tease the core ideas of each period out of the testimony of diagnostic manuals, legal codes, medical theories, and theological works, rather than subjecting them to a progressive narrative or imposing modern psychological categories upon supposedly "undeveloped" or "primitive" descriptions.

Given the function of Madness as a limit-experience of social and intellectual order, Foucault is interested in the possibility of the irruption of that limiting population into the ordered universe which they enclose. Throughout the modern period madness is silenced and concealed, but what if the mad were given a new voice? What if rather than being morally stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned, a new possibility for madness arose, in which insanity itself stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned sanity, in which the ordered rationality of civil society were brought before the judgment seat of chaos? Such a possibility, Foucault believes, is revealed in the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, the Marquis de Sade, and Francisco Goya. These four heroes transcend the limits of rationality and return to preach the gospel of chaos which they have heard whispered in the outer darkness.

But what is this gospel of chaos? It is certainly not mere nihilism. Rather, it is the disclosure of the arbitrariness and contingency of dominant modes of rationality--the revelation of the possibility of a new truth, a different reality--an invitation to consider the functions by which this order is produced and sustained, to see things for what they are without attempting to reduce them to a hidden eternity.

Foucault's lyrical description of these new madmen (at the end of the History of Madness) forms, in a way, the cornerstone of much of his life's work, and a key to his authorial self-understanding. Foucault is a genealogist in the mode of Nietzsche: a writer of histories which show the dirty roots of our "eternal" truths and the contingency of our absolute principles, which invite us to ask again what the value of this or that intellectual structure is, what interests produce and perpetuate the various "obvious" features of our everyday reality. But his contact with the groundlessness of our everyday attitude toward the world does not serve an ethical function as it might in Sartre or Heidegger: it does not pave the way for some new and more authentic choice of self: Foucault prefers in his analyses to perpetually defer all reduction to a transcendental value, all determination of absolute meaning. This makes him, in a way, considerably more satisfying than any of the so-called Existentialist philosophers, who pretend that one can conjure up meaning for one's life by mere fiat in the face of moral nihilism and absurdity.

Instead of putting his genealogical activity to an ethical use, Foucault embraces the creative play of possibilities, always seeking out new limit-experiences and fringe possibilities in the prevailing rational norms of his time and place. He is a gleeful rebel in every company, always thwarting, overturning, and smashing conceptual idols and then vanishing. One can never quite track down his own position, never quite find his philosophical abode so as to challenge him on his own turf. He is something like Rumplestiltskin, a mythical sprite who appears and vanishes at random, and whose power cannot be broken so long as his true name is unknown.

So much for Foucault and his predecessors. Having come to terms, roughly at least, with the basic attitude and idea of Foucauldian genealogy, you will recall that our main task was to orient St. Thomas's account of intelligible order toward Foucault so as to provide the basis of a viable reply to him. There are three central issues to be addressed: first, the matter of intellectual foundations and the principles of human knowledge; second, the development of knowledge structures in the individual; third, the problem of history and the role of contingency and power in the transmission of ideas.

On the face of things, any Thomistic response to Foucault seems to fall victim to the following dilemma: the Thomist must either base his ontology on some self-evident first principle in the Cartesian fashion, and be accused of setting up arbitrary limits to thought, or he must present his ontology as a ready whole and be accused of simple dogmatism. There seems to be no good option.

In order to resolve the dilemma, we need to provide a non-foundationalist defense of intellectual first principles. The key principle we will reference is the law of non-contradiction, taken as a metaphysical rule: two contradictory states of affairs cannot exist in the same respect at the same time. Our question, then, is this: how does the mind know this principle (with what certainty, on what evidence)? And in what way does it form the basis of our knowledge of the world? 

Were we foundationalists, we would approach the principle of non-contradiction as a self-evident proposition, the clarity and distinctness of which so guaranteed its truth that it was incapable of doubt. This is an inadequate defense, however, because it fundamentally misses the relevance and basis of the principle of non-contradiction in the intellectual life of the human being. No one, as an infant, encounters non-contradiction as an intellectual primitive from which they build up a progressively more complex system of thought. Rather, the rule serves as a habitual, unexamined guarantor of the possibility of experiencing things determinately and referencing them in thought and speech. Thus Thomas speaks of the habit of first principles, a habit which we become aware of only late in our studies when we have reached a high level of abstraction. 

Still, the habitual and ordinarily unexamined character of the principle of non-contradiction (or its allies, the belief in essences stability of individual substances) does not simply make it a blind prejudice. When examined, the prejudice proves to be indispensable. Why? Suppose for a moment that the principle of non-contradiction were invalid as a metaphysically -- in other words, that an apple could be both all red and all green at the same time in the same respect. What would follow? Well, if the PNC were invalid, then it would be impossible to specify any determinate thing. Any mental reference, word, or idea we might have, however clear, could not be said to fix on something in reality. This apple, being both red and green, would not have a specifiable color. It needn't stop there, either. The apple need not only be an apple. It would also be Julius Caesar, and a sack of flour, and the sensation you get when you look down from a great height. Very quickly, our apple has vanished under the weight of its plurality of incompatible attributes. The apple becomes all things, and ceases to exist.

Whatever may happen to our apple in this case, it is clear that we can no longer meaningfully speak about it or think about it. It eludes us, being everything and nothing, and ceases to be a possible object of thought. Were we to apply this rejection of non-contradiction to everything, and not just the apple, speech itself would become impossible, and knowledge would fail. There would be nothing.

And so, we find that this metaphysical first principle is practically necessary, because it undergirds and makes possible the rational and discursive activities at the basis of human life, but also upon examination, that its basis lies not in the absolute self-certainty of the intellect, grasping an eternal truth, but in the aptitude of the human person as an intellectual substance to know and speak about things. It is by virtue of that aptitude that the law of non-contradiction is available to us. And its emergence as an explicit rule at the basis of speculative philosophy comes through experience and observation and engagement with the world, not a shuttered, skeptical self-examination. 

The second issue of difficulty to the Thomist is the problem of the contingent roots of knowledge structures in human learning. In other words, given the prejudicial influence of one's historical and cultural situation and the resulting slant on one's thought, does it not inevitably follow that every individual is a slave to historical contingencies, and that any claim to ahistorical knowledge merely involves the illegitimate elevation of some contingent fact to the status of a necessity? Given our earlier denial of the usefulness of intellectual first principles in grounding a system of knowledge, this does indeed seem to be a grave difficulty. The key to eliminating it is to return to the question of what knowledge is and the mechanics of knowledge acquisition. It is true that cultural conditions prejudicially dispose us to investigate certain objects and to look at them under certain aspects, but prejudice does not create knowledge. It merely guides the process of knowledge acquisition. Knowledge is caused by the apprehension of the essences of things, and the reception of those essences by the mind. Consequently whatever one's prejudices, the actuality of things is a natural corrective for prejudicial errors. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between two different orders of intelligibility. On one hand there is an accidentally subordinated series of mental states: imperfect conceptions of a thing give way to better ones as experience fills out one's notion of it. In this order, which St. Thomas calls the order of discovery, an early error need not have any bearing on the later state of one's knowledge. However, there is another way of describing knowledge: according to an essentially subordinated series of events or mental states, such that the invalidity of any one causes the corruption of the rest. For example, a faulty inference in a syllogism corrupts the validity of its conclusions, or a bad metaphysical principle will corrupt the rest of one's subsequent analysis. It is in light of this order, called the order of judgment, that St. Thomas says at the beginning of the De Ente et Essentia, that a small error in the beginning is a great one in the end.

The third and final difficulty for the Thomist (with which I will conclude this presentation) is the problem of history and contingency in the transmission of ideas. Here we might pose a dilemma similar to the one proposed in our discussion of first principles: on one hand, the Thomist can concede to Foucault that the emergence and transmission of knowledge is governed by contingent power dynamics which are frequently impersonal and can be traced to practical political and social interests. In this case, it seems impossible to trust tradition, and the Thomistic synthesis collapses. Or, on the other hand, one could suggest that either the whole world or at least the Church is a kind of pure vessel, preserved from all worldliness and corruption so that the transmission of philosophical and theological doctrine is never motivated by anything other than a graced love of God and desire for the salvation of souls. This option has the disadvantage of being historically false on an epic scale.

The difficulty vanishes when we consider the mode by which knowledge is transmitted, according to St. Thomas. He describes pedagogy among humans not as the implantation of ideas in new minds by learned ones, but as a practice by which we direct each other toward the essences of things and guide each other in the choice of aspects under which to perceive reality. If genuine knowledge had to be transmitted by a kind of direct implantation from one person to another, then the individual corruption of participants in any tradition of knowledge would post a serious problem for the reliability of the knowledge conveyed in that tradition. But since pedagogy is not directly the cause of our knowledge of things, but merely an instrument by which we are directed toward them, the imperfection of the instruments of tradition is of little concern. This is even clearer in the transmission of the faith, since the light of faith is given directly by God to enable the individual to receive the truth preached to him, and the faith of the minister is not necessary for the efficacy of the gospel.

To conclude: what is the value of Foucault for the Thomist? Where should this conversation go next? I believe that, aside from being an essential guide to the development of the cultural left in America, Foucault is most useful as a purveyor of critical methodology. His genealogical analyses show us how best to deflate the pretensions of our opponents, especially in a naively progressivist society like our own. Furthermore, he is an intelligent interlocutor against which to hone one's thought. But perhaps best of all, an engagement with Foucault forces the Thomist to turn his tools toward the resolution of historical difficulties, and in a way that tends to neutralize the threat of Hegelian dialectics from rival theological schools.

13 May 2013

My Favorite Passage in Augustine's City of God

(From Book II)

But the worshippers and admirers of these pagan gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. 

Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us?

This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. 

Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependents, to minister to their pride. 

Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. 

Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. 

Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. 

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man's property, than of that done to one's own person.

If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. 

Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but especially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. 

Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where everyone who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. 

Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. 

If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it, let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. 

Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshipers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperiled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind. 

What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive? If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus. 

09 May 2013

After he went down from the mountain...

[This exegesis of Matthew 8:1-3 was written for my recently completed class on the Synoptic Gospels.]

Immediately after the conclusion of his extended moral preaching in Matthew 5-7, Christ descends and performs a series of miracles. First among these is the healing of a leper, from whom we have the classic line “Lord, if you will you can make me clean.” In the following exegesis of this miracle story, we will look in detail at the Greek text [1] of this passage, its symbolic content, relationship to the Matthean theme of Jesus as lawgiver, and the implications of Christ’s encounter for the theology of grace. For reference and comparison in our analysis of the text we will engage the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom [2], Frederick Bruner [3], and Ulrich Luz [4]. The passage is brief but quite dense in content, and so, given our limited space, we will omit Matthew 8:4, in which Christ commands that the leper present himself with requisite sacrifice to the priest. However, even absent this verse the passage forms a rich and cogent theological unit.

1 Καταβάντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους After he went down from the mountain… This passage follows the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:25), which is self-consciously modeled after the giving of the Mosaic Law in Exodus. There, Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive God’s commands, while the people wait below in fear. After the giving of the law, Moses descends the mountain (Ex 34) to find the people engaged in idolatry. The descent marks a transition from the sacred, set apart for divine use, to the profane, filled with humanity, its moral turmoil and uncleanness. Christ’s giving of the law has already distinguished itself from the old covenant in that the disciples are present, and the law is not mediated by Moses, but promulgated immediately by the lawmaker himself. Christ teaches the crowds how to live, and then descends the mountain with them. He is present with them in living out the laws. Christ’s relationship to the Mosaic covenant is a matter of constant interest to Matthew, and plays a particularly important role in this passage. It is a contrastive relationship, but also one of fulfillment and reinforcement (Matt 5:17).

ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί. Many crowds followed him… In Matthew’s gospel, the crowds following Jesus, the number of followers, and those who depart from his company, are all signals used to mark the way a particular teaching is received. Like Moses at his initial descent from Sinai, when the people promised to keep the terms of the covenant (Ex 19:8), the people still follow Jesus as he descends. Many will fall away as he proceeds to put into work what he has set out in speech, as they are progressively scandalized by the teaching and works of Christ (Matt 11:6).

2 καὶ ἰδοὺ And behold! The direct command to the reader ἰδοὺ is a noteworthy narrative device. It not only punctuates the story by inviting particular attention to the events about to be recounted, but suggests that they are of particular note, in this case because they are miraculous. But it is not merely the miraculous nature of Jesus’s activity that merits our particular attention, but also the way it represents the fulfillment of the law: of the old law of Moses, and also the new law of the Gospel, which has just been promulgated. Finally, the command to look and see directly what is about to happen invites the listener to place himself with Jesus and the crowds and enter into a direct, personal relationship with the events as they take place.

λεπρὸς προσελθὼν προσεκύνει αὐτῷ A leper, after coming forward, prostrated himself before him… As is well known, the leper is required to keep his distance from the community (Lev 12:46), and mark himself both by his clothing and his warnings to others (Lev 13:45 and elsewhere) so as to prevent his disease from communicating itself to others. His disease makes the leper ritually unclean. [5] And yet the leper approaches Jesus in the midst of many crowds, and prostrates himself before him. This example of persistence, of the unclean breaking protocol out of a desire to be healed, is paralleled several other times in the gospel (we think in particular of the woman with the hemorrhage in Matt 9:21ff.). What it emphasizes to us is that Jesus cannot be made unclean, but is a pure fount of sanctity, which heals all ills and washes away all impurities. We also find something of the audacity of those seeking healing, that they trust so much in the authority and power of Christ that they will approach him even when it seems unreasonable or violates protocol.

λέγων· κύριε Saying, Lord… There are great riches in the leper’s words, which, paired with Christ’s response, form the core of our passage. The leper does not begin by announcing his uncleanness, but having fallen in supplication before Christ, calls him “Lord”. We think of the supplicant coming before a judge appealing for mercy, or in the classical model the worshipper taking Zeus by the knees to plead for help. He does not call Jesus Rabbi, teacher, or master, but Lord. [6] The use of this name is powerfully contrastive, since it makes clear how conscious the leper is of his lowliness before Christ.

ἐὰν θέλῃς δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι. If you will it, you can cleanse me… The confession of Christ’s Lordship provides the rationale for the leper’s next acknowledgment. The form of the request is a present general conditional, which states a universal law of causal implication: whenever X is the case, Y is the case. The power of the leper’s confession is magnified as we look at it in detail: the sole condition provided is Christ’s willingness, ἐὰν θέλῃς, from which follows the power to act, δύνασαί, and most extraordinarily the power to cleanse, με καθαρίσαι, which is not granted to humans. The Mosaic Law gives priests at most the ability to find someone clean or unclean (Lev 12-13), depending on their objective status, whether the illness continues to afflict them. The leper thus attributes to Christ not merely an extraordinary ritual power, the ability to cleanse, but also by implication a miraculous healing power, in removing the leprosy itself.

If we see in the leper’s confession a deep awareness of the divinity of Christ, then, reading the leper as a type of the penitent sinner, we can take his supplication as a representation of the stages necessary for repentance. First, the penitent acknowledges his uncleanness and desires healing. Second, he approaches Christ, contrary to the constraints of natural prudence, in the hope of being healed. Third, he humbles himself before the Lord, confessing Christ’s divinity and his own lowliness, recognizing his inability to cleanse himself. Fourth, he acknowledges the power of Christ to heal him, merely by willing. Fifth, he recognizes the freedom of Christ in choosing to heal him. Sixth, he waits ready to receive Christ’s mercy. The leper’s act of supplication is perfect, and all the more remarkable for its brevity. He does not speak of himself except in terms of Christ’s will, thereby placing himself at the disposal of divine providence and trusting in the Lord’s good will. Though this is not one of the cases where Christ announces that the person’s faith has saved him, clearly such an announcement would be appropriate. The leper demonstrates true simplicity, having comprehended the full reality of his situation in relation to Christ in a single thought, centered on the good will of the Lord. The excellence of his prayer is difficult to match.

3 καὶ ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἥψατο αὐτοῦ and reaching out [his] hand he took hold of him… But even though the leper has been given this prevenient grace, by which he has the courage to approach Jesus and the rectitude and clarity of mind to pray rightly, his prayer is only an instrumental or dispositive cause of his healing. The real work, as the leper has already confessed, is to be done by Christ. Matthew stresses this by showing Christ reaching out, ἐκτείνας, to the leper—the initial approach is made by the supplicant under the influence of grace, but the real work of transformation is performed by Christ alone. [7] The action of Christ in this moment is powerful. Not only does he stretch out his hand to heal the man, but he latches on to him, or grabs him, ἥψατο, as if not to let go. Christ is taking possession of the leper, binding him to himself, and by so doing he demonstrates the power of baptism, which imparts a permanent character in the baptized, who, once washed clean, is forever grafted into the vine (though if found fruitless at the judgment he may be removed from it again).

Beyond this there is the obvious fact, once again, of Christ’s apparent violation of purity norms, by reaching out and touching the Leper. Bruner points out [8] that Elisha and Moses, in two Old Testament leper healings, remain at a distance. Since Christ is the source of all sanctity, his action is not, clearly, a real violation of the purity rules, but a fulfillment of them as he makes the leper clean by his word and touch. It is often noted that Christ’s healing miracles, though dependent chiefly on his will and his word, are accompanied by a physical sign or direct contact with the person to be healed. In this way the spiritual movement of absolution, which corresponds to the inward purification of the one healed, is paralleled by the outward action of Christ, which corresponds to the bodily healing of the person. [9]

λέγων· θέλω, καθαρίσθητι· saying, I will it, be cleansed… Christ responds to the perfect prayer of the leper by fulfilling it with equal simplicity. We might think of this interaction in contrast to a more complex one, like the healing of the Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter (Matt 15:21-28), where Christ responds to the request only after the woman has demonstrated her faith sufficiently by inserting herself into a certain metaphorical discourse in the right way. In this case the symmetry of plea and reply merely suggests to us further that the request was planted in the heart of the leper by Christ. Otherwise how could he have known to ask so perfectly? Notice also that Christ addresses his act of willing directly to the leper, commanding him to be cleansed. The power of Christ is not merely one of prayer, by which he asks God to heal the leper, but one of direct action: the Lordship of Jesus extends to the leper who has placed himself beneath him, and his power is sufficient to spiritually purify and perfect the body and soul of the man before him. The action of purification is in the leper, just as the grace of Christ is efficacious within the person who receives it, and not only by external imputation.

καὶ εὐθέως ἐκαθαρίσθη αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα. And immediately the leprosy was cleansed from him. Chrysostom emphasizes the immediacy of the effects of Christ’s word, and says that εὐθέως is inadequate to describe the swiftness and close connection of decree to effect. This reflects that Christ’s power works interiorly by the very being of those he has come to heal and sanctify. Just as the being of creatures is supplied constantly by the will of the creator, so the transformation of that act of existing through grace works without delay, since its source is infinite and directly present within all created things. However, again, the infinite power and closeness of the divine work in us is also shown by Christ’s acts to be mediated through the activity of finite causes: Christ’s human voice, his touch, and before that the leper’s humility and supplication. All of these actions mediate the grace of Christ and demonstrate its nature to us, so that, as Aquinas says, those who are taught may also be given the ability to teach. [10]

To conclude, this brief encounter demonstrates the working out of the Law in the hearts of those moved by Christ—both its immediate efficacy beyond the merit or fittingness of those who receive it, and its mediation through temporal acts of kindness and mercy, worship and supplication. In a short, densely constructed passage, Matthew shows the beginning of Christ’s ministry after the Sermon on the Mount, as the one who fulfills the law in spirit and truth, and brings the power of God to work in healing and sanctifying those wounded by sin and illness.

[1] The Greek text is taken from the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, retrieved from http://www.nestle-aland.com/en/read-na28-online/ The English translations given are my own.

[2] In particular, Chrystostom’s 28th Sermon on the Gospel of Matthew, taken from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 10. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200125.htm>.

[3] Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1, The Christbook, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, ed. Helmut Koester, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[5] Cf. Bruner 373.

[6] Cf. Luz 5.

[7] Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia IIae q.109

[8] Bruner 375.

[9] Luz notes additionally (p. 7), that this passage invites a socially conscious reading of the Gospel, a call care for actual sick and excluded people, and not only for those who suffer from spiritual disease.

[10] Cf. Summa Theologiae Ia q. 103 a.6 co.

I Came to Cast Fire Upon the Earth

[This exegesis of Luke 12:49-53 was written for my recently completed class on the Synoptic Gospels.]

In the following paper I will attempt to engage the text of Luke 12:49-53, encountering it as a description of Christ’s mission, making note of various literary and symbolic structures, and attempting to discern any obvious spiritual sense.  Since the object of this analysis is primarily to engage the text, historical questions about authorship and composition will be omitted, as will more complex reflections on the use of this prophetic material within the structure of Luke’s gospel, though obviously some treatment of this problem is necessary.  My analysis will proceed line by line through the text.  The Greek text used is from the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, and the accompanying translation is my own, made with reference to the 9th edition of Liddell and Scott’s A Greek–English Lexicon.  

49 Πῦρ ἦλθον βαλεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν, I came to cast fire upon the earth.  Our text comes in the midst of a series of warnings and parables about the coming of the final judgment. In the course of these, Christ breaks from speaking about the apostles and speaks instead of himself.  “I came to cast fire upon the earth.”  This line is extremely ambiguous, and I would like to suggest that it is intentionally ambiguous.  The vision of fire falling upon the earth recalls both the warnings of John that the unfruitful would be cast into the fire (3:9), and the prophecy that Christ would baptize with fire (3:16).  It also marks a sharp contrast with the image of a steward waiting with a lamp at night that preceded this passage (12:35ff.).  Just as the steward waits with a little flame for the return of his master toward daybreak (a great illumination), so the little flame of the apostles signifies their faith, which participates in the light of eternity, to be revealed at the last judgment.  But the flame that Christ came to cast upon the earth has a twofold significance, as is to be elaborated in subsequent verses.  On one hand, Christ is a Promethean figure who comes down from the heavens bearing the fire of salvation to elevate, save, and instruct humanity, a fire the cost of which will be his own suffering.  His fire is the fire of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates and enflames the hearts of the faithful, and renews the face of the earth.  At the same time, Christ’s fire is like the fire of Zeus, the bearer of thunder, whose bolts of fire punish and destroy.  Christ’s fire is a purifying fire, which will consume the chaff of the unfruitful and unrepentant.  It is remarkable that both of these actions—elevation and judgment—are accomplished in the same fire.

καὶ τί θέλω εἰ ἤδη ἀνήφθη. And what do I wish, if it was already kindled.  This line can be read in two ways: first as saying “How I wish that it was already kindled,” second as saying “What am I to wish once it is kindled?”  Both readings convey a cogent theological sense, but they differ.  In the first case, Christ is making an exclamation in anticipation of the terminal events which will signal the kindling of the aforementioned fire.  In the second case, Christ is expressing the terminal fulfillment of his mission in the kindling of that fire.  He elaborates:

50 βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι,  I have a baptism to be baptized, From the image of fire, Christ switches to the image of immersion, ordinarily associated with water.  However the close conjunction of the mention of baptism and that of fire recalls once more the prophecy of John the Baptist (3:16).  The baptism spoken of here, however, is clearly Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  This verse is one of the main attestations of the symbolic interpretation of the sacrament of Baptism as the initiation of the believer into Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. If we consider the act of baptism in the context of the practice of John the Baptist, baptism clearly has a metanoetic function.  It signifies purification and repentance.  Christ’s baptism differs, however: both the baptism in the Jordan and that on Golgotha, but they differ in parallel ways.  Neither is necessary for Christ’s conversion, but in both cases his divine glory is revealed and the Holy Spirit is poured out in response.  Hence the reason for the identification of the passion as a baptism is the subsequent glorification of Christ and outpouring of the Holy Spirit consequent upon his act of obedience.

καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ. And how I am hemmed in until it is accomplished!  Verses 49 and 50 exhibit a parallel structure, where the second clause in each verse is an exclamatory comment on the coming fulfillment of what is predicted in the first.  The repetition of this structure invites us to identify the two parallel prophecies as being fulfilled in a single event: Christ’s forthcoming baptism is also tied to the divine fire he was sent to bring.  Additionally, the use of δὲ at the beginning of verse 50 indicates a continuation, marking the connection between the two statements.  The second clause of verse 50 is interesting because of the peculiar imagery invoked by συνέχομαι, as if to suggest that Christ is cramped or restrained in himself.  The word suggests two possible meanings: either that the period leading up to the passion is one of great anxiety, or that Christ’s full power and glory are shrouded and restrained until the appropriate time.  Both readings are appropriate, given Luke’s description of the agony in the garden (especially his sweat falling like drops of blood, Luke 22:44) and his emphasis on the revealed glory of Christ after the resurrection and account of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).  

51 δοκεῖτε ὅτι εἰρήνην παρεγενόμην δοῦναι ἐν τῇ γῇ; Did you (pl.) expect that I came to give peace to the earth?  This verse seems to be answering implicit expectations about the nature of the Messiah and his mission on earth.  The Messiah was probably thought of as one who would herald a new dawn of peace, political stability and independence for the oppressed Jewish people.  Christ is expected to bring unity to all men.  As a personal curiosity, I would be interested in learning more about the provenance of the punctuation in the Nestle-Aland edition.  If punctuation is a later addition to the text, might we read this as a statement instead of a question:  “You expected that I came to give peace to the earth.”  Aside from the concluding semicolon, there are no definite grammatical markers in this sentence to indicate that it is a question.

οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ’ ἢ διαμερισμόν. No, I say to you, but indeed division.  Christ continues his description on his ministry in this third and most jarring statement yet.  First fire, then baptism, and now division.  What sort of division does he mean to indicate here?  (Note that in the parallel passage, Matthew says “as sword” instead of “division.”)  I believe that the key to interpreting this passage is the ambiguity already introduced in verse 49.  Because the fire Christ brings can be interpreted as both the fire of judgment and the fire of sanctification, we read διαμερισμόν as signifying the application of this fire to the earth with respect to the individuals who receive it.  For some it will be a fire of grace that illuminates the Gospel to them and gives them the courage to preach; for others it will be a fire of perdition that seals their sinfulness and, by their rejection of the Gospel, damns them.  But more than that, Christ is telling the disciples what to expect in their future reception of that fire: not peace, not harmony, not acceptance, but rejection and division, strife and discord.  The Gospel is not a pacifying force.  It is not something to be received by the earth as a gift.  Christ’s denial of the ἐν τῇ γῇ in verse 51 implicitly establishes that the earth is not a context which can bound the gift of the gospel.  The fire of the Spirit is not included in the world, but is cast against it – note the contrast with the forcefulness of verse 49’s ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν.  Instead of being received as gift by the world it received as violence against the sufficiency and completeness of the world.  The extent of this violence is born out in Christ’s elaboration on this saying.

52 ἔσονται γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν πέντε ἐν ἑνὶ οἴκῳ διαμεμερισμένοι, τρεῖς ἐπὶ δυσὶν καὶ δύο ἐπὶ τρισίν, For from now on there will be five having been divided in one house, three against two and two against three.  The extent of the divisiveness of the Gospel is confirmed and elaborated.  Where the household is the basic unit of worldly life, Christ prophesies the division of the household.  The household clearly stands not only for individual familial units, but also for society at large.  The significance of the numbers used in this saying is difficult to discern, but it seems that based on the following verse we could read the τρεῖς as referring to a son, a daughter, and the son’s wife, and the δύο as referring to the mother and father.  

53 διαμερισθήσονται πατὴρ ἐπὶ υἱῷ καὶ υἱὸς ἐπὶ πατρί , μήτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν θυγατέρα καὶ θυγάτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν μητέρα , πενθερὰ ἐπὶ τὴν νύμφην αὐτῆς καὶ νύμφη ἐπὶ τὴν πενθεράν.  They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against the daughter and daughter against the mother, mother in law against her daughter in law and daughter in law against the mother in law.  The passage concludes with an elaboration of the divisions.  It is noteworthy that all of the divisions named are inter-generational, suggesting that part of the divide Christ has in mind is between old and new, perhaps marking a distinction between those who will cleave to the old covenant and those who will embrace the new.  However, a great deal of ambiguity remains concerning this last portion of the passage.  Where earlier in Luke’s gospel, Christ has many times invoked images of sorting and division, there has always been reference to a characteristic used as the basis for the sorting: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, faithful and unfaithful, etc.  Perhaps at the close of this prophetic exclamation, Christ is actively attempting to stress the chaos and confusion that will arise on the worldly plane from the arrival of the Gospel.  In any case, the dualities and ambiguities that make up this pericope seem to suggest an intent on the part of Christ as speaker, and Luke as reporter, to leave listeners with a sense of the confusion and disarray brought to the worldly order by the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of Christ’s passion and resurrection.

08 May 2013

Just Another Kind of Outdoor Game

[I wrote this odd story three years ago.  I never liked it much, but looking back at it I am surprised by it.]

    When the doorbell rang shortly past lunchtime, Walden Sommers should have known it wasn't the mailman.  The neighborhood letter carrier was at a nearby bar enjoying his usual mid-afternoon pick-me-up and wouldn't be back on the street for at least another hour.  Walden even knew his mail never came before four from countless days spent sitting at the front of his house waiting for it.  But he was expecting a delivery today and his hopes stirred as he disembarked from his ochre armchair on three legs to see who was at the door.
On the doorstep stood a boy of twelve or thirteen in shorts and a baseball cap.  Sweat was soaking through his faded brown shirt, and as Walden opened the door the boy was looking back at some peers mingling across the street.  Walden seemed unaffected by the absence of the mailman, as though he had expected exactly what he found.  He observed the weather.  It was cloudless and silent: an empty day, except for the sun beating down on everything, but too early in the year for the heat to be bothersome.  There was no mailman in sight.  He cleared his throat.  "Who are you?  What do you want?" — a moment's thought — "Shouldn't you be in school?" 
Faced with a man easily six times his age, the gravity of the situation sunk into the boy and his face lost some of its excitement. 
"No, sir.  It's summer break.  School got out three weeks ago."  He paused, searching for the beginning of a speech he had apparently already given several times.  "You see, sir, my friends and I are on a summer service trip with our youth group, and we're trying to raise money for people to rebuild their homes in Louisiana, but we want to give you something back for your money, so if you'd help us out we'd be glad to paint your house number on your driveway.  That way when deliveries come they'll know which house is yours." 
The boy emerged from his memory and looked up into Walden's face, trying to anticipate a response.  A few seconds passed.
"Youth group?  What sort of youth group?"
"It's our church's youth group.  We're from the First Evangelical Free Church in Rockford, Illinois."
Several bursts of air broke from the old man's throat in a quick staccato.  His cheeks and eyebrows rose somewhat.  "That's quite a name.  Now why would a bunch of kids from Illinois come all the way to Ohio to do this?  Don't people have driveways where you come from?"
The boy's head sank, and with it his tone of voice.  "We do, sir.  But would you like to donate?"
Walden's cheeks rose further, exposing the tips of several teeth the color of milky tea.  "Ah, well then.  You said the money goes to rebuild...?"
"New Orleans, sir.  To help people whose houses were ruined in the hurricane."  The boy was encouraged by the smile and returned it.  Walden felt some phlegm in his throat and cleared it again.
"New Orleans.  Why do people want to rebuild New Orleans?  Isn't it below sea-level?"
"Yessir, but I bet if someone flooded your house you'd want it rebuilt, wouldn't you?"
"Suppose I would.  But I wouldn't want my house built on top of an underwater swamp, would you?  What do you kids believe, anyway, at this free church?  Tell me."
Walden's teeth vanished again and his eyes took on a resigned, droopy look, but the boy moved automatically into a prepared dialogue on the matter.  "We're Christians, sir.  Are you saved?"
"Saved?  Not sure what you mean." The teeth reappeared, though the eyes were still droopy.  The boy dug in his pockets and pulled out a small tract.  He began to read, with practiced enthusiasm:  "Romans ten verse nine says..."
"Hold on now."  A soft pink tongue slipped over the shriveled lips.  "I'm an old man with who knows how much time left.  If you want to save me from something, you'd better skip the lecture and get to it."
    Derailed again from his prepared material, an impatient middle-schooler started breaking through the boy's reverential shell.  "Well, sir, since you're almost dead, where do you think you'll end up after it's over?" 
    The old man laughed.  He had been waiting for a package and had expected nothing better.  Instead he was being interrogated about death by a twelve year old on an absurd mission to paint driveways.  He pieced together an answer.  "I think I'd rather be buried than cremated.  Don't much like the idea of getting burned.  So I suppose I'll go to a cemetery."
    "But what about you?  Where will your soul go?"
    "What's the soul, my boy, but the thing that gives my body life?  If I'm dead, my soul must be dead too."
    "That's silly.  Anyway, if you think that then you must be pretty unhappy.  Your time's almost up and then there'll be no you anymore."
    Walden's wrinkly eyelids rose and vanished beneath his brows.  His upper lip exposed a line of purple gums, and a few more stabs of amusement cracked from his throat.  "Oh, but I've always been glad to think that sooner or later I'd get out of it all."  Weighing the drama of the moment, Walden decided this would make a good ending for the scene, and shut his door on the young evangelist.
    He hadn't clearly seen the boy's expression at the end, but Walden enjoyed the idea of a naive face shocked with a cold splash of uncertainty.  He drifted back toward his chair, but decided to clean up his lunch things.  An empty sandwich plate lay on the coffee table next to a heavy book with a German title.  He took the plate back to the kitchen, imagining the life hiding behind the child he'd just encountered. 
He supposed the boy was from a middle class community, guessed that he had been fed a load of emotional rhetoric about sin and faith and Jesus by some man in his mid-forties trying too hard to be fresh and relatable.  Raised by habitual churchgoers, some emotional moment had led him to 'accept Jesus', probably around age eight.  It may even have happened recently.  He was on this trip because all his friends were, and despite the hyper-spiritualized language that surrounded his life, he had basically the same interests as most boys his age.  It was nonetheless certain, Walden thought, that the particular variety of "faith" the boy subscribed to involved little more than bringing a bible to church on Sunday and having a few verses memorized.  As further details fell into place, Walden washed the last traces of mustard from his plate and returned it to the cubbard.  By the time he had picked up his book again the biography was complete, every fact of the young life sketched out to his satisfaction.  He frowned, opened his book, and heard the doorbell chime a second time.
    Walden suspended all expectation as he approached the door.  He reasoned that two unsolicited house calls from people not associated with the postal service would be too much for a single day, but he was ready for anything.  Reaching for the doorknob, he smiled as he imagined a large black cat offering him a cigar.  But behind the door stood another boy, older this time.  This one was tan with some sort of sports jersey and short blond hair.  He must have been about eighteen.
    "Hello, sir.  I'm a friend of Justin's.  We don't want to bother you, but I think he was a little unprepared to answer your questions.  Maybe I can help clear things up."
    By that point the old man was a little disappointed.  He wanted the kids to leave him alone or at least offer some hope for an interesting conversation, but now he had another, and this one would probably be less engaging than the last.  He sighed.
    "If you want to talk, we're going to have to sit down.  There are chairs over there," he pointed to the small porch on his right.  "Do you have time?"
    "As much as you're willing to give me."
    "We'll see about that."
    Walden looked down the street as he eased himself into the plastic lawn chair.  There was no mailman.  He scratched his cheek and waited.
    "Well, sir.  What would you like to know?"
    Walden's jowls lengthened.  He wanted to know when his package would come and what would be in it.  He wanted to know what rhetorical strategy would ideologically crush the young man sitting next to him and why life was such a tedious bother filled with so many wrong people.  "What's your name?"
    "I'm Simon.  You are?"
    "I'm Walden."  A slight breeze filled the silence.
    "Well, it's nice to meet you, Walden.  Do you read much?"
    "Yes, Simon, I read much."
    "Favorite book?"
    Walden's teeth reappeared.  "Where are we headed with this, Simon?  I could croak any second, you know."
    Walden saw a glint of amusement in Simon's eyes.
    "Oh, it's just another kind of outdoor game."
    The oddity of the response roused the old man from his irritable self-pity.
    "You want to give me some good news, is that right?"
    "Well, not exactly.  I bet you already know the news.  Let me tell you a story instead.  Okay?"
    Walden didn't answer.  He braced himself for some masked Gospel narrative and rested his chin against his chest.  The wind picked up and played with Simon's longish hair, but the old man sat still.  Simon leaned forward, forearms on thighs, hands folded.  The story began.
    "My story is about a little kid named Henry.  Henry wasn't very good in school, but he liked talking to people and he had a game he liked to play.  The game was like this:  whenever someone brought up their views on religion or politics, he would ask them why they believed what they did, and for every answer he got, he would keep asking "Why?" over and over until the person couldn't answer any more or got angry.  Then he would laugh and leave them alone.  Even though Henry wasn't so bright, he always felt like he understood something that most people were missing, because of his game.  And he liked the rush he got from frustrating people.
    "Now, Henry got older, left school, got a job and an apartment.  By that time he was in his twenties.  He still liked playing his old game, but he had learned that people disliked him for it, so he saved it for rare occasions.  He had a group of friends at work, but kept to himself when he was at home.  Sometimes he had a girlfriend, usually not.  When Henry was alone, he liked thinking about what made his friends tick, tried to understand them.  He would think through facts about their lives, what they believed, and try and see why they did what they did. 
    "It happened that the more Henry thought about his friends and understood them, the more annoying he found them.  He started getting sarcastic and people began to avoid him.  He noticed this, but didn't care much because they were annoying anyway.  So Henry was alone for a while.  He was laid off at some point, went back to school, and decided to become a teacher.  He ended up teaching History.
    "Teaching appealed to Henry because he felt like he understood a lot about life.  He thought he could share his wisdom with kids and keep them from becoming like the people he knew.  He didn't care that much about history, but he thought it would be fun.  Once he started teaching, though, he found that kids weren't as impressionable as he expected.  In fact, they were rude and obnoxious and didn't care about school at all.  Over time, Henry stopped teaching his students and showed old documentary films instead.  Now and then he would pick out a kid from one of his classes and play his old game.  It pleased him to watch the kids squirm with uncertainty as he rained down questions they had never thought of before.  Naturally he won every time.  Other than these encounters the job was boring and worthless, but he was pretty much stuck in it, so he taught history for a couple of decades and then retired.  He had never gotten married.
    "Living alone with no friends, old Henry spent the days reading.  Philosophy appealed to him, since it gave him that old feeling that he understood something other people were missing out on.  What exactly he understood was never clear to anyone, but he scoffed at the unenlightened world became more and more reclusive.  His whole life had been a demonstration of a few clear points.  First, there was no reason to believe anything.  Second, everyone was either stupid or annoying.  Third, life just was a bunch of absurdities that culminated in death.
    "One day a kid came to Henry's door, trying to get him to donate money to some charity.  Henry was cold and sarcastic and told the kid that life was absurd and meaningless and then you died.  The boy smiled at Henry and asked him 'Why are you sticking around if the world is so meaningless?  And if life is absurd why do you live so regularly?  But what's more absurd than a whole life that just stops without any resolution?'
    "And how do you think Henry replied?  Tell me, Walden."
    Old Walden Sommers continued staring at the floor.  He hadn't been listening for a while, and had no answer to this final question.  His heart had stopped.
    "Walden Sommers?" a man in brown called from the end of the porch.  He was holding a large cardboard box.

07 May 2013

Prolegomena to a Taxonomy of Moral Arguments

Every moral argument must appeal to some evident good which serves as the motivating principle for an imperative.  The general form of all moral arguments is prudential (the attainment of this good requires that action), though the aspect under which the action in question causes or detracts from the motivating good may differ.  Before we work through a catalogue of different kinds of moral argument, let's look at different ways actions can cause ends.  Note that these different relations frequently overlap, though each retains its logical distinctness in the consideration of the relationship between act and end.  Thus the commendation of some temperate act as the efficient cause of temperance is distinct from the commendation of the same act as an element of a temperate life or the makings of temperance, which is likewise distinct from the commendation of the same act as being temperate, which is likewise distinct from the commendation of the same act as being good simpliciter.  By distinguishing between the ways an act and an end can be related, we begin to see different possible species of moral argumentation.

Efficient Causation:  The action is generative of the good in question.  The acquisition of nails and boards, the use of a hammer, the implementation of a design—these actions are productive of the good of having a bookcase.  

Material Causation: The action is what is to be perfected, and must be supplied as the matter to be worked on for the attainment of some more perfect act.  The man who strives for courage, though he strives imperfectly, produces acts which (though not courageous) may ultimately be transformed into virtuous acts.  Those imperfect acts must be supplied for the attainment of the virtue, as the raw wax for a candle, which is first refined and then shaped.  OR... The action is a part of a desired whole, formed either by a series of actions performed by one person (e.g. a career, the folding of a thousand paper cranes) or a collection of actions performed by a variety of people together (e.g. a successful social event, an election).

Formal Causation:  The action is a manifestation of the goodness desired and participates directly in the end.  In this way an act of genuine charity or faith is not merely productive efficiently of our attainment of everlasting life, is not merely the matter in which we are progressively sanctified, or an element in the life of the Church, but is the manifestation of eternal life begun in us.

Final Causation: The action is simply a good thing desired in itself, done for its own sake.