Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spiritual Images

"Disputations" has a good post on Catherine of Siena's imagery of the Bridge.

I always find myself fascinated by this sort of thing. I've already done a post on Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. Teresa has a genius for such imagery; it shows up in every work. John of the Cross's Ascent to Mount Carmel is also along the same lines. And one is reminded, too, of Bonaventure's Itinerarium with its imagery of the six-winged Seraph (an image that would naturally appeal to a Franciscan; Francis, you will recall, had a vision of a Crucified Seraph in the sky). These are all examples of the use of imagery as a way to guide contemplation and reflective prayer.

In a sense, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is much the same thing; at least, it is potentially so in the basic image of Christian setting out from the City of Destruction on a journey to the Eternal City. Pilgrim's Progress, as reader-response critics have rightly noted, is not put forward merely to describe the journey from destruction to eternal life; it is there to guide you as you are reading it. The reading itself is supposed to be a sort of journey from City to City in miniature; a way of drawing one out of the real City of Destruction.

The Prayer and the Fool

(The following is my contribution to the Vox Apologia carnival on the ontological argument. Let me know what you think!)

There have many different attempts to interpret Anselm's 'ontological argument'. In what follows I will give an interepretation that is influenced by the interpretation of Gyula Klima. It is important to note that what I say will be focused entirely on the Anselmian family of ontological arguments, which have their roots in an Augustinian perspective and derive mainly from Anselm's Proslogion. There is another family, deriving from Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy (Meditation V), which are discussed by a number of major early modern thinkers (including Kant, who coined the label 'ontological argument'). The Cartesian family of ontological arguments should not be confused with the Anselmian; they are formulated in different terms, they have a different history, and they raise, to a significant extent, different issues. For the purposes of this post, I will set the Cartesian family aside entirely. The difference between the two families should be kept in mind, however, because the objections to ontological arguments that are most common were formulated with the Cartesian family of arguments in mind.

The ontological argument is usually treated as an argument for God's existence, but it is worth noting that Anselm himself doesn't put it in quite that light. The work in which we find the argument, the Proslogion , is structured as a contemplative prayer to God, asking for understanding of what the Contemplator already believes. In the course of this prayer, the Contemplator notes that we (i.e., Christians) believe that God is that than which no greater can be thought. But this immediately raises an issue: Some people might deny that there is any such thing as that than which no greater can be thought (I'll keep italicizing it to help make this post more readable). Anselm refers to the saying in the Psalms: "The fool says in his heart, There is no God."

So Anselm's argument is an argument for God's existence. It arises, however, primarily because Anselm, as a Christian, believes that God exists; and, also as a Christian, that God is that than which no greater can be thought. What the ontological argument is, then, is a response to someone who denies God exists because he denies that there is anything than which no greater can be thought. This context, which is usually ignored, is important for understanding the argument. To the person who makes such a denial, Anselm responds by saying that such a person (Anselm, in keeping with the verse he quoted, calls him the Fool) nonetheless understands what is meant when Anselm says "that than which no greater can be thought," even if he thinks it does not exist. After all, the Fool just denied that there was any such thing as that than which no greater can be thought; presumably he knew what it was that he was saying didn't exist. So even the Fool must admit that that than which no greater can be thought exists in thought; this is presupposed by the fact that he denied that it (namely, his object of thought when he thinks of that than which no greater can be thought) exists.

On the basis of this, Anselm argues that that than which no greater can be thought cannot only exist in thought; for if it did, we could think of something greater than it: if that than which no greater can be thought existed in reality, it would be greater than that than which no greater can be thought if it exists only in thought. From this it is a simple step to show that in saying "That than which no greater can be thought exists only in thought" the Fool would contradict himself. So that than which no greater can be thought exists in reality, not just in thought.

What is more, Anselm goes on to say, it exists in reality in such a way that it cannot consistently be thought of as not existing in reality; because we can think of something that cannot consistently be thought of as not existing in reality. And one can show, in a way similar to the way Anselm has already shown that that than which no greater can be thought exists in reality, that that than which no greater can be thought cannot consistently be thought not to exist. I use the word 'consistently' here, because Anselm recognizes that there must be some sense in which the Fool is thinking of that than which no greater can be thought as non-existent. As he asks,

Why therefore did the fool say in his heart "there is no God," since it is so evident to any rational mind that you above all things exist? Why indeed, except precisely because he is stupid and foolish?

Fortunately he doesn't leave it at that, but goes on to say that we can think something either by thinking the relevant words, or by thinking the thing that is understood. The Fool thinks the words, "That than which no greater can be thought does not exist," but does not bother with understanding what is supposed to be understood by them. He is, in short, in the same boat as someone who thinks, "There could be an even number that is not a multiple of two." The words are thought, but what is thought about is not understood. So, in other words, the Fool either understands what he says does not exist, in which case he contradicts himself, or he does not contradict himself because he does not understand what he is saying does not exist. As Anselm says, "Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all."

So what is to be made of this? I myself take Klima's view that the argument is sound. However, most of what I will say here does not require agreeing with me on this point. All it requires is that we ask, "Even supposing it is sound, what then?"

A sound argument is one that is logically valid and has true premises. But not all sound arguments are particularly helpful for coming to a conclusion. For instance, it is fairly easy to create arguments that are sound but that beg the question -- that is, arguments that are logically valid and have true premises, but whose premises can only be known to be true if we already accept the conclusion. When our interest is persuasion, the discovery of the truth, or anything else that relies on going from the unknown to the known or from the not-believed to the believed, we need something more than soundness. Klima argues, and I think that he's right, that the problem Anselm's argument faces is precisely at this level. Despite the fact that it is a sound argument, and shows that the atheist (the one who denies there is a God because that than which no greater can be thought does not exist) would be contradicting himself if he were seriously to reflect on that than which no greater can be thought, nonetheless it's possible to rationally reject the argument. As Anselm himself recognizes, understanding the words "that than which no greater can be thought" is not the same as having that than which no greater can be thought as an object of the understanding. As Klima says,

...the mere linguistic understanding of a description simply never entails commitment to thinking of something as that to which the description applies, whether in reality, or at least in one's own mind. We can always accept other people's descriptions of objects they think of with the tacit proviso that whatever they think of as such may not in fact be such, for they may be mistaken, or deliberately misleading, or just simply making something up for entertainment, without the intent to be "taken seriously", that is, without the intent to have us believe that their descriptions applied to anything.

Thus, the persuasive force of the argument, even considered as sound, depends crucially on how far the person is willing to go in taking that than which no greater can be thought seriously; and this is something only serious reflection can bring about. Klima suggests elsewhere, with some plausibility, that this is the basis for Aquinas's famous denial of the claim that Anselm's argument proves that God's existence is self-evident. Theists and atheists are simply not in the same position with regard to the topic of discussion, even if we suppose the argument sound. Believers, thinking of God as that than which no greater can be thought, cannot think of God as not existing without contradiction. Atheists, however, almost never really think of God as that than which no greater can be thought; they merely recognize that believers use those words, or words like them, to describe the object of their belief. Thus, the atheist is usually not being inconsistent, because he doesn't actually have that than which no greater can be thought in mind; when he thinks about it, he thinks of it as something in the believer's mind. As Klima says,

So Anselm's description will not provide the atheist with a logical shortcut to a proper concept of God. The lesson we can learn from Aquinas' natural theology is that this concept has to be built up in a human mind gradually, on the basis of one's already existing concepts and existing commitments, for otherwise its proper object will never get integrated into the "universe" of proper thought objects of this mind, but will be acknowledged only by way of parasitic reference, as belonging to the "universe" of others.

This whole point brings up some interesting questions. For instance, how does one begin to go about showing the atheist how to think - really think - of God as that than which no greater can be thought? Perhaps more immediately, it brings up a general issue that always plays an important role in discussions between atheists and Christians, even when it isn't recognized to do so: to what extent are atheists and Christians really thinking of the same thing when they (verbally) contradict each other? How does one go about showing the atheist the Christian point of view in such a way that the atheist understands it, itself, rather than understanding it as what-the-Christian-believes? Without an answer to these questions, it seems to me that the ontological argument is useless for apologetic purposes. On the other hand, its raising these issues is itself perhaps the greatest value of the ontological argument for apologetics.

Madison on Primary and Secondary Qualities

James Madison had an interesting take on Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities. I've put up part of the relevant passage at Houyhnhnm Land, along with a link to where you can see the page-images online (which is quite cool).

No Excuses

Yesterday we had an excellent talk by Bonnie Kent on Aquinas's view of incontinence (moral, not urinary) and weakness of will. The basic gist of her paper is that most commentators on Aquinas on this point make the mistake of reading him as if he were giving an explanation of cases of weakness of will. But Kent noted (and rightly, I think) that Aquinas's real concern is responsibility, and this cuts entirely in the opposite direction. We have a tendency to try to treat weakness of will as an excuse for this or that fault - in other words, we try to find a way in which weakness of will is somehow explained by something prior. But while Aquinas allows explanation of weakness of will in the sense that we can characterize it, and say something about what's going into it, ultimately weakness of will is just our own negligence. In other words, weakness of will doesn't explain this or that fault; it usually is this or that fault. And the best you can get in terms of an explanation is simply that you didn't act in accordance with your responsibilities, period. Or in other words: don' go looking to Aquinas to try to come up with an account of weakness of will that gets you off the hook by pointing out what's responsible for your weakness. His whole point is that you are responsible for your weakness.

Universi Dominici Gregis

The document that provides the rules for the election of the next pope is here.

From section 37:
from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant, the Cardinal electors who are present must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent; the College of Cardinals is also granted the faculty to defer, for serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few days more. But when a maximum of twenty days have elapsed from the beginning of the vacancy of the See, all the Cardinal electors present are obliged to proceed to the election.

Lord Peter on Investigation

'Bunter,' said Lord Peter, as the kitchen door closed behind them, 'do you know why I am doubtful about the success of those rat experiments?'

'Meaning Dr Hartman's, my lord?'

'Yes. Dr Hartman has a theory. In any investigation, my Bunter, it is most damnably dangerous to have a theory.'

'I have heard you say so, my lord.'

'Confound you - you know it as well as I do! What is wrong with the doctor's theories, Bunter?'

'You wish me to reply, my lord, that he only sees the facts which fit into the theory.'

'Thought-reader!' exclaimed Lord Peter bitterly.

From "The Footsteps That Ran," in Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Views the Body (Coronet Books: 1992) p. 158.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Some Break Reading and a Thousand Carnivals

* Great minds think alike: while I was writing my aphorisms on hypocrisy, Caleb was blogging about charges of hypocrisy in democratic discussions.

* Blessed Antoni Gaudí? It soon could be. And, as the article says, he's in very select company; finding artist-saints is tough work. The Blessed Fra Angelico is about the only game in town. Gaudí, of course, is best known for the unfinished Sagrada Familia.

* Chris at "Mixing Memory" has an interesting post on the use of analogies in reasoning about politics.

* "Chapati Mystery" speculates on the word 'Termagant'. According to many medieval European sources, "Termagant" was the deity worshipped by Muslims; it's found, for instance, in the Chanson de Roland (I had forgotten that until I saw the word again).

* Christian Carnival #63 is up at "Weapons of Mass Distraction". By my rough count there are over 60 entries. The Catholic Carnival (#23) is at "Living Catholicism". Where in the world did the Carnival of the Reformation go? (By the way, Haveil Havelim #15 is worth reading. 'Haveil havelim' means 'vanity of vanities', and is the Carnival for Jewish bloggers; #15, of course, was the Purim Carnival.)

* The Vox Apologia apologetics carnival for next week will have the theme "The Ontological Argument: Strengths and Weaknesses". Deadline is April 3. If I have time and will I might whip up something. In any case, I'll be very interested to see what's submitted, and you can bet I'll comment on any entries.

* The fifth History Carnival is up at "Clioweb". It includes sepoy's Termagant post, and as usual there are some interesting reflections on historical method and pedagogy. There are also several good posts on women's history. Particularly interesting are "Frog in a Well"'s post on historical analogies, "Rhine River"'s post on Tacitus in the classroom, and "Mode for Caleb"'s post on Teaching Texts (which I've linked to before).

* Don't forget to send me your submissions to the Poetry Carnival (deadline April 15).


A famous Johnsonian definition:

PA'TRON. n.s. [patron, Fr. Patronus, Latin.]
1. One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery.

I'll plead for you, as for my patron. Shakesp.

Ne'er let me pass in silence Dorset's name;
Ne'er cease to mention the continu'd debt,
Which the great patron only would forget. Prior.

This page gives a few other colorful definitions from Johnson's dictionary.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

God, the Articles, and the USA

I only just recently came across this post by Don Herzog (I don't read Left2Right much; I came across the post because Parableman linked to Right Reason on the post), and just had to say something, because the whole discussion does something that annoys me considerably. It ignores the Articles of Confederation. Believe it or not, we didn't just happen to come up with the Constitution immediately after the Declaration of Independence. When the Constitution opens, "We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect Union" a Union (called the United States of America) was already in place. The Constitution was put forward as a revision of that government; indeed, as any reader of the Federalist Papers knows, there was a controversy at the time over whether the Convention, which was formed in order to revise the Articles of Confederation, had the authority to propose such a massive revision (Madison responds in Federalist #40). Now, the relevance of this to the topic at hand is how the Articles end:

And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the United States in Congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said Confederation are submitted to them. And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual.

This is particularly relevant, insofar as Herzog is rather strangely emphatic about the prologue of the Constitution; which explicitly presupposes the existence of the United States of America, which was created by the Articles of Confederation, which mention "the Governor of the World" as the one who inclined the hearts of the state legislatures to form the Union. What strikes me about the end of the Articles, though, is that it does not fall into Herzog's false dichotomy: either government comes from God or it comes from the people. It (rightly) avoids that trap. And it is an unresolved feature of our constitution whether the Constitution entirely replaces the Articles, or whether it should still be regarded as a revision of the Articles. (It is not an unresolved feature that has played much of a role in our history. But it has arisen at times; if I'm not mixing things up, for instance, Lincoln argued that the latter was true. This entails that anything in the Articles that the Constitution does not explicitly revise still stands. Since the Articles explicitly state that the Union shall be a perpetual union, no state could have the right to secede. Most people, as far as I can tell, don't take the Lincolnian route in viewing our Constitution. But nothing has ever happened to make Lincoln's interpretation impossible.)

In any case, my pet peeve is not Herzog's conclusion, but this continuing tendency to talk as if the Articles of Confederation never existed. Don't forget the Articles!


Posting will be a bit light over the next few years as I marathon-revise my thesis for the final go-round before submission. Wish me luck!

UPDATE: Whoops - I just realized that the post says years rather than days. Now, that's an interesting slip. But don't worry - I meant days. (And light posting doesn't mean no posting - I might do a short post here and there during a break, but for the most part not much more.)

As If There Were Any Doubt....

Your Seduction Style: Ideal Lover

You seduce people by tapping into their dreams and desires.
And because of this sensitivity, you can be the ideal lover for anyone you seek.
You are a shapeshifter - bringing romance, adventure, spirituality to relationships.
It all depends on who you're with, and what their vision of a perfect relationship is.

esosa se esosa hos isasi hosoi

I came across the following in Moses Hadas's introduction to Euripides: Ten Plays (Bantam: New York [1966]). Under discussion is Euripides' curious preference for endings that are deus ex machina, which is generally considered (and has been since at least Aristotle's day) to be a sign of incompetence, the sign of a botched plot. And yet Euripides has many, despite his clear skill as a writer. Hadas says:

But the botching was surely intentional, and meant to be disbelieved by at least the intelligent part of the audience. In almost every case where some deity imposes a happy ending, the normal consequences would be disaster. In Iphigenia Among the Taurians we are told that Thoas' troops control the narrow passage through which Orestes' boat must pass, and that a strong wind is blowing the wrong way. In Medea an angry mob bent on lynching Medea is at her door. In Ion Creusa can never escape the Delphian mob, and even if she should get safe back to Athens Ion would always ahte and fear her. And in all these cases we are given grounds for doubting the miraculous solution. In Ion the freshness of the tokens allegedly exposed in Ion's infancy, particularly the verdant olive branch, is remarked upon. Medea's earlier appeal to King Aegeus of Athens for protection would make reasonable men doubt that she could command a chariot drawn by dragons. In Iphigenia it is doubtful whether Thoas would heed the Greek goddess, and as in the other plays the whole story has cast doubt on the benevolence of the gods. (p. xvi)

This seems to be the common view, and there is something to be said for it. Some of the endings are a little farfetched, and even ambiguous; and Euripides can be a very subtle writer (the Andromache comes to mind: by building contradictions into the different claims made within the story, Euripides shows that Neoptolemus has to be dead already during the main action of the play; Orestes, who claims that he will go to kill Neoptolemus, probably already knows this; and Menelaus is probably in league with Orestes - all without explicitly saying so). But I wonder if it isn't something of a cop-out. Take the Medea, for instance (the title of this post is from a famous line in this play, which shows Euripides' ability to express emotion - in this case, furious, sibilant rage - with poetic effects). Yes, it is true that any reasonable man might doubt that Medea could command a chariot drawn by dragons; but I wonder if that isn't Euripides' whole point: reasonable men are sometimes tragically wrong. At the beginning of the Medea we find a Medea who seems to be like any other Greek housewife. She has, effectively, put herself in the box of Greek convention, and was perfectly willing to stay within that box for the rest of her life, due to her love of Jason. But Jason's actions - which, he claims, are chiefly for the reasonable purpose of protecting their children - have set in motion a series of events by which Medea begins to unfold out of that box, steadily building up to her majestic and terrible manifestation at the end of the play. Jason, however, remains constant throughout the entire play: Medea is a woman, just a woman, and (as he says when he justifies his actions - and every reasonable Greek man at the time would have agreed) women are to submit to men. Jason always takes the reasonable tone, always puts himself on the side of the reasonable, always insists that if Medea weren't being so irrational, she would agree with Jason's marrying another woman. And through all this he shows that he has no clue who he's dealing with; he has fallen victim to the great stupidity of reasonable men, namely, not knowing when they have come to something that exceeds the limits of what their reasonableness can set in order. In my view, the greatest moment of the play is when Jason shows up at Medea's door with the lynch mob, and says, in an instant of flawless irony, "To escape from us, she'd have to sprout wings and fly away." And just a few lines later, of course, Medea rises above them all in the dragon-drawn chariot of the sun. To the very end, Jason just does not understand Medea; and that failure of understanding leads to the death of his new bride, her father, and Jason's children. For, it seems to me, it is precisely Euripides' point that Medea is exactly the sort of woman who can fly away; she is the granddaughter of the Sun, and all her fire, her passion, her immoderate rage, is like the fire of the Sun itself. The reasonable man who does not recognize his own limits cannot recognize the majesty, the fire, the power of Medea; he thinks the little box of convention she took up for his sake is Medea, and he is painfully, obviously wrong. In this way, Medea is something like The Bacchae: the reasonable man brings destruction on himself and others when he refuses to see that there's something exceeding the categories to which he appeals.

So I think, actually, if Euripides intended the ending of Medea not to be believed, he did a bad job of it; it is the greatest deus ex machina in Euripides, and a perfect example of how you can have such an ending without botching. Everything in the play leads up to Medea's theophany; even the appeal to King Aegeus, which Hadas thinks implies that she has no great power, is not nullified. Medea, in fact, reaffirms it. The appeal to Aegeus is just part of her unfolding; and when Medea flies away, we know that she has somewhere to go. Further, the god out of the machine is not merely tacked on here: Medea herself is the god (a very significant fact, that), expressing (as the Sun's granddaughter) the powers of the Sun itself. And, again, there is that perfect moment of irony just prior to the manifestation, when Jason refers to flying away as a figurative way of saying Medea cannot escape - and then Medea escapes by flying away. It's just too flawless; the play would be harmed by disbelieving the ending.

Poetry Carnival Submissions

Siris will be hosting the second Poetry Carnival the weekend of April 15. The purpose of the Poetry Carnival is:

(1) to help to make visible to the general blogosphere the work of poets in our midst.
(2) to foster an increased appreciation for poetry.
(3) most importantly, to expose various poets to each other’s work, which will serve to create a creative community intent on always improving itself.

Please send all entries for the first Poetry Carnival to branem2[at] (with a @ for the [at], of course), with the following information:

Title of Blog:
URI of Blog:
Title of Poem (or just the first line or a number):
Permalink URI of the Poem:
Number of Lines:
Key Line or lines (1-4) to excerpt:

So if you have posted any poems of your own devising since the last Poetry Carnival (January 24), send them my way. Even if you aren't the poetry-writing type, if you've posted on poets and/or poems that you feel should be more widely appreciated, send those to me, also. The deadline is midnight (Eastern Standard Time) April 15 (although if you're a little late, there's no harm done).

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Aphorisms on Hypocrisy

People throw around charges of hypocrisy quite a bit, but rarely think about what they are saying when they do it.

The key to understanding what is wrong with hypocrisy is understanding that all human beings, including yourself, tend toward it, and why.

Hypocrisy grows out of a sort of lust or craving for the benefits that follow being good. As Gregory the Great rightly said, hypocrisy is born from vainglory.

Hypocrisy is the simulation of a character one is not working to have, in order to have the benefits of seeming to have it. It is lying by deed.

The person who does not work to be rational, but tries to obtain all the fruits of rationality by labeling himself rational: such a person is a hypocrite.

The person who claims to be just, but makes no effort toward it: such a person is a hypocrite.

The person who claims to be compassionate, but is belied by his deeds: such a person is a hypocrite.

The person who does not care to be holy, but only to seem so: such a person is a hypocrite.

The person who tries to give other people the impression of understanding an issue, a position, a topic, he has made no effort to understand: such a person is a hypocrite.

You will be hardpressed to find anyone who does not exhibit the mask of the hypocrite on some issue.

Who denies that he is ever hypocritical: such a person is a hypocrite. For there is no human being you can find who never tries to have the advantages of seeming good on their own. Such is the very root of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy cannot be rooted out by attacking the hypocrisy of others; it can only be rooted out by attacking the hypocrisy of oneself.

Suspicion of the motives of others is in itself useless against hypocrisy; it is as much a sign of hypocrisy as anything else. If the suspicion is warranted and effective, it is merely because what underlies the suspicion is warranted and effective.

Suspicion is often itself the breeding ground of hypocrisies. By your Bulverisms you shall know that you are hypocritical in your suspicions. By your eagerness to see the masks of others stripped away you shall know that you are hypocritical in your suspicions. By your concern for being right without the effort of being reasonable you shall know that you are hypocritical in your suspicions. By your failing to remember that suspicion is suspicion precisely because its grounds are imperfect -- by this, too, you shall know that you are hypocritical in your suspicions.

Many try to root out the hypocrisy of others out of malice or self-righteousness; but the only non-hypocritical way to root out the hypocrisy of others is to do it in the recognition of the harms the hypocrite's dissimulation inflicts on others.

No one wants other hypocrites to be uncovered more than the person acting hypocritically. By pointing people to the masks of others, the hypocrite may distract them from his own mask.

It follows inevitably from this that the hypocrisy we should most earnestly root out is the hypocrisy of those who seem to agree with us, when they may mislead others as to the truth.

Hypocrites may stand alone, as wolves may live alone; but they most often run in packs.

Of all selfish people, the hypocrite is most selfish; of all parochial people, the hypocrite is most parochial; for they see a gain for themselves at a cost to the souls of others.

What alone opposes hypocrisy is a compassion for others that recognizes the importance of the truth for their good.

To the victims of the hypocrites, we must show compassion; it is their protection that must be our deepest motive. To the hypocrite in his hypocrisy, just anger. To the hypocrite stripped of his mask, pity. For we are all sad little things when, having covered our failings with a lovely appearance, the failings are shown to light of day; and the hypocrite is in the end his own most ravaged victim.

Pity for the hypocrite!--But who easily jeers at a hypocrite stripped of his mask begins before long to be a hypocrite. For who will seek a mask for his sins more than one who has previously attacked others for similar sins? And who will become a hypocrite more easily than the one who shows no pity to those whose faults are uncovered?

Truth of word is a hard thing to maintain; but truth of deed is harder still. Without good will to oneself and others, and a transformation of the mind in love of truth, none of us hypocrites -- and we are all hypocrites somewhere -- will ever be free of our hypocrisies. Until then, be sure our sins will find us out. Maranatha.

I'jaz al-Qur'an and Philosophy of Religion

I've thought for some time now that undergraduate philosophy of religion courses should spend some time discussing the inimitability of the Quran. 'Philosophy of religion' as it is usually understood is a patchwork discipline: a little metaphysics, a little ethics, a little epistemology, a little religious tradition. In an undergraduate course you have to find simple ways to get across the most important issues; and in philosophy of religion, given its patchwork nature, the issues are legion. Discussing the philosophical implications of i'jaz is a useful way to do it, because (1) historically, it has been a religious origin for a hefty amount of important philosophical thought; (2) despite this, it is a much, much simpler theological doctrine than most such jumping-off points (although there are quite a few different philosophical accounts of it, the basic point is fairly easy to grasp);(3) one would have to discuss the issue of revelation anyway, and i'jaz gives a straightforward means of discussing it. My ideal philosophy of religion course would probably be structured something along these lines:

(1) the nature of religion
(2) natural theology (existence of God, divine providence and foreknowledge)
(3) natural religion (religion and ethics)
(4) revealed religion (faith and reason, miracles, revelation)

I'jaz would be a great contribution to the discussion of revelation, and would, besides, give a useful break from the standard stuff. (I'd use Aquinas on the virtue of religion for (3) and Boethius for divine providence and foreknowledge, and would discuss (1) using the historical example of the Chinese Rites Controversy, which turned precisely on the question, "What should be counted as religion?".)

Some resources on i'jaz:

* The Miracle of the Quran and What is the Challenge of the Quran?, both from the Islamic Awareness website.
* Is the Qur'an Miraculous?, a website on the subject from a Christian perspective, which has, interestingly, grown out of discussions between Christians and Muslims on the subject.

I posted (somewhat roughly) on a related topic once before, suggesting that it needs to be taken more seriously than it usually is.

Monday, March 28, 2005


I've been fiddling with the idea for a long poem of an eccentric sort, called "Cosmogonies." Here's a taste of the first draft of the First Cosmogony. I'm thinking about calling it "The Cosmogony of Cold"; if I do, there will probably be at least three cosmogonies: a Cosmogony of Fire and a Cosmogony of the Dead.

First Canto of the First Cosmogony

I have crossed the rainbow-bridge
like a raven taking flight,
night made manifest in wisdom.
Like a river through green lands
I have journeyed to the sea,
the deep, black sea, the ocean-void,
where the cold is ever colder
and the ear is over-ridden
by the moans, the sighs, the screams,
of the Dead upon our shoulders.

Wings past the face, bitter winds brush
a frost on eternity's edge,
a silver bracken
born of mist and cold.

Trees unrooted walk. Birds sing
in poets' voices amid the leaves
of the Everlasting Ash,
upon whose trunk is writ,
more deep than the longest spears,
the runes by which the world works,
of which seekers only dream.

The roots grow deeper and deeper,
touching void,
near to the cave of Sleepers
where the ancients softly muse
in restless sleep and vision
until the day of doom.

I have crossed the sea of dreams,
like the raven on my mast
I manifest the night in fleshly form.
As the wavest hat beat the shore
I wander home,
upon the ocean-void, the deepest sea,
where cold is ever colder
and the ear is overwhelmed
by the whispers in a dream
of the Dead upon my shoulder.

Night, like bat-wing, brushes
with sound like shifting sea
that waves and laps and hushes
upon eternity's edge,
a changeless change,
a memory of forever.

Clouds unburdened loom, and storm
flies out God's mouth
like truth and time;
the Ash of Ages shudders
beneath the murmurings of Jove.

Thunder is the Law;
it is the voice of Heaven,
the maker of taboo,
shaping every void.
The lightning is its miracle,
the sign that marks its truth,
the Promethean gift of fire
sent out by the Ceaseless Law.

Everything hovers on eternity's edge,
pendant in the expanse,
restlessly waiting in the void.

Fourth Canto of the First Cosmogony

As night is alone, as dawn is alone,
so the bard was alone.
As light is alone, as dark is alone,
so the sea was alone.
All was waste and void,
a very yearning for true order.

Sky-upholder! The womb is great,
the earth is big with promise,
the charm is here prepared
in the branches of the Ash
that, everylasting, keeps its watch
on the aching, restless void.
The fruit is ripe for tasting;
the flower blooms in full.

As hope is alone, as dream is alone,
the bard was alone and restless.
Nine ages of men there was silence.
Nine ages of gods there was gloom.

The Heel of Achilles

It is the rarest thing in the world to hear a rational discussion of vivisection. Those who disapprove of it are commonly accused of 'sentimentality', and very often their arguments justify the accusation. They paint pictures of pretty little dogs on dissecting tables. But the other side lie open to exactly the same charge. They also often defend the practice by drawing pictures of suffering women and children whose pain can be relieved (we are assured) only be the fruits of vivisection. The one appeal, quite as clearly as the other, is addressed to emotion, to the particular emotion we call pity. And neither appeal proves anything. If the thing is right -- and if right at all, it is a duty -- then pity for the animal is one of the temptations we must resist in order to perform that duty. If the thing is wrong, then pity for human suffering is precisely the temptation which will most probably lure us into doing that wrong thing. But the real question -- whether it is right or wrong -- remains meanwhile just where it was.

We don't talk about vivisection much anymore, but, manalive! it always seems a case of the characters changing but the game remaining the same. The above quote, by the way, is by C.S. Lewis. It opens his paper, "Vivisection," which was first published in 1947 in pamphlet form, and was collected by Walter Hooper in God in the Dock. The Lewis Estate is not particularly blessed with a capacity for making good decisions, nor even remotely comprehensible decisions, but God in the Dock is one of their good moves, since the posthumous anthology, containing a hefty number of smaller works otherwise hard to find, is probably one of the works that display Lewis at his very best. It's also one of the works that should be of greatest interest to philosophers, since it contains a number of interactions with Joad, Price, and Smart. By the way, a little known fact about C. S. Lewis: as a Junior Fellow he started out as a Tutor in Philosophy, and but moved to English Literature due to quirks in the job market. While a Junior Fellow he and several other Junior Fellows got together regularly to read and argue over papers in philosophy. This little club was called the "Wee-Tees"; other early members included Gilbert Ryle and H. H. Price.

God in the Dock was one of several books I acquired yesterday. It started out as an innocent Easter Sunday walk, but as I was walking down Queen Street, I passed a used book store. "Closing," the sign said, "everything 50% off." Of course I bought books. Several, in fact; books are a weakness of mine. Besides God in the Dock, I bought Moffat's Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, two books on Galileo, Toulmin and Goodfield's The Architecture of Matter, a biography of Lavoisier (I've recently been on a philosophy of chemistry kick, for some reason), Frank Herbert's Dune, and Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Views the Body.

Sunday, March 27, 2005


Thanks for the comments people have been leaving; I always enjoy them, even when I'm too rushed to say much in response. Just a reminder to everyone (since it has come up several times recently): the comments are Haloscan, so you don't need to be a member. Because it's the free version, it's occasionally flaky, although it usually does quite well. (Also, because it's the free version, the comments will be gone in a few months, so if there are any you think should be permanent, you should make arrangements yourself.)

If you haven't read "The Little Professor's" take-down of a Guardian article on Charlotte Bronte, you should, because it is quite good. It's called Jane Eyre in hot pants and stiletto heels. (I've always had a considerable liking for Jane Eyre. I first read Jane Eyre when fairly young and had something of a character-crush on Diana Rivers.)

The anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's birth was Friday; "wood s lot" has some links. O'Connor is always worth reading, and has a great many bon mots. I've always liked this aphorism attributed to O'Connor: "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural." It forms about the best comment on O'Connor's work I can imagine.

He is Risen!

From the opening of the book of Esther (ESV):

Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the capital, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days.

Given that Purim was Friday, I thought it fitting to bring up a text related to the Feast of Joy on this most holy of days. I once saw a TV program discussing Purim in which a rabbi made a comment on the above passage that I don't think I'll ever forget: If Ahasuerus, merely to celebrate the pleasures of life, felt he had to rejoice for 180 days, what excuse do those who have been blessed with Torah have if they do not rejoice for the entire year?

And so I say: If Ahasuerus, out of the wealth of his royal glory, can rejoice in the splendor of his own greatness for 180 days, what excuse do we Christians have if we do not, out of the wealth of the glory of Christ's resurrection, rejoice in the infinitely greater splendor of God the entire year?

Best wishes on this Resurrection Sunday, and may you all in the coming year be blessed with the spiritual intoxications of beauty, truth, joy, and peace.

Poem Draft

The Conversion of Ramon Lull

The lights were shining strangely
in the darkness that was fallen
on the mountain on the day
when Raymond saw the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the glory of the signs
in circles ever-turning!

Like darkness nigh the storm
where lightning thunders forth,
where the bolts of God rain down,
was the conversion of the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the Principles of All
in orbits never-ceasing!