16 November 2016

Some Thoughts on the Act of Reading


As I get older, I realize that I do not enjoy the act of reading. I enjoy some of the things I read, but reading itself is not a pleasure to me. I am not sure why this is this case, since for others it seems not to be. There are many things that I would be happy to have read, but which I will never read simply because the act would be so unpleasant or difficult. I regret somewhat that I will never be such a person who has read such and such works, but I am not a glutton for text. I read when I am hungry, and my appetites are (perhaps pathetically) dainty.

06 November 2016

A Rumination on the Foundation of Civil Society

Perhaps, in life, people shouldn't be divided between the useful, who will help you achieve your desired pleasure or ambition, and the rest, who need to be tossed aside or derided for their inadequacy.  Perhaps the division shouldn't be between the knowing in-group and the rest of the world, the promising and the unpromising, the interesting and the passé.  Maybe there are just people, muddled and misguided, frequently wicked, yearning for something good, worthy of politeness and respect, even when their wits are cluttered, or they are stuck in a rut, or whatever.

What is the sine qua non of civil interaction, of affability?  Benevolence and civility.  What are the vices that offend against these necessities?  Irony, malice, rudeness, narcissism.  What does one get from immersing oneself in a culture without civility or benevolence?  One becomes uncivil; one loses the ability to distinguish between acts of malice, indifference, and friendship.  If one can maintain an affable demeanor in such a milieu, that is heroic virtue.  But for the rest of us, we should remember the words of the psalmist:

Blessed is the man 
who does not walk in the counsel of the impious,
or stand in the path of sinners,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but his will is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates by day and by night.

The distinction among men that should be drawn is the distinction between those whose company we can keep without traveling in consilio impiorum, and everyone else.  Whatever other wickednesses there may be, whatever other virtues we may desire, civility and benevolence are at the foundation—if these are absent, whatever other goods we pursue will fail.

22 October 2016

Notes on Blackhat

Last night I watched most of the movie blackhat, an international espionage action thriller about computer hackers that was released last year.  Here are my viewing notes.


1.  The way electrical signals are portrayed inside computers is interesting.  It's clearly not a portrait of how electronics actually work, but a portrait of how someone imagines them working.  E.g. as the hacker's code kicks in, there are suddenly tons of impulses everywhere, as if it were the quantity of instructions that caused the meltdown.

2.  The failure of a coolant circulation system in a nuclear reactor would only cause an explosion if the coolant were completely contained without any pressure release, or if the resulting meltdown triggered some surrounding combustibles to ignite.  The reactor shown is clearly not contained in this way, and the fact that there is so much (presumably water) coolant still surrounding the core, and boiling, suggests that there would still be a reasonable amount of time for the technicians at the plant to slow down the reactor before a meltdown actually occurred.  In other words, there's no clear reason why an explosion would happen so quickly after the coolant failure.

3. Even supposing the sort of reaction portrayed in the film happened, the level of burn-related injuries shown in the immediate aftermath seems unlikely.  Most technicians would not be in the immediate vicinity of the reactor core.  The real danger of such an explosion is the long-term, uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment, leading to radiation poisoning and other (slower) diseases.

4.  Chris Hemsworth's character is reading Rabinow's The Foucault Reader in his cell (you only see the cover for a split second).  Dear hacker dude, you should read The Essential Foucault instead.  It's a better anthology.

5.  The unsteady camerawork (rough doc closeups) is unpleasant.  I can't wait for directors to stop using this technique.

6.  Why is it that the computer nerds in this movie wear cool looking hoodies and are generally unblemished, attractive, and confident?

7.  During the briefing at the FBI about the "RAT", the agent giving the briefing displays a large monitor full of old school-style green code.  There is so much code on the display that it's illegible to anyone not standing directly in front of it.  There is no reason such a thing would be displayed during such a briefing.  It's a waste of time.

8.  Hemsworth's accent is not good.  Why not let him be an Aussie?  Would that be so hard?

9.  Is it not odd that they have "routine surveillance tapes" of the inside of a bathroom?  Maybe it isn't odd.

10.  When they find the West Texan guy dead in his apartment, (of a heroin overdose, which killed him before he finished shooting up?), they have an amusing exchange in which they explain to each other what Tor is.  This sort of exposition, where our "experts" in some field explain something very basic and widely known in that field as if it were new information, is consistently annoying.

12.  The Hemsworth character tells the hackers he's onto them.  Isn't this a terrible idea?

13.  It's very nice to imagine computers as pure black consoles with green text that make satisfying beeping noises as they process code or print out lines of text.  But it's not the 80s anymore.  (The trope has become shorthand for the reality.  Film portraits of computers are part of a well-developed semiotic system that is semi-independent of reality.)

14.  They go to China, so they can visit the ongoing nuclear cleanup site?  Which is somehow still a field hospital?

15.  Extended chase scene followed by shootout.  I feel like we just had a genre switchover.

16.  It's unclear to me what the point of that elaborate bait and escape plan was.

17.  After they stole the NSA guy's login info to use the magic data recovery software, I pretty much lost the thread of the plot.  Satellite shots of Malaysia?  Trips to Jakarta?  Conflicts over identity papers?

18.  The asian tollbooth charged them $55?  Am I misreading?

19.  Now the sister is upset?  Tedium.  This romantic subplot was inevitable.  Couldn't they have just implied it to us and spared the onscreen drama?

20.  What's with this shootout?  We just lost 60% of the main characters.  And these villains seem much more interested in hunting down our heroes than actually doing the job (whatever it is) they're supposed to be doing.

21.  Meanwhile the magic bullet armor on Hemsworth and Sister is really strong.  And there are still forty minutes left in this movie.

22.  Now, dramatic music as they fly on the airplane to Malaysia?

23.  Goodness, it was all to temporarily knock out a drainage system so tin prices would rise?  That's really elaborate.

24.  Now our last surviving hero is buying duct tape and screwdrivers, presumably so he can work some MacGyver magic on the bad guys.

25.  I like the stunt with pushing a truck off the edge of the building.  Very amusing.

26.  I also like the bit where Sister uses her coffee stained "presentation" to get the guard to plug her USB stick into his computer.  Very amusing.

27.   Hemsworth is wrapping himself in magazines?  And he has a sharp screwdriver?

28.  Hmm.  The Malay people just saw someone stab a guy through the temple with a screwdriver, but they don't care.  They just keep on processing.

29.  Hemsworth and sister seem to have very extensive wardrobes, considering the circumstances.

30.  And it just ended.  Not much resolution there.

19 October 2016

The King in Thule


A translation (my own) of Goethe's Der König in Thule.

There was once a king in Thule
Who was faithful to the grave,
To whom his dying mistress
A golden goblet gave.

To him was nothing dearer,
He drained it when he supped;
His eyes would overflow with tears,
As he tipped the golden cup.

And when the king was dying
He surveyed his domain,
Bequeathed it all unto his heir,
But the goblet he retained.

One day at royal repast
He sat among his knights
In the high hall of his fathers
In the castle on the heights.

There stood the old carouser,
Drained out his life's last glug,
And cast the sacred vessel down
Into the stormy flood.

He watched it, plunging, filling,
Sink deep into the main.
His eyes, with him, were sinking too;
He never drank again.

18 October 2016

The Text of Rhythm and Blues

A poem from peter handke's collection
Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt.

Everything is in order.
She walks down the street.
Do you feel well?
I would like to go home.

Come closer!
I will go home.
Everything is in order.
She walked down the street.

I feel well.
I am going home.
Don't run away!
She walks down the street.

Early in the morning—
I go home.
She walked down the street.
I feel better.

Here she comes!
Hurry!
Take me home!

Early in the morning—
Come closer!

At midnight—

I can sense it.
Don't run away!
I'm going home.

Come closer!
We are home.
Do you sense it?

At midnight—
Come!

Come over.
Hurry!

Early in the morning—
At midnight!

Do you feel it?
Hurry!

I am trying.
At midnight—

Do you feel it?
Here it comes.
Come closer!
I am trying!
Do you feel it?
Hurry!

I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
Do you feel it?

Oh yes.

15 October 2016

The American Experience

PBS was an essential part of my childhood.  The influence played on my intellectual development, interests, and personality by the programming made available on Chicago's WTTW is difficult to overstate.  There are so many things that I know and was made aware of, curiosities inspired, landscapes opened up, because of the different children's and documentary series shown there.

In the past eight years, PBS has morphed into something different.  There is still good programming, but it tends much more often to follow some political or ideological trend line.  WTTW has split into four separate sub-channels, one of which is frequently devoted to mutliculturalist programming with heavy social justice themes.  I do not know why the change has happened.  I don't know why, when Jim Lehrer was still running The News Hour, it was a beacon of impartiality and intelligent commentary (the last light in the TV news establishment), but now that he has left, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff have more or less destroyed it.  I don't know why Nova spun off "Nova ScienceNow" with the awful Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or why Bill Moyers was given so many different weekly talk shows for a Sunday platform, or why Chicago Tonight manages (despite its long broadcast window) to be the worst local news program in Chicago.

What can I say?  We live in a decadent age.  Even PBS can't stay good.

Of course, there is still a lot of good programming.  Some of the cooking shows are still quite good, (although Barbecue University was never among them), there are still some great travel programs (Globe Trekker!), and above all the core news magazine and documentary series (American Experience and Frontline) remain excellent.  They may have killed Arthur by extending the series ten years too long, transforming the characters into degenerate millennials, and cycling out the old voice actors with shrill replacements, but at least they're still making excellent 5+ hour documentaries about the lives of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.

Which brings me to the very modest point that motivated this post.  I can't help but feel very intense nostalgia when I watch the old opening sequence from American Experience.  It manages, in the space of a minute, to make me feel a kind of piety for this country, and a love for its history.  It is beautifully done.



01 October 2016

Some Comments on "Gender Essentialism"

The word "gender" can be used in two ways.  In its older usage, it refers to a kind (a genus or γενος) of things—commonly words, which belong to three differently inflected types (masculine, feminine, and neuter).  Alongside this usage there is a longstanding sense of "gender" that refers to the classification of humans according to their possession of either set of genital organs (male or female).

2.  The basic fact about gender in the second sense is that people are so divided—that by nature (i.e. barring disorder or injury) one's body will be in possession of one set of organs or the other.  There are two basic kinds of human: the male kind and the female kind.  These genera, as a rule, divide the species.

3.  Supposing one were to come upon a set of humans without prior knowledge of such things, one would quickly discover that these two sorts exist, and that various attributes follow for the most part from membership in one sort or another.  Certain bone structures, certain musculatures, certain patterns of maturation, certain distributions of personalities and aptitudes, and so on.

4.  Thinking about the two sorts of humans and what defines them is made more difficult by the fact that humans are social and intelligent.  We develop communal practices and ideas around stable features of our lives, and so the distinction between the two sorts of human is always part of a rich and complex network of behaviors, expressions, and expectations.

5.  For various reasons, we humans (at least in the United States) have of late become fixated on the distinction between what is "natural" and what is "not natural".  We spend a lot of time trying to discover the dividing line between what is an unchosen feature of our existence and what is a malleable construct imposed by self or society.  One of the targets of this distinction is the highly colorful set of social relations and practices that have been built up around the two sorts, male and female.

6.  Now it is obvious to anyone who has studied history that many features of the behavior and social positioning of the two sorts are contingent and not necessary—that they can and do change over time, and that they vary widely from place to place.  This is true of dress, of standards of etiquette, of treatment under the law, and so on.  Because of this fact (along with a number of other factors, which I won't get into here) there is an impulse to say that gender, the distinction of humans into the two kinds with their attendant social behavior and expectations, is in some way not natural.

7.  The claim that gender is not natural is based on a reduction of the natural aspect to merely the possession of various organs.  There are facts about bodies, the idea goes, but that's where nature stops.  The disposition of personalities, the performance of various social behaviors, etc., is not part of nature.  It is disconnected and arbitrary. While the physical presence of organs is natural, the arrangement of behaviors is "socially constructed".

8.  The problem is that the distinction between what is "socially constructed" (note that the term is dangerous here, since it makes it sound as if the things in question were produced by positive design or social engineering) and what is "natural" or "essential" or necessary is not so easily made.  Any sane person will recognize that certain features of personality and aptitude are distributed differently among the two kinds, in a way that is not likely to have been caused merely by social convention.

9.  Social conventions regarding "male" and "female" are, in general, like many other social conventions—the accommodation of a natural set of facts about humans to a particular set of parameters.  The accommodation may be disordered, or it may be beneficial.  It may be highly developed or very primitive.  It can have a strong moral dimension, or it can be morally indifferent.  But the social convention develops as an expression of a set of natural features, features which tend to be sufficiently complex in their manifestation and distribution that they cannot be known and reduced to simple law by abstract reasoning.  Custom legislates around such things in a way that the human mind could not.

10.  That a salt crystal has this shape rather than that one will be a matter of its circumstances, but in either case the particular shape of the salt crystal, the orientation of its faces, its color, and many other features remain expressions of the structure and nature of the salt itself.  As with salt crystals, so with the behaviors and expectations surrounding the distinction between the two kinds of human.  Gender norms may differ between times and places, and may differ in a way that is more or less revealing of human nature, but they tend in general to remain expressions of something real in our nature.

11.  It is for this reason that I believe in what could be called "gender essentialism".  Not that dresses are essentially to be worn by women, or that cars are essentially to be loved by men, but that the nature and meaning of the two sorts is better captured by a living set of behavioral norms and social customs than by a mere biological fact about what organs are hidden between one's thighs.  In short, in distinguishing between the two kinds of human beings (male and female), we have to realize that the social features of the sexes are an expression (in some way natural) of the underlying material differences between their bodies.

11 September 2016

If I Were Pope for a Day

If i were pope for a day, i would reinstate the inquisition, anathematize the new theologians, mandate that catechists use only catechisms approved by the due authority prior to 1940, "revise" the Novus Ordo so that it was just the '62 mass with a vernacular option, and demand that all seminary professors of philosophy and theology make a solemn profession of faith (which would be written up in the style of Sacrorum Antistitum, but with updated content focusing primarily on historicism, spiritualism, ecumenism, indifferentism, and the necessity of faith) or face immediate dismissal. 

If I were pope for two days, I would issue definitive clarifying notae on Vatican II's documents on religious liberty, the church, the modern world, and ecumenism. 

If I were pope for three days, I would issue an apostolic constitution clarifying the proper understanding of the word "pastoral" and setting this in relation to the true functions of the Petrine office, invoking Pastor Aeternus at length. Then I would declare Vincent Ferrer and Domingo Banez doctors of the Church. 

And if I survived that long without being assassinated, I would begin to purge the Vatican of pagan religious artifacts, selling them off or destroying them, and giving the money to the poor.

Things on my reading list right now...

For my own sake, here's a list of books on the shelf devoted to things I'd like to read in the near future.  Most of these I have started reading at some point recently, but deferred based on the realization that I'd been starting too many books and not finishing them.  I am presently reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, which I intend to finish before making a go at finishing any of the others.  I am including a rationale behind the selection of each work.

John Bowers, Introduction to Two-Dimensional Design: Understanding Form and Function
I bought a used copy of this at the beginning of the summer, because I would like to develop a better sense of the principles and considerations at play in the creation of things like advertisements, newsletters, and published materials generally.

Georgi Shilov, Linear Algebra
Read the first couple dozen pages of this recently during one of my regular urges to learn more mathematics.  My grasp of linear algebra is fairly weak, and linear systems come into play all over the place, so it seems a good place to begin if I want to learn more math, especially if what I learn is to be useful.  Shilov's approach is pleasant and engaging.

Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities
I've never read any of Tom Wolfe's fiction, and Bonfire is one of his landmark novels.  I expect it to be fun and entertaining, while containing some useful social criticism of New York culture.

The Bhavagad Gita
It's a classic of eastern philosophy/spirituality in a tradition that I have never touched, aside from a brief encounter with the Upanishads in high school.

Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows
If I end up loving Life and Fate, I will read this.  Grossman's last work, it's supposed to be especially critical of the Soviet regime, and it's short.

Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure
I started reading this some months ago and found it very enjoyable.  I have a longstanding intention of writing more extensively on Foucault's ethical perspective with the intention of fusing his insights on the social formation and dynamics of pleasure/sexuality/bodies with more classical insights from the Thomist tradition.

Encyclicals of Leo XIII
I've read a few of Leo's encyclicals on political matters, but his influence is massive and he's a formative figure in modern Catholic social thought, which I have barely touched.  The relevance of Leo's thought is only increasing with time, and I expect his work to be illuminating and edifying.

Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies
This is Kael's first and probably most noted collection of film criticism.  Readers of this blog know that I greatly enjoy more philosophical film criticism.  I'd like to see how it's done by a master, which I've been assured Kael is.

R. R. Reno, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
I began reading this in early August, enjoyed the first bit of it, and then was distracted.  The book is topical and close to pressing questions of the present.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Began reading this over the summer at the recommendation of a friend.  The prose is lovely.  I will return to it.

Marcel Lefebvre, A Bishop Speaks
This collection of articles by Lefebvre is of interest because of my longstanding and urgent desire to write something revisiting the question of traditionalism in the Catholic Church in light of the half-century-long legacy of Vatican II.

Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre
Tissier's biography ought to be very illuminating in understanding both the formation of the FSSPX and the personal missionary background of Lefebvre.  Useful for reasons given above.

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
This analysis of totemism in primitive societies is one of the classics of structuralist anthropology.  I enjoy Levi-Strauss. He's a good thinker, and I expect to gain a lot from reading this.  I began it in the spring and, again, was distracted by other things.  Generally what happens in these cases is that I begin a book, become too busy or tired to continue with it for a week or two, and then some new item comes along that inspires a more urgent desire, displacing the previous item.  Levi-Strauss's anthropology will likely prove useful in the project mentioned in connection to Foucault's Use of Pleasure above.

Ludwig von Pastor, Leo X (2 vols.)
I finished reading volume one of The History of the Popes some months ago and got a good bit into this history of Leo X's pontificate.  The history of the reformation popes is interesting and useful.  Most of all I would like to read Pastor's history of Pius V's pontificate, but that will have to wait some time.

Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Gandhi is, to some extent, wonderful.  I expect to be edified by his autobiography, to gain some insight into the character of the man, and most importantly to get a deeper understanding of his notions of truth, swaraj, and "soul force".

Max Weber, Economy and Society
I've picked this one up a couple of times in the past year.  Weber is a lucid thinker who strikes me as trustworthy because of the critical self-awareness demonstrated in his definitions and explanations of sociological concepts.  Again, this is likely to be broadly useful.

Herman Melville, Typee and Omoo
Assuming I love Moby Dick, I will read these novels at some point.


10 September 2016

Places not our Own

One often hears talk about the dark, cold, empty expanse of space.  About how hostile and deadly it is, how quiet, how vast, etc.  This sort of talk discourages people from thinking too much about the larger cosmos, because it is unpleasant. Here we are on earth, sitting in our homes, watching rain drip from the trees—why think about such a vast array of alien and empty landscapes in which no one could survive a minute without being frozen to death or incinerated or crushed?

The asteroid 243 Ida, as imaged by the NASA probe Galileo in 1991.
Between us and Ida are millions of miles of virtually empty space.

This is not how I like to think about space.  You see, there are in the universe such things as "proper places"—some things belong in some places, and will tend to decay or lose their natures if removed from those places.  A fish out of water, a hot coal taken from the fire, etc.  Humans were made from the stuff of this planet.  We belong here.  We emphatically do not belong on Europa, with its icy sea at  -274 °F, or Venus with its welcoming atmosphere of high-pressure, superheated sulfuric acid.  The question of colonization of these other places (or more distant ones) is no good, to my mind,  first because it distracts from the fact that humans belong to the Earth and are part of this world, and second because it prompts us to think of places beyond earth under the aspect of possible inhabitation, which taints them because they are generally uninhabitable.

The icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, taken by NASA's Galileo probe in 1998.
When I get ready to go to bed I sometimes pull up NASA's stream of live video of the earth from the International Space Station.  The views are beautiful, but they often play into the normal mental constrast between the smallness of the glowing earth and the deep blackness of space.  Today I happened to tune in a few minutes before the sun set on the space station.  The sheet of clouds covering the landscape below slowly began to display a reflection of the sun shining above the station, out of its camera's view.  Then, as the reflection became brighter and the edge of dusk appeared on the cloudscape, the sun itself appeared.

The Sun in a false-color image in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Taken in October 2014 by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory.

We tend to imagine the sun as a swirling mass of orange flame, but in the unedited visible-spectrum images from the camera I saw something different.  The sun was brilliant, warm, and white.  Its brightness was so intense that it overwhelmed the camera, covering large portions of the image with intense lens flare.  As it descended toward the horizon, the brightness intensified, suggesting neither fire nor chaos, but an overwhelming principle of life, something so powerful in its vitality that it might overwhelm us.

The sun sets on the International Space Station.  Photo taken 10 September 2016.



Something Out of the Ordinary

I needed to share this, because it's the best illustration I've seen of the development of antibacterial resistance.


25 August 2016

How things have changed...

First things editors reno and bauerlein and board chairman Robert Wilken shared their thoughts about the present moment and the way the outlook for religious conservatives in the US has changed since First Things was founded in 1990.  It's a good discussion and worth watching.


11 August 2016

On the Self-Evidence of God's Existence

What follows is an excerpt from a project I've been working on intermittently for the past three years. Strictly speaking, what's posted below is a commentary on Summa Theologiae Ia q. 2 a. 1. I imagine it will be useful to some people.




After identifying the subject matter, epistemic status, and methods of sacred doctrine as a science, St. Thomas is ready to begin the work of sacred doctrine itself: to come to know God through what he has revealed to mankind. As always, Thomas begins by dividing his task into parts, and so at the beginning of Question 2 we find a brief divisio textus for the entire Summa. (For a summary of the Summa, see the Introduction to this volume.)

The first tract of the Summa (qq. 2-26) analyzes the essence of God, i.e. “what it is to be God”. Thomas divides this tract (which is normally called De Deo Uno or “On the One God”) into three basic sections, which will be subdivided further as we proceed.

  • The first section discusses whether God exists. (q. 2)
  • The second section discusses what God is and is not. Here we attempt to understand what it is to be God, in relation to various qualities we know from creatures. Thus the question is: In what way does God have the same qualities we find in ordinary things, and in what way does he not have them? (qq. 3-13)
  • The third section looks at the various immanent operations of God—knowledge, will, life, mercy, providence, etc. (qq. 14-26)
  • The present question focuses on demonstrating the existence of God, and is divided into three articles, which could be summarized with the following points:
  • Is it necessary to prove the existence of God?
  • Is it possible to prove the existence of God?
  • Does God exist?


1.2.1 – Whether the existence of God is self-evident?

The first article asks whether the existence of God is per se notum.[1] As discussed above,[2] a claim is per se notum if it is known immediately, merely by considering the meaning of what is said. (The phrase literally means “known through itself”.) An example of this would be the claim “Triangles have three sides.” Everyone who knows what the sentence means mean recognizes immediately that it is true. The standard translation of the Summa renders “per se notum” as “self-evident”. While this is not a bad translation in itself, it is potentially misleading on account of the philosophical connotations of “self-evidence” in contemporary philosophy, with its strong Pyrrhonist tendencies (which have been active in most non-Catholic philosophy since the time of René Descartes in the seventeenth century). We will discuss the difference below.

St. Thomas gives three objections that try to establish the claim “God exists” is per se notum. The first objection stems from the fact that knowledge of what is per se notum is naturally present in us. This does not mean that we are always actively knowing such things, but that whenever they are clearly proposed to us, we immediately grasp their truth by virtue of a natural habit or power of our understanding. But St. John Damascene says in his book On the Orthodox Faith that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally inserted into everyone. Since this knowledge is in us by nature, it must be per se notum.

The second objection gives a summary of St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous “ontological argument”.[3] The argument depends on the definition of the word “God” as “that than which nothing greater can be signified” (id quo maius significari non potest). However, a being that exists actually is greater than one that only exists in the mind. Therefore whatever the word “God” signifies must exist, since to claim that God does not exist would contradict the definition of the term. And since, as we said above, a proposition is per se notum if it is known just by understanding the meaning of the terms, the claim that God exists must be per se notum.

The third objection stems from Christ’s saying in the Gospel of St. John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[4] Since Christ is God, and he refers to himself as “truth”, God is truth. Therefore to deny that God exists would be to deny that truth exists.[5] But if truth did not exist, then it would be true that “There is no truth.” Therefore there must be truth, and since we can know this claim merely by considering it, it is per se notum. But since the existence of truth is per se notum and God is truth, then the existence of God must be per se notum as well.

For the Sed Contra, St. Thomas invokes the authority of Psalm 52.[6] “The fool hath said in his heart” that God does not exist.[7] But if the existence of God were per se notum, no one could contemplate the question and conclude that God does not exist. So it would be impossible for the fool to say it in his heart. Since this is false, it follows that the existence of God is not per se notum.

In the Corpus, he points out that whenever a claim is per se notum, the predicate is included somehow in the notion of the subject. He then uses this fact to draw a distinction, which we will explain using the claim “Kangaroos are animals” as an example.

To anyone who knows what a kangaroo is, it is obvious that a kangaroo is an animal. Indeed, it belongs to the essence of a kangaroo to be an animal.[8] However, supposing someone didn’t know what a kangaroo was, but only knew that it was some sort of Australian thing that was living, the notion of a kangaroo available to them might not include “animal”. They might suppose that a kangaroo is a sort of Australian plant or fungus. Now, because to be an animal belongs to the essence of the kangaroo, if we look at the claim in itself, apart from any particular person considering it, “Kangaroos are animals” is per se notum—the predicate is contained in the essence of the subject. But when we look at the claim through the eyes of this or that particular person, with their own limited knowledge of kangaroos, in some cases it may be per se notum for them (if they know what a kangaroo is), but in some cases it may not.

This distinction reveals a very important difference between St. Thomas’s understanding of knowledge and the idea of self-evidence that was made popular by René Descartes and has predominated in secular European philosophy since his time. For Descartes and those after him, a truly self-evident claim is absolutely certain, so that one cannot imagine oneself being mistaken about it. In Enlightenment philosophy, self-evident or “a priori” truths have an almost magical character. They serve as the fundamental building blocks of all knowledge, the source of all certainty about reality. For Thomas, however, claims that are per se nota have no magic powers. They are simply known through themselves, by considering the meaning of what is said, as the Latin meaning of the phrase suggests.

The self-evidence of a claim depends on the degree of understanding possessed by the person considering it. As a result, there are many claims which are per se nota in themselves, but which are not obvious to most people who consider them, simply because they do not sufficiently understand what is being discussed. If someone were insane, or tortured by demons, or in a perpetual dream state (as Descartes supposed himself to be), there is no guarantee that most things other than the most obvious would remain per se nota to him, or that one’s convictions about what is per se notum would be correct. However, in ordinary life one does not worry about the possibility that one is dreaming or insane or being tortured by demons, because one grasps very immediately by observing oneself that this is not the case. Basing one’s theory of knowledge on the presumption of one’s own insanity is, furthermore, not likely to be a good path to understanding how knowledge ordinarily works.

Once he has settled the distinction between claims that are per se nota in themselves and those which are also per se nota to us, Thomas applies the distinction to the question of God’s existence. In order for a claim to be per se notum to us, we must understand the essence of both the subject and the predicate, and see that the predicate is included in the essence of the subject. So, in order for the claim “God exists” to be per se notum to us, we would need to know the essence of God,[9] and be able to deduce his existence from that knowledge. But no one in the present life knows the essence of God.[10] Therefore even though God exists, this fact cannot be per se notum to us in the present life. On the other hand, we will see later on[11] that to exist belongs to the essence of God necessarily. Therefore, God’s existence is per se notum in itself, even though not to us. In the present life we must arrive at knowledge of God’s existence through things that are available to us in experience, and trace our way back to the one who created them.

Thomas responds to the first objection by explaining how the knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in human nature. Everyone knows that God exists, in an indistinct way, because everyone desires happiness, and it is in the nature of human happiness (whether or not most people realize it) that it can only be found in God. Because every person knows by nature that he wants to be happy, and everyone is able to recognize indistinctly that certain qualities belong to happiness, the more one is presented with these qualities, the clearer it will become that happiness is present. However, Thomas denies that this gives us knowledge of God’s existence simply speaking. It tells us that something is out there, and that we are tending toward it as our happiness, but the knowledge of what it is that we are tending toward is not immediately clear by nature, and many people suppose it to be something other than God.

The response to the second objection shows how St. Anselm’s argument fails. Thomas raises two objections to the argument. First, he points out that some people do not define God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, since they believe God to be a corporeal thing (a body), and obviously any existing body has definite dimensions and therefore we could conceive of one greater than it.[12]

Second, he shows that the argument assumes the conclusion it was trying to prove.[13] Granting that, if there is such a thing as “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, it would have to exist in order to meet the terms of its definition. But this does not settle whether the thing described by the definition exists in reality, only that if there is one, it must exist. But atheists deny that there is anything greater than which nothing can be thought, so the argument fails.

In response to the third objection, St. Thomas makes a very simple distinction. The truth which we can know to exist merely by considering it, is the ordinary, general truth which exists in judgments about the world. When Christ calls himself “truth”, however, he is referring to God’s nature as First Truth, which is distinct from truth in general, as will be discussed later on.[14]

Outline of the Article

Objections:
God’s existence is per se notum, because:
• St. John Damascene says that knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in our nature.
• That thing greater than which nothing can be signified must exist, since, if it did not, we could signify something greater than it.
• The existence of truth is per se notum, and God is Truth, as Christ says.

Corpus:
A proposition is per se notum if the essence of its predicate is included in the essence of its subject:
• Any claim where the essence of the thing described really includes the essence of what is ascribed to it is per se notum in itself.
• But if the essence of the thing described is not adequately understood by the person considering it, then the proposition will not be per se notum to that person.
• God’s essence as such cannot be known to us in the present life.
• Therefore, even if God’s existence is per se notum in itself, it is not per se notum to us.

Replies:
• We know by our nature that we desire our own happiness, which can only be found in God. Even though the closer we approach him, the more we grasp more clearly that our happiness lies in God, this truth is not per se notum to us.
• Even though the greatest conceivable being would have to exist in order to fit that description, the argument does not prove that such a thing does in fact exist.
• The existence of truth as it exists in ordinary judgments is per se notum; God is not this sort of truth, but First Truth.



NOTES:

[1]As stated earlier, per se notum is the singular form of the phrase, and per se nota is the plural.
[2]Cf. q. 1 a. 2.
[3]The classic statement of this argument is found in Chapter 2 of Anslem’s Proslogion, though it has been re-stated and defended under different formulations by many others in the course of history.
[4]John 14:6
[5]That God is, in some sense, “truth” will be discussed in q. 8 a. 5.
[6]The text of the Summa, like virtually all Catholic works written before the second half of the 20th century, uses the Psalm numbering found in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, which is based on numbering in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament. Most modern translations use the division of the Psalter found in the Masoretic Text. In this case, that means that the Psalm referenced would, in a normal modern Bible, be numbered 53, not 52.
[7]It is worth noting that St. Anselm discusses this exact verse in the very chapter where he gives his argument.
[8]In other words, being an animal is part of what makes a kangaroo a kangaroo.
[9]In other words, what God is in himself, or what it is about God that makes him God.
[10]Reasons for this will become clear as we proceed through the present tract.
[11]Cf. q. 3 a. 4.
[12]Cf. q. 7 a. 3.
[13]In philosophical jargon, this is referred to as the fallacy of begging the question.
[14]Cf. q. 16 a. 5
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01 August 2016

Why Wikis Work

Wikipedia works because objects of knowledge are also objects of interest.  This is to say that the multiplication of truths and distinctions available in a discursive community grows in proportion to the interest held by the community in a subject.  Because what is known in detail is generally cared for to a greater extent, there will tend to be more people willing to spend more time elaborating the various truths of a subject.  And if there is a Question of concern to you, in gener al it is a question which is of concern to a large number of other people, making it more likely to have already been treated by the community of Wikipedia contributors and editors.  This is obvious but also very interesting, because it confirms part of the heideggerian theory of knowledge—part that is widely absent from mainstream modern philosophical accounts of knowledge.

26 July 2016

On the Need for Beautiful Things

The other night, before falling asleep, I started reading Moby Dick.  Let me be more precise: while trying to fall asleep, I started listening to a free audiobook recording of Moby Dick.  (This one.) It was beautiful.  Having picked up the novel in bookstores and libraries perhaps dozens of times during the course of my life without ever making it past the first page, the unveiling of Melville's description of the "Island of the Manhattoes" and everyman's impulse to go to sea was stunning.

What other experiences of this sort have I had lately?  Little lines in Rilke: "Ich glaube an Nächte." or "Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manches mal in langer Nacht mit hartem Klopfen störe..." (Such meter!)

The harmony of a well-designed page with good fonts.

What is the beautiful? A tedious question, because it is too easy—better to ask what is beautiful?  Knowing in abstract what constitutes beauty enables us to find the links between things that are beautiful and their higher causes.  But because beauty in things is the manifestness of their interior order, which discloses to us what they are, while directing us to something higher than what they are—it is more enriching to learn by beholding what is beautiful than by thinking in the absence of beautiful things about the structure of aesthetic delight.

On the Notion of Soullessness

In college and after, i used to talk a lot about "soulless" diversions and professions.  If asked to define the notion, I would have said something like this: "Something is soulless to the extent that it detracts from the pursuit of higher things—philosophy, contemplation, and the ordered pursuit of the good."  In application, though, the notion of soullessness was more narrowly targeted.  Certain things were definitely soulless, because of their decadence or (more often) their materialism.  Finance and management consulting, economics and related subjects were all harshly condemned for their lack of "soul".

Lying in bed tonight, trying to fall asleep, I wondered what it meant to be soulless—I wondered whether, despite my best intentions and hopes, I am slowly becoming soulless, simply through the gradual transformation of my character over the past ten years.  The question is an echo of one of the great anxieties of the boomer generation—the fear of selling out, of being assimilated by "The Man".  But for me "The Man" isn't the concept of authority in general, it's the conversion of the mind into a tool.  Soullessness isn't obedience, nor is it cheating oneself out of the spontaneity of individual genius or talent—it's the instrumentalization of the intellect in such a way that the mind's habitual occupation is neither ipsum esse (whether merely esse commune or esse per se subsistens), nor the truth, but the accomplishment of tasks so minute that their ordination can exist in a state of perpetual suspension, without reference to the ultimate good.

One experiences a certain delight in accomplishing tasks.  There's the delight of accumulation (a materialist pleasure), and the delight of the imposition of will (Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή), but there is also a basic delight in the preoccupation lent to the mind by the process of accomplishment.  

Goethe's Mephisto warns that ars longa, vita brevis.  It is true, but also in a different way—work draws out and fills time, for better or worse, depending on the occupation.  Mann complements and completes this insight: Work that is truly ars fills time in a way that enriches it, slows and suspends it, drawing nearer to the eternity which is the plenitudo perfectionis.  But work which occupies the mind without directing it toward a higher end, which truly diverts the soul from its life, work which is too much for its own sake by virtue of being for the sake of who knows what invisible or undirected end—this work leaves time barren, and while it may leave one short of life, it does not fill it.

What is needed for good work is not merely a sense of the dignity of labor or the importance of perfection—what is needed is an orientation from the work one accomplishes to a higher end, not merely material, but transcendental—not simply quantifiable or relative or contextual in its claim to value, but stemming somehow from what is absolute.  In the absence of that, I think, soullessness sets in.

12 July 2016

Der blasse Abelknabe spricht...


The pale young Abel speaks:

I am not.  My brother did something to me,

Something that I did not see.
He covered up my light.
He drove away my face
with his face.
Now he’s alone.
I think he must still be alive.
Since no one does to him, as he to me.
All of my paths have passed,
and all now come before his wrath,
and all pass by him, lost.

I think my older brother watches
like a court.
The night remembered me,
but not him.



Der blasse Abelknabe spricht:

Ich bin nicht. Der Bruder hat mir was getan,

was meine Augen nicht sahn.
Er hat mir das Licht verhängt.
Er hat mein Gesicht verdrängt
mit seinem Gesicht.
Er ist jetzt allein.
Ich denke, er muss noch sein.
Denn ihm tut niemand, wie er mir getan.
Es gingen alle meine Bahn,
kommen alle vor seinen Zorn,
gehen alle an ihm verloren.

Ich glaube, mein großer Bruder wacht
wie ein Gericht.
An mich hat die Nacht gedacht;
an ihn nicht.



(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

11 July 2016

Ich lese es heraus aus deinem Wort...

I read it aloud out of your word,
out of the story of the gestures,
which which your hands, around the things becoming,

rounded themselves, confining, warm and wise.
You uttered “live” aloud and said “die” soft
and repeated ever over: “be”.
But murder came before the first man’s death.
And thereupon a rip tore through your swelling circles
a scream broke out
and tore the voices forth,
which gathered only then
to say around you
to bear about you
the bridge of every chasm –

And what they since have stammered,
are pieces
of your ancient name.



Ich lese es heraus aus deinem Wort,
aus der Geschichte der Gebärden,
mit welchen deine Hände um das Werden

sich ründeten, begrenzend, warm und weise.
Du sagtest leben laut und sterben leise
und wiederholtest immer wieder: Sein.
Doch vor dem ersten Tode kam der Mord.
Da ging ein Riss durch deine reifen Kreise
und ging ein Schrein
und riss die Stimmen fort,
die eben erst sich sammelten
um dich zu sagen,
um dich zu tragen
alles Abgrunds Brücke -

Und was sie seither stammelten,
sind Stücke
deines alten Namens.


(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Ich lebe grad, da das Jahrhundert geht...

I live just there, where the century passes.
One feels the wind from a great page,
that God and you and I have written on
and which is turned in strangers’ hands.

One feels the glint from a new side,
upon which everything has yet to come to be.

The quiet powers prove each other’s breadth
and look upon the darkness in each other.



Ich lebe grad, da das Jahrhundert geht.
Man fühlt den Wind von einem großen Blatt,
das Gott und du und ich beschrieben hat
und das sich hoch in fremden Händen dreht.

Man fühlt den Glanz von einer neuen Seite,
auf der noch Alles werden kann.

Die stillen Kräfte prüfen ihre Breite
und sehn einander dunkel an.



(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre...

If only just for once it were so still.
If only chance and guesswork would fall silent
and the laughter of my neighbors,
If the noise, which my own senses make,
did not prevent me so from watching – :

Then could I in a thousandfold reflection
approach the edges of you with my thought

And own you (only for a smile’s length),
In order then to give you to the living
as an act of thanks.



Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre.
Wenn das Zufällige und Ungefähre
verstummte und das nachbarliche Lachen,
wenn das Geräusch, das meine Sinne machen,
mich nicht so sehr verhinderte am Wachen -:

Dann könnte ich in einem tausendfachen
Gedanken bis an deinen Rand dich denken

und dich besitzen (nur ein Lächeln lang),
um dich an alles Leben zu verschenken
wie einen Dank.


(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Du, Nachbar Gott...

You, neighbor God, when now and then
in dead of night, with heavy knocks I wake you, –
It’s so, because I barely hear you breathe,
and know: You are alone in the hall.
And when you have a need, there’s no one there,
to bring a drink to satisfy your fumbling.
I’m always listening.  Give a little sign.
I am close by.

Only a narrow wall divides us two,
By chance; since it could be
that, but a call from your mouth or from mine,
And it caves in
without any fuss or din.

It is built out of your images.

Those pictures stand in front of you like names.
And when at times the light in me burns out,
by which my depths perceive you,
They waste themselves like glints upon their frames.

And my senses, which are quickly tired,
are homeless and apart from you.





Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manches Mal
in langer Nacht mit hartem Klopfen störe, -
so ists, weil ich dich selten atmen höre
und weiß: Du bist allein im Saal.
Und wenn du etwas brauchst, ist keiner da,
um deinem Tasten einen Trank zu reichen:
ich horche immer. Gib ein kleines Zeichen.
Ich bin ganz nah. 

Nur eine schmale Wand ist zwischen uns,
durch Zufall; denn es könnte sein:
ein Rufen deines oder meines Munds -
und sie bricht ein
ganz ohne Lärm und Laut.

Aus deinen Bildern ist sie aufgebaut.

Und deine Bilder stehn vor dir wie Namen.
Und wenn einmal in mir das Licht entbrennt,
mit welchem meine Tiefe dich erkennt,
vergeudet sichs als Glanz auf ihren Rahmen.

Und meine Sinne, welche schnell erlahmen,
sind ohne Heimat und von dir getrennt.


(From Rilke's Stundenbuch. Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life." I am currently working through it from the beginning.  I have translated this poem at least once before.)

Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an...

The hour bends down and touches me
with a clear, metallic blow:
My senses tremble. I feel: I can—
and I take hold of the moldable day.

Nothing was finished before I perceived it,
Every single change stood still.
My glances are ripe, and like a bride
To each comes the thing that he wills.

Nothing is so small but I nonetheless love it
and paint it against a golden field, and large,
and hold it high, and I do not know whose
Soul it may set free. . .


Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an
mit klarem, metallenem Schlag:
mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fühle: ich kann -
und ich fasse den plastischen Tag.

Nichts war noch vollendet, eh ich es erschaut,
ein jedes Werden stand still.
Meine Blicke sind reif, und wie eine Braut
kommt jedem das Ding, das er will.

Nichts ist mir zu klein, und ich lieb es trotzdem
und mal es auf Goldgrund und groß
und halte es hoch, und ich weiß nicht wem
löst es die Seele los...





(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

26 June 2016

In Praise of the Novus Ordo Low Mass

I just attended what seems like it should properly be called "low mass according to the revised Roman Rite"—a mass without music, deacon or servers, with a homily, EP II, and two extraordinary ministers of holy communion. The priest said all the prayers with great celerity. The whole thing lasted approximately 37 minutes. The homily was very short, bracketing an appeal from a filipino Baptistine nun, whom he praised for bringing the faith to people "who have never lit a candle before a statue, or seen a holy card".

And, you know, the whole thing was delightful. I'm not sure why, exactly—primarily for sacramental reasons, one assumes, but also I think because the mass was very evidently about the faith and the true sacrifice. There was silence, there were no distractions. It was not a celebration of community or an overt act of condescension to misconstrued popular tastes. It was just the mass. What a wonderful thing.

24 June 2016

What is the relationship between Justice and Self-Care?

M.F. [...] A man possessed of a splendid ethos, who could be admired and put forward as an example, was someone who practiced freedom in a certain way.  I don't think that a shift is needed for freedom to be conceived as ethos; it is immediately problematized as ethos.  But extensive work by the self on the self is required for this practice of freedom to take shape in an ethos that is good, beautiful, honorable, estimable, memorable, and exemplary.

Q. Is this where you situate the analysis of power?

M.F. I think insofar as freedom for the Greeks signifies non-slavery—which is quite a different definition of freedom from our own—the problem is already entirely political.  It is political in that non-slavery to others is a condition: a slave has no ethics.  Freedom is thus inherently political.  And it also has a political model insofar as being free means not being a slave to oneself and one's appetities, which means that with respect to oneself one establishes a certain relationship of domination, of mastery, which was called arkhé, or power, command.

Q.  As you have stated, care of the self is in a certain sense care for others.  In this sense, the care of the self is also always ethical, and ethical in itself.

M.F. What makes it ethical for the Greeks is not that it is care for others.  The care of the self is ethical in itself; but it implies complex relationships with others insofar as this ethos of freedom is also a way of caring for others.  This is why it is important for a free man who conducts himself as he should to be able to govern his wife, his children, his household; it is also the art of governing.  Ethos also implies a relationship with others, insofar as the care of the self enables one to occupy his rightful position in the city, the community, of interpersonal relationships, whether as a magistrate or a friend.  And the care of the self also implies a relationship with the other insofar as proper care of the self requires listening to the lessons of a master.  One needs a guide, a counselor, a friend, someone who will be truthful with you.  Thus the problem of relationships with others is present throughout the development of the care of the self.


(Taken from an interview given by Michel Foucault in January 1984, a few months before his death.)

23 June 2016

A Much Needed Wake-Up Call


LIBERAL NEUTRALITY IS A MYTH

SOMEONE MUST MODERATE

SOMEONE MUST RULE

22 June 2016

Foucault at Berkeley, October 1980

Foucault is center left with the cowboy hat.


Today I began listening to a (so far) delightful set of lectures by Michel Foucault, given at UC Berkeley in 1980, on the topic of Truth and Subjectivity.  His accent is quite clear, and he presumes relatively little in the way of background knowledge (although, if you know his game, you will find it easier to laugh along with the audience).  They're available in mp3 form from the UC Berkeley library:

Lecture One

Lecture Two

Lecture Three

Lecture Four

18 June 2016

A Note on Calls for the Holy Father's Resignation

Earlier I was running through the front pages of the web (a collection of about two dozen news sites I look at regularly), and I found the following on Fox News:



"Enough is enough, Pope Francis should resign"




As a disgruntled, traditionalist leaning Catholic, someone who's spent a while on the front lines of the struggle for the Church's future, I have often hoped that Francis's pontificate would, in one way or another, end sooner rather than later.

That said, I find this article unacceptable in its tone, its lack of nuance, its demotic FOX-ish-ness, etc.    It's repellent.  May God save the Holy Father, give him wisdom and right judgment, and, at whatever time has been foreordained, bless him with a peaceful and holy death.

And I hope he doesn't resign.

13 June 2016

A Thorough Exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas's Argument from Efficient Causation

What follows is an excerpt from a draft of my commentary on the De Deo Uno in St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae.  In it I attempt to give a thorough account of Thomas's "Second Way" of proving the existence of God.  As with other excerpts I have published from this text, let me remind the reader of its imperfection in advance.


Second Way: The Argument from Efficient Causation

Before we began the First Way, we needed to introduce the concepts of Act, Potency, and Motion. As we proceed to the next four demonstrations of God’s existence, we will need to become familiar with the idea of a cause. Just as in the case of “motion”, the word “cause” has a common-sense meaning which lacks the precision of the philosophical meaning given to the term by St. Thomas. The nature and distinction of various kinds of causes is essential for the ability to understand Thomistic thought, and each of the latter four arguments for God’s existence corresponds in some way to one of the four kinds of causes described below. Therefore the reader is advised to pay close attention to this section.

Causation and Kinds of Causes

Imagine the following scenario. You receive a call from a friend, who wants to show you his stylish new haircut. The friend arrives and you discover that he has somehow transformed his scalp into a map of the Western Hemisphere: the closely cropped hair represents landmasses, and the bald patches represent bodies of water. He proudly displays the haircut to you, and in your shock all you manage to say is “Why is your head like that?” This general question “Why” could be interpreted by your friend in a variety of different ways, and he can answer differently depending on how he interprets it.

In the first place, the question might be looking for the purpose or intention governing the haircut. Why did you choose to do this? What were you trying to accomplish? What was your goal in cutting your hair this way? In this case, the proper answer might be: “I did it so I would always have a map with me.” Second, the question might be looking for the source of the haircut. Where did this new scalp design originate? Who made his head look like that? The answer might be: “My barber did it for me. He suggested the idea.” Third, the question might be seeking an explanation of the pattern. Perhaps you did not realize that the hairstyle is a map, and therefore need to be told what it is, or what constituent bald and hair patches form as a whole. The answer would be: “It is a map of the western hemisphere!” Fourth, you might not have realized what the map is made of. Maybe you cannot tell that the light patches are your friend’s freckled skin, and the dark bits are hair (rather than paint, or a tattoo). In this case you might be asking what kind of stuff the scalp-map is made up of. The answer would be: “It’s made up of bald patches and short haired patches.”

Each of these four questions gets at the “Why?” of the haircut in a different way, and each answer gives a different sort of explanation of the thing: its purpose, its origin, its essence, or its component parts. In Aristotle’s philosophy, these four kinds of explanations are called the “Four Causes”. The English word “cause” is the translation of the Latin “causa”, which is itself a translation of Aristotle’s word αἰτία, which means “reason or explanation”. When we understand the reasons or causes of a thing, we have grasped all the important aspects of it: where it came from, what it is tending toward, what it is made up of, and what it is in itself. Since it is useful to be precise about how we are analyzing things when we perform scientific investigations of them, we assign each kind of explanation a technical name:

The final cause is the answer to the question “What is this thing’s purpose or aim?” When we understand a thing’s final cause, we understand the end-goal or stopping point of its motion, or the intention of the person directing it. “Final” comes from the Latin finis, meaning “end”. Often when speaking of a thing’s final cause, we will simply refer to its “end”.

The efficient cause is the answer to the question “What made this thing come into being?” The efficient cause is the agent which put something into its present condition, or which gave it its existence altogether. “Efficient” comes from the Latin efficere, meaning “to bring about or make”. Oftentimes we refer to a thing’s efficient cause simply as its “cause”.

The formal cause is the answer to the question “What is it?” When we understand a thing’s formal cause, have grasped its nature or essence—the kind of thing it is, or the characteristic actuality of the thing that makes it whatever it is. “Formal” comes from the Latin forma, which translates the Greek εἶδος, meaning “form, shape, or kind”, the idea being that the “form” of a thing is what unites it, similar to the way the shape of a physical object unites its compenents into a whole with a definite organization and identity. We often refer to a thing’s formal cause as its “form”.

The material cause is the answer to the question “What is it made of?” The material cause tells us what kind of stuff makes up a thing, what would remain if we removed the form of the whole, or what the components of the thing would be, if we tried to make one from scratch. “Material” comes from the Latin materia, which translates the Greek ὕλη, which means “timber”, the idea being that the material cause of a thing is its component parts, just like the lumber one takes to make furniture. We often refer to a thing’s material cause as its “matter”.

In order to guarantee that the reader understands these concepts before proceeding, we will now give two detailed case studies, analyzing the four causes for each. One of our cases will analyze a natural object, in which the formal and final causes are intrinsic and not merely ascribed to it; in the other case we will look at an artifact, something which is passively made by an intentional agent, and has an extrinsically ascribed nature and finality which do not inhere in it directly.

First Case Study: Maple Tree (A Natural Object)

Final Cause: The final cause of a maple tree is wherever its natural motion as a maple tree naturally tends to terminate. This can be looked at in two ways. Trivially, the end of every maple tree’s life is death. However, the death of a maple tree comes about through the removal of its vitality, i.e., what makes it a maple tree. This is not the end-point of its actualization, but of the removal of its act as a maple tree. In a second and more proper sense, the final cause of the maple tree is that stage of its life at which all of the natural potencies it has as a maple tree have been actualized—in other words, when the maple tree becomes everything a maple tree can be, insofar as it is a maple tree. This finality is reached when the tree reaches healthy adulthood and is exercising all of its natural capacities: nourishment, self-repair, growth, and reproduction. Once a maple tree reaches this stage of its life, we say that it is mature or full-grown. It has achieved its end.

Efficient Cause: The efficient cause of a maple tree is the source of its being: whatever causes this maple tree to come to be. Different aspects of a maple tree have different efficient causes. For example, the nourishment of the tree depends on sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil, which cause it to grow. So these things might be called efficient causes of the maple tree’s growth. However, the maple tree as a whole originated in a seed, and this seed was produced by a maple tree, possibly with the assistance of pollen from another tree. Thus for the maple tree as a whole, the efficient cause is the tree or trees which generated the seed it grew from.

Formal Cause: The formal cause of a maple tree is its characteristic act: the essence of the tree, whatever about it makes it the sort of thing that it is. Because a maple tree is an extremely complex living thing, it is very hard for us to grasp the act by which it, as a whole, is one organized entity. Consequently, when we speak of a maple tree’s essence, we usually do our best to identify what kind of thing it is in general, and what the distinctive features of the thing are. In modern biology, we specify a thing’s essence in one of two ways: by giving its place in a taxonomy, or by referring to its DNA. If we give a taxonomy, we usually distinguish between the tree’s closest biological relatives by naming a unique differentiating feature—for example, its leaf shape or the structure of its branches. If we talk about its DNA, we are thinking of DNA as the biochemical component of the tree that regulates its development, and therefore leads to the emergence of its overall structure and characteristics. However, it is important to remember that neither the unique parts of the tree (e.g. its distinctive leaves) nor its DNA make up the essence or form of the tree as a whole. One could clip some leaves off of a Red Maple, or collect a DNA sample, and one would not have a tree. The essence of a tree is in its act as a whole, living thing, and is inseparable (except in thought) from any particular concrete tree.

Material Cause: The material cause of a maple tree is the stuff it is made up of. This is the easiest of the four causes for the modern reader to understand, because modern science teaches us to focus primarily on material causes. Maple trees are made up of trunks, branches, stems, and leaves. These in turn are made up of various organs and tissues, which are made up of cells, cellular components, molecules, atoms, and so on. Notice that the material cause of the tree is not sufficient to tell us the essence of the tree. One could chop down a tree and run it through a woodchipper and have all the same material components there, but what existed in the pile of woodchips would not be a tree. The material cause is what is actualized by the form or essence of the tree as a whole, living thing. A bit of wood has a certain actuality and exhibits certain behaviors, but on its own it cannot perform the act which is elicited from it when it is integrated into the whole which makes up a tree. It cannot convey nutrients, or support a branch, etc.

Second Case Study: Sledgehammer (An Artifact)

Final Cause: With things that are not alive, but which come into being passively as merely the artifacts of a living thing, it is more difficult to ascribe a final cause to the thing in itself. This is because manufactured objects do not have natural essences as such: their nature in themselves is the nature of whatever they are made of, and when left to themselves they will do merely the sorts of things dictated by the natural tendencies of their parts, which is usually just to sit idly and passively decay. However, as something made, things that are intentionally produced are directed in their production and use toward some goal, which is intended by the one who made them. Thus in the case of a sledgehammer as a sledgehammer, its final cause is to perform the function intended by the one who made the sledgehammer, or the one who is employing the thing as a sledgehammer. Since sledgehammers as sledgehammers exist for the sake of smashing things, the final cause of the sledgehammer is to be actually used to smash things. If one decided to re-dedicate the sledgehammer to some other use—for example, as a doorstop—then insofar as it was intended for that new purpose, it would become a new sort of thing, and take on a new final cause.

Efficient Cause: The efficient cause of an artifact is the person who made it. Thus, the sledgehammer’s efficient cause is the manufacturer, and specifically all the people and machines that went about forming the wood and steel into a hammer. Because sledgehammers are artifacts (i.e., things intentionally designed and made), it is intuitively easy for us to grasp their efficient cause. After all, the name of the efficient cause is usually printed on the hammer itself.

Formal Cause: The formal cause of a tool is whatever about the tool makes it the sort of thing it is. Since sledgehammers have no intrinsic act that governs their development, but receive their characteristic act and identity from the way they are thought of and used by people, the formal cause or essence of a sledgehammer is inseparable from its intended use. What makes a sledgehammer a sledgehammer is the fact that it has the characteristics which lend it to being used as a sledgehammer—i.e. being swung by a person with a characteristic motion against some object. Again, if we re-purpose the sledgehammer for some other use, to some extent it takes on the essence of whatever its new function is. If the sledgehammer becomes a doorstop to the point that it ceases to be thought of as a sledgehammer, we could say that it has ceased to be a sledgehammer and has become a doorstop. The artist Marcel Duchamp famously illustrated this point by taking manufactured objects like shovels and urinals and removing them completely from their original context of use. What was manufactured as a shovel became designated, by Duchamp, as an artistic sculpture, and it therefore it lost the essence and purpose of a shovel (to remove snow or dirt, for instance) and took on the essence and purpose of an artistic sculpture (to be admired and studied).

Material Cause: Because sledgehammers are manufactured, it is easy for us to grasp their material cause, just as it was easy for us to grasp their efficient cause. The material cause of a thing is its component parts, and thus the material cause is the stuff assembled by the hammer’s manufacturer to make the final product. This includes wood, varnish, and steel. As with the maple tree discussed earlier, it is important to note that the material cause of the sledgehammer is not sufficient to give us its formal cause. If one has some wood and steel, a great number of possible objects can be made from it, for many different uses. The material cause simply tells us what goes into making a sledgehammer; it is up to its maker and user to determine what that material stuff is going to end up being as a united whole.

Now that we have explained and reviewed the four kinds of causes, we are ready to proceed to St. Thomas’s second demonstration of God’s existence, which depends on the nature of efficient causes in particular.

Different Ways of Thinking about Efficient Causes

Recall from our discussion of the efficient cause of the maple tree that we can think of efficient causes in two ways: first, as the source of any particular motion or operation in a thing (e.g. the cause of the maple tree’s growth); second, as the source of its existence as a whole (i.e. the cause of there being a maple tree at all). The First Way focused on efficient causes in a looser and more general sense: the source of any particular change in a thing. The Second Way focuses instead on efficient causes in their more proper sense: the source of something’s existence as a whole.

The same distinction we made in the First Way between essentially and accidentally subordinated series of causes applies to the Second Way’s consideration of efficient causes. However, applying distinction between accidental and essential subordination to efficient causes is somewhat more difficult. In order to understand the direction of St. Thomas’s argument we must introduce a new distinction, between the nature or essence of a thing, and the individual thing as such, which we refer to as a supposit.

If you stand and point to a beautiful maple tree, rustling in the summer breeze, what you are pointing to is a maple tree, but you are also pointing specifically to that maple tree. The essence of a maple tree only exists in individual maple trees, which share the common form or nature that makes them maple trees. So what you are pointing to is not a maple tree in general, but a particular individual—this maple tree—the supposit. However, it is clear that that thing which happens to be a maple tree is distinct from maple tree-ness in general. In other words, the nature of the thing and the particular supposit in which the nature subsists are really different from each other. If lightning struck the tree and killed it, so that it was no longer a maple tree but only a fallen log, the supposit would not thereby be annihilated, nor would “maple tree-ness” in general be destroyed. There remain other maple trees, and the matter of this maple remains even though it is no longer a living tree.

On the basis of this distinction we can identify two basic ways of understanding the question “How did this thing come to be?” On one hand, there is the question of how this individual supposit came to have the form of a maple tree. In this case, the question has to do with the occasion which led to the instantiation of the general form (“maple tree”) in this particular thing.

If we pursue this question to its limits, it ends up taking us through the natural history of plant species, back to the origin of life on earth, and further, as far back as we like. We refer to this chain of occasions whereby a particular form is instantiated in a particular supposit as an accidentally subordinated chain of efficient causes.

On the other hand, there is the question of how the nature in general (“maple tree”) which is possessed by the supposit came to be. This is a question not about instantiation, but about the origins of a kind of thing. We refer to the chain of causes which bring about the existence of a kind of thing in general as an essentially subordinated chain of efficient causes. Note that whereas the first question can be answered by pointing to another maple tree, the second question cannot, because a maple tree cannot, as a maple tree, be the reason why all maple trees exist.

Furthermore, note that because the first question can be answered by another member of the same species, there is no subordination between the cause and the effect with regard to their essences: the parent tree is just as much a tree as the seed tree. Because of this, there is no reason (from logic alone) to assume that such a chain of parent trees could not have been going on for all time. For any putative first tree, we can imagine there to have been some earlier tree that gave it existence, etc., and there is no clear reason to suppose that this series could not continue indefinitely into the past.31 In other words, simply from the knowledge that this maple tree was begotten by another maple tree, we cannot logically demonstrate that there was ever a first maple tree, and not an endless series of past generations. Because this reasoning holds not just for maple trees, but for all natural kinds, St. Thomas believes that it is impossible to prove from reason alone that the world ever had a beginning.32

However, even if we grant the possibility of an unending past series of tree generations, the preceeding chain of ancestor trees will not sufficiently answer our second question, since no maple tree can explain why there are maple trees in the first place. Furthermore, because maple trees form this sort of accidentally subordinated causal series, it is clear that nothing inherently necessitates that any particular maple tree exist, since any particular tree might have never been begotten, had circumstances gone otherwise. Therefore nothing necessitates that the species as a whole should exist either. So, even supposing that there have always been maple trees, the question remains a reasonable one: Why do maple trees exist at all? This is the sort of question St. Thomas has in mind when he speaks of efficient causes in the Second Way.

An Infinite Chain of Essentially Subordinated Efficient Causes?

Once we have identified the kind of essentially subordinated chain of causes St. Thomas is interested in, the argument proceeds much as the First Way did. We need to determine whether the chain of efficient causes in question could be infinite. However, it is relatively easy to show in this case that it cannot be infinite. Once we recognize that the essence of maple trees in general requires some explanation which is not a maple tree, we ask: For whatever caused the essence of maple trees in general, what caused that kind of thing to exist? Supposing that the chain goes on like this without an origin, so that every particular efficient cause owes its nature to some other higher thing, we encounter a further question: What is the reason for the existence of all of these natures in common? If every nature is caused by some other nature, then the series of natures as a whole lacks a cause, since, just as with maple trees, nothing within the series, nor the series as a whole, supplies the reason for its existence. And so, we end up with an ordered chain of dependent natures which do not ultimately have an explanation for their existence. But this is absurd. Therefore there must be a first cause.

St. Thomas explains it this way: if there is an infinite series of essentially subordinated efficient causes, each member of the chain becomes an intermediate cause. An intermediate cause communicates what is received from the prior causes in the chain to the effects which are dependent on it. But since every member of an infinite chain of causes is intermediate, the chain considered as a whole is an intermediate cause. But what is intermediate depends on what is first in order to actually cause whatever follows from it, so that if there is no first cause, there is no reason for there to be any subsequent effects. Since the efficacy of each subsequent cause is dependent on what preceded, and there is no ultimate explanation for the efficacy of the chain of causes, the chain should have no efficacy.

But if one were to reply that the chain itself is its own cause, this is absurd, since the chain is composed entirely of things that are dependent on each other for their existence, and it is repugnant to reason to suppose that a group of things, all of which are causally dependent, is, as a whole, causally independent. Therefore an infinite chain of essentially subordinated efficient causes is impossible, and there must be some cause which is itself uncaused.

Notice that this reflection reveals something: even if the universe were infinitely old, there would still have to be a first, unsubordinated efficient cause explaining why the sorts of things that exist exist. The argument does not depend on time.

Characteristics of the First Efficient Cause

If there cannot be an infinite series of essentially subordinated efficient causes, then in any such series, there must be something that is causally primary. (Note, however, that this causal primacy does not rule out the possibility of an infinite past occupied by causally dependent things.) What sort of characteristics would the first cause in such a chain have to have, in order to be first?

First, it would have a nature which was not dependent on anything of a higher nature for its existence. As a result, it could not individually have received its existence even from an another being of the same kind, since in this case we would have to ask why (since beings of this kind can exist or not exist) they exist at all. Consequently we can deduce that any first efficient cause is not only of an unmade kind of thing, but is itself individually unmade, and owes its existence to nothing beyond itself, and even, because of what it is, could not not exist. But such a thing, which causes other kinds of things, but which does not in itself come into being, and which has its own existence by nature, clearly fits the common notion of “God”. Therefore, God exists.

Notice again what we have not proven in this demonstration. We have not shown that there is only one such first cause, or that any such first cause would have to have the various attributes applied to God in Christian theology. Many of these attributes can be shown to hold of the first cause, but St. Thomas reserves them for later on. For now he is content to show that there is at least one first cause, and that its nature and existence are uncaused.

Outline of the Second Way

Some natures are caused.

All essentially subordinated efficient causation must ultimately be referred to a first cause, the existence and nature of which is essentially uncaused.

A first cause, the existence and nature of which are uncaused, is what we call “God”.

Therefore God exists.