Saturday, January 29, 2011

Darwin, Reason, and Imagination

I saw this at John Wilkins's place:

I've noted this point before, and it was a point recognized by Darwin. It's the real underlying point of a commonly misunderstood passage on the eye (Origin of Species, Chapter VI):

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Darwin later goes on to say:

To arrive, however, at a just conclusion regarding the formation of the eye, with all its marvellous yet not absolutely perfect characters, it is indispensable that the reason should conquer the imagination; but I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at others hesitating to extend the principle of natural selection to so startling a length.

It is indispensable that the reason should conquer the imagination. The imagination does indeed boggle at the things proposed by evolutionary theory, and anyone who suggests it doesn't thereby shows that they are misunderstanding evolutionary theory in the first place. This is because it is based on a sublime idea, in the technical sense. But if any particular evolutionary proposal fails, it can only be on the basis of rational arguments, and not the boggling of the imagination. This is a universe filled with imagination-boggling things. But reason is greater than imagination: mere imagination may stumble, but reason can walk through strange geometries, extraordinary vastnesses, and wildly glorious diversities.

Thomism and ID Again

Logan Gage has an article at Touchstone trying to revive the claim that Thomism and ID are compatible. As most of the Thomists, whether broader or narrower, pointed out last time, Thomism's inferences to intelligence are of a different kind than that given in ID, what ID attributes to intelligence alone is often entirely possible for nature on a Thomistic conception of nature, and the characterizations of phenomena given by ID theorists do not fit very well with Thomistic characterizations of them. Since ID is nothing other than an inference to intelligence on the grounds that certain phenomena characterized a certain way can only have an intelligent cause, that means that the only thing ID and Thomism are really capable of having in common is the claim that there are intelligent causes. But they still keep trying. Some points:

(1) Gage points to Haught's characterization of the Fifth Way as an argument "from the design and complexity and order and pattern in the universe to the existence of an ultimate intelligent designer"; and while he does qualify it enough to recognize that "complexity per se" is not found in the Fifth Way, Gage goes on to claim, "Thomas certainly made a design argument by appealing to features of the natural world." While this is a common error, I am very sure this is false; the Fifth Way is not a design argument but a cosmological argument, and indeed, it is not about design at all but about why efficient causes of any sort have the effects they do rather than any other effects (which in Aristotelian terms is explained by the final cause, which, no, is not a design).

It's true that one can expand the label 'design argument' until it is so broad that any argument that concludes that an intelligent cause exists counts as a 'design argument', but this requires massive equivocation on the term 'design'. In order to have a genuine design argument, the argument must make use, somewhere, of the idea that the initial phenomena themselves exhibit a design, which is at minimum an integration of disparate functions into a functional system. The Fifth Way makes no such appeal; ID arguments do. It's a pretty significant difference.

(2) Gage goes on to argue that there are three "sources of tension between Darwinism and Thomistic thought." This is problematic in itself. (A) Rejecting ID and accepting 'Darwinism' are not the same thing, so the one can't be assumed to have anything to do with the other. (B) Thomists don't need to accept 'Darwinism', whatever, precisely, that might be; they are perfectly capable of accepting particular scientific concepts and ideas. (C) Talking about Darwinism leads, throughout, to talking about what Darwin says. But what Darwin says is really not relevant to the question. For instance, who cares if Darwin was a nominalist in some way? This is only relevant if somehow it guaranteed that the lines of inquiry he touched off were nominalistic in the sense that it is literally impossible to reinterpret them in a non-nominalistic way.

(3) The first source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of essences." In characterizing this he conflates 'species' in the Aristotelian form sense with 'species' in the biological population sense. But, again, any contradiction here is a contradiction between nominalism and Thomism. We've known about that for a few hundred years. Gage hasn't actually shown that it is relevant.

He also says some other things about Darwinism's view of function, for which see (2:B).

(4) The second source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of transformism." He confuses Aristotelian species with biological species again, and then asks, "But if living things have unchangeable essences, how can these living things change (or “transform”) into other living things through mere material causes?" I am assuming he doesn't mean "material causes" in a Thomistic sense, but for the rest Thomism doesn't have a problem with things of one form coming from things of another form. St. Thomas, after all, like any medieval Aristotelian, held that spontaneous generation was possible. Actually things change into things with different forms all the time in a Thomistic world: that's what generation and corruption are.

Then Gage goes ahead and gives away the store, saying, "those defending the tradition of natural philosophy found in Aristotle and St. Thomas simply cannot accept transformism—at least not without introducing teleological conceptions that transform Darwinian theory itself." Well, maybe. But that's just to say that Thomists can accept transformism if it's interpreted Thomistically. That does indeed make sense, but it's pretty hard to see how that leaves any source of tension here.

(5) The third source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of formal causation." By this he means exemplar causality in particular. I confess I can't make heads or tails of his characterization of this source of tension. Gage is right that frogs have the power to generate but not the power to create; and that every intelligible character in creation derives by God's creative act from God as exemplar cause. What this has to do with anything is left entirely vague; I suppose it's yet another philosophical position operating under cover of that vague label 'Darwinism', for which see (2:B) again. By this point I'm really surprised he didn't go for broke and, because Thomists hold that divine ideas are in the Word, claim that Darwinism is anti-Trinitarian. After all, that would be a non-negotiable difference, far more serious than any differences proposed here, and Darwinists as characterized here don't sound like they'd be very Trinitarian!

(6) He then gives what he says are three misperceptions of ID by Thomists. In the first one, the perception of ID as mechanistic, he seems to equivocate twice. The first time -- which would be really well-calculated to annoy people of Thomistic sympathies if that were what he was trying to do -- he says, "They seem to forget that Thomas repeatedly used analogies between living objects and man-made artifacts." Analogies to art in this context come up in two ways for Thomists: there is a very restricted similarity between human art and divine art, in the sense that they both are productive and not merely practical or speculative; and there is the standard Aristotelian analogy between art and nature. But in both these cases the differences are crucial and very precisely laid out, and neither one requires thinking of natural things as machines requiring assembly, and, indeed, both make it impossible to regard such a thought as more than a metaphor. Arguing from a metaphor is possible, but a great deal of precision -- and a serious effort to avoid equivocation, including an attempt to analyze the underlying analogy -- is required.

The second equivocation comes when he says, "ID arguments propose the very opposite of mechanism -- agency." I don't see how this is a response to the mechanism claim. The mechanism claim isn't a claim that ID thinks of intelligent causes as mechanistic; it's a claim that it thinks of non-intelligent natural things as mechanistic, and just adds agency on top to try to compensate for the problems of thinking certain kinds of non-intelligent natural things are mechanistic. Simply noting that ID theorists appeal to agency isn't relevant.

He then for some reason assumes that "that science cannot take immaterial concepts like mental causation seriously" is an Enlightenment notion. This is false, but I don't know from the informatin provided whether it's a falsehood original with him or one that derives from the people he is criticizing.

(7) The second misperception is that ID reasoning is 'God of the gaps' reasoning. If there's any point at which I would be sympathetic with Gage's reasoning, it is this one, because I've criticized 'God of the gaps' criticisms of ID myself. But I don't think Gage's defense is very strong. The first part of his argument assume that the problem has to do with the appeal to God. But it's not; criticizing it for 'God of the gaps' reasoning is a structural criticism, and it doesn't matter what you put in instead of God -- 'God of the gaps' is just the common label for this sort of criticism. And especially in dealing with Thomists, appeal to God is not going to be the problem when they criticize an argument for being a 'God of the gaps' argument. Then he shows that we can infer an intelligence cause without the sort of eliminative argument required for a charge of arguing from ignorance to stick, but this is not to the point: ID theorists regularly do use eliminative arguments, so it's those arguments that needed to be defended on this point.

(8) The third alleged misperception is that ID is interventionist. His defense against this misperception is another point at which I find I don't understand his argument at all. Thomists think that God is always primary cause for everything. It may be true that there are people who think that "God limited himself to secondary causes in natural history" but Thomists are not among them, because they regard the claim as incoherent. There are no secondary causes if there is no primary cause. There may be people who think that "God acted as a primary cause at different periods in life’s history" but if they think that means that he acted, e.g., at the breaks in the fossil record and not as primary cause anywhere else, they are putting forward a position that is also inconsistent with the Thomistic position. He then seems to go on to argue that ID need not be interventionist because it can be mechanistic ("Intelligent design by natural laws and initial specifications is still intelligent design") but that can't be right. So I don't know what the defense is supposed to be.

He then makes another move that usually annoys Thomists, and says that St. Thomas allows for "interventions". Of course he does; they are called "miracles". Do ID theorists really want to start arguing that what they really mean is just that flagella were caused miraculously? I don't think so. But in any case, the arguments for these "interventions" in Thomism are nothing like the arguments for ID.

So Gage's essay seems to me simply to underscore how far apart Thomism and ID really are, rather than show any compatibility. If Mr. Gage really wishes to make his argument, there are certain things that need to be done that aren't done here:

(I) Darwinism needs to be defined, and precisely defined at that; too much of the argument turns on details of Darwinism that are never made clear.

(II) Most of the actual analogies proposed between Thomism and ID are extraordinarily vague, and boil down to the fact that ID involves appeal to an intelligent cause of some sort operating in some way for certain phenomena and Thomism involves appeal to an intelligent cause of a very specific sort operating in a very specific way for every kind of phenomenon. That's too vague. It is way too vague a level of description to determine whether the positions are mutually exclusive. The analogies need to be made precise.

(III) There are good reasons not to conflate species in the Aristotelian sense with species in the biological sense. (I recommend reading John Wilkins's book on the history of the species concept.) This distinction needs to be maintained.

(IV) On the transformism issue, this has been addressed by Thomists before, and these arguments need to be considered. For an example (slightly dated, but still good as an introduction to the very basic issues), see the summary of Steven Snyder's argument on the subject that's online.

Incidentally, any comments denigrating Mr. Gage himself will be deleted; published and posted arguments are fair game, but Mr. Gage is a graduate student and attacks on graduate students, simply for presenting arguments, are utterly unacceptable. Also, according to the biographical note, there's another version of the essay elsewhere, so it's possible that some of the problems above may be due to format restrictions and are dealt with properly by Mr. Gage elsewhere.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Aquinas on Relaxing the Bow

Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure, as stated above (I-II, 25, 2; I-II, 31, 1, ad 2). Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason's study. Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers xxiv, 21, it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.168.2.

Aquinas on Providence and Evil

God’s permission of evil in the things governed by Him is not inconsistent with the divine goodness. For, in the first place, the function of providence is not to destroy but to save the nature of the beings governed. The perfection of the universe requires the existence of some beings that are not subject to evil, and of other beings that can suffer the defect of evil in keeping with their nature. If evil were completely eliminated from things, they would not be governed by divine providence in accord with their nature; and this would be a greater defect than the particular defects eradicated.

Secondly, the good of one cannot be realized without the suffering of evil by another. For instance, we find that the generation of one being does not take place without the corruption of another being, and that the nourishment of a lion is impossible without the destruction of some other animal, and that the patient endurance of the just involves persecution by the unjust. If evil were completely excluded from things, much good would be rendered impossible. Consequently it is the concern of divine providence, not to safeguard all beings from evil, but to see to it that the evil which arises is ordained to some good.

Thirdly, good is rendered more estimable when compared with particular evils. For example, the brilliance of white is brought out more clearly when set off by the dinginess of black. And so, by permitting the existence of evil in the world, the divine goodness is more emphatically asserted in the good, just as is the divine wisdom when it forces evil to promote good.

Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, Chapter 142.

Aquinas on Tending to God

All things naturally tend to God implicitly, but not explicitly. That this may appear clearly it should be observed that a secondary cause can influence its effect only in so far as it receives the power of the first cause. The influence of an efficient cause is to act; that of a final cause is to be sought or desired. A secondary agent acts only by the efficacy of the first agent existing in it; similarly a secondary end is sought only by reason of the worth of the principal end existing in it inasmuch as it is subordinated to the principal end or has its likeness.

Accordingly, because God is the last end, He is sought in every end, just as, because He is the first efficient cause, He acts in every agent. But this is what tending to God implicitly, means. For the efficacy of the first cause is in the second as the principles of reasoning are in the conclusions. But to reduce conclusions to their principles or secondary causes to their first causes belongs only to the power of reasoning. Hence only a rational nature can trace secondary ends back to God by a sort of analytic procedure so as to seek God Himself explicitly. In demonstrative sciences a conclusion is correctly drawn only by a reduction to first principles. In the same way the appetite of a rational creature is correctly directed only by an explicit appetitive tendency to God, either actual or habitual.

Thomas Aquinas, Questions on Truth, Question 22, Article 2.

Aquinas on Wisdom as Play

We should here note that the contemplation of wisdom is suitably compared to play on account of two features found in play. First of all, play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom holds the greatest delight. Accordingly, in Sirach 24:27 the mouth of wisdom says: My spirit is sweeter than honey.

The second is that the activities of play are not directed towards something
else, but are sought on their own account; this is also true of the delights of wisdom. For sometimes it happens that a person takes delight within himself in considering those things which he desires or which he proposes to do. Now this delight is directed to something external he is striving to achieve. Yet if this were lacking or delayed, no small affliction is added to such delight, in line with Proverbs 14:13: Laughter shall be mingled with sorrow. But the delight pertaining to the contemplation of wisdom holds the cause of delight in itself. Thus it allows no worry, as though awaiting something it lacks. For this reason Wisdom 8:16 says: Her conversation hath no bitterness; and it hath no sorrow to live with her (i. e. wisdom).

Hence Divine Wisdom compares its delightfulness to play (Proverbs 8:30): I was delighted for days on end, playing face to face with it.

Thomas Aquinas, Exposition of Boethius's Hebdomadibus (PDF), Prologue.

Aquinas on Logic

As the Philosopher says in Metaphysics I (980b26), “the human race lives by art and reasonings.” In this statement the Philosopher seems to touch upon that property whereby man differs from the other animals. For the other animals are prompted to their acts by a natural impulse, but man is directed in his actions by a judgment of reason. And this is the reason why there are various arts devoted to the ready and orderly performance of human acts. For an art seems to be nothing more than a definite and fixed procedure established by reason, whereby human acts reach their due end through appropriate means.

Now reason is not only able to direct the acts of the lower powers but is also director of its own act: for what is peculiar to the intellective part of man is its ability to reflect upon itself. For the intellect knows itself. In like manner reason is able to reason about its own act. Therefore just as the art of building or carpentering, through which man is enabled to perform manual acts in an easy and orderly manner, arose from the fact that reason reasoned about manual acts, so in like manner an art is needed to direct the act of reasoning, so that by it a man when performing the act of reasoning might proceed in an orderly and easy manner and without error. And this art is logic, i.e., the science of reason. And it concerns reason not only because it is according to reason, for that is common to all arts, but also because it is concerned with the very act of reasoning as with its proper matter. Therefore it seems to be the art of the arts, because it directs us in the act of reasoning, from which all arts proceed.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Prologue.

Aquinas on Human Happiness

It cannot be said that man’s happiness should arise from any kind of life, for even plants have life. But happiness is sought as a good characteristic of man since it is called a human good. Likewise, happiness must be different from the life of nutrition or growth, which even vegetables posses. From this we take it that happiness does not consist in health, beauty, strength, or great stature, for all these things result from activities of vegetative life.

On the step above the life of mere nutrition and growth is the life of sense experience. Again, this is not proper to man but is possessed by horses, oxen, and other animals. In this kind of life, then, happiness does not consist. So we. conclude that human happiness is not found in any form of sense perception or pleasure.

Beyond the life of assimilation and of sense experience there remains only the life that functions according to reason. This life is proper to man, for he receives his specific classification from the fact that he is rational. Now the rational has two parts. One is rational by participation insofar as it is obedient to and is regulated by reason. The other is rational by nature as it can of itself reason and understand. The rational by nature is more properly called rational because a thing possessed intrinsically is always more proper than a thing received from another. Since, therefore, happiness is the most proper good of man, it more likely consists in the rational by nature than in the rational by participation. From this we can see that happiness will more properly be found in the life of thought than in a life of activity, and in an act of reason or intellect than in an act of the appetitive power controlled by reason.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Lecture 10.

Aquinas on "All Things Were Made Through Him"

The first clause, "All things were made through him," is used to show three things concerning the Word. First, according to Chrysostom, to show the equality of the Word to the Father. For as stated earlier, the error of Arius was rejected by the Evangelist when he showed the coeternity of the Son with the Father by saying, “He was in the beginning with God.” Here he excludes the same error when he shows the omnipotence of the Son, saying, All things were made through him. For to be the principle of all the things that are made is proper to the great omnipotent God, as the Psalm (134:6) says, “Whatever the Lord wills he does, in heaven and on earth.” Thus the Word, through whom all things were made, is God, great and coequal to the Father.

Secondly, according to Hilary, this clause is used to show the coeternity of the Word with the Father. For since someone might understand the earlier statement, “In the beginning was the Word,” as referring to the beginning of creatures, i.e., that before there were any creatures there was a time in which the Word did not exist, the Evangelist rejects this by saying, All things were made through him. For if all things were made through the Word, then time was also. From this we can form the following argument: If all time was made through him, there was no time before him or with him, because before all these, he was. Therefore they [the Son and the Father] are eternally coeternal.

Thirdly, according to Augustine, this clause is used to show the consubstantiality of the Word with the Father. For if all things were made through the Word, the Word himself cannot be said to have been made; because, if made, he was made through some Word, since all things were made through the Word. Consequently, there would have been another Word through whom was made the Word of whom the Evangelist is speaking. This Word, through whom all things are made, we call the only begotten Son of God, because he is neither made nor is he a creature. And if he is not a creature, it is necessary to say that he is of the same substance with the Father, since every substance other than the divine essence is made. But a substance that is not a creature is God. And so the Word, through whom all things were made, is consubstantial with the Father, since he is neither made, nor is he a creature.

And so in saying "All things were made through him," you have, according to Chrysostom, the equality of the Word with the Father; the coeternity of the Word with the Father, according to Hilary; and the consubstantiality of the Word with the Father, according to Augustine.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, Lecture 2.

Aquinas on Setting Things in Perspective

Everyone who sets things in perspective considers their end; hence he is wise in an absolute sense who knows and acts for the universal end, God. “For this is your wisdom, and understanding in the sight of nations” (Deut. 4:6). For wisdom, as Augustine mentions in the Fourth Book on the Trinity, is the knowledge of divine realities. Prudence, on the other hand, is the directive care of particular things, as when a person regulates his actions. Thus, wisdom is prudence to man. For this reason he says become not imprudent, but understanding what is the will of God [Eph. 5:17]. For just as speculative reason puts whatever is to be done in perspective and judges it—it is necessary to have conclusions and to judge them by principles—so likewise in the field of performance. Now the first principle through which we ought to judge and regulate everything is the will of God. Hence the intellect, in moral matters and those which lead to God, must have the will of God for its principle. If it does, then the intellect becomes prudent. “O that they would be wise and would understand, and would provide for their last end” (Deut. 32:29). Our Lord taught this: “Thy will be done” (Mt. 26:42).

Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter 5, Lecture 6.

Aquinas on the Four Evangelists

Christ is the origin of grace. John 1:16-17: ‘And of his fullness we have all received, grace for grace. For the Law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ In Christ a twofold nature is to be considered, a divine, and the Gospel of John is chiefly concerned with this, hence he begins, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And a human, and the other Gospels treat chiefly of this, and they are distinguished according to the threefold dignity that belongs to the man Christ. With respect to his royal honour, Matthew speaks. Hence in the beginning of his Gospel he shows that Christ descended from kings and was adored by the Magi kings. With respect to his prophetic honour, Mark speaks, hence he begins with the preaching of the Gospel. With respect to his priestly dignity, Luke speaks, and he begins with the temple and the priesthood and ends his Gospel in the temple, and frequently returns to the temple, as the Gloss says about Luke 2.46: ‘And they found him sitting in the temple in the midst of the teachers.’

In another way, Matthew might be said to speak of Christ chiefly with respect to the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus he is depicted in the figure of a man. Luke, with respect to the mystery of the Passion, and therefore he is depicted as a bull, which is an animal to be immolated. Mark, with respect to the victory of the Resurrection, and thus he is depicted as a lion. But John, who soars to the heights of his divinity, is depicted as an eagle.

Thomas Aquinas, Commendatio Sacrae Scripturae

Aquinas on Friendship with God

First, indeed, this appears to be especially proper to friendship: really to converse with the friend. Now, the conversation of man with God is by contemplation of Him, just as the Apostle used to say: “Our conversation is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Since, therefore, the Holy Spirit makes us lovers of God, we are in consequence established by the Holy Spirit as contemplators of God. Hence, the Apostle says: “But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).

It is also a property of friendship that one take delight in a friend’s presence, rejoice in his words and deeds, and find in him security against all anxieties; and so it is especially in our sorrows that we hasten to our friends for consolation. Since, then, the Holy Spirit constitutes us God’s friends, and makes Him dwell in us, and us dwell in Him (as was shown), it follows that through the Holy Spirit we have joy in God and security against all the world’s adversities and assaults. And so we read in the Psalmist: “Restore unto me the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with your lordly Spirit” (Ps. 50:14); and in Romans (14:17): “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”; and in Acts (9:31): “The church had peace and was edified, walking in the fear of the Lord, and was filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.” For this reason, too, our Lord calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, that is, Comforter, in John (14:26): “But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit,” and so forth.

Similarly, too, it is proper to friendship to consent to a friend in what he wills. Of course, the will of God is set forth for us by His precepts. Therefore, it belongs to the love by which we love God that we fulfill His commandments, as the Word in John (14:15) says: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Hence, since we are established as God’s lovers by the Holy Spirit, by Him, too, we are in a way driven to fulfill the precepts of God, as the Apostle’s word goes: “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, Chapter 22.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Nobody supposes that Thomas Aquinas, when offered by God his choice among all the gifts of God, would ask for a thousand pounds, or the Crown of Sicily, or a present of rare Greek wine. But he might have asked for things that he really wanted: and he was a man who could want things; as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom. He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels, or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe. The point is that for him, when the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west, to the ends of the earth and the very extremes of existence. They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures. That is the blazing background of multitudinous Being that gives the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer of St. Thomas, when he lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion; "I will have Thyself."

Or, to add the crowning and crushing irony to this story, so uniquely Christian for those who can really understand it, there are some who feel that the audacity is softened by insisting that he said, "Only Thyself."

G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas. The Feast of Aquinas is tomorrow, of course.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As Born to Rule the Storm

by Francis Dorothea Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud–'say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?'
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

'Speak, father!' once again he cried,
'If I may yet be gone!'
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
'My father! must I stay?'
While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound–
The boy–oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part–
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

A very martial poem from a poet who is usually known for writing very 'feminine' poetry. The underlying story was a true war story: Commodore Casabianca was one of the captains who fought in the fleet of Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile; he was captain of the Orient, which was the flagship. He and his son, Giocanti Casabianca, are said to have died in the explosion of the Orient. As with most real war stories the actual facts are somewhat murky: the usual story, however, is that the young Casabianca, or perhaps the son of Vice-Admiral Brueys, who was perhaps no more than thirteen years old, refused to abandon ship even in the midst of danger because his father had told him to remain at his post.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Patron of Writers

Today is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church; his Introduction to the Devout Life is one of the great early modern spiritual classics, and was at one time so popular that there were even abridged versions for Protestants that were quite widely read in Protestant countries. A small selection from that work:

Take care, then, never to speak of God, or those things which concern Him, in a merely formal, conventional manner; but with earnestness and devotion, avoiding the affected way in which some professedly religious people are perpetually interlarding their conversation with pious words and sayings, after a most unseasonable and unthinking manner. Too often they imagine that they really are themselves as pious as their words, which probably is not the case.

Francis de Sales is patron saint of writers and communicators (in part because of the popularity of his works and in part because he pioneered the use of the religious tract); because of this the Catholic Church has its 'World Social Communications Day', mandated by Vatican II, on his feast. Last year the Pope's message for World Communications Day encouraged priests to engage in digital media; this year he gave an exhortation for Christians to be more charitable online.

Uncivil Discourse

Suddenly very busy. But I've been doing some brushing up on the Pelopponesian War and the rise and fall of the Thirty (very important for understanding the birth of philosophy in the West, and particularly for the rise of the Socratics), and found this interesting:

A memorial was later erected to Critias and the Thirty depicting a personified Oligarchy carrying torches and setting Democracy on fire. An inscription on the monument’s base, as recorded by a scholiast, read: “This is a memorial of those noble men who restrained the hubris of the accursed Athenian Demos a short time” (scholiast on Aeschines, Against Timarchus 39). The price of this “restraint” was the lives of at least 1,500 Athenians (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 35.4).

I don't know what it is, but there's just something about the idea of a memorial statue of Oligarchy setting Democracy on fire that I find rather funny, for all that it's actually a celebration, as the author says, of mass banishments and hemlockings. Perhaps it's something about the extraordinary brazenness of the statement made by such a memorial.

On the other hand, while our civil discourse has fortunately not degenerated to such an extent that people are tempted to put up statues of the Democratic donkey setting the Republican elephant on fire, or vice versa, it's not as if the bloody struggle between the Oligarchs and the Democrats in ancient Athens was always obviously in the cards, either. It doesn't necessarily take much.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Desert Fathers and Moral Philosophy (Re-Post)

This is a (slightly revised) re-posting of a post from 2009.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people expect ethics or moral philosophy to be a very practical area of philosophy, an area that does not involve mere theoretical argument but practically useful counsel and advice, a field that is not lost in words and positions but involves the active pursuit of the good life. After all, if ethics isn't practical, what is? At the same time, however, much of what is studied as ethics seems to have only an indirect application to practical life.

There have been times and places, however, in which ethics was taken seriously as philosophy -- indeed, taken seriously as the philosophy, the area of most crucial importance -- precisely insofar as it is practical. The era of the Desert Fathers was one of those. We don't normally think of ethics or moral philosophy as a bunch of hermits praying in the wilderness. But if you had asked them what they were doing, they would have answered without hesitation that they were doing philosophy. Indeed, that is exactly what they did say they were doing. We get a nice summary of this view in the Life of St. Theodosios the Abbot. In his youth he began to take a passionate interest in the philosophical life, and the philosophical life he was interested in did not have much to do with debates in the lecture hall, but he did wish for a life devoted to the study of the good by actual practice. And what kinds of life were available for such a philosophical pursuit? The eremitic and coenobitic. Hermit and monk.

The idea behind the lavra as a form of philosophical research was nicely laid out by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his 1783 preface to the Evergetinos, one of the major works of Orthodox piety. One of the most significant aspects of moral life is how we manage our more disruptive passions, and the Hagiorite argues that what we see in the Desert Fathers is a sort of intensive research into this practice of obtaining a dispassionate view. As he puts it:

And so, isolating themselves in the "deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth", to quote St. Paul, and having chosen unbroken silence, they set themselves to the task of uncovering in a positive, exact fashion, the original causes of the passions and eradicating them. (p. xxxiii)

More than this, however, the intense pursuit of virtue under difficult conditions led them to discover different ways to classify and categorize virtues; and by teaching others they passed on this practical know-how to others, so that directly and indirectly we can benefit from it through works like the Evergetinos. Nikodemos uses a striking analogy to clarify his point:

Just as those interested in physiology determine bodily properties by means of countless instruments and after numerous experiements, chemical analyses, and multifarious tests, in similar fashion these men of God experienced countless temptations, carried out trials and experiments over numerous years (for it could take these men up to fifty years to test a single principle), and discovered, byt the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit, the depths of moral philosophy, refining these virtues out of their respective excesses and deficiencies. (p. xxxiv)

Thus the ascetic life in the wilderness is a sort of massive moral experimentation away from the distractions and disruptions of civil life; in this relative isolation they tested out various moral principles by trying to live their entire lives according to them, with the aim of discovering truths about moral virtue in its purest form. Like an inventor experimenting with different materials or an artist experiment with different techniques, the Desert Fathers began to develop a practical know-how in the artistry and craft of the moral life, which they then communicated to each other and to those who were willing to journey out to them in order to listen to them. Just as the discoveries of a scientist can be put to use in the lives of non-scientists, so the expertise of the Desert Fathers in this or that ethical matter can be put to use in our own lives:

...[T]hese men teach us which virtues are bodily, which are spiritual, and which noetic; and how and to what extent and why, if put into practice, they are welcome or not. They teach us which passions are general or specific, which in turn are bodily, spiritual, or noetic, and how one might readily be rid of these. In short these men set forth the man in Christ. Indeed, it is extraordinary that the sayings of these blessed desert Elders, though couched in a simple, colloquial style, nonetheless greatly enrich us with their immediacy, so that they influence nearly all those who read them. (p.xxxiv)

But, of course, it's not just their words that teach us; we have their lives, the failings they had to overcome and the ways in which they did so, and these, too, teach us about the moral life; the isolation of the hermit or monk isolates the moral principles and shows us how they work in a relatively undisrupted environment. This can give us a better understanding of the moral principles themselves, and therefore a better understanding of how they might be applied in our own rather more turbulent environments.

Such is the Hagiorite's argument. One can find similar arguments in other contexts, e.g., in St. Thomas Aquinas's idea that a religious order is a school for charity. It is noteworthy, I think, how far from this very practice-oriented pursuit modern ethics is; given that modern ethics really is something taught and studied in debates and lecture halls rather than in practical life. One suspects that someone like St. Theodosius the Abbot would view this in much the same way we tend to view people who try to solve problems in biology by conceptual analysis -- some worthwhile ideas might come up, but the real source of, and the real test for, great ethical ideas is the intense practical living of an actual ethical life. I would suggest that it is worth asking how such a practical approach to philosophy, where the philosopher is supposed to delineate actual moral life and distill moral experience into usable, practical ideas, would work in our own day. Of course, that makes it sound like it has totally vanished; but, rare though it may be, there are still eremitics and coenobitics in this world who see themselves in much the same terms their forebears did. We pay little attention to them, all things considered, particularly for moral insight; and, having never really replaced it with anything else, we have lost the sense of moral philosophy as a master craft. It is worth remembering that it is entirely possible to think of moral philosophy in those terms; it has been done before, with interesting result.


All quotations are from The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Book I, Chrysostomos and Patapios, trs., Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies (Etna, CA: 2008).

There's a pretty good edition of selections from the sayings of the Desert Fathers at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website.