31 May 2014

An Attempt to Explain the Principle
"Forma dat esse"


[This is, as I say, an attempt.  Criticisms are welcome.]

1. Perhaps now is the proper time to discuss the principle “forma dat esse” in depth.  In what sense does a thing’s form give it being?  Recall that form is simply what makes a thing what it is.  A thing’s form is that characteristic act or manner of being which makes it this sort of thing as opposed to any other.  We can talk about form in various ways, depending on which aspect of what a thing is we want to get at.  For example, “substantial form” designates the act of a thing that makes it a substance, i.e., a unified thing, over and above the mere agglomeration of its parts.  “Accidental form” by contrast designates those features of a thing that are added to its substantial form, which can be changed or lost without destroying the unifying act that makes this thing as a whole the sort of thing it is.  (Thus a man may cut his hair and remain human.)

2.  Being is always being something.  Not to have a form is not to have any sort of characteristic act, unity, identity, feature, etc.  The answer to “What is a formless being?” is by definition “Nothing.”  And note that this nothingness is a real, absolute nothingness.  Ideas in the mind (for example, “unicorn”) have a certain existence, as ideas, as accidental features of the mind of the one thinking of them, and are thus not genuinely nothing, even if they lack existence outside the mind.  But something that has no form is not just an unrealized possible kind, like a unicorn, but has no kind, no act, nothing at all either unique to itself or in common with other things.  And thus it does not exist at all.

3.  Philosophies of the post-Scholastic variety tend to have a conception of “being” as synonymous with “instantiation in the world”, which makes existence totally horizontal.  Nothing “is” any more than anything else, and the supposition that some things could “be” more than others even seems bizarre.  But once we grant that to be is to have form, and that nonexistence is utterly unformed, we begin to see the emergence a hierarchy of being.  Formlessness does not exist, has no act.  But if we give something act, then it is.  Now suppose we add something to that act, in such a way that it does not lose what it was before, but its former act is subsumed under something more: its capacity to do things is increased, etc.  In this case it is clear that we are adding “to be” (i.e. existence) to the thing, not just according to our ideas, but really in itself.  And the more the thing’s act is compounded and enriched, the more it has form, and the more it exists.  This scale of possible possession of forms, of acts, of existence, is perfection.  To have more act is to be the sort of thing the form of which is further removed from nothingness by the power, the self-diffusive virtue, of its act.  In this way, forma dat esse.  

4.  Consider a maple tree.  Altogether it is one, living thing, and its act as a whole (its substantial form) subsumes all the acts of its parts into a unity which none of them could be or produce separately, which is distinct from the parts in their partition.  This act is the form of the tree, its life or soul.  Now, suppose we remove the form of the whole from the tree, so that what it is is no longer distinct from the form of its parts in their partition.  In this case we have a dead tree.  To clean things up, let’s rearrange the parts (since their arrangement is no longer particularly important).  Now we have a heap of timber.  Now, the timber remains a substance, albeit a different one than the tree.  It has its own characteristic activity and features, its own form, though the pile has no special unity.  One piece of timber is just as much timber as the whole stack (though one branch is not just as much “a tree” as the whole tree… in fact it is not a tree at all).

5.  Suppose we remove the substantial form of this piece of timber, so that its parts (the lifeless cellulose strands making it up) lose their unity and the whole loses its distinction from the parts in their partition.  We do this by sticking the log in an incinerator.  Now we have a heap of ash and some fumes.  There is some distinction between the different kinds of parts, but let’s focus in again on one of these parts, say a carbon dioxide molecule.  Here again the whole is distinct in its unity from its parts in their partition.  We remove the form of the whole, so that the parts no longer act as a whole, but merely as parts.  In this case we have some Carbon and Oxygen ions.  We proceed to the atomic scale, and the subatomic scale, and after removing the substantial form at each level, we arrive at some elementary particle, which is (the physicists tell us) some complex wave-function with a particular spin, velocity, wavelength, etc.  And when we remove these forms, we have only the vague residue of “mass-energy” latent in a force field, and when we remove that, there is (so far as I know) nothing left at all.

6.  Now, it is clear that the form of mass-energy participates in the act of a living maple tree, as well as the form of atoms, of cellulose strands, and woody tissue (i.e. timber).  And yet at each level it is not difficult at all to say that mass-energy is not in itself the same as an oxygen atom, because evidently there is something different about the act of mass-energy in an oxygen atom than in other kinds of atom.  Something has been added to this atom to make it what it is, and to increase the form of the mass energy (though, n.b., it is not simply an increase in the amount of mass-energy).  Granted, many different kinds of “something” can be added to that mass-energy, to make it chromium or carbon or calcium or iron, but clearly the act of an iron atom is not simply the same as the act of mere mass-energy, or we could not claim that the two are really distinct.  And the same is true at every other level.  As we ascend from elementary particles toward living trees, something real is being contributed to the being of the stuff in question, so that without losing anything, the end product is simply speaking more, without being quantitatively, materially moreThe form of the whole adds existence to the form of the parts, so that what was not a tree, did not have the activity of the tree, becomes a tree, and is everything a tree is.  The tree-ness of the tree gives it its perfection, its reality, its being, such that when that form is obliterated, what remains is less than it was before, without losing an iota of its material quantity.

25 May 2014

Prolegomena to a Discourse on the Ethics of Textual Communication


[I started putting down these notes about a week ago.  They're incomplete, but I need to put them somewhere before they're buried in my computer.]

Now may be the time to strike up a conversation about the ethics of quasi-impersonal conversations.  Probably like most of you, I've been socializing through the internet since early adolescence.  I started arguing with people on a Tolkien-centered web forum around age 12, and have been going in some way ever since (via AIM, Facebook, comboxes, blogs, etc.).  Here are some initial observations.  Supplement and correct at will.

1.  Conversation is an art (i.e. a set of acts, perfected through habit, ordered by reason toward the production of a certain type of thing).  The tools of this art are words and other signs, the object worked on is the mind of the interlocutor, and the end is the communication of ideas and impressions.

2.  An art in itself is not matter for ethical reflection, but becomes such by association with ends perfective of human nature.  If conversation is for the sake of communication, what are the purposes of communication?  (Aside: like all arts, one of the ends of conversation is the simple delight in the excellence of the operation.  I think many of us here experience this a lot.)

3.  Communication is the one of the bases of human companionship (i.e. society), and plays an essential role in all of its aspects.  Through communication we disclose our own inner states, we direct the minds of our fellows toward reality, we describe, dissuade, command, encourage, inquire, etc.

4.  St. Thomas distinguishes two functions of speech (Ia q.107 a.2): the primary function of speech is to enlighten, and in this way communication is for the sake of the one who hears, as the transmission of a form which enables the unenlightened to grasp the truth of things.

5.  The secondary function of speech is to make known one’s will, and in this way communication is for the sake of the speaker, so that those who hear him can aid him in his needs.

6.  The character of communication depends on the relationship of the communicants.  St. Thomas makes this clear in his comparison of the angelic orders.  As usual, his analyses of the angels serve as a kind of intellectual laboratory meant to simplify later analysis of the human situation.  Humans, unlike angels, learn by sensible intermediaries, which means that communication always involves the exchange of signs, and not the direct transmission of ideas from one mind to another.

7.  Let’s cut to the chase, lest this become a full tractatus de signis.

8.  In ordinary human communication, there is a definite context to every exchange: the parties to the conversation share a place, a community (at least secundum quid), and a sense of each other by virtue of their corporeal presence.  All the limitations and confusions of speech are made clear in a face to face conversation, through tone, cadence, and that complex of non-verbal signs we call “body language”.

9.  Textual communication is ordinarily either public or private.  Most private textual communication not performed on account of official duties is based on friendship of some sort.  This means that a certain degree of good will is presumed in the participants, including care for the meaning of what is said: each desires to receive what is given by the other, and each desires to give something worth receiving.

10.  Public communication (spoken or written) has a different character than private communication.  It is directed at the edification of an entire community, and therefore even if addressed in name toward a particular person, it usually abstracts from the particular needs of that person.  Thus, for example, in public debates, the primary hearer is the audience, and not the opponent.  Little concern is wasted ordinarily on the edification or correction of the opponent— the focus is on the exploitation of agreed facts and common sense to cause the hearers to see the world as the speaker sees it.

11.  Textual communication tends to be public by its nature: written words are replicable independent of their authors.  They can travel and multiply while remaining the words of the person who wrote them.  By contrast each act of speaking (viva voce) is personal, and is the act of the one who utters the sounds, even if he is quoting.  Texts communicate independent of the particular author’s originally intended particular audience, and therefore have a universality to them.  A text tends to be read on its merits apart from the one who writes it, and it is often even difficult to incorporate personality into a text, because so many of the tactile features of conversation are absent from it.

12.  The impersonal quality of textual communication gives it stylistic weight.  Text is official, is lasting, deals with universals and not the concerns of a moment.  There is a “world of letters” apart from the world of sense, and whenever one sits down to write, one has to enter into that world, with its own dialect and manners.

13.  The "world of letters" has, over the past 20 years, changed dramatically.  This is evident in the new genera of textual exchange.  Half a century ago, there were letters, articles, books, and perhaps telegrams.  Every textual exchange was slow, delayed by the difficulty of crossing distances or typesetting.  Today, the majority of textual communication happens instantaneously, in the form of SMS Messages, chat conversations, blog posts, comments, etc.

14.  The character of textual exchange is changing.  The written word is losing its weight, not because its mobility or universality are being reined in (they are, in fact, expanding rapidly), but because there is so much text produced from one moment to the next, it is so poorly organized and so little distinguished amidst our continual rush for the new, that it tends to be quickly buried and forgotten.  (The blog is the paradigmatic instance of this: it is thoroughly occasional and current, and discourages by its structure any sense of unity to the presentation of content that extends over the course of more than a few posts.)

15.  Text and personal communication.  The speed of delivery changes the way people interact with each other through text: as a result of the rapidity of their production, texts become more and more occasional.  The formalities of traditional prose style collapse, and along with them the effective universality of each text’s intended audience.  Text, though effectively de-localized by the internet, takes on a new kind of placement, and is “located” more and more by the other texts engaged with it at the time of its production.  To some extent this sort of contextual placement has always existed, but given the ephemerality of texts today, and the carelessness with which they are rattled off, I believe its importance in understanding how textual communication works has greatly increased.

23 May 2014

Further Notes Concerning Rules

Prompted by a conversation with Kevin Gallagher and Andrew Summitt.


1  Multitudo non reddit rationem unitatis suae.  If we reduce a thing to its parts or certain of its aspects or accidents, we lose the form of the whole.  To say, "a rose is petals" or "a rose is a red flower with thorny stem," etc. inevitably misses the what-ness, the quidditas of the rose.  A rose is a rose.  What it is to be a rose cannot be fully captured by anything but the full form of a rose itself.  Otherwise we cease to speak of a rose, and speak of its parts, or accidents, etc.

1.1 The principles of a definition are genus and difference: we specify a thing's general kind, and then find the shortest way of distinguishing it from all the other known instances of that kind.  Man is ζῶον λόγον ἔχον, or is a featherless biped, etc.  None of these fully capture the form of man; rather, they enable us to identify humans when we see them.  It is very silly to treat definitions as more than tools by which we identify the distinctive features of a kind, much less as the basis of a subsistent intellectual reality.

1.2 Everyone recognizes how silly it is to argue about a real phenomenon just on the basis of someone's definition of it.  The evidence of a definition flows from the evidence of the thing's nature.

1.21The proper order of conversation moves from the identification of the object to the determination of its definition.  First we name it, then we define it: this way our definition has some hope of being a real definition, and not just a conjury of the mind.  Still, even real definitions are only adequate by reference to the integral nature of the thing, which cannot be analyzed away.

1.22 If this reference is forgotten, and the definition gains preeminence over the nature it seeks to render intelligible, then the science of which the definition forms a part will gradually cease to be a science of things, and become a science of ideas.

2  To mark the proper excellence of a thing by reference to its parts or certain of its aspects would be to reduce the fullness of the form to parts or aspects, and thereby to deny the real integrity of that form, its unity and reality.  Just as there cannot be a full answer to "What is a rose?" that does not amount to saying "That is a rose," or "A rose is a rose," in the same way, there cannot be a full answer to "What is a good rose?" that does not amount to "That is a good rose," or "A good rose is a good rose."

3  All of the modern materialisms fall into this error: they lose the form of the whole out of a zeal for first principles in the material order.  Modern ethics are the same: everywhere the attempt is made to reduce the goodness of the human act to certain of its aspects (obedience, consistency, sincerity, pleasure), and in the process they lose what it is to be a good man, which can only be discovered in good men.

3.01 The decisive ethical judgments of our age are all reducible to the question: "Does it shorten the number of years in a person's life, or decrease the quantity of stuff consumed in the course of those years?"  One's life is no longer seen as a unity, but as temporal matter for the enjoyment and consumption of discrete pleasures.  The goodness of humanity is seen as an extrinsic goodness, and not the perfection of one's nature.

3.1 One often hears in moral arguments the response, "But if you cannot give an explicit and absolute definition of your theory, or a linear argument from first principles, then what you are saying is mere ignorance and prejudice."  The proper answer is: "My principle is the thing itself, and my argument is the evidence of its nature."

3.11 The opponent lives in a world of words; good conversations happen among those acquainted not just with words and their logic, but with things and their natures.

3.2 As a result of the realization that the ultimate response must be something like this, there has been considerable handwringing (cf. Cunningham's collection on Intractable Disputes).  Does this mean that arguments cannot settle disputes between those who differ concerning the nature of the thing discussed?  Yes, it does, because apprehension is the principle of the judgments out of which the arguments are made.  Such disputes can only be settled by seeing.

4  The promulgation of the New Law is not in a new list of rules, but a man, Jesus Christ, whose form of life we share by grace, by union in his body the Church, and by imitation.  (See, among other places,  John 14:6; 2 Cor 3:3; ST Ia IIae q.106 a.1, IIIa q.42 a.4)

5  Summary principle: The rule of the perfection of a species cannot be other than an individual within that species.

21 May 2014

Expressing the rule of virtue

One man acts for an end because he is properly formed and inclined toward it, and he attains it without difficulty. Another acts for the same end, but not being inclined toward it, and not really knowing what it is he acts for, he determines his actions by excluding from them everything that he discovers takes him away from the end. The latter man creates rules by which to make the nature of virtue intelligible to himself. The former knows no rules. They speak to each other. Can the former explain what he does to the latter? No. Probably he is totally unaware of the "rule" for his actions, because the rule is necessary only for one who does not already want to act in every way according to this virtue. And if the virtuous man tried to correct the man of rules, what reason could he give?

17 May 2014

Scattered Thoughts on Sovereignty

1. There is a distinction between the commonwealth and the sovereign. The sovereign produces and promulgates the laws of the commonwealth, but is a member of the commonwealth. His right to rule flows from the common good.

2.  This distinction is commonly lost today when we speak of nation-states. "The United States" is the state apparatus (i.e., the sovereign), and is thought of as claiming absolute dominion over the commonwealth coterminous with its territory. The limitations on the power of the state are not determined by the common good, but by a perceived balance of power between this dominion and other dominions (e.g. of individual states, municipalities, and citizens).

3. In this politics of dominion, "right" and "law" are determined by a carefully regulated tension between spheres of dominance.  In each particular sphere, as far as possible, the dominant figure is left undetermined as to his activities and end.  The whole is united, not as a community in friendship, but as a set of cogs and gears carefully set in opposition to each other, each moving about its own center, which by their separate insistence on having their own way perpetuate the motion of the whole.

4.  This politics of dominion must be done away with, and replaced by a politics of agency in communione.  Right and law do not flow from the negotiation of a multitude of undetermined egoisms, but from the common orientation of the parts to the whole and to the good of the whole, which is a natural good.  Whoever holds the place of sovereignty (as it were) in any domain does not determine the good of the whole, but acts for it, as one member among many.

5.  Who is sovereign?  Sovereign is he who sets the things in his care in order toward their proper end.  In in individual, the will judges particular appetites according to the good of the whole person, and quells or quenches them depending on their merits.  In a commonwealth, sovereigns judge the parts and set them in order for the common good.  The will is not the life or essence of the person.  The sovereign is not the totality or soul of the commonwealth.  These things too are parts ordered to the good of the whole.

6.  It seems to me that the identity of a sovereign cannot be determined by "right". No individual or group has a "right" to political sovereignty, and theories of government by consent basically function as myths to quell popular unrest ("we chose the sovereign, so our will is being done through it"), in the same way that divine right theories may have quelled dissent in the past.

7. Whence sovereignty, then? It seems that the responsibility for government emerges from the fact that one is charged with the care of the community. And where can we find this power? Accidentally, in the possession of arms necessary to maintain order, in the recognition of one's pronouncements as binding by the people... but essentially, in the centrality of one's role as guarantor (de facto) of the common good.

8. An interesting aside: some steps toward a peaceful theocratic revolution would be: for the Church to usurp the State's responsibility for welfare, for the Church to be the primary source of moral reasoning, of the principles of right, of jurisprudence...

9. Sovereignty does not depend on the consent of the governed, but on their collective assumption that such and such a person is indeed sovereign. Cooperation within the parameters of order set by the sovereign, not consent to his reign, determines the reality of government.

10. Legitimacy depends on two parallel realities: essentially (i.e. in the real order), on the extent to which the sovereign acts to promote the common good; practically, on the extent to which manners conform the idea of "legitimacy" to the actuality of the sovereign.

11. The Orwellian idea is fairly superficial: the totalitarian state dominates by manipulating history and manufacturing enemies. In reality, the more effective totalitarianism would work not through a trumped up patriotism, but by collapsing thought about government (and the common good) into categories which guarantee the endorsement of the existing order. This is what we call "civics" in the US. And yet the actual constitution of the commonwealth is never discussed in the schools.

04 May 2014

Something About Rights

1. Right is a quality of acts of persons in relationship with other persons, by which we designate what acts and abilities are due in the context of a relationship, such that the privation of that act or ability is considered to be a moral defect (i.e. a human defect, a defect of the person) in breach of a communal relationship.

2. The real basis of rights is the character of the relationships among men: we owe our neighbors, ourselves, our children, our parents, our friends, our enemies, our fellow citizens, our guests, etc., various acts by virtue of these relationships, the nature of which flows from human nature, its inner tendencies, and its necessary orientation toward the common good of a society.

3. Because some relationships precede others in human life, we tend to (rather clumsily) divide rights into two kinds: natural and positive. Natural rights flow from various relationships which precede the organization of any particular state or government within a . For example, the right of a child to receive care from its parents, the right of neighbors to mutual assistance and goodwill, the right of friends to share closely in our joys and sorrows, the right of benefactors to gratitude, etc.

4. Positive rights flow from the positive law of states. The sovereign exists to protect the order of a community and to promote the common good toward which all in that community are ordered. Laws are ordinances of reason for the common good devised by the sovereign and promulgated. They are exercises of political prudence, and therefore mutable, though binding.

5. The division of rights into "natural" and "positive" is clumsy because it suggests that positive rights are not based on nature, which they are. It also suggests that natural rights are somehow fundamental and inalienable, which by and large they are not.

6. Positive rights are granted by laws, promulgated by the appropriate civil authority, for the protection of order and the promotion of the common good. But what constitutes order, what is the common good, depends not on the fiat of the sovereign but on the nature of those governed: on human nature. The basis is the same as natural right, but is mediated by one's relationship with a political community and its sovereign, instead of flowing simply from a direct interpersonal bond.

7. Can rights be revoked? Positive rights very clearly can, since positive law is mutable and depends on the needs which face a community at a particular time. As circumstances change, what was once a right may cease to be one.

8. A more difficult question: can positive law remove someone's "natural" rights? The answer, contra our Jeffersonian impulses, is also "Yes." Natural rights are not, in general, direct and immediate expressions of human nature, but are instead reflective of the demands of a particular species of relationship. In other words: there are rights which in the real order of emergence precede the formation of the state, but which can be reshaped or simply revoked by state intervention without thereby detracting from the perfection of the relationships in question or from the perfection of the individuals involved, in order to more effectively promote the common good.

9.  That's a controversial point, but we can see it in action by asking about a more limited case: can natural rights be legitimately revoked on account of the defect (e.g. malice, stupidity) of those attempting to exercise them? Here the answer is also yes. If a person's attempts to exercise a right are likely to do harm, rather than to fulfill the demands of the relationship with which the right is concerned, it is reasonable to prohibit that person's exercise of that right.

10. The broader question stands: what principles ought to govern political prudence regarding the intervention of the state in natural rights and relationships? This is, I think, the right question to ask. Once we start asking this question, we're no longer dealing with Jeffersonian propaganda and its attendant theoretical problems (how does one discover a "human right"?), and can actually make progress.