Saturday, March 10, 2007

Doctrinal Development IIb: The Tradition

And this is my prayer, that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

In the previous post, I noted what I think are three essential characteristics of Tradition-Constituted inquiry: tribe, telos, and taste.


A tradition involves a community of people conjoined by a sympathy. The precise nature of this community and sympathy varies. However, the sympathy at least has to be of a particular kind. I can sympathize with people I've never met; but this sympathy is not strong enough, nor even the right kind, to knit me into a community with them. One thing that is required is sympathy with them insofar as they are engaging in a project or style of life like my own. Even this is not enough, though; there needs to be some sort of personal connection: their engaging in the project feeds into my own, and vice versa, so that we are not merely engaging in like projects but in one project in our individual ways. So we can perhaps expand the first sentence of this paragraph to: A tradition involves a community of people conjoined by a sympathy sustained by personal connection.

In the first post in this series I discussed at some length Newman's discussion of Personal Influence as the way in which moral truth is propagated, particularly the truth of the Faith. Each person, says Newman, "receives and transmits the sacred flame, trimming it in rivalry of his predecessor, and fully purposed to send it on as bright as it has reached him; and thus the self-same fire, once kindled on Moriah, though seeming at intervals to fail, has at length reached us in safety, and will in like manner, as we trust, be carried forward even to the end." Thus by means of sympathy with our predecessors we coalesce into a community engaged in a project that is at once very diverse, but also very unified, in which individuals receive the flame, care for and nourish it, and transmit it again. They become, one might say, a people, a family, a tribe.

As noted there, what is received and transmitted in the Faith is Christ, or His Character, diversified a hundred thousand ways yet one. As we receive, however superficially, this Character from our predecessors, and pass it on (however superficially) to others, we are engaged (however superficially) in one historical project. There is a continuity between us and our holy predecessors that makes them our predecessors. But this historical project could not maintain its integrity through time if it weren't also a teleological project. It's end makes it possible for us to progress, in even the basic sense of extending ourselves through time from past to future as one community.

The community is not just one that happens to be engaged in a common project, however, as one might say the American people are engaged in the one project of the American experiment. Communities are united by some form or other of love. There are, however, very different forms of love. We can see the notion of love as a nested series of boxes. The outermost, and most encompassing box is the box of love in general, a sort of general good will. There are various forms of this love. Some forms, for instance, are natural and spontaneous, and not very serious. Aquinas somewhere gives the example of seeing a boxing match between two people we didn't know before and spontaneously developing good will for one of the two parties. That's a very good example. In sports we are constantly developing good-will attitudes to particular persons. These have their role to play, and they bind us into a community with others, but they don't mean much and the bonds of the community aren't usually very strong. There's a sense in which all dabblers in astronomy of whatever kind are joined into a community by their sympathetic love of the stars. It's a real love, a real sympathy, and a real community. But it's a limited sort of love, and a limited sort of community. Nothing real binds it together but personal tastes. So there is another form of love that is more a matter of choice. The scholastics called this form of love dilectio; it shares a root with election, and so conveys more clearly the notion of choice. In dilection we don't just have good will, we preferentially commit. One might think of the community of professional astronomers as having something like this -- a dilection for the stars, so to speak. The love is stronger, more committed; so the sympathy makes for a stronger bond. But stronger than dilection is friendship, in which one begins to love another as oneself. And, of course, the Christian view is that there is a yet stronger form of love, the one that really knits the Body of Christ together: charity, love of God and of all things in Him, especially whoever may happen to be our neighbor.

This relates to the teleological character of the community in that love is a form of inclination or tendency to a good, and that means that it introduces the notion of a telos or end. So it seems reasonable to move on to that aspect of tradition.


It is possible to have too wooden a notion of the sort of telos involved in a tradition. I sometimes think MacIntyre falls into this error. He often talks as if the telos were an ideal product, a perfected understanding in the sense of the system that perfectly captures that which the community is trying to understand. This cannot, I think, be right. The telos of the tradition of master masons is not the perfect cathedral; it is the perfect craft of masonry, and that is not at all the same thing. It is possible to think in terms of an ideal craft of masonry without thinking in terms of an ideal work of masonry; one may even deny that any such thing is possible. What makes a tradition is its entelechy, its ability to carry its own telos in its form or nature, and thus to continually bear fruit. Now, it would be absurd to say that the perfect work of masonry is already seminally implicit in the shared craft of master masons; there are too many things that master masons do and can do. Rather, it makes more sense to say that, in the excellence the craft has already attained, it intimates a greater excellence, even a superabundant excellence, of craft, in which the community of master masons achieves its full potential -- not reaching a static stopping point, but reaching a point of abundant, sustainable progress, moving from excellence to excellence in every situation. The heavenly fellowship of master masons, one might say, engaging in a heavenly craft of masonry, one that is posited as a practical postulate. What makes it a practical postulate is the fact that to have genuine progress you need something against which to measure the room for improvement. Measuring the room for improvement is a tricky thing; it is, as the saying goes, the biggest room in the world. It can only be done if you can recognize, at least to a vague estimation, how much space there is between the actual and the practical ideal. Note, by the way, that if the ideal is rich enough, there need not even be an assumption that it can ever, given the way we are, be perfectly attained; we might have difficulty fulfilling all aspects at once, so that one generation will excel in one aspect whereas the next falls well short in that aspect but excels in another. There are many different ways it can go; it depends on the telos and the community in question.

In the Church the telos is Christ Himself as recognized in the Image we bear, the Church's inward vision or thought of Christ, which traces back to the image borne by the Apostles themselves. Everything in the Church is devoted to this end; everything is devoted to living the life of Christ, and possessing the mind of Christ, and loving with the Spirit of Christ. I would call this the fundamental principle of doctrinal development, and the thing that is usually overlooked in discussions of it. The Church does not so much start with a set of initial principles and reason out from them; it starts with Christ, and the Character of Christ, and inquires into how everything else relates to that. Thus Christology becomes the primary key in which the Church does theology; ecclesiology is Christology itself written in a slightly different key; as is hagiology, Mariology, and all the other forms Christian thought may take. The distinctive mark of Christian teaching, whatever the particular subject matter, is that it is in light of Christ, our Logos, the one we take to be the principle of intelligibility in which all things cohere. Heresies are determined not by faulty inference, since we may infer faultily without becoming heretics, just as we may infer well but, losing sight of our whole reason for inferring in the first place, go astray into heresy. There are lots of heresies of that sort; heresies are carved out of good intentions that are not dispositions to Christ Crucified and Risen.

Recognizing the importance of this telos, I should note, resolves one of the major paradoxes of doctrinal development. It seems that to have doctrinal development we must be coming up with something new; but this new thing also has to be what we already had to begin with, preserved unchanging. However, the paradox arises from not thinking in terms of the organizing end of the Church. It is this that is our patrimony, all the truth explicit and implicit in the Way, the Truth, the Life whose Image our holy predecessors bore, and whose Image we bear, and whose Image we hope to pass on to others. It is this that is this unchanging patrimony of the faithful, the legacy we have received, the legacy we hope to transmit. As the hymn goes, the Apostles' preaching and the Fathers' doctrine established one faith for the Church; adorned with the robe of truth woven from heavenly theology, great is the Mystery of Piety that she defines and glorifies. By keeping the same End in sight that the Fathers saw, by bearing the same Image of Christ that they bore, we carry forward faithfully and unchanged the tradition of the Apostles. But as we bear this forward, the wisdom given to the Church as a gift, implicit in the Character of Christ that she bears, begins to order the things within us and without us, sometimes with our contribution and often without our contribution and sometimes even despite our contribution; thus the living Vine bears fruit in the world, ever new for each generation. These fruits are not forgotten but provide a feast for those who come after.

St. Vincent of Lerins has a nice passage in the Commonitory in which he strikes a healthy balance on this point, noting on the one hand the absurdity of denying progress to the Church, and insisting that it be progress, not alteration. The body grows; but its growth is not haphazard or monstrous, but the natural outworkings and unfoldings of what it had from the beginning. When the Church grows, it is "consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age," but remains uncorrupted. It grows and does not decay, and does not lose its distinctive properties; it is cared for, polished, smoothed, refined, clarified, cultivated. And this is exactly right. The reason it is exactly right is that the tradition of the Church is not arbitrary but governed and organized by Christ as its end; this end it bears inside itself and explicates, unfolds, for every age, striving in every generation and place to live Christ in the world.


The eighteenth century is filled with people fascinated by the question of taste, as in 'good and bad taste', and Criticism, in something like the sense that we still find in the phrases 'literary criticism', 'critique', and 'critical thought'. The two, of course, are related; taste is the personal capacity or ability that allows one to engage in Criticism. One of the reasons people are so interested in it is that the early modern period sees an expansion in what is regarded as following under the domain of taste; lacking the very generous notion the medievals had of dialectic, they needed to something in its stead, and, being interested in all sorts of 'internal senses' (e.g., the sense of humor, the sense of beauty, the sense of harmony, and so forth), maxims and standards of taste were what they pressed into service. So, for instance, it is generally recognized, by people who hold very different positions, that there is such a thing as moral taste; they just differ on how central it is to morality as such. Hume, for instance, explicitly tells us that morals is entirely a matter of (standardized) taste; Warburton denies that morals, as such, have anything to do with taste, taste simply being a feature God has given us to make it easier for us to be moral.

Now, the interesting thing about the early modern concept of taste, and which distinguishes it from the closest contemporary counterpart (critical thought), is that it is wholly social. You have to be trained into it, and sympathy is absolutely essential to it. Beattie, for instance, suggests that good taste involves five characteristics:

1. Lively and accurate imagination, or what we would perhaps call a quick understanding;
2. A power of distinct apprehension, the ability to make good distinctions and keep to them;
3. Acuteness of 'second sensation', i.e., a profound capacity to be affected by the object of taste;
4. Sympathy "or that Sensibility of heart, by which, on supposing ourselves in the condition of another, we are conscious in some degree of those very emotions, pleasant or painful, which in a more intense degree would arise within us, if we were really in that condition";
5. Good sense in comparing, classifying, and the like.

Others say similar things. We can boil down the characteristics to four:

  • Wide familiarity with the object of taste;
  • Skills relevant to making relevant distinctions and comparisons;
  • Self-critical examination of one's own biases;
  • Sympathetic understanding of the judgments of others.

I've already said that one of the things apprenticeship in a tradition does is train you to develop good taste relevant to that tradition. Thus, someone studying to be a physicist begins to learn and practice the skills that make for good judgment about physical theories, experiments, and the like. In terms that we would typically use, he develops critical thinking skills for his particular field. Being in a tradition, then, is not just participation in community events; it involves training one's mind to be able to think in terms of the tradition, drawing on its resources, making reasonable distinctions and comparisons, comparing one's own judgment sympathetically with that of others in the tradition, all on the basis of shared principles, procedures, and the like, that have been found to work for that community. This is why, incidentally, one can argue that no one is really traditionless; being social creatures, we tend to do this automatically from childhood, and the only questions are whether we do so haphazardly or systematically, deliberately or incidentally, in a powerful tradition or in a weak tradition, and with the steady assistance of others or as best we can on our own. It's almost as natural to us as breathing. Of course, unlike breathing, the cultivation of good taste is really, in its finest form, a cultivation of virtues, or, at least, of the seeds that may become virtues. But this is another reason why we can't really do without growth in some tradition or other.

The tradition carried by the faithful, as with every other tradition, involves the cultivation of a certain form of taste, which most people pick up piecemeal and only to a limited degree, but which in its fully developed form can exhibit the above characteristics to quite a high degree. In the Church the most fundamental and basic, although by no means the only, means of cultivating this taste is liturgy, in a broad sense. This is why it is not surprising that there have been so many various 'liturgy wars', and why these disputes are not themselves silly, for all that the people engaged in them often are. The cultivation of relevant good taste is essential to the adaptability and strength of any tradition; it's not surprising, then, that liturgy, as the most generally shared source of the basic elements of this good taste, is an important subject.

There is a rule, commonly called the Vincentian Canon, after St. Vincent of Lerins, that to continue sound and complete in the Faith we must observe "universality, antiquity, and consent"; this is, in effect, a maxim of taste or of critical thought for the particular field of Christian thought; it identifies a condition of broad, good taste in doctrine, which, if met, will help us avoid the junk and confusion of heresy.

Ultimately, however, one wants not just a general good taste but the mind of Christ, in which the Image we bear becomes vivid and glorious. This goes far beyond anything we can understand merely by considering the Church in terms of tradition; for, "living the truth in love," i.e., being in the tradition of Christ, "we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body...brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love." And to understand that we need to consider the living Christ. I hope at some point to put up a post on this.

Doctrinal Development IIa: The Tradition

Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.

Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that there are three approaches to inquiry:

Encyclopaedic: There is a single, substantive conception of rationality suitable for people in all traditions; this rationality is impersonal, universal, disinterested.

Genealogical: There is a single, substantive conception of rationality overarching people in all traditions; this rationality is hypocritical, pretending to be impersonal, universal, and disinterested, while in reality expressing the will to power of a limited group of interested parties.

Tradition-Constituted: It is (pace the Genealogical approach) possible to have a substantive and universal conception of rationality; but (pace the Encyclopaedic approach) we can approach this rationality only by inquiry that is communal and thus rooted in a particular cooperative agreement on fundamentals. Strictly speaking, this should be called 'tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive' because it is both constituted by and constitutive of tradition.

MacIntyre notes that Tradition-Constituted inquiry could also be called 'craft-constituted'; the idea being that in TCI inquiry is treated as a sort of apprenticeship into, and expression of, a craft. In a craft, we make new developments by extending the principles of our predecessors to new situations; we justify new developments by showing that they deal with problems faced by our predecessors in ways that those predecessors could recognize as a genuine achievement in the same craft they practiced. The reason this sort of development is possible is that the craft is (so to speak) organized teleologically, which means it can progress and grow, often in startlingly new directions, without ceasing to be the same craft:

Every craft is informed by some conception of a finally perfected work which serves as the shared telos of that craft. And what are actually produced as the best judgments or actions or objects so far are judged so because they stand in some determinate relationship to that telos, which furnishes them with their final cause. So it is within forms of intellectual enquiry, whether theoretical or practical, which issue at any particular stage in their history in types of judgment and activity which are rationally justified as the best so far, in the light of those formulations of the relevant standards of achievement which are rationally justified as the best so far.

[From A. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry]

Indeed, more than just being able to progress, progress is what a tradition does, and for precisely the reason given. When I am taught in a tradition, I am taught not merely what my predecessors knew; I am (at least tacitly) taught what sort of excellent things my predecessors began, and, apprenticed within the same tradition (and thus following the same telos), I am (again, at least tacitly) taught how to carry further what my predecessors did. I join the community, and begin to be changed by the purpose of the community, insofar as it gives me a direction and goal for progress. Someone taught in a craft tradition, learns the basics of the craft; but, whether he realizes it or not, he also learns the basics of how the craft itself progresses, and part of what makes him a participant in that craft tradition is that he contributes to that progress. An apprentice to a master mason does not merely learn the basics of masonry; he learns, or begins to learn, how to be a master mason himself, not merely repeating the same basic tasks over and over again, but improvising an excellent work of masonry for each task that comes to hand.

But more than this, the apprentice to the master mason can only become a master mason by internalizing a conception, idealized and enticing, of what it is to be a master mason; it is this that makes apprenticeship in a tradition of masonry not merely a rote education but a 'moral and social project', a life of self-improvement and continual striving for excellence (which, again, is guided by the telos of the tradition). The apprentice begins to have good taste as a mason, i.e., begins to be able to think critically, not just in a vague, general sense, but to think critically as a master mason does. So it is with any other tradition. Someone who wishes to become a physicist, for instance, does not merely learn physics equations; he becomes an apprentice of sorts to physicists, a member of a sort of community, which is guided by a general type (subject to many individual variations in individual understandings) of goal for that community; he learns the tools and practices by which that community carries its work forward, and in so doing begins (slowly, and arguably it's a never-ending process in which no good physicist ever stops trying to improve) to internalize a physicist's good taste in matters of physics, i.e., he begins to think critically as a physicist. He develops the habits, the virtues, of a good physicist. That is what it is to be in the tradition, in the craft, of physics.

Thus, I would suggest that there are three basic elements to Tradition-Constituted inquiry. I will call them tribe, telos, and taste. In what follows I'll expand a bit on each of these and discuss how they play out in the distinctive (and in some ways unusual) field of Christian doctrine. Because of the length of my reflection, I'm splitting the discussion into two posts, this one and the next.

Proverbs Pertaining to the Use of Proverbs

A proverb in the mouth of a fool hangs limp, like crippled legs. (Pr. 26:7)

Like a thorn stick brandished by the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools. (Pr. 26:9)

The sayings of the wise are like goads; like fixed spikes are the topics given by one collector. (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the wise man's joy. (Sir. 3:28)

Any learned man should make wisdom known, and he who attains to her should declare her praise; those trained in her words must show their wisdom, dispensing sound proverbs like life-giving waters. (Sir. 18:28-29)

A proverb when spoken by a fool is unwelcome, for he does not utter it at the proper time. (Sir. 20:19)

A proverb is to the speech what salt is to the food. (Ethiopian proverb)

Athanasius on the Psalms

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour's coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin....In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls' need at every turn.

From Athanasius's Letter to Marcellinus. I had never read it before, but I became curious about it while reading this paper (PDF) by Holly Taylor Coolman, which discusses it. The whole letter bears close reading.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Two Years Ago Today

Two years ago today I posted "Why God Likes Bugs," a discussion of Malebranche. I don't generally recycle posts, but I thought it would be interesting to re-post it. I've corrected a few typos, but that's about it. The talk about Bennett is a carry-over from an irritable post the day before. Some of the irritation was carried over as well.


I confess one of the things that most annoyed me about Bennett's paraphrase of Malebranche (which, to be fair, is potentially OK for very particular purposes, as any paraphrase might be) is his dismissal of Dialogue XI.xii-xv as not of any philosophical interest. I hate it when people say, "Such and such is not of any philosophical interest"; partly because it is always wrong. One of the things that really annoys me about the Jolley-Scott (which is the best English translation of the Dialogues on Metaphysics, put out by Cambridge) is the excuse they gave for not including the 1696 Preface:

The present translation is based almost exclusively on the text of the fourth edition of 1711 (as it appears in vol. 12 of OC), and the Preface and the Dialogues on Death, which are of minor philosophical interest, have not been included in this edition. (JS xlii)

Now, it is manifestly untrue that the Preface is of minor philosophical interest, since in that Preface Malebranche:

(1) Identifies explicitly the philosophical tradition in which he sees himself;
(2) Gives a fairly precise characterization of how he thinks his vision-in-God account of ideas -- which is the Malebranchean topic that is most discussed -- relates to the discussions of divine ideas by Augustine and Aquinas;
(3) In so doing lists some of the important characteristics of ideas;
(4) Gives some clarification about the nature of intelligible extension, in response to some criticisms.

Now, I see no reason why any of this should be consigned to the category of 'minor philosophical interest'. What they should have just said was, "We didn't really feel like taking the trouble to translate the Preface and the Dialogues on Death." I'd respect that excuse much more.

To get back to Bennett, saying that something is not of any philosophical interest is actually a very strong claim, and is usually implausible. One can, of course, say, "Such-and-such is not of any interest for the philosophical work I'm doing" or "Such-and-such doesn't touch on philosophical issues that interest me." But, seriously, in a profession where people talk about Twin Earths and Brains in Vats and Mad Neuroscientists -- and this is sometimes treated within the profession as belonging to the most respectable part of the profession -- in such a profession, I say, can anyone really have the right to say, "This is of no philosophical interest"?

In any case, whether XI.xii-xv is of philosophical interest or not, it's of interest in a more general way, because Malebranche tackles the ever-puzzling question of why God created so many bugs, and does so with the aplomb and suave certainty that characterizes all of the most fun rationalists in philosophical history. What follows is my very rough paraphrase-translation of the French (it is only paraphrastic, although a fairly close one; for a closer translation, see Jolley-Scott 210ff.). To understand what is going on, you need to know that the general topic being discussed is the reasons why God created things the way He did. Theodore, who is Malebranche's representative in the discussion, argues that God created "cruel beasts and an infinity of very bothersome animals" because he foresaw that we would sin, and would therefore need to be taught a clear lesson about the distinction between rational and non-rational beings. After this discussion, we open with Aristes, Theodore's inquisitive interlocutor:


XII. Ariste: I understand exactly what you are saying. God had good reasons to create big animals that could punish us. But why are there so many little insects that do us neither good nor ill? They are perhaps more wonderfully designed than the big animals, but with a design hidden from our eyes that therefore can't acquaint us with the Creator's wisdom.

Theodore: Without stopping to prove to you that there isn't any animal, however small, without some sort of relation to us, my response is that God's principal idea in forming these little insects was not to harm us or help us, but to adorn the universe with works worthy of his wisdom and other attributes. Common men despise insects, but you can find people who study them. Apparently even angels admire them. But even if they were completely ignored, all that is needed for God to create them is for these little works to express divine perfections and make the universe more perfect in itself; supposing, of course, that He can preserve them without multiplying His ways, since God certainly made the most perfect work by acting in the most general and simple ways. He foresaw that the laws of motion were enough to preserve any kind of insect you could want. He wanted to put the laws to all the uses they could in order to make the work most complete. So he first formed the whole insect species by a wonderful division of a bit of matter. For we must always be mindful that it is by motion that everything happens in bodies, and that in the beginning of the universe's motion it didn't matter whether God moved things one way or another, since there were no general laws governing the communication of motion before things started hitting each other.

Ariste: I can conceive of that, Theodore. A world full of an endless number of big animals and little animals is more beautiful and distinctive of intelligence than one without insects. And such a world doesn't cost God any more, nor does it require that He be more particular and precise in His providence; so it fits with His attribute of immutability. So we needn't be shocked that God made so many insects.

XIII. Theodore: What you are saying here, Ariste, is very general, and doesn't exclude an infinite number of reasons for God to make the world as He did.

Ariste: Theodore, I have to tell you of a thought that came to mind when you were talking about the apparent transformation of the insects. Worms [i.e., caterpillars and other larvae] crawl on the ground. They lead a sad and humiliating life. But they make a tomb for themselves in which they gloriously depart. I imagined to myself that by this God wanted to symbolize the life, death, and resurrection, of his Son and even of all Christians.

Theodore: Ariste, I'm pleased that this thought came to mind, because although it seems to me quite right, I wouldn't have dared propose it to you.

Ariste: Why not?

Theodore: Because there's something ignoble about it that displeases the imagination. Besides, even the word 'worm' or 'insect' joined to the grand idea we have of our Savior can excite mockery. (For I think you know that ridicule consists in the conjunction of the small and the great.)

Ariste: Yes, but what seems ridiculous to the imagination is often quite reasonable and accurate, because we often despise what we don't know.

Theodore: That is true, Ariste. The lily of the field that we ignore is more magnificently clothed than Solomon in all his glory. Jesus Christ wasn't afraid of mockery when He proposed that paradox. The imagination is as content as reason in comparing the magnificence of King Solomon to the glory of Christ resurrected; but it isn't very satisfied when trying to find a symbol of the Savior in the beauty of a lily. Nonetheless, the magnificence of Solomon was the work of human hands, whereas it is God who gave the flowers their ornaments.

Ariste: So, Theodore, you believe that God symbolized Jesus Christ in plants as well as insects?

Theodore: Ariste, I believe that God related everything to Christ in a thousand different ways, and that not only do creatures express divine perfections, but they are also, as much as possible, emblems of His beloved Son. The seed we sow must, as it were, die, in order to be resurrected and to give fruit. I find this a natural symbol of Christ, who died in order to be gloriously resurrected: Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground to die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. [John 12:24]

Theotime: [Theotime is another participant in the conversation.] One can make anything serve as a comparison. But it doesn't follow that God wanted to symbolize Christ by everything that has some arbitrary relation to Him.

Theodore: Theotime, If I did not know (1) that the principal purpose of God [in creation] is Jesus Christ and His Church; (2) that nothing pleases God except through Christ; (3) that the universe subsists in Christ and through Christ, because only He sanctifies it, raises it from its sordid state, and makes it divine; then I would consider these natural symbols to be all arbitrary and ignoble comparisons. Theotime, I believe that God had Christ so much in view in forming the universe that the thing that's perhaps most wonderful about providence is that it is always relating the natural and the supernatural, what happens in the world, and what comes from the Church of Jesus Christ.

XIV. Ariste: Surely, Theotime, it is obvious that God wanted to symbolize Jesus by the changes insects go through. A worm is despicable and powerless: behold the despised Christ: But I am a worm, and not a man, the reproach of men and an outcast from the people. [Psalm 21:7] See Him charged with our infirmities and weaknesses: Surely he has born our infirmities. [Isaiah 53:4] A worm encloses itself in its tomb and is resurrected later without being corrupted. Christ dies and is resurrected without his body being subject to corruption. Neither did his flesh see corruption. [Acts 2:21] The worm resurrects to a body that is, so to speak, wholly spiritual. It does not crawl. It flies. It no longer feeds on putrefaction, it drinks from the flowers. It is no longer despicable: nothing could be more magnificently clothed. Likewise, the resurrected Christ is full of glory. He is raised to the heavens. He no longer crawls, so to speak, from village to village in Judea. He is no longer subject to the weariness and other infirmities of life. He governs all nations, and can break them like a clay pot [Ps. 2:9]. Sovereign power in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. Can we say this parallel is arbitrary? Surely it is natural.

XV. Theodore: Ariste, you are forgetting parallels too exact to be ignored.

Ariste: What are they?

Theodore: These worms are always growing before their transformation. But flies, butterflies, and (in general) everything that has been transformed into a flying thing after having been a worm, always remains in the same state.

Ariste: This is because on earth, we are always able to merit, while in heaven we remain as we are.

Theodore: I have noticed that insects do not reproduce unless they have been resurrected and (so to speak) glorified.

Ariste: You are right. This is because Christ only sent the Holy Spirit to His Church, making it fruitful, after His resurrection and entrance into glory. For the Spirit was not yet given, John says, because Jesus was not yet glorified. [John 7:39] And Christ himself says, It is good that I go, for if I do not, the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you. [John 16:7] I am no longer surprised that God made so many insects.

Theodore: Theotime, if God is pleased by His work, it is because He sees His beloved Son everywhere. We ourselves are only agreeable to God insofar as we are expressions of Christ. Matter, by the modalities of which it is capable, cannot exactly express the inner dispositions of the holy soul of Christ -- His charity, His humility, His patience; but it can imitate quite well the different states in which we find His adorable body. And I think that the arrangement of matter, which symbolizes Christ and His Church, honors the Father's love for the Son better than any other arrangement that honors His wisdom and attributes. [The 'arrangements of matter' Theodore has in mind here are things like the body of the caterpillar as it undergoes its physical transformations.]

Ariste: Perhaps there is more skill and intelligence in these dispositions of matter that symbolize Christ. When a living animal makes a tomb for itself and encloses itself in it so it can be resurrected in glory, can we conceive of a mechanism more admirable than the one by which it does so?

Theotime: I agree entirely with your opinions. Further, I believe, Theodore, that God has used the dispositions of bodies to symbolize even the dispositions Jesus' holy soul, especially the abundance of His love for His Church. For St. Paul teaches us [in Ephesians 5] that the violent passion of love that causes a man to leave his parents for his wife is a symbol of the abundance of His love for His spouse. Although animals, strictly speaking, aren't capable of love, they express this great passion by their movements and preserve their species a little like men do. They therefore naturally symbolize that violent love of Jesus Christ, which led Him to shed His blood for His Church. In effect, a blind and foolish and (as it were) unlimited passion was needed in order to express strongly and vividly the folly of the cross, the self-emptying of the Son of God, the abundance of His love for men.

Ariste: Let us therefore admire the incomprehensible wisdom of the Creator in making these wonderful correspondences, and let us not consider creatures useless because they don't do us any harm or good. They make God's work more perfect. They express divine perfections. They symbolize Jesus Christ. That's their excellence and their beauty.

Theodore: Let us admire them, Ariste. But since God only loves His creatures in the degree they are related to His perfections, i.e., insofar as they express His Son, let us be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and model ourselves on His Son. It isn't enough for Christians to symbolize Jesus Christ like animals and material beings do, nor even as Solomon does in all his glory. We must imitate the virtues He practiced in His humble and difficult life; these suit us as long as we crawl on the earth. And we know that a new life is reserved for us in heaven, where we will await our glorious transformation. But our conversation is in heaven, says St. Paul, whence we also look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our humiliation to be made like the body of His glory. [Philippians 3:20-21]


As Dionysius says, (Coel. Hier. i) it is more fitting that divine truths should be expounded under the figure of less noble than of nobler bodies, and this for three reasons. Firstly, because thereby men's minds are the better preserved from error. For then it is clear that these things are not literal descriptions of divine truths, which might have been open to doubt had they been expressed under the figure of nobler bodies, especially for those who could think of nothing nobler than bodies. Secondly, because this is more befitting the knowledge of God that we have in this life. For what He is not is clearer to us than what He is. Therefore similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him. Thirdly, because thereby divine truths are the better hidden from the unworthy.

I thought of this (Aquinas, ST 1.1.9 ad 3) on reading this. Of course, Aquinas means that it's better to use terms like 'rock' or 'river' than, say, 'man' to describe God, because it's less likely to confuse people, is more modest about what we can actually know (rather than merely suggest), and require more careful reflection to understand. So it's a rather different thing. But some of the argument carries over; God wants a relationship, while Sarah just wants a one-night stand in which God just quietly slips away and leaves her life exactly like it was before. It's a twisted, blasphemous scenario; but when I look out on the world, it seems to me that the common attitude is exactly that twisted and blasphemous. People do usually want just to have a one-night stand with God, no promises and no demands, and make up all sorts of excuses about how it's better that way. But the problem is that God always makes promises and demands, so they have to wriggle out of everything it commits them to, even to the point of baldfaced lying. (The best part of the video clip was when she became very indignant at the suggestion that she might be dishonest and then immediately moves into shameless lying. That's pretty much the way it really goes when people are dealing with God.)

Of course, Silverman's humor tends to be a bit asinine; but we have it on a good source that even an ass can speak the truth on occasion. It's nowhere close to Till We Have Faces in quality, nuance, class, and context, but the picture of the world is much the same.

Motifs de Convenance

In their discussion of the 1741 Bibliothèque rationée review of book III of Hume's Treatise1, Norton and Perinetti helpfully include both a transcription of the French and a translation. I was particularly interested by this clause of a sentence in the French:

Le grand argument, qui détermine notre Auteur à rejetter la pensée de ceux qui trouvent dans les rélations nécessaires des choses, les fondemens de la distinction de Juste & de l'Injuste, c'est non seulement, qu'il ne peut jamais résulter de-là des obligations proprement dites, mais seulement de simples motifs de convenance, pour déterminer à agir d'une façon plutôt que d'une autre;....

They translate this as:

The great argument that determines our author to reject the view of those who find in the necessary relations of things the foundation of the distinction between right and wrong, is not only that obligations, properly speaking, can never result from these relations, but only motives of agreement for determining one course of action rather than another.....

As you can see, they translate motifs de convenance as "motives of agreement." According to the footnote, a reviewer suggested that it should be translated "grounds of convenience," a suggestion which they firmly reject, and certainly rightly, since it's anachronistic. Appealing to the 1762 Dictionnaire de l'Académie, they note two contemporary definitions of the phrase, raisons de convenance:

(1) des raisons de pure bienséance
(2) des raisons qui sont probables & plausible, & qui ne sont point démonstratives

Their translation for the first "reasons of propriety" and of the the second "reasons that are probable and plausible, but are not demonstrative ones," and suggest that the second definition capture the probable meaning of the phrase here. I'm not entirely clear how their very, very literal "motives of agreement" is supposed to meet up with that definition. But, in any case, I think it's pretty clear that the probable meaning is not the second but the first, which should be translated not as "reasons of propriety" but "reasons of (pure) congruity" or even, if you are willing to allow the expansion, "reasons having a regard to appropriateness alone." Convenance throughout the early modern period is a quasi-technical term drawn from the scholastic Latin convenientia, 'appropriateness' or 'fittingness' or 'congruity'. An argument ex convenientia is an argument that's not demonstrative but based on an appeal to what's fitting. For instance, you can't demonstrate that God became man, but you can give reasons for thinking it fitting or appropriate or congruent. This is the root of both of the definitions given by the Dictionnaire de l'Académie.

The gist of the above passage, then, is:

The major argument of the author against the necessary relations view
is not merely that obligations cannot result from these relations
since they can only provide motifs de convenance for preferring one course of action to another
but....[and then he goes on to give the main line of the 'grand argument']

The complaint presented in this clause is presented as if it were a common one; the reviewer is saying that Hume does not merely present the common objection, but goes further. And the common objection that is presented here, I take it, is that necessary relations don't give you obligations, they just give you reasons for thinking it more appropriate to choose this rather than that. This is indeed a common objection against the necessary relations view in the early modern period; it's arguably the most common one. When Cockburn defends Clarke's position, to give just one example, it's this objection that looms largest and requires most of her ingenuity to rebut.

So, contrary to Norton and Perinetti, it is almost certainly the first of the two definitions they give that fits most closely with the reviewer's argument. I would translate the passage as follows, if I were allowing myself to be a little more dynamic than strictly literal:

The major argument, the one that leads our author to reject the idea of those who find the foundations of the distinction between right and wrong in the necessary relations of things, is not just that these can never result in obligations, properly speaking, only in arguments of appropriateness for resolving on one course of action rather than another;....

And so on. If I were doing it more literally, I would basically translate it as Norton and Perinetti have done, but the last clause would be "but only fitting reasons for resolving on one course of action rather than another."2

1 "The Bibliothèque raisonnée Review of Volume 3 of the Treatise: Authorship, Text, and Translation," Hume Studies 32.1 (April 2006) 3-52.
2 The astute reader will notice that I have translated the second determiner as "resolving on", i.e., developing a resolution in favor of. This is certainly one meaning of the term in this period, and fits the context well; it's also a little less obscure to say 'resolving on one course of action rather than another' instead of 'determining one course of action rather than another.'

Cross-posted at Houyhnhnm Land.


Today PZ Myers of Pharyngula turns 50. It's no secret that I have my differences, and diametrical oppositions, to Myers; but as birthdays are to be celebrated, it seems fitting to highlight something that Myers, without any doubt, does exceptionally well. I'm reminded of a comment in a preface to an old science book:

Teachers in science are nearly equally divided into two classes ; those who know too much, and those who know too little. Those of the first class, overloaded with science, cannot admit the possibility of meeting with readers who have none ; and, therefore, their essays and introductions are so worded that it requires a tolerable proficiency to understand them. The teachers of the second class fall into the opposite error ; they curtail, garble, and popularize the writings of others without understanding them, forgetful that it requires a consummate knowledge of any science to abridge a work which treats of it ably and at large. The Author submits, with much humility, that both classes are in error: he submits also that introductory works should be written for those who know nothing of the subject on which they read, and by those who possess, in themselves, some practical knowledge of the subject on which they write.

[Edward Newman, The Grammar of Entomology (1835).]

Myers, when he decides to do it, is exceptional at doing precisely this: writing science for those who don't know it, without garbling or curtailing. It's a difficult skill to find -- many people who think they have it, don't -- and it's to be celebrated wherever it is found. And there are only a few in the blogosphere who are even in Myers's league on this point. A sample of some relatively recent posts of his on scientific matters that are worth reading:

Evolution of Vascular Systems
Evolution of the Mammalian Vagina
Basics: Gastrulation
Basics: Gastrulation, Invertebrate Style

Gregory of Nyssa

Today in some parts of the world is the commemoration for St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Cappadocian fathers, brother of St. Basil the Great, one of the most brilliant minds in the history of the Church (although very bad at practical matters, by everyone's admission including his own and his brother's). His work On Not Three Gods, a tight and closely reasoned summary of the Cappadocian view of the Trinity, has been very big influence on my own view of the Trinity; if there are any theological works on the Trinity that I wish people discussing the subject would closely read first, they would be Basil's book on the Holy Spirit, Augustine's on the Trinity, and Gregory's on Not Three Gods.

Another important Nyssan work is his Life of Macrina, a spiritual classic. St. Macrina was the sister of Basil and Gregory, and although she left behind no writings, her mark on the world, known through her brothers, is significant. It is another work deserving wide readership.

One of his most important works, The Life of Moses, does not appear to be online. In it Gregory uses the life of Moses as a template for understanding spiritual progress. First we begin in the darkness of ignorance; then we find spiritual illumination; and this spiritual illumination leads us to the darkness of contemplation.

Hume Studies

I've received my copy of the most recent Hume Studies (April 2006 -- the issues are a year behind at present), and it looks to be a doozy. There's an article by Norton and Perinetti on the earliest review of volume 3 of Hume's Treatise, in the Bibliothèque raisonée. Jasper Reid, of whose work I'm a big fan, has an article comparing Jonathan Edwards and David Hume. And there's more. You can expect something or other on it over the next week.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sic et Non

Once when teaching a class (a three-hour one), I threw everyone in the class for a loop by spending almost the first hour arguing in favor of David Hume's argument in the essay on miracles; the next hour, after the break, arguing against; and, after a second break, most of the third hour arguing in favor of it. At the end I took a poll of the class, asking whether they thought it worked. Then I put my own vote up; of course, I don't think it does. Some of the students thought I was deliberately being perverse. But, as I pointed out to them, some arguments are best understood sic et non.

(I didn't use that phrase, of course.)

Rough Jottings on Essence and Energies

Mike Liccione asked for a post on the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. I find that I actually don't have much to say about it. I'm a bit idiosyncratic in my view of the matter. As I've noted before on this weblog, I am, in at least a broad sense, a Palamist, so I agree that there is such a distinction. I'm also, in at least a broad sense, a Thomist, so I think God is wholly simple. There are occasionally attempts to hold that these two positions are mutually exclusive. This is fairly clearly not so. On Aquinas's account of divine simplicity, simplicity is noncomposition, where composition is union of two things as being in some way actual and (passively) potential. The particular cases he considers are:

1) quantitative parts (physical part & whole)
2) matter and form
3) nature and supposit
4) essence and esse
5) genus and difference
6) subject and accident

Aquinas is quite clear that he regards this as an exhaustive list. You will note that essence and energies are not on the list. This is scarcely surprising since the distinction between essence and energies is not -- and cannot be -- between two components one of which is actual and the other of which is potential. The essence is not actualized by the energies and the energies are not actualized by the essence. Further, one of the key points of simplicity understood in this way is that it is closely connected to immutability. Composition in terms of actual and passive potential means that the composite thing is, in principle, mutable; which no serious follower of Palamas or the Ecumenical Councils will concede.

Moreover, it is clear that (1) there is good reason to think that the distinction between essence and energies is really a distinction; and (2) there is good reason to think that the distinction is notional.

(1) The divine names are not synonymous. But denying the distinction between essence and energies in the sense Palamas makes it would commit us to saying that the divine names are, in fact, synonymous. One of Gregory's arguments for the distinction is that regarding 'nature' and 'things pertaining to nature' as the same leads to heretical confusions; we can't conflate nature, intellect, will, compassion, judgment, etc., because we make nonsense of Christian doctrine if we do. And he is exactly right. Nature and will are not logically equivalent, even in the divine case. But Aquinas's account of simplicity is not Descartes's; he does not make this confusion.

(2) However, what these terms refer to are not divided from each other in the Godhead. The divine nature is, as a whole, goodness; as a whole, wisdom; as a whole, justice; as a whole, power. And so forth. The terms are distinct, and necessarily so, but that to which they refer in God is one and the same. It's the unity that evades capture by human thought; we can obliquely refer to it, but we cannot understand it in itself, for refracting it into several non-synonymous conceptions, recognized not to be separable in the divine nature itself, is the only means we have of understanding such things. Thus they differ according to their mode of intelligibility; as does that in God which is incommunicable and that in God by which we participate in divinity.

But more to the real point, Aquinas himself insists that the gift of rapture is given to certain people; and that in this grace of rapture our light (the intellect) is strengthened with glory so that we become deiform so as to see divine light. He explicitly denies, for instance, that St. Paul when rapt to the third heaven, saw a merely created glory. He, glorified, saw God; in the rapture he was given a deifying gift. And God cannot be seen through any created means, but only through His own superabundant intelligibility. This is what is chiefly at stake in the dispute between the hesychasts and their critics, among which was the utterly confused and clueless Barlaam.

The point is not that Palamas and Aquinas agree on everything. It would be astonishing if they did. The point is that attempts to make the latter straightforwardly a contradiction of the former simply are showing confusions about Aquinas, and that, on the other side, the natural thing for a Thomist to do is to learn from Palamas. It can be done without ceasing to be Thomistic.

Of course, the point I really wish people would take away is that this is not a matter for polemics but for charitable doctrine. Say that I fail in my understanding of the account of the distinction between essence and energies, which is more than possible; it won't be conceded that the true account is less wonderful than the one I've suggested here. But the account I've suggested here, if true, suggests something so worthwhile that everyone ought to be told about it; no one should be attacked simply for not recognizing it as true, because that wastes precious moments that could be sent lovingly teaching them the truth. And if there is a better account, it is more worthy, not less, to be taught in such a way. For example, you can tell those Orthodox who truly believe the Palamite doctrine and those who merely uphold it through a party spirit. Those who truly believe it are excited about it; it charges them with love for their fellow man and an earnest desire that they, too, may know of this great and good truth, that God became man so that man might receive a deifying gift. They seek to convey it a thousand ways in the hope that those who do not understand might come to understand. Those who uphold it only out of party spirit conveniently forget that their acquaintance with it is not something they have due to their own intelligence or purity but simply and solely because God decided to bless them with the grace of being Orthodox. Because of this, they attack those who do not immediately recognize the doctrine as being stupid, or ignorant, or even corrupt. They spend far more time and effort criticizing other people for not believing it than they do teaching it; a sign of dangerous priorities. For the one the very doctrine is almost a prayer, and certainly a joy, itself; for the other, it is merely a line dividing the party of the Wise from that of the Foolish and the party of the Light from the party of the Dark. Here, as elsewhere, the true believers are marked out by a love for others and a concern for truth that the false believers lack. This is true even when the true believers criticize, which they sometimes do, and sometimes even do sharply. The difference from the mere partisans is palpable. Charity should rule all in all matters such as this.

Alas, it rarely does.

The Passion of Perpetua

Today is the feast of Perpetua and Felicity, two early Christian martyrs (they died in A.D. 203). One of the especially interesting things about Perpetua is that we have her own account of the events leading up to her martyrdom. Her summary of it was preserved in a section of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. A portion of it:

Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum. Therewith a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum, and a very great multitude gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. The others being asked, confessed. So they came to me. And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child. And Hilarian the procurator - he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had received in his room the right and power of the sword - said: Spare your father's grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors' prosperity. And I answered: I am a Christian. And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father's harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon. Then because my child had been used to being breastfed and to staying with me in the prison, straightway I sent Pomponius the deacon to my father, asking for the child. But my father would not give him. And as God willed, no longer did he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by care for the child and by the pain of my breasts.

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is devoted to obtaining passage of U. S. legislation prohibiting any and all U.S.-sponsored and -condoned torture, prohibiting any exemption from the U.S.'s adherence to human rights standards, prohibiting the existence of secret prisons for detainees, restoring habeas corpus protections for such detainees, and prohibiting the use of evidence derived from torture and degrading treatment in all cases where the guilt or innocence of someone must be determined.

You can donate to them online via a secure Groundspring service.

Previous Posts in this Series
The Amazing Change

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Notes and Links

* Joe Carter has the right term for this: heart-rending.

* Marica Bernstein, Experimental Philosophy Meets Experimental Design: 23 Questions (PDF), critiques the experimental philosophy movement, and along the way gives a summary of the basics of experimental design. But the comments at the Experimental Philosophy blog should be read as well.

* In Rich Little Rich Girl Karen Marie Knapp tells the story of Katherine Marie Drexel.

* New Critique is a nice resource on Herman Dooyeweerd.

* A very interesting post on Christianity and the subjective problem of sin at "21st Century Reformation".

* Auxiliary Bishop Fisher of Australia discusses conscience-based ethics.

* The Citizens' Symposium, spinoff of the Carnival of Citizens, is up and running. The first theme is Free Speech; the deadline is March 24th.

* Currently reading God is Watching You: Supernatural Agent Concepts Increase Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game (PDF). Hat-tip to Chris, who discusses it. The discussion of 'reputational concerns' reminds me a bit, actually, of St. Jeanne Chantal, who somewhere points out that if people took divine omnipresence more seriously than they usually do, they would be much more careful about what they do.

* Currently re-reading: Religion's Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion (PDF) by Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan, on various points in the cognitive science of religion.

* TheGodFearinFiddler asks, Is Tradition Reliable? (ht: The Patristics Roundup at "hyperekperissou")


* Interfaith Works, formerly Interfaith Power and Light, helps churches to be more environment-friendly.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sigh: On Systemic Problems and Individual Responsibility

I end up sighing a lot here, don't I? In this case it is caused by yet another group of people trying to pass the buck on a systemic problem. Look, if you think that something's being a systemic problem means that personal responsibility is swamped out, you haven't given much thought to what the system is. And for every single systemic problem that arises, people try to do this. Misogyny, for instance, is often a systemic problem. That does not mean that opponents of the mysogyny of the system are excused from personally working against mysogyny in those parts of the system closest to them -- starting with themselves. Slavery is a systemic problem; that doesn't mean it's therefore OK for people to own slaves, or condone practices of slavery, or excuse slavers, as long as they advocate reforming 'the system'. If they really were advocating reforming the system, they would be advocating their own self-reformation as one part of it. Their attitude reminds one of the words of T. S. Eliot:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But, as the next lines say, the man that is always shadows the man that pretends to be. You see, the system in each of these cases is just this: you and me, our typical modes of life, and the customs, conventions, and laws that exert pressure on those modes of life. If a problem is systemic, that means you and I are complicitous in it. It does not necessarily mean that we are culpable -- complicity and culpability do not perfectly overlap, as I've pointed out before -- but it does mean that we have a responsibility with regard to it. That responsibility starts with, and ends with, personal virtue; there are lots of other things between starting and ending that are not straightforward matters of personal virtue, like starting new customs and making new laws. But without personal virtue all the reform goes hollow and collapses.

The question is asked: 'Why should I deny myself comforts when everyone else is doing it anyhow?' Because everyone else is thinking the same thing, and with a systemic problem that's one of the things that needs to be changed. It's perfectly fine to say that we should, and must, try to solve a problem collectively; but let's take seriously what 'collectively' actually means, and not pretend that a problem can be solved collectively while we all do nothing individually. A collective solution is just a bunch of interlocking and mutually supporting individual solutions. People who solve a problem collectively all contribute their individual efforts.

This is true for all systemic problems. I have no notion of whether Gore is being responsible or not; certainly people like Monbiot have argued that carbon offsetting is bad faith, like selling indulgences without regard for penitential restitution. I defer to others on such matters, and leave Gore to his own conscience. But the defense that the problem "has nothing to do with personal virtue and everything to do with collective action" is straightforwardly absurd.

A Gardener in Karmela

In the middle of the third century a man from Nazareth, known to us by the name of Konon, planted and tended a garden outside of Mandron in the provience Pamphylia, in a place called Karmela. He did very little more than that; he just tended his garden and raised enough vegetables to live on.

As time went on, he began to have a reputation for being a good and simple soul; whenever anyone would greet him, he would greet them heartily in return, with all sincerity and good cheer. News of him came to the governor, who grew curious to see this man who lived so simply and cheerfully; and he sent a messenger asking him to come.

But Konon replied to the messenger, "What does the governor have to do with me? I am a Christian. If he wishes to call anyone, let him call those who believe as he does. I will remain with my garden."

So they tied him up and took him to the governor. Once there, the governor tried to get him to engage in the imperial worship; but he refused, saying he would not do so even if they tortured him.

So they tortured him. In particular, they put nails through his feet and forced him to run in front of the governor's chariot. He did not last long, and thus died Konon the Gardener, saintly martyr.

(It has always struck me, by the way, that if there is anyone fit to be a patron saint for Christians of a libertarian stripe, St. Konon, who just wanted to tend his garden in peace, is the one.)

Three New Poem Drafts


Rich with wild wormwood
lightly bitter in my taste
the triune in my body
is deeply interlaced
and I am green as glory
with bewitchment in my soul
waiting in the glass
for the God to make me whole

Wild and unruly
acute but hardly sane
I stand upon the table
waiting for the rain
rain drops down now slowly
sweet and cold as ice
heaven interfuses
and I louche to paradise

Light Is Love

Sing a song and let it soar
before is snapped the silver cord;
bear your burden, had from birth,
but bear it lightly on this earth;
though life be lonely, and living cruel,
yet light is love, and love is true.

Catch the light and let it leap
or fly away on flitted feet;
catch it in a crystal shard
or show it pinned upon your heart;
weave it well upon the loom;
for light is love, and love is true.


Tremendous in its power is the breathing of the word
Without it reason falters, speech rots with foul decay
The eyes blind themselves with the brightness of bonfires unleashed

My brother is in the garden cutting up the shoots
My brother is struck with madness, enslaved to a fickle moon
My brother is bound in silence to the graveyards of the dead

For mountains tangible to minds cannot be grasped in hand
But only wholly loved

The last of these, by the way, is an allusion to Hagigah 14b, in which four rabbis attain to such mystical heights that they glimpsed paradise: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Akiba. Ben Azzai died; Ben Zoma went insane; Acher 'cut the shoots', i.e., became a heretic; only Akiba departed in peace.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

War and Casuistry

This is a bit old, but I just came across an interesting piece by Melkite Catholic, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, on Christian Just War Theory and Moral Laxism, which is a criticism of American Catholics with regard to the Iraq War.

Most articles of this sort, criticizing Christian involvement in matters of war, are rather poorly thought-out, in part because they tend to turn into poorly informed and rather misguided attacks on just war theory. What I like about this article is the recognition that the problem is not just war theory but casuistry, and that this, not just war theory, is the point at which to have a rigorous critique of participation in war. I think this is right. Just war theory, in either of its forms, is a general account of justice in war. Considering particular wars (and what to do about them) is not a matter of just war theory; it's a matter of applying principles to particular cases. In no moral arena do principles automatically apply themselves; in every case we have to exercise good judgment about how to classify particular cases, how certain and universal the principles really are, how strictly or rigorously we are to apply principles to them, how much tolerance for disagreement can be accepted as rational, etc. That's what used to be called casuistry, case-handling, before abuses led to the negative associations the word currently has. What Fr. Emmanuel criticizes is the tendency to laxism when wars are involved, and he's quite right about this. His criticism is therefore excellent food for thought. It isn't clear what system of casuistry he himself prefers, although from points here and there it seems that he is a probabilist.

In any case, it's a good example of the importance of casuistry for robust application of moral philosophy to the world, and it sheds some excellent light on many public disputes relevant to morality, many of which are really casuistical disputes that are not recognized as such. Debates about war are certainly one kind of such dispute.

Cañizeras on Europe

I have a dabbler's interest in differing conceptions of Europe, so I found this article by Cardinal Cañizeras of Spain very interesting, inasmuch as it lays out particularly clearly one very popular (but also very controversial) conception. My rough translation of part of the essay:

Europe is not a geographical continent, capable of being apprehended with clarity, but a concept, a cultural and historical unity. More than this, it is a "spiritual story". The same could be said of Spain. As a society and social ambience, Europe preexists in advance of the existence of the European nations; and Spain, in advance of the Nation that historically exists. With the words of Benedict XVI this past September in Ratisbonne, the elements that shape both achieve their unity in the encounter between the Greek "logos" and the "Logos" of Christian revelation: that is to say, in Christianity. Europe begins to be born with "the encounter between faith and reason, between authentic enlightenment and religion", which Christianity contains. If it is quite true that Europe and Christianity do not coincide, and have never coincided at all, it is also obviously true that the Christian matrix has been that which has given the European "humanitas" its peculiar impulse. As Europe, so also Spain truly was born Christian and for more than a millenium has existed as such. Contemplating their origins helps us to comprehend them in their historical course and to look to the future. With this sight rises the spontaneous question: Will the Europe of tomorrow, will the Spain of tomorrow, be Christian? They will be to the extent that they maintain their roots. But we are able to question ourselves even more thoroughly: Will Europe exist, will Spain, if they leave off being Christian, if they renounce their roots and Christian fundamentals? They will be some other thing, but not Europe, nor Spain either....The future of Europe cannot be in any way a "culture of nothing", of the void, of liberty without limits and without content, of relativism or of skepticism peddled as intellectual conquest, as seems to be the fundamental attitude of the European peoples. Only, to my understanding, the rediscovery of the Christian story, with all the burden that this carries, as a decided and decisive resurrection of the ancient soul of Europe, can offer the "firm and enduring hope to which we aspire". For the future of Europe, and of Spain, God cannot be relegated to the private sphere; forgetting and leaving behind God turns one against man and oneself. They cannot follow the road of humanism to the marginalizing of God. We can well say that "who fights for Europe fights also for democracy", but let us not forget that it is done under the indissoluble bond of eunomia, of a grounding of rights in unconditional moral norms....

Sunday of Gregory Palamas

Today the Orthodox celebrate the Sunday of Gregory Palamas and the 'Second Triumph of Orthodoxy'. Some reading from the blogosphere for this day:

The Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas at "This is Life!: Revolutions Around the Cruciform Axis"

St. Gregory Palamas Sunday at "The Abandoned Mind"

A number of posts at "Wisdom!: Readings from the Fathers of the Church" give selections from a dialogue by him:

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Essential Unity of the Uncreated Divine Natural Attributes with the Divine Nature

St. Gregory Palamas: On Deification

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Uncreated Essence and Uncreated Energies

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Hyperousia of the Divine Nature

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Unity of the Divine Essence and Divine Energies

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Relation Between the Divine Essence and the Divine Energy

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Signification of the Divine Names

St. Gregory Palamas: On Participation in God

St. Gregory Palamas: On the Divine Simplicity