19 December 2014

Eisenhower and the Origins of Money

Following the sequence of items read over the past eighteen months, next are two books of secular history:

Eisenhower in War and Peace, by J.E. Smith — During my first year of graduate school, I embarked on a search for an honest man.  I was looking for modern men of heroic virtue.  For whatever reason, one of the first possibilities that occurred to me was Winston Churchill.  I didn't much like the sense of him I got from skimming a volume of his letters, so I searched a little more, and decided to try Eisenhower.  J.E. Smith is a very readable biographer.  After finishing his book, I think I can safely say that it was written for middle-aged men interested primarily in the facts of Ike's military and political careers and much less in the facts of his personal life or psychological development.  There is a lot of information about the former, and relatively little about the latter in this book.  One huge disappointment is the fact that Ike's childhood and adolescence are covered in only a dozen pages or so.  One has very little sense of the man's origins, and from everything said in this volume, it would seem that Ike did not have a very rich interior life.  He was an egocentric workaholic whose life was focused on getting things done in the context of the boys club that was the US Military in the first half of the 20th century.  His wife would seem to have been similarly superficial, though she clearly suffered on account of his distance and lack of care.  The man portrayed here is a highly effective bureaucrat with great management skills, little military genius, and little time for ideas.  Unfortunately, the psychological depth of Smith's account is, as mentioned, so thin, that one can't really tell what was going on in Ike's head in the meanwhile, if anything at all.

Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber — A friend had harassed me about reading this book for about two years before I finally picked it up.  I said above that it is a work of secular history, but primarily it is an anthropological analysis of the nature of monetary systems in different epochs of human history and the way the emergence and development of these systems of debt and exchange relate to the organization of power structures within society.  The title of the book does not serve it well, because it suggests a sweeping history of debt, when in fact what we find are a series of case studies combined with a very brief thematic survey of general historical developments in major world civilizations.  In the course of the book, Graeber offers a few piercing insights into the nature of exchange that illuminate the arbitrariness of things that are ordinarily, in Western society, taken as necessary facts of economics.  One example:  he points out that in the middle ages (whether in the West or elsewhere), coin was rarely used in commerce.  Instead, exchanges were made on credit and quantified using an abstract (but practically unseen, in its physical species) debt-reckoning currency.  The maintenance of credit relationships between different members of society guaranteed (and was guaranteed by) the stability of local economic communities: personal credit worked because economic exchanges were generally personal exchanges between people known to each other, whose names were at stake in the interaction.  The use of coin or actual currency in exchanges, the elimination of personal credit, coincides with the de-personalization of commerce and the atomization of society.

18 December 2014

A New Plan

I have been meaning for some time to compose reviews of several of the books I've read recently.  In each case the project seems too big to start, because for the past year most of my reading has been focused on large questions regarding the ecclesiastical history and politics of the past two centuries.  My reading is limited.  I'm only 26, and I have always been a very deliberate reader.  In order to jumpstart the process of working through the stack of things that need to be written, I am going to import a method I often use when reviewing movies: create a syllabus of recent items, summarize them in short form, and then return later on for longer discussions.  This way I should at least be able to get something down, and this easy beginning can serve as the foundation for more thorough discussions later on.

Here is the first round of short reviews.

  • History and Future of the Roman Liturgy, by Denis Crouan — I am not entirely sure what to make of Crouan's history of the liturgy.  He is committed to apologizing for the Bugnini Missal, and insists that when done well the new liturgy is wonderful.  He occupies a strange space: part traditionalist, but part critic of tradition.  He fully embraces the rhetoric about "calcifications" and "barnacles" and "private devotions" added to the Roman Rite in the older form, and supports the purification of the rite.  After having experienced the old rite more extensively over the past year, I think I disagree with him about the usefulness of removing these devotions and prayers, which seem to me to bolster the character of the liturgy and add to its integrity as a sacrifice.  However I am not yet sufficiently versed in these matters to say more, nor do I remember adequately the finer points of Crouan's analysis to be able to critique him.
  • The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann — Mann's great novel can be divided into two halves, based on the prime interlocutors.  In the first half, the focus is mainly on an Italian humanist named Settembrini and a Russian lady named Chauchat.  I read this section of the novel my second year of college, shortly after reading Buddenbrooks.  The latter was an enjoyable and easy read, whereas Magic Mountain is very intentionally a novel of "ideas".  Unfortunately the "ideas" of the first half are mostly based on secular humanism and humanistic republicanism, neither of which have much appeal to me, so I put it down for a few years.  Upon resuming the novel, I discovered that the second half is centered on a nihilistic Jesuit who uses a kind of traditionalism to critique the rationalism of Settembrini.  The second half of the novel is extraordinarily good. Naphta, the Jesuit, and Settembrini fight with each other, and are overcome by a third man, who represents Dionysian sensuality.  The implicit resolution of the battle of ideas is dissatisfying, and the ideas themselves are sometimes coarse, but it is a well-executed dialogical novel, and at many points the exchanges between the various characters are simply brilliant. 
  • Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Böll — A sprawling novel by the nobel prize winning post-War German writer.  This book uses the difficulties of a simple West German lady as the occasion for a network of stories about the experience of the average citizen during the rise of Nazism and WWII.  It has some excellent moments, and some delectable peculiarities, but by the end the novel has collapsed into self-indulgent trivialities, with the narrator eloping with a Catholic nun and the protagonist becoming a weird folk heroine.  Böll is an enlightened lapsed Catholic with ethnic sympathies for his former religion.
  • Chicago Manual of Style, Chapter II — On manuscript preparation and the editing process.
  • Livy, Book I — In his first book on the history of Rome, Livy chronicles the development of the city from its founding to the fall of the Tarquins.  The Tarquins are the most fascinating characters in this series, and Livy's discussion of the legends of early Rome tends to have an edifying flavor.
  • Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun — This novel chronicles the development of the homestead of a Norwegian man sometime around the turn of the 20th century.  It is a celebration of simplicity and hard work, which contrasts the dedication of the main character against his fickle wife, their various children, and the soft, corrupt neighbor man who attempts to live off of his wits instead of working the land.

06 December 2014

A Short Review

Since I've just passed 1000 page views on a blogpost for the first time, here's a quick review of the most read posts on this blog, along with some others that I think are worthy of attention.

Popular Posts

Other Excellent Posts
Intellectual Conversion Narrative: Part I and Part II

01 December 2014

Letter to a Friend on Ressourcement and the New Theology

[A friend of mine, a student in a very prominent graduate program in theology at a major Catholic university in the US, wrote to me recently.  In his letter he expressed confusion and dismay at the hostility to Western theology and liturgy since the Middle Ages which he has encountered among his professors, and asked me for some thoughts on the matter.  My reply to him is below.]

The first thing to be said is that you should be suspicious of criticisms that can't point to a particular error, but just cast a vague negative stereotype over vast swaths of Catholic theology without actually engaging any of it.  Granted, it's true in some sense, as you say, that saints and not scholars make the best theologians, but it's also true that a great many saints have written like and have even been scholars, and that a huge number of great saints, even when they have not themselves been scholars, have recommended scholarly theology as being a reliable tool for edification and personal sanctification.  You will hear many people criticize St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Thomas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Albert, St. Francis de Sales, (all doctors of the Church) and the members of their schools, but the people who do so never seem to be very interested in studying them or to have the humility and docility necessary to benefit from their thought.  

I've heard many times the ridiculous accusation against St. Thomas that he is a rationalist.  This is utterly absurd, as any decent reading of even a tiny fraction of the Prima Pars would reveal.  The truth is that the Scholastics were interested in two things which the new theologians don't have much concern for: clarity and truth.  In my experience, much of the new theology is focused on poetic richness instead of clarity, and "authentic" reflection instead of truth.  It would seem to count more as "good theology" to a modern theologian if someone wrote a very vague poem about the Godhead capable of any number of controversial and heretical interpretations, than if they attempted in a rigorous and straightforward fashion to settle some modest question about the nature of the Divine Essence as revealed through Scripture.  Modern theology is re-conceived as poetic experiential massage, instead of the clarification of articles of faith.

I'm going to skip railing against the nostalgia for the East and the absurdities of the Trinitarian theology you're reading, and talk a little bit about the problems with the New Theology and Resourcement generally.  As a note, if you want a history of Vatican II, I highly recommend Roberto de Mattei's Vatican II: An Unwritten Story.  It's very well-documented and was praised by Cardinal Brandmüller, who used to be head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.  I found it personally riveting and extremely illuminating.  Additionally, you ought to read Pope Pius X's encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis if you haven't already.

One of the chief difficulties today is that because of the sudden and catastrophic loss of Latin fluency among students of theology, the majority of the Catholic theological tradition has effectively been lost overnight.  What's left is for those who have the credentials and the gall to do so to make sweeping claims about the theological literature of the past 1500 years, so as to convince everyone else that (1) it is bad, theologically speaking, (2) it is intellectually stifling, (3) we must break from it, and be glad to have been rid of it.  Who are these people, and why are they suddenly so intent on upending and "liberating" us from so many centuries of theological reflection?  

The New Theology can be divided into two schools: Ressourcement and Aggiornamento.  The former is based on the notion that scholastic metaphysics and the disputative/tractative style of theological exposition are contrary to the richness and depth which belonged to theology prior to the emergence of the Schools in the high middle ages.  Patristic and Monastic theological reflection are ordered primarily toward the spiritual benefit of readers and listeners, and employ as their main form the exposition of scriptural texts.  During the middle ages the habits of exegesis and spiritual care were (supposedly) abandoned by the main figures of scholastic theology, and replaced by an extremely dry and overly-technical sifting operation of no benefit to anyone outside of university faculties.  The story goes that, as time went on, the scholastic theological systems became so refined, and reached down to such careful qualifications and distinctions, that the student of the Catholic Faith who desired to return to the sources of the tradition could no longer do so without being encumbered at every turn by the stifling jargon and nitpicking of baroque neo-scholastics.  Where were these articles, tracts, and dubia in the homilies of Chrysostom? Doesn't Nazianzen himself mock the theologians who thrive on subtle distinctions?  Isn't theology the work of the soul seeking perfection?  With indignation, the Ressourcement theologians want to turn back to the days of the Fathers, when one didn't need to worry about some neo-scholastic manualist breathing down your neck because of a vague or infelicitous phrase.  They want to set forth the faith with the newness of the kerygma present in the Greek Fathers, and to throw away all the trappings of suffocating rationalism that have burdened western theology for the past millennium.

There are several problems with this story.  First, when one reads the Fathers, one has a definite sense that they are not only not averse to the use of philosophical tools in theological reflection, but that they often struggle to develop them as a means of clarifying and exposing the faith, and combating heresy.  One finds even in the Greek Fathers early exercises in the systematic meeting of objections (cf. Justin Martyr) and systematic theological exposition (cf. John Damascene).  

Second, the standard portrait of changes in medieval theology is completely wrong.  The scholastic handbooks and Summae were developed as tools for pastors on the ground, to help them understand the mechanics of the faith and respond readily to spiritual doubts and moral quandaries.  If one wants to help a parishioner deal with some spiritual question or difficulty, the works of St. Alphonsus and St. Thomas are going to be infinitely more useful than any text by Rahner, de Lubac, or Balthasar.  The work of the scholastics was not to subordinate revealed truth to an artificial paradigm or intellectual system, but to organize and respond to common questions concerning what has been revealed so as to make the task of teaching, advising, and correcting simpler for those charged with it.  

Third, if the task of theological reflection is more "stifling" now than it was a millennium ago, this is in large part because of the clarity that has resulted from the development of the doctrine of the faith.  Where there were implicit material heresies in some of the Fathers, today we know how to eschew the offending language.  Where there were theological missteps in some of the early scholastics, today we can correct for their misplaced metaphysical assumptions or ignorance of the tradition.  These developments are advantages for those seeking to teach the faith, because we can do so, if we try, with less fear of error or confusion.  To want to be free of the constraints suggested by the scholastics is to desire to be liberated from the logic of Divine Revelation itself—this is prideful and tends toward heresy.

Fourth, the tradition of scholastic theology between Gregory VII and Pius XII abandoned neither the composition of exegetical tracts and homilies on scripture, nor the practical application of theological insights to spiritual counsel.  In the words of one religious order enamored of Scholasticism, the task of the theologian is contemplare, et contemplata aliis tradere.  If one believes that scholasticism removed the practice of theology from the ascetical necessities of the average layman's life, or divorced theological reflection from the devout reading of Scripture, one is simply ignorant.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of contrary examples.

Finally, there is an overall difficulty in the implications of the Ressourcement position for the proper approach to the Tradition as a whole.  If these new theologians are correct in claiming that the main threads of theological reflection as practiced over the past thousand years are largely fruitless and disposable, and that "authentic theology" needs to be recovered from some hidden trove where it has lain undiscovered in the writings of the Greek Fathers, then it becomes difficult to tell how one is supposed to perform this rediscovery.  Doesn't one become a kind of highly-educated protestant?  Isn't the entiref unction of the tradition between the Fathers and the Present that it has conveyed the former reliably to the latter together with all necessary clarifications and developments to render their testimony intelligible in the present time?  And what are we to make of the innumerable commendations by great Popes and Saints for this supposedly dry and barren mode of theological reflection?  Could it be that Ressourcement is just an excuse to abandon the Catholic tradition altogether, and reconstruct a new one according to one's tastes and creative inclinations?

The Ressourcement position is the worthier of criticism because it is the less obviously heretical of the two schools within the "New Theology" that have blossomed since the Council.  The other is much more disturbing because it reveals a basic lack of commitment to any sort of apostolic tradition or faith.  This is the so-called Aggiornamento school, emblematized by the journal Concilium.  (Concilium recently devoted an entire issue to the need for the destruction of "orthodoxy" in Catholic theology.)  These people are straightforward Modernists.  They generally fit St. Pius X's description of Modernist theology to the letter: immanentists about the existence and nature of God; excessive use of the historical critical method to debunk and deconstruct scripture; rejection of the real continuity of the faith across cultures and time periods; subscription to any number and variety of dogmatic and moral heresies; extreme hostility to the authority of the magisterium.  

One needn't wring one's hands about these guys, because it's clear that they are inventing a new religion which simply happens to share some key names and terminology with the one established by Christ.  The chief difficulty with them, though, is that (again, as described by Pius X) they hide their many heresies behind vague, unconventional and metaphorical descriptions of their ideas.  Rahner is an excellent example of this.  In Foundations of Christian Faith, we read a "mystical" treatise on the essence and underlying realities upon which the Christian Faith is based.  The language of this text is largely borrowed from Heidegger, and its style is full of circuitous neologisms.  Because of the sprinkling of pious phrases and variations on standard doctrinal affirmations spread throughout the text, one might be tempted to think that Rahner's analysis is simply an updating of old Thomistic theology to fit the new philosophical methods of the German phenomenologists.  Indeed, this is what Rahner is commonly described as doing!  He even has his own "school" of Thomism.  

But if you move beyond the stage of simply letting the verbiage wash over you and massage your consciousness, and try instead to get at the precise meaning of what he says, it is often extremely disturbing.  He denies the reality of the life to come, except as immanent in the present life.  He reduces God to the ground of our experience of mystery.  He identifies grace, which is supposedly co-natural with human nature, with beatitude and claims that they are one single moment in our lives.  He proposes the abolition of the traditional creeds and their replacement by certain more pluralistic and anthropocentric affirmations of commitment.  The whole business is horrifying to anyone interested in preserving the truths of the Catholic Faith, because it very clearly does away with the Faith altogether.  And to imagine that this man was held up as the chief theological hero of the Second Vatican Council!

So, to conclude, let me return to an earlier question: Why are these people so interested in escaping from the "dry" and "oppressive" network of scholastic theological analysis?  If we read the responses to their work from before the outbreak of the conciliar crisis in the Church, we can find the answer very easily: their opposition to the medieval and post-Tridentine theological tradition is based on an opposition to the traditions of the orthodox catholic faith.  And this opposition, this hostility, comes from a willful pride, which wants to free itself from the constraints of orthodoxy and the limitations of reason in order to express spontaneously an experience and a portrait of God (often shrouded in the "mystical") which is felt to be creative and personal, because it proceeds from the theologian instead of proceeding from the Word of God, and because it leads those who hear it to the feet of the theologian, instead of leading them back to Christ.

22 November 2014

Notes on Fundamental Anxiety, the Divine Presence, and the Mission of Christ

[Delivered in a Christology class for high school seniors this past week.]

1.  Material prosperity, entertainment, comfort, medicine and distraction remove the necessity of God from the ordinary person’s life.  This is the Death of God.  Not a literal death, but the Death of the necessity of God in ordinary people’s daily experience.

2.  Suffering forces us to confront the question of the meaning of our existence.  Any time we are forced out of our secure bubble of distractions and worries and start to realize how contingent and impermanent the things we value are, the problem of the Death of God becomes present to us.

3.  Fundamental anxiety is the experience of the absence of a ground for the meaning of our daily existence.  Once you have this experience of fundamental anxiety, you are forced with a choice: (1) accept the utter meaninglessness of life as presented to you in your anxiety, (2) throw yourself back into distraction and forget the groundlessness of your existence, (3) search for something that would ground the meaning of your life and make sense of existence.

4.  Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, captures the different responses to Anxiety in his novels The Brothers Karamazov and especially Crime and Punishment.  Blessed Henry Suso, a 14th century Dominican Mystic captures the experience of anxiety and the Catholic response to it in his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom

5.  God offers us a solution to the problem of anxiety and the meaninglessness we encounter in our ordinary daily existence.

6.  The presence of meaning in ordinary life is based on a few factors: (1) the extent to which a particular context or set of activities is directed toward some value that you already hold (2) the extent to which the activity or circumstance holds out the possibility of some unknown hope that you hold.

7.  Meaninglessness comes when an activity or circumstance holds no clear relation to any value you hold, and does not suggest any hope of some future good, or when the circumstance is not directed to anything at all.

8.  Fundamental Anxiety is an encounter with the large-scale question of the direction and value of your life.  In anxiety we are confronted with ultimate questions about what values and hopes our entire lives are directed toward.

9.  If, then, there is any answer to the question raised by fundamental anxiety, we have to discover an object which grounds the values and meaningfulness of human life as whole, without itself raising further problems about its own direction or meaningfulness.

10.  What attributes would an adequate answer to the meaningfulness of human life be? 
It would have to be the underlying source of all value.  It would have to have value not because of someone’s choice or judgment, but in itself, absolutely.

11.  It would have to exist, as a real entity, and not just as an idea present in the human mind, and its existence would have to somehow be decisive for the existence of everything else.

12.  It would have to be one, radically singular, in order to prevent the possibility of a new set of dichotomies or choices which would undercut it decisiveness as a solution to the problem of meaning.

13.  These characteristics (intrinsic and absolute goodness, oneness, and an essential relationship to all of existence) are sufficient to identify this thing as God.

14.  As Catholics, we believe not only that God is the ultimate answer to the question humans naturally have about the meaning of life and the source and purpose of all existence—we also believe that God is radically present in everything that he has created, and that his nature can be discovered indirectly through his works.

15.  Fundamental to Catholicism is the idea that God’s presence is discoverable in the world to those who look beyond the contingency and limitations of ordinary things and seek out their ultimate value and meaning, beyond their finitude.

16.  We will used the word "sacramentality" (borrowed from the Rahnerians) to refer to the fact that we can find transcendent meaning and value through all things because all things reflect God’s nature and are created by God, and refer to God as their perfection. (The goodness of God is what makes the goodness of every other thing good.)

17.  Sacramentality leaves open the question of how we can encounter or reach God directly when the ordinary things in life only approximate or indirectly point toward his goodness.  God is infinite; creatures are finite.  God is utterly perfect; creatures are imperfect.  God is eternal; creatures change.

18.  As Catholics, we believe that God himself has made himself present in Creation in a radically personal way, so that we don’t just know him indirectly by what he has made, but directly as a person with whom we are in a relationship.

19.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate or primary expression of God in the created world.  Jesus, by his life, teachings, and works, shows us who God is personally, because he himself is God.

20.  The purpose of Jesus Christ’s mission wasn't just to heal a few people in 1st century Palestine, or to have some really profound conversations with people, or even to express love.  Jesus’s Mission was to open up a path by which humans can approach God and become children of God, i.e. participants in that ultimate goodness and purpose for which and by which the universe was created.

21.  Jesus perpetuates his ministry by establishing a Church.  The Church is a visible institution made up of the followers of Christ, founded on the grace merited by Christ on the Cross, and united by one common faith, by the same sacraments, by the same prayer and liturgy, and by the same authorities.

22.  The Church exists to perpetuate the mission of Jesus Christ: to hand on the teachings which he gave to the Apostles; to administer the sacraments he instituted to give us grace; and to gather and govern the community of Christian faithful on earth.

23.  The Seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ as means by which God can draw humanity into a direct bond with him.  Each sacrament works to establish or deepen the relationship we have spiritually with God.  The Sacraments redirect our way of understanding and willing, beyond the ordinary, toward God.


02 November 2014

Note on The Josias

Somehow I ended up starting a website devoted to Catholic Politics.  Given my general lack of familiarity with political philosophy and so on, this is mysterious.  However, there are several learned people who have joined up and it's looking promising.  You can visit it here.

27 October 2014

Two Kinds of Triumphalism

Ordinarily one hears the word "triumphalism" applied to historical narratives about the Church.  The triumphalist version of Church History treats the past centuries as an inevitable march of the Ecclesia Militans onward to eschatological victory.  I would like to identify two new kinds of Triumphalism, related not to reflections on the Church's past, but to assessments of the present state of things.

The first triumphalism is an eschatological triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).  This triumphalism is informed by the theological virtue of hope, which looks at worldly distress, doubt and tribulation and sees past it to the victory already won by our Lord, who is enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  Yes, in the world we will have suffering.  Yes, there is strife and confusion, there are false teachers and antichrists, but in the midst of the grim struggle, we need not despair, because the victory is already ours.  This eschatological triumphalism ends up looking a lot like grim realism.  It expects things to go awry frequently, it sees the present world as a vale of tears which is passing away, but when things go wrong it sees this as an occasion of fortitude befitting a miles Christi.  The light set upon a hill shines brightest at night.

The second triumphalism is an ultramontane triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  Or rather, based on a particular reading of this promise.  The ultramontane triumphalist focuses on the immanent signs of Christ's triumph, in the integrity of the Church and especially in the Vicar of Christ.  The ultramontane triumphalist does not need to worry about persecution or fear any confusion, because he sees the promised triumph of Christ as already continuously accomplished in the prudence and perfection of the papal reign.  Everything the shepherds of the Church do is interpreted as a work of the Good Shepherd, and every act and allocution of the Roman Pontiff is interpreted through the promise of infallibility.  To stay faithful to Christ is to believe in his reign, which is made present through the reign of the Pope and the fidelity of the bishops.  To doubt the perfection of the latter is to deny the triumph of the former, and is therefore an act of despair and loss of faith.

The second kind of triumphalism is based on something correct: the Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of Christ, and his reign is an earthly sign of the triumph of our Lord, and his voice as Supreme Pontiff is the voice of the whole Church, speaking truths given to her by her Bridegroom.  And yet, like all heresies, it takes this noble truth, and warps it so as to obscure part of the faith and remove (at the cost of blindness) some of the difficulties of the present life.  Ultramontane triumphalism neglects those famous passages in Scripture, in which St. Luke tells us of divisions among the apostles, when St. Paul recalls rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy, when St. Peter warns the faithful against false teachers who will arise among them.  We follow the Pope, because he has the words of everlasting life.  We obey our Bishops because they teach us the truth and nourish us with the sacraments.  But, as St. Jerome writes,
"Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord's own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans... It is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders."  
Ultramontane triumphalism often ends in despair, because when the imperfection and profound weakness of our shepherds is revealed to us, this kind of triumphalist sees what is a lamentable fact of the corruption and corruptibility of wayward men, as a contradiction at the very heart of the faith, and as a failure of Christ, who promised to sustain his Vicar and protect him from the forces of hell.

Perhaps worse still, though, is the reaction of triumphalists who refuse to admit the imperfections and errors of the shepherds when they arise, who would insist on not just ignoring the fault, but on praising Peter for his hypocrisy, or honoring Nicolas for his heretical notions, because their fideistic confidence in the integrity of the papal reign so overwhelms reason that they must embrace everything that is done by the steward as if it were done by the king himself.  This perversion of faith leads to a perversion of hope, and it manifests itself with disturbing frequency among English-language commentators on ecclesiastical affairs.

12 October 2014

On the Intrusion of the Religious
into Secular Storytelling

One of the reasons prayer and religion integrate so poorly into otherwise secular media is that God doesn't make very good set dressing.  You can try to neuter religious practice by sentimentalizing it (formerly the most common approach -- the young child offering innocent prayers), or by limiting its presence to moments of high drama and human bafflement (also common -- the protagonist crying out to God), or by demonizing it (now most common -- the psychotic zealot, the clerical predator), but seriousness about things divine logically demands a reorientation of interest away from the mundane concerns of the typical secular narrative and toward God.  (When there is eternity to be gained or lost, the passions of the flesh and the pursuit of worldly peace seem rather thin.)

This demand for reorientation is jarring to the secular storyteller on two levels: (1) it threatens the integrity of the plot and the intelligibility of secular character arcs; (2) it forces the narrative into a conversion pattern, which cannot (by the lights of the secular writer) be done in a gratifying way without yielding to moralistic cliches.

One of the normal features of realist narrative is the absence of a clean resolution to the driving conflict in the plot.  In secular realism, this lack of resolution is undergirded by a tacit nihilism or absurdism: there is no happy ending because life itself is an unresolvable series of tensions.  But this lack of resolution seems to belong more properly to religious narratives, because the "locus refrigerii, lucis et pacis" which provides satisfaction for our struggles is not visible in this vale of tears, to which all our stories must be confined.  Like the life of St. Francis, the best religious stories end in a place of suffering and decay, with an ellipsis pointing to eternal life.

04 October 2014

One Line Movie Summaries

Since I have just finished eating a box of chocolates given to me for my birthday, it seems time to write up a few random movie summaries.  One line each, chosen based on random flipping through an old master-list of my Netflix ratings.

Primer -- Two tech professionals accidentally invent a time machine—or wait, they already invented the time machine, and now they're just reliving the past in order to change things. (3)

Princess Mononoke -- Young man is poisoned by a crazed forest spirit, ends up entangled in a plot to decapitate nature, falls in love with a girl raised by wolves. (4)

Prometheus -- Alien prequel that basically amounts to a really really high-budget X-Files episode: in search of our alien creators, scientists end up uncovering an ever-mutating virus which was meant to destroy humanity. (3)

Proof -- The daughter of a recently-deceased famous insane math prof proves the Goldbach Conjecture or Riemann or something, and no one is sure whether it's her work or her dad's.

Proof of Life -- Meg Ryan's husband is kidnapped by a Columbian drug cartel, and she falls for Russell Crowe, who plays the military guy responsible for negotiating his release. (3)

Psycho -- Woman steals a bunch of money and runs away from work, only to be murdered by a crazy hotel manager who dresses up like his dead mother. (3)

Pulp Fiction -- A bunch of random stuff happens to some hit guys who work for Marcellus Wallace. (2)

Pygmalion -- The original film version of G.B. Shaw's awful play about an arrogant professor re-creating a woman in his own image.

Rachel Getting Married -- Anne Hathaway plays a disturbed alcoholic whose sister is getting married in the midst of a lot of emotional drama and dysfunction. (4)

Radio Flyer -- Elijah Wood plays one of two little boys who escape from an abusive step father by building an airplane out of a wagon. (2)

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Indiana Jones chases the Ark of the Covenant while Nazis try to use its power to guarantee military success. (3)

Rain Man -- Tom Cruise discovers his long-lost autistic brother and kidnaps him. (3)

Rango -- Johnny Depp plays a lizard whose desert hallucinations play out something like the plot of Chinatown. (2)

Ransom -- Mel Gibson tries to get his son back from kidnappers, but I don't think he does. (2)

Rashomon -- Different witnesses to a murder-suicide recount the event in totally contradictory ways. (3)

Rat Race -- A group of millionaires watch a bunch of ordinary Vegas vacationers race to win a large cash prize.  (2)

Ratatouille  -- A rat with culinary talent helps a famous chef's oafish son demonstrate that great cooks can come from any part of the population. (5)

Ratcatcher -- A young Glasgow boy sees his friend drown and, after struggling with this for a while, commits suicide. (3)

Ready to Rumble -- Two wrestling superfans go in search of their favorite wrestler in order to help him overcome something.  (1)

Rear Window -- Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart uncover a murder from the window of his studio apartment. (4)

Rebecca -- Something about a new wife and a crazy housekeeper too attached to her former mistress... fire.  (4)

Reds -- Diane Keaton is a liberated woman who ends up with Communist labor organizer Warren Beatty, who wrote this interminable mess of a film, and ends up sticking with him through thick and thin as they make their way to Soviet Russia to help the revolutionary cause. (2)

Renaissance Man -- Danny Devito teaches remedial english to soldiers, and gets caught up in their personal dramas. (2)

Return to Oz -- Horrifying sequel to The Wizard of Oz, involving a weird headless witch, rollerskate monsters, an evil mountain king and an insane asylum. (3)

16 September 2014

But everyone else is raised to believe
their religion, too...

A former student wrote to me recently with the following concern.  It happens to be a common one—one that has occurred to me in the past, so I thought I'd post it with my reply.

The reason I am Catholic is that I was born into a particular family, who brought me up a certain way, and now I believe in something called Faith and God. But people born in any other place (India or Iran) believe their religions are true, and their faith in their gods are correct. Where we were born had a drastic influence on our perceptions of things. So how do we know our faith is the one we should be believing?

There are a few approaches to answering this question.

— First, we could do a rational investigation of the facts, and what are called "reasons of credibility".  If you look at other religions, and you investigate their teachings and history, you should try to be sensitive to problems of consistency and signs of constructed-ness.  E.g. with Islam, there are certain claims made about the Quran—very strong claims.  If the Quran is the sort of thing that Islam claims it to be, when you look at the Quran, does the nature of the text correspond credibly with its claims about itself?  You can do this not just with Islam but with a variety of religions.

— Second, we should be aware of the different roles that different religions play in different cultures.  E.g. most world religions are not centered on claims to truth, but on local cultic ritual practices.  A Hindu does not have any interest in propagating his beliefs, because his beliefs aren't really about believing things so much as fulfilling a set of cultic expectations in the context of his community.  It's not really true to say that Hindus or Shamanists or Animists or Buddhists have "faith" the way Christians have "faith", because they don't, in general, make the sorts of claims that Christians make in the first place.

— Third, there is the question of the supernatural character of faith.  Ultimately, you cannot prove by merely rational means that Christianity is to believed, though you might have good evidence that a variety of non-Christian religions don't meet criteria for credibility.  The evidence of Christian faith comes from the illumination of someone who is ready to receive faith.  Faith is "blind" but only in terms of our external senses.  The deeper you enter into the Christian Faith, the less blind it becomes, because the gift of understanding works in you, and things become intelligible in an extraordinary way.  This is not something you can prove or deduce, it's a grace.

— Ok, now about where you're born.  It's true that people are educated by their parents and formed by their local culture, but there's a temptation to take that truth to an extreme, and assume that because culture and parents form us and teach us, everything about how we think and see the world is dependent on the contingencies of where we're born, and to which parents.  But that's really not true.  Parents and culture give a slant to the development of human nature, but nature remains.  A sign of this is the striking community of ideas, morals, and philosophical tendencies across all the major world civilizations.  These common features of human society aren't just a result of shared influences, they're a result of a common human nature.  And so you have to ask, given the common ground between all humans, which cultures and beliefs tend to perfect humanity.  Some investigation of the different approaches is beneficial here, but there is a totally unique grace to Christianity, which surpasses the other religions of the world.  Basically: it's true that you have prejudices, but not all prejudices are bad.

24 August 2014

A Dialogue Concerning the First Way

—Consider a collision between two objects.  What happens?
—One object hits another, and causes the other to accelerate.
—Why does the one object cause the other to accelerate?
—Because of the transfer of momentum.
—What does that mean? How does the momentum transfer?
—The short answer is that the electromagnetic force causes energy to move from one object to the other in the form of linear momentum and heat.
—So the electromagnetic force stops the first object, and starts the second object moving?
—Well, no, the electromagnetic force is just a name we give to observed rules of motion in interacting charged bodies.
—So, when we say "the electromagnetic force caused something", really we're just saying "the mechanics of the movement are described by these rules".  I.e. we aren't actually specifying the agent that caused the motion.  Is that right?
—Yes, I suppose that's right.
—So really the cause of the change is just the two objects, right?
—But that leaves the question unanswered.  What caused the two objects to change in precisely this way?  Why do they follow the rules of electromagnetism?
—Because they're made of charged particles.
—But aren't "charged particles" just defined as "things that are observed to follow the rules of electromagnetism"?
—Hmm, I suppose so.
—So why do these things follow those rules?  I.e. why do they act as charged particles?
—Well, it's just their nature.  It's what they are.
—But notice something: before the two objects collide, they're acting one way, and then during the collision they start acting differently.  Is that right?
—Yes, that's right.  During the collision, atomic interactions cause compression waves in both objects, possibly rearrange them, at least partially, and the various interactions cause some of the initial momentum to be converted into heat.
—Ok, so we've established that it's just in the nature of these objects to change as they do when they collide.  But what makes them act in accord with that nature, instead of differently?  Why don't the two objects just keep behaving the way they were, and pass right through each other?
—Well, they just don't.  That's just the way things are.
—But scientifically, it seems like we have to be able to find some explanation, right?  There has to be some basis for the particular rules of transformation that we've identified.
—Well, sure, but we don't have any material evidence about it, so science prefers not to speculate.
—Ok, fair enough.  But it seems like in general science works this way: we observe an effect, and then we make an inference to the existence of the cause, even if we can't identify its exact nature.  E.g. this was how the neutron was predicted, and the higgs boson, and so on.
—That's right.  From an observed effect we make a guess about the existence of a cause, and then we try to draw further conclusions about the nature of that cause, which will allow us to make testable predictions.
—So, here we have an observed effect: the consistent, universal transformation of different substances in accord with observable "natures" or laws of nature.  And we are looking for a cause: something which prompts this or that particular things to act and change in accord with these laws.
—Well, but hold on.  Why do we assume that there is always going to be such a cause of change in the first place?  Maybe it's just a fact that things change the way they do, and maybe there is no reason why.  Maybe the universe is just a sort of ticker that follows observable patterns without there being an external "cause" that moves each thing to do whatever it does.
—Let me make sure I understand.  Are you suggesting that maybe the whole idea that one thing causes another to move is questionable, and that there is no such thing as causation?
—Yes, I think so.  Sort of like in a computer game, the way a space ship can "cause" an asteroid to blow up by firing lasers at it.  In our heads we think "the space ship, i.e. this cluster of lighted pixels, caused the asteroid, i.e. that other cluster of lighted pixels, to explode, i.e. to change the way they are lit."  But in reality the illumination of these portions of the screen in this way did not cause the other portions of the screen to change, since there was no direct interaction.  The computer's video processor caused the whole thing.
—I see.  But it's interesting, because in your analogy, the computer is still causing the screen to change according to certain rules.  I.e. there is still an external cause of change.  But I think you want to get away from that, is that right?
—Well, actually my idea is that the computer software executing the changes is like the laws of nature, and the objects on the screen are like material objects.
—Ok, I'll run with your analogy.  It seems like my question still applies.  Because even in your analogy, we can ask why the computer is running this particular software, with these rules, instead of some other software.  And more compellingly, perhaps, we can ask why it is that the program is running at all.  To translate these questions into our original discussion: why do things follow these laws of physics, and why are there any laws of physics at all?
—Hmm.  I'm starting to see your point, but let me try one other dodge.  Let's just suppose that this particular "program" or "set of laws" is one facet of a single unchanging super-program, i.e. the multiverse, and that our particular way things work is just one of an infinitely large number of variations on the same rules.  The multiverse isn't really a cause in the way you want there to be a cause, it's just the totality of which our natural world forms a part.
—Hmm, well at this point your dodge seems to have landed you into some seriously speculative hypotheses about the nature of the universe.  I'm not sure that qualifies as what you want to call "science."
—Sure, but it's still an alternative to the sort of cause you seem to want to hypothesize.
—Is it?  Well, let's suppose there is a multiverse, and it's infinite, and it includes every possible set of physical laws.  It seems like we still end up with the same problem.
—How so?
—Well, we can ask, why is it that this multiverse exists instead of a different one, e.g. a finite one, or one with just our universe?  Actually you've just shifted the problem back a level.  It's exactly the same.  The multiverse has particular rules and properties, and changes in particular ways, in its various parts, and it could be different.  Why is it the way it is, and why does it behave the way it does?
—Well, we don't have any data yet.  Perhaps some day we can scientifically investigate those questions.
—Ah, but that's just a cop out.  In fact we do have a ton of data.  All the data ever collected conclusively shows that things act and change in accord with fixed laws, and that these laws are different depending on the kind of objects under examination and the way they are interacting.  Whether the reason for this set of natural laws is immediately available or mediated through a multiverse, or through a super-multiverse, or through however many layers you want, it's good science to assume that if there is an observed effect there must be a causal principle behind it.  We notice that things change in a certain way, so we should be willing to hypothesize that there is a thing (not a rule) that moves them to change the way they do.
—But we've already named those things.  They're just bosons, i.e. force carrying particles.  And if you posit the existence of something else on top of them, you're doing double-duty explanation-wise.
—Force carrying particles are just another part of the explanation, though.  They themselves change depending on the circumstances.  They have natures, they interact in certain ways, etc.  What causes the causes to cause change the way they do?  It doesn't seem that there's an answer.
—Well, fine, let's suppose there's another kind of particle or force field or something that causes those changes.  Is that satisfactory?
—But if that cause is itself something that changes in accord with laws of nature, we have to ask the same question for it.
—Ok, so?
—So, the conclusion is that eventually, either there's just a bare unexplained fact "hey the universe is just like this, and there's no reason why", or there's got to be some thing, which causes other things to change, to follow the laws of nature, to act however they do, but never changes itself, and has no random properties that we can ask "why is it this way?" about.
—Hmm.  But such a thing would have to be unobservable.
—Yes, that's right.
—But that's a problem for science, because if we make a theory that predicts the existence of a particular kind of thing, we need to be able to make testable hypotheses about the effects of that thing.
—Well, but notice that this hypothesis is pretty singular.  The thing being hypothesized is different from any other thing that physics describes.  It's not a particular kind of object that interacts with other objects in an observable way.  It's the cause of all the regular phenomena of nature.
—Yes, I see.  Ok, but one more thing: why do we need this sort of explanation at all?  Isn't it enough to just say "hey, sooner or later this is just the way things are"?
—You could, but the problem with that is that it seems to undercut the explanatory power of science.  Instead of being someone who reliably traces events to their underlying causes, the scientist becomes someone who just says  "hey, a correlation!" and leaves it there.  Causation vanishes.
—Hmm, and you want to say that science necessarily makes claims about causation?
—Yeah, I think it does.  To be sure, you could surrender the principle that changes are caused, but it seems like once you resort to "that's just how things are" you've given up real science.
—But how does your proposed super-cause not fall victim to the same criticism?  Why is there this super-cause and not another?
—Well, that line of questioning just clarifies what the super-cause, as you call it, must have to be like.  And whether we can frame a coherent account of the nature of that cause is a different problem.  But if you accept that there must be such a super-cause if we are to preserve the idea of an ordered and intelligible (i.e. investigable, science-friendly) universe, then it seems that we have gotten to the existence of that being which most people refer to as "God".

06 August 2014

From the 24th Session of the Holy and Ecumenical Council of Trent

(Please note in particular Canon VII.)

CANON I.-If any one saith, that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelic law, (a sacrament) instituted by Christ the Lord; but that it has been invented by men in the Church; and that it does not confer grace; let him be anathema.

CANON II.-If any one saith, that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not prohibited by any divine law; let him be anathema.

CANON III.-If any one saith, that those degrees only of consanguinity and affinity, which are set down in Leviticus, can hinder matrimony from being contracted, and dissolve it when contracted; and that the Church cannot dispense in some of those degrees, or establish that others may hinder and dissolve it ; let him be anathema.

CANON IV.-If any one saith, that the Church could not establish impediments dissolving marriage; or that she has erred in establishing them; let him be anathema.

CANON V.-If any one saith, that on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved; let him be anathema.

CANON VI.-If any one saith, that matrimony contracted, but not consummated, is not dissolved by the solemn profession of religion by one of the married parties; let him be anathema.

CANON VlI.-If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.

CANON VIII.-If any one saith, that the Church errs, in that she declares that, for many causes, a separation may take place between husband and wife, in regard of bed, or in regard of cohabitation, for a determinate or for an indeterminate period; let him be anathema.

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able.

CANON X.-If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that the prohibition of the solemnization of marriages at certain times of the year, is a tyrannical superstition, derived from the superstition of the heathen; or, condemn the benedictions and other ceremonies which the Church makes use of therein; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges; let him be anathema.

24 June 2014

Notes on the Notion of Identity

1. Identity comes from a medieval Latin abstract noun, which denotes the quality of selfsameness. Identitas is the relation each thing has to itself.

2. Today when we talk about “identity”, we usually mean the selfsameness of persons, and there are a number of presuppositions that go into the grammar that governs our use of the word.

3. A rigorous delineation of these presuppositions would take the form of an archaeology of modern ethical thought: we would look at Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, the rest. Others have done this work before — this is a great mercy, because it excuses us from the need to run through lengthy expositions and narratives, and leaves us free to isolate the principles.

4. The fundamental moral principle of identity is ancient. Its most famous expression is taken from the Delphic Oracle: Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν, know thyself. The commandment leaves unstated the promised benefit of self-knowledge, but there are so many different benefits that follow from it, one can fill in the gap as one pleases.

5. No matter how one describes the benefits of self-knowledge, what is assumed is that there is something to be known, and that the nature of that thing is crucially important. The old humanists believed that what was to be known was humanity as such, by which all other things are measured. The Pyrrhonists believed that in coming to know our own ignorance, we would achieve peace in the impossibility of knowledge. For the Stoics, it was the difference between one’s inner freedom and the determinism of the outer world. And so on.

6. For the modern grammar of identity, the “what” of identity is a hypostasis we call “the self”. The grammar of identity today is a personalist grammar, in particular it is an essentialist personalism. What does that mean?

7. We know from Boethius that a person is an individual substance of rational nature. Today we associate personhood with conscious individuals (setting aside all the qualifications and disputes). Personalism is a kind of ethical atomism. Atomism is a kind of metaphysical materialism. Therefore we need to start with materialism.

8. Since “matter” is defined as that out of which things are made, i.e. the component parts of things, “materialism” is a broad name for any method of analysis which attempts to reduce things to their common parts. Atomism is a particular species of materialism, in which the reduction terminates in the identification of a species of discrete, indivisible singular things.

9. Personalism is an ethical atomism. This truth is profound and can produce several layers of insight. For our purposes we will stop at the fact that for a personalist the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the conscious individual. Every moral analysis is in terms of individual persons, and no moral analysis is possible on an interpersonal or sub-personal basis, without returning in some way to the individual person.

10. There are many possible varieties of personalism, but when we speak of identity today, the personalism that comes into play is an essentialist personalism. I.e. a personalism in which what gives identity to these ethical atoms is not their distinctness as separate instances of a common species (e.g. humanity), but an essential “what-ness” determined on the level of the individual.

11. The “what-ness” or essence of individual identity is not thought to necessarily distinguish one from every other person, but to establish a personal kind, the perfection of which one is then called to live out.

12. In fact the great paradox of the elevation of Identity to a prime moral principle is that while it seems on the one hand to promise the liberation of the individual from the impositions of a general moral code, in fact because the personhood invoked by our “identity” discourse is an essentialist personhood, we end up being called to discover and participate in a narrow type of self. Just when one expects moralism to have vanished, it reappears in the form of an ethics of authenticity.

13. Authenticity is based on the idea that one’s self ought to be the origin of one’s behavior, which means that if the self and the manner of life are inconsistent, there is a moral failure. The existentialists call this variously “despair” or “bad faith” or simply “inauthenticity”. To thine own self be true, oh Laertes.

14. The unacknowledged problem faced by all of us as we attempt to discover our selves, is that the self is not easily interrogated. We who place such a high premium on obedience to the Pythia’s command are totally inept at obeying it. Instead we turn to the mysticism of inner inclinations, romanticism about emotions and appetites, and we baptize those inner voices which speak most frequently and clearly to us as our “true selves”.

15. The pressure is tremendous, though. One dare not resist the call of the self, lest one fall into a state of inauthenticity. What shame would follow from this fundamental dishonesty!

16. And so we end up enslaved: to the quest for the self, to our base appetites, which we mistake for the voice of our inner truth, to socially constructed types of identity into which we pigeonhole ourselves.

17. The most remarkable thing about principles of identity is that one can see all the characteristic features of classical virtue ethics tucked away within them. Inauthenticity, the failure to live out the type of self one “truly” is, is a great shame, is dishonesty…

18. The problem is ultimately reducible to a misidentification of the nature of a person. Where do persons receive their natures? From their species. The species is not a type of self or an individual identity. For all of us, it’s quite easy to identify: our species is humanity.

19. Because we are materialists about the visible world, we tend to be gnostics about our inner lives. Man is a rational animal. An animal is just a complex bunch of gears and springs. But gears and springs are not selves. To be a self is therefore not about one’s species: it is radically interior and incommunicable. Etc.

20. But because the human mind has a virtually ineradicable habit of intellectual first principles, it tends to look for the nature of whatever it fixes on. If the self is a thing, the self has a form, a nature, and if it has a form, it has a form that can be perfected or defective or shared.

21. For our personalists, the basic human quest is still a quest for virtue and excellence and happiness, but the problem is that these things are sought relative to a nature constructed by the mind, a nature that is essentially unintelligible (and therefore amorphous, formless, unreal)—a fictitious nature.

22. And yet if we replace this fictitious nature of selfhood with the genuine identity of humans—humanity—things fall into place quite readily. How?

23. Inauthenticity, the failure to be true to one’s nature, is indeed a shameful thing. It is dishonest, because in classical terminology honestas is nothing other than the rectitude of the will and proper order of the passions in accord with the true perfection of one’s nature. As Thomas says, the honest man possesses a certain claritas, a luminosity of soul, which makes him beautiful.

24. What gives the soul clarity? In crystals, clarity comes from the purity of the substance (the absence of anything foreign to or contrary to the order of the whole), and from the collective alignment of all the parts in the proper order. Clarity in human nature comes from the alignment of everything in us: all our powers, passions, appetites, our emotions, ideas, and interests, in the service of the perfection of what we are, our human nature. To be an honest man, to possess clarity of soul, is to be free from all impurity and contrary inclination, to know the good clearly and to desire it totally, so that in every act one tends perfectly toward it.

25. The notion of claritas brings us back to Delphi. Who is it that knows himself? Who obeys the oracle’s command? We know what things are by seeing them, and the best instances of a species show us by their perfection everything it is to be that kind of thing.  

26.  And so we conclude: The one who knows himself truly is the one capable of self-knowledge, the one whose various inclinations and ideas are so aligned with his human nature and whose desires so accord with the good of that nature, that his own life becomes crystalline, achieves the claritas necessary for humanity to shine through him, to be revealed in whatever he does, so that he can see himself as what he is, and everyone else, beholding him, can say “That is a virtuous and honest man.”


Some addenda:

A.  Notice that by substituting a socially constructed "identity" or "identity type" for the reality of human nature, we more or less guarantee that the quest for honesty ordinarily productive of the virtue of temperance produces instead all the vices directly contrary to temperance.

B.  The honest man knows himself because he is an exemplum of human perfection, and also because in his purity he is particularly suited to recognize the truth about things.  Both in the act of knowing and in the object of knowledge there is a real superiority of intelligibility.

C.  The extreme proponents of the ethics of authenticity generally compound their personalist essentialism with voluntarism, so that the self is not merely discovered but created by an act of radical recognition of the groundlessness of one's identity.  Existentialist personalism of this sort is so practically unintelligible that it remains irrelevant, except as another fog bank we can dive into in the struggle to "find ourselves".

D.  One wonders how long the delusion of identity types can be sustained.  The cynic can point at them and ask cui bono?  Because the expression and cultivation of the self normally takes place in the consumption of particular types of goods, there is a strong interest in various mainstream and niche markets to encourage the ethics of authenticity, because it gives a moral imperative to consumer behavior.  

E.  Additionally, because the identity of the self is plastic and amorphous, it is easily shaped by modes of speaking, and can therefore be reshaped by the transformation of stereotypes and typical associations.   Who teaches us what it is to be human, has the power to teach us the types of human, the species of identity, and to regulate the expressions of those identities by stigmatization and approbation, both direct and indirect.

22 June 2014

Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass

From the 22nd session of the Council of Trent
Promulgated 7 September 1562

The sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent--lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same Legates of the Apostolic Sec presiding therein--to the end that the ancient, complete, and in every part perfect faith and doctrine touching the great mystery of the Eucharist may be retained in the holy Catholic Church; and may, all errors and heresies being repelled, be preserved in its own purity; (the Synod) instructed by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, teaches, declares; and decrees what follows, to be preached to the faithful, on the subject of the Eucharist, considered as being a true and singular sacrifice.

And he went up from there into Bethel...

My new blog image (for marketing purposes!) is taken from a 14th century dutch bible, and is the illumination of the passage from 2 Kings 2, in which Elisha, returning from the assumption of Elijah, finds himself being mocked by a group of children, and summons bears to devour them.

17 June 2014

Some Thoughts on Definition

1.  The word "definition" signifies the specification of the limits of a thing.  Limits make clear the unity of a thing—what it is, what it is not.

2.  We can distinguish between the definitions of things and the definitions of terms.  The definition of a thing marks out the limits of a thing.  The definition of a term marks out the limits of a term.

3.  Terms are obviously just another kind of thing.

4.  The kind of definition appropriate for a thing will depend on the manner of its existence: is it a substance, a quantity, a quality, place, time, relation, position, habit, passion, action?  In each case, what is required to mark out the limits of a thing will be different.

5.  The more a thing has being in itself, the more a the specification of its limits will tend to capture what is formally distinct about it.  Thus places and times, relations, positions, habits, passions, and actions are defined relatively and with a degree of indeterminacy.  Their determinacy comes from the substances relative to which they are defined.

6.  Terms have an accidental existence.  They exist as features of thinking and speaking agents, and as means by which the minds of those thinkers and speakers maintain a real relation to the things referenced by the terms.  To say that they have an accidental existence does not mean that they are not real, or that they cannot be spoken of without reference to any particular agent, but that it belongs to them to exist in a subject distinct from them: terms do not form an abstract set of things apart from the people who think and speak by means of them.  Insofar as they exist, terms always exist in people.

7.  What is a term, then? A term is a form abstracted from things, held in the mind, and associated with a particular verbal sign.

8.  What is a sign?  A sign is anything that directs our attention beyond itself.  Terms differ from signs in that a term does not simply direct one's attention, but is a means by which we reference a thing.  The term stands for the thing.

9.  In terms, the verbal sign directs our attention to the idea immediately, so that in practice the sign and the idea become indistinguishable.  The association between the two is formed by habit.

10.  Because in terms the idea and the sign are always joined together (except in moments of forgetfulness, when we cannot remember the word), the use of terms exists in a mutual causal relationship with natural language.  (Much more could be said about this)

11.  How do we come to possess terms?  How are they formed?  Most terms are acquired by the observation or indication of some formal aspect of things.  We notice something about things and ask "what is the word for that", we encounter a word and inquire after its meaning, or perhaps we invent a word to express some idea we have come upon by ourselves.  (Much more could be said about this as well.)

12.  It should be noted that the "things" abstracted from need not be outside the mind: they can be phantasms of the imagination, or constructed ideas based on forms already held by the mind from experience.

13.  Though every term must refer back somehow to something abstracted from things outside the mind, a particular term need not stand for anything real. It is in the power of the mind to combine the apprehended aspects of things in ways not yet apprehended.  We combine certain aspects of goats with certain aspects of men, and construct in our minds an idea, which we name "satyr".

14.  A definition specifies the limits of a thing, of what it is, but by what means?  If I draw a line around my property is that a definition?  Not exactly.  A definition employs terms to specify the limits of what it defines.  A definition expresses the form of one thing in other terms.

15.  Definitions are principles: they are attempts to grasp first of all what sort of thing is being discussed.  But they are principles not in that they found the subject of discourse, but because they are the first attempt, on which much of what follows depends.

16.  An incorrect definition will not necessarily corrupt every element of one's discourse on the subject of the definition, but it indicates error and will tend to produce errors as one goes on.  (Parvus error in principio, magnus est in fine.)

17.  If one errs in the definition, then one's grasp of the subject is wrong: the idea does not conform to the reality.  And this lack of conformity will continue to manifest itself as things proceed.

18.  So what makes a true definition?  A definition expresses the form of one thing in other terms.  This is to say that we do not define a rose by saying, "It is a rose."  We define it in terms of something else, something more general, and then proceed to distinguish it from other variants of that more general form by giving a difference specific to what is being defined.  Thus "genus" and "difference" determine a species.

19.  Definitions always take the form of a categorical judgment: "A is B."  "[Thing Defined] is [Genus] with [Difference]."  In the genus/difference predicate, the difference modifies the genus, so that the generic form stands for the substance of what is being defined, and the difference acts as an accidental form added to the genus, even though often this is not the case.

20.  Because to be a thing is to be one, in every definition of a thing, there is something which stands in for the substance of what is defined.  In other words, it is impossible to produce an adequate definition which reduces a real thing entirely to qualities.

21.  This was Berkeley's difficulty: by choosing to admit only qualities in his analysis of things, he became incapable of accounting for their substance, and was forced to reduce their unity to the one substance he could not easily deny: himself.

22.  Definitions of things seek to reduce the essence of things to terms.  Definitions of terms reduce the essences of terms to other terms.  When defining natures outside the mind, one always has the thing itself to get in the way of error; but terms in the mind are mutable and shifting: when brought into relations, they shift in order to accommodate each other.

23.  If the purpose of terms is to more readily direct the mind to forms and aspects of forms in reality, then a terminological system will be better the more it grasps different forms under different aspects.  Our lexicon of terms must be at least as diverse as the real forms we attempt to reference with them.

25.  In order to bring various terms and forms into proper relationship with each other, their distinctness must be preserved.  In order to form a true (i.e. correct) hierarchy of forms in thought, one needs to give individual forms room for dissimilitude from any primary term.  This space of dissimilitude is provided by analogy.

26.  Without analogy the only legitimate connections drawn between terms are univocal.  In this case, one tries to unify all the objects one encounters under whatever aspect can account for everything univocally.

27.  Of all the aspects of a thing, quantity abstracts most perfectly from what it is.  This is why mathematics proceeds so effectively without the use of experience.

28.  How do we define things?  We define them by what they are, what they do, what they tend to become, what they are made of, and where they come from.  But especially the first two.

29.  Each thing is united in what it is, its act.  To define a thing is to specify those features of its act which cannot be removed without the destruction of the thing—those features which preserve its unity, which give reason to the acts of all its parts.

30.  Quantity always presupposes a unity (this is because quantity is an accidental feature of things).  Quantity always presupposes a kind or form.  If someone says, "there are 43.5" this means nothing without specification of a form, or unity of kind.

31.  We observe this when we try to define a particular quantity.  What is "two"?  Russell's famous definition is "the set of all dual sets" or "The set of all sets S such that S contains two non-identical elements."  But what is an element?  And by what are these elements non-identical?  Two itself is identical in all its instances, since it is a mere quantity, and yet whatever it is by which there are two of anything seems not to be a quantity.  And if not, what is it?