Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession II: The Good

Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded. James 4:8

Taking this verse as his text, Kierkegaard begins his discussion of what it is to be an individual before Eternity, and, in particular, what it is to have that purity of heart which wills one thing. There is, in fact, only one thing that can possibly be willed with purity of heart:

For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God's drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth. (p. 53)

This will be Kierkegaard's theme throughout the entire discourse: first, he will discuss the fact that only the Good can be willed with purity of heart, or, in other words, that we cannot actually will one thing alone except by willing the Good; second, he will discuss different kinds of double-mindedness, which keeps us from willing the Good alone; third, he will discuss what is required in order to will the Good alone; and finally he will discuss what kind of life on lives in willing the Good alone. I'll discuss this first element here.

It's often not recognized that Kierkegaard likes to express himself in Platonic terms; these terms are adapted, to be sure, but Kierkegaard's Socratism makes him half-Platonist, as it were. We find this in evidence in Section 3 of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. But although he is expressing himself in Platonic terms, he expects the reader, or, rather, the listener (since the work is written to be read aloud), to find what he is saying in themselves and not in Plato or anyone else. We are called to recognize in ourselves that only the Good can be willed without double-mindedness and self-deceit.

We often talk and act as if someone can single-mindedly pursue almost any goal; but if we look a little closer we find that this is not true. Indeed, one of Kierkegaard's major problems in the discourse is to avoid simply giving an endless list of all the ways in which we can squander our lives by being double-minded while deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are not. The discourse can only be manageable if we stick to the most important topic here: the Good itself, which, rich though it is, is single:

For the Good without condition and without qualification, without preface and without compromise is, absolutely the only thing that a man may and should will, and is only one thing....The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing. (pp. 54-55)

The way in which this happens is actually quite clear and straightforward, and can be seen by a few examples. Consider someone who is seemingly single-minded in the pursuit of pleasure. Surely such a man is willing one thing? Ah, but this makes the crucially fatal mistake on which much human self-deception is based, namely, that we are taking the changeable as if it were unchanging. When we say that someone pursues pleasure, we do not and cannot mean that they pursue one solitary pleasure. We are mutable by nature, and pleasure itself is caught up in that mutability. To pursue pleasure is to pursue pleasure after pleasure; what pleases changes. What we really will when we will pleasure is a particular kind of change, a particular kind of variety. Thus pleasure is multiple by its very nature; who wills pleasure as his good cannot will one thing, and therefore cannot have purity of heart. Exactly the same thing happens if we consider riches, honor, and power. To will each of these is not actually to will one thing, but to will a kind of change and variety. Taking any of these things as our good is being double-minded. Only the Good itself does not change, being eternal, and unites everything worth willing in itself:

Shall a man in truth will one thing, then this one thing that he wills must be such that it remains unaltered in all changes, so that by willing it he can win immutability. (p. 60)

Kierkegaard does not say so, but I am absolutely certain that he is following Boethius here. He certainly did have own a copy of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and he refers to or quotes it on a small handful of occasions in his entire corpus. But the argument here is too close to Boethius's to be accidentally connected. In the Consolation, Boethius distinguishes between the goods of Fortune, which are fool's goods, false goods, and true good. The goods of Fortune he recognizes are riches, honor, recognitions, power, and pleasure. The reason that these are false goods is that they are mutable and fractured, multiple. The true good, on the other hand, is immutable and One: it is Good itself, and is God. This is exactly the pattern of reasoning we have here: less Neoplatonically put, but structurally very similar, down to a close overlap in false goods. Even some of the minor points show a clear overlap with Boethius; for instance, Kierkegaard in passing says, "What slave in chains is as unfree as a tyrant!" (p. 60), which is also a claim made by Boethius. Kierkegaard will also later refer to a story mentioned by Boethius, in Section 13. Thus there can really be no doubt: Kierkegaard is providing a nineteenth century adaptation of the Boethian argument. This makes the work especially interesting, since it connects it to the topic of happiness -- Boethius's whole argument is that the only true happiness lies in the Good -- and also with Kierkegaard's interest in the spirit of wholehearted commitment and martyrdom -- since Boethius is under house arrest waiting to die and writes the book to argue that all this is as nothing compared to participation in the Good. And bringing this argument into a set of discourses on preparation for Confession heightens the practical significance of what we are doing in Confession, as Kierkegaard no doubt intends: in Confession we are concerned with our true happiness, with what truly makes life worth living.

Because of this, we must beware of falling into another trap. We often restlessly pursue ever-changing variety as if it could give us happiness, but we also often fall into the trap of thinking that our life is made worthwhile by its "great moments." This is an illusion: great moments pass as other moments do. They are lost in the ever-changing whirl of time, and thus we do not really find the worthwhileness of life in them, and taking refuge in great moments is as double-minded as anything else. It is even often an act of despair: I may fall, but I have done something great. But such a person has given himself over to double-mindedness entirely, willfully allowing himself to drown rather than to shout for help. Such people have willed everything but the one thing that could be willed with purity of heart, the one thing that can save -- and they claim it as an advantage, as the very thing that makes their lives worthwhile. Such people have swallowed the worst sort of lie, and therefore rush to their own destruction.

We are faced, then, with the unrelenting conclusion (and Kierkegaard repeats it several times, with different variations, to bring the point home):

In truth to will one thing then can only mean to will the Good, because every other object is not a unity; and the will that only wills that object, therefore, must become double-minded. (p. 66)

But through the commitment of love and faithfulness, even if we are not yet pure of heart, we can perhaps come to know what purity of heart is, and thus to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Love Is the Lesson

Sonnet 68
by Edmund Spenser

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest die,
Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
May live forever in felicity:
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again;
And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy,
May love with one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

You don't find too many Easter love poems, but here is an Easter love poem through and through.

On Rep. McGovern and The People's Rights Amendment

The following amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being pushed by Representative McGovern (D-MA) and others:

The People's Rights Amendment

Section 1. We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.

Section 2. People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulation as the people, through their elected state and federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.

Section 3. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people's rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.

This is just seventeen different kinds of poorly thought out. The background to it is the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, which held that certain restrictions on corporate election expenditure violate the freedom of speech. This was a fairly controversial decision because it expanded the sense in which such free speech rights could be held to apply to corporations. Rep. McGovern, however, seems to have gotten it into his head that the whole problem boils down to treating corporations as legal persons under the law, which is neither new nor exceptional. Corporations, as such, cannot exist unless they are treated as quasi-persons, with their own property and contract rights, with limited liability. What Rep. McGovern is calling for is the abolition of all protections for corporate ventures: if only natural persons have rights (section 1) and this does not include corporations (section 2), then corporations (and thus their owners) have no due process protections from confiscation of property and have no ability to form enforceable contracts. Likewise, by restricting free press rights to natural persons, corporately owned newspapers lose the protection of the First Amendment -- the people have freedom of the press (section 3) but no corporations whatsoever have this freedom (section 2), so Constitutional protection for what we usually think of as the press shuts down completely -- individuals can have freedom of press, but no corporate entities can. Likewise, churches are corporate entities, and to the extent that they own property, etc., they are legally established as such by laws; the people have freedom of religion (section 3) but no corporate entities do (section 2), so if the state started shutting down churches this couldn't be considered a violation of the freedom of religion. Likewise, nonprofit organizations have no right to speak out for or against anything, because they are corporate entities established by law; if, say, Greenpeace wants to protest, the government can just shut them down without violating any rights -- they are a corporate entity, and have no freedom of speech. And so on and so forth.

The FAQs on the website try to deny this, but when you compare what they say with what the proposal actually says, the two don't match up. They claim, for instance, that "Eliminating corporate money in politics or eliminating the ability of corporations to strike down laws that executives of a corporation may think limit corporate marketing campaigns will not effect the speech rights of a single person." But the amendment doesn't say anything about corporate money in politics, nor does it focus on only election campaigns: the amendment says that no corporate entities of any kind have any kind of freedom of speech; and it is just not possible for this to be the case and there to be no effects on the speech rights of natural persons. Ditto with freedom of press, where they have an even more egregiously clueless response. They say, "The First Amendment clearly prevents government suppression of “the press,” whether a corporation or not, and that is as it should be." But this is not how Constitutional amendments work. Once the above amendment became part of the Constitution, the Constitution has to be interpreted in light of it. And Sections 1 and 2 clearly, and I mean clearly, say that no corporation has any rights under the Constitution, which will include freedom of press. Likewise, in talking about assembly, they say, "The People's Rights Amendment simply means that if we the people decide through our legislatures to authorize corporate entities and create advantages for such entities, we may also limit the misuse of those entities for political purposes." But, again, this is not what the proposal actually requires: what the proposal means is that legislatures may limit any use of any corporate entity for any purpose. There are no restrictions. I mean, do we really want to give governments unlimited power to shut down and confiscate the property of Planned Parenthood, the Southern Baptist Convention, the NAACP, the ACLU, the March of Dimes, and so forth in the name of the rights of the people? Is that really the most effective and proportionate way to respond to the danger of excessive corporate funds in election campaigns? If election campaigns are really the issue, couldn't we at least have a proposed amendment that said something about, I don't know, election campaigns, rather than giving legislatures carte blanche to do anything they want with corporate entities of any kind?

The amendment, in short, is an attack on a longstanding right of the people, namely, their right to form not just groups but corporate bodies recognizable by the government; and there is no way to shut down the rights of corporations this way without massively curtailing the freedom of natural persons. Sane opponents of the Citizens United decision don't attack the principle that corporations are legal persons; they recognize instead that the rights of corporations are derivative rights necessary for protecting the rights of natural persons, and they criticize the decision for detaching these derivative rights too much from their fundamental source and treating them as freestanding. This gets us into territory where reasonable people can give reasonable arguments. Rep. McGovern, on the other hand, decides that to avoid this menace of corporations having too much power we just need to expand massively the powers of government beyond anything we've ever seen, stripping away protections of the rights of the people by disallowing one of the major kinds of indirect protection for those rights. It's trying to fix a car with dynamite; no good can come of it.

I confess I had never expected to come across an American political movement more irritatingly stupid than the National Popular Vote movement, which manages to get absolutely everything about elections wrong while simultaneously being outrageously self-righteous about it, but I should have realized that this was naive and that somewhere there was a stupider idea just waiting for some politician to propose, and Representative McGovern has risen to the challenge. As with all such stupid ideas, if you only look at some superficial terms and slogans, it can sound somewhat reasonable; as with all such stupid ideas, it builds on anger or confusion about a serious issue, and perhaps a genuine problem. But as with all such stupid ideas, it is stupid as only stupid political ideas can be.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shepherd on the External World V: Ramifications

So, in giving a quick summary of Shepherd's account of our perception of the external universe, we have looked at continuity, externality, and independence; we have also considered the important phenomenon of dreams. As I noted at the very beginning, however, one's position on how we know there is an external world -- how we know that things external to and indpendent of us continue to exist when we are not perceiving htem -- has ramifications throughout philosophy. Shepherd herself considers several such ramifications; the list is not intended to be exclusive, but it does give an idea of further implications.

(1) The rational foundations of belief in God. We believe things, according to shepherd on the basis of "what we conceive to be the consistent relations of ideas present in the mind" (EPEU 151). We saw this all through the discussion of the foundations of our belief that there is an external world. However, closely analogous reasoning works for the foundations of our belief that there is a God, too. As Shepherd puts it:

For after some contemplation upon the phenomena of nature, we conclude, that in order to account for the facts we perceive, "there must needs be" one continuous existence, one uininterrupted essentially existing cause, one intelligent being, "ever ready to appear" as the renovating power for all the dependant effects, all the secondary causes beneath our view. (EPEU 151-152)

In other words, we are again dealing with a cause that is continual, external, and independent. This line of reasoning can, in fact, go several different ways depending on what, precisely, is the effect with which one begins. And Shepherd doesn't herself draw out the reasoning at any great length. It is clear, however, that she recognizes at least two kinds of arguments for God's existence, a cosmological argument and a modified design argument. The cosmological argument:

Whatever variety and changes of beings there are, all changes must finally be pushed back to that essence who began not, and in whom all dependant beings originally resided, and were put forth as out goings of himself in all those varieties of attitudes which his wisdom and benevolence thought fit. (EPEU 189)

This argument she seems to regard as demonstrative. She also accepts an argument involving final causes, which, she says, "is an argument, though short of demonstration, yet of the highest analogical proof; and one which determines our conduct in human affairs invariably and irresistibly" (EPEU 353):

Amidst the apparent contrivances which mortal beings have had no hand in arranging, it appears impossible to descry, or detect, the point where mind perceived possible qualities, and directed the aptitudes of various motions, but that mind must be the cause of that which the understanding concludes to be contrivance.... (EPEU 353)

Elsewhere she also gives an argument that may or may not be intended to be the same argument; she seems to regard it as a stronger argument, but it's possible that the argument is taken as stronger not as an argument for God's existence but as an argument that God must be intelligent:

...since we perceive instruments in existence which are means to ends, there must be the director of motion, the perceiver of ends, the former of instruments int he universe;--perception of ends and direction of means, are mental qualities; are the properties of teh continued existence, called mind; mind therefore must have been at the fountain head of these contrivances; but not a mind whose existence is more invisible than that of our own minds to each other.... (EPEU 389-390)

(2) The knowledge of our own independent existence. This is what is often known as the problem of personal identity, and as Shepherd notes, it is really in great measure a problem of how we can know that we continue to exist even independently of our own perceptions. The cause of sensation in general cannot logically be the same as the causes of particular sensations; we have actual sensations only when causes of particular sensations interact/unite/mix with the cause of sensation in general. Every sensation is felt to be a beginning-to-be, that an effect, arising from the union of the ability to sense with the ability to make itself sensed. Using reasoning similar to some of the reasoning we used in looking at the external world, we can draw the conclusion that the readiness of our capacity for sensation in general -- that is, our mind -- to appear requires it to continually exist even when sensation is interrupted, as when we are deeply asleep. This is confirmed by our sense of continual existence, which is the combination of memory with sensation.

(3) The distinction of mind and body. The distinction of mind and body actually falls out immediately from Shepherd's account of the external world: the mind is the capacity for sensation in general and it is simply distinct from body, which is "the continually exciting cause, for the exhibition of the perception fo extension and solidity on the mind in particular" (EPEU 155). These can't be the same thing without making it impossible to appeal to them to explain our sensations.

When people talk about the distinction of mind and body, however, they are usually interested in whether mind and body are separable, that is, whether the mind can continue to exist independently of the body. Here, interestingly enough, Shepherd says we can't say for sure. There is nothing in our experience that guarantees that they are not separable; but she thinks we don't know. She herself does, however, think that the resurrection of the dead, "or at least an existence analogous to it" (EPEU 157), is possible and probable; arguments against its possibility fail and, as we might say, it makes sense of the relation between mind and body. In talking about the resurrection, Shepherd allows herself an unusual bit of flowery language, comparing the human person to a butterfly:

It would appear therefore equally inconclusive for man to argue against the possibility of a future life on account of the dispersion of the particles of the present gross body by death, as for the worm to suppose it could not again live because its outside crust wholly perishes:--He might resist every notion (however prompted by his instinct or his wishes,) of an existence beyond the range of his present experience, beyond the extent of the leaf on which he is born to die; yet the time would equally arrive, when as a winged insect he would roam through boundless space in comparison of the circumscribed spot to which his former existence was confined, and chase the brilliant image of himself, through a live-long summer's day, amidst the sweets of a thousand flowers. (EPEU 158-159)

(4) Instincts and prophetic visions. By 'instincts' she means what we usually mean, e.g., "the instincts of birds give them notions of the materials requisite for making their nest previously to their first formation" (EPEU 160). The existence of instincts is simply manifested by the kinds of effects we see, just as with the external world or with dreams; the only difference in question being the kind of effect in question. The same thing, however, is the case with prophecy: whether anyone has prophetic visions is simply a matter of whether there are any effects requiring such a cause.

(5) The natures of unperceived objects. Since Shepherd is quite insistent that we have no direct knowledge of the external causes of our sensation, that they are in some sense unknown, one might conclude that we simply have to be agnostic about everything actually in the external world, insofar as it is unperceived. Shepherd actually thinks, however, that we can have an indirect knowledge of some of the characteristics of these unperceived existences. We get this by taking what we do perceive and subtracting the qualities that all sensations share. Remember, sensation is the union or mixing of the capacity for sensation in general (mind) with particular causes of sensation (things in the world); thus what sensations all share is derived from the mind. Comparing our sensations, we can recognize these features and abstract from them in order to get a sort of barebones outline of the things themselves. We've actually already seen this: Shepherd thinks that Berkeley's argument that there are other minds is a good argument and that we can get the conclusion that there are other things in the external world besides minds by using a similar argument but subtracting all the mental aspects. Further, variety in the effect indicates some kind of variety in the cause, so we can draw conclusions in this way as well.

There are probably other topics that could be added from other places in Shepherd's works, but these are the ones she explicitly addresses. I think she is arguably doing more than might first appear here. This isn't just a brief tour of ramifications, but an argument in its own right, simply one that is given indirectly. There are a number of views one might have about how we end up accepting that the external world continues to exist independently of our mind. One could hold that it is a mere assumption, perhaps a natural belief, not grounded on anything further (this is the position of the Scottish common sense philosophers). One could also hold that in fact this is a trick of the mind, and that we get this belief by confusion (this is the position of Hume, although he supplements it with an account in which it is a hypothesis that we confirm). Or one could hold that we accept it on fully rational grounds. Only the third kind of approach, which is the kind Shepherd champions, allows us to say that we know that there is an external world. And the causal account Shepherd bases her arguments on is a fairly minimal one. But here she is making a broader point: Any account of the external world strong enough to allow us knowledge that it exists is an account that also makes it possible to use similar reasoning for cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence, for personal identity, for the failure of arguments against life after death, for prophetic visions, for scientific realism, and so forth. I say 'possible' because whether we can actually reasonably do so simply depends on what effects we actually experience; any approach to the external world strong enough to give us knowledge of it (rather than just an assumption or leap of faith or trick of the mind) makes it impossible to rule out the possibility that we could know such things, if only the effects we experience are of the right kind. As I said at the beginning, one's account of our knowledge of the external world has effects all over our philosophical view.

(I should say as a side note that Shepherd is very, very copious in her use of italics; for purposes here, where so many italics might distract, I have simply ignored her italics when quoting her.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Notable Links to Note

* The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Germany's laws against incest do not violate the rights to privacy and to family by barring consensual sex between adult siblings. It wasn't wholly clear that they would, since a number of other countries have legalized it, but the Court ended up arguing that incest laws protect marriage and family roles by preventing them from being blurred.

* An interesting case of skilled practical knowledge supplementing scientific knowledge: scientists studying lake currents in Italy interviewed the local fishermen and discovered that the fishermen were already aware of a number of unusual features the scientists had discovered using sensors. But they also found that the fishermen knew of features of the lake that hadn't been picked up by the sensors because what the sensors can pick up depends on how far apart they happen to be at a given location. When they checked, they found the fishermen's descriptions quite accurate. I'm always interested in cases like this; in the nineteenth century science was often seen as a cooperative activity of all of society, with scientists just taking point in an extraordinarily complicated enterprise that they couldn't possibly do alone. Scientific ventures of this sort still exist, but they tend not to be front and center in views of science.

* Bruce Charlton comes up with a solution to the puzzle of those who say that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is morally simplistic. This doesn't make any sense of the actual story or characterization of the work, which deals with complicated issues of temptation and moral exhaustion; but Charlton is likely right that such critics give it this level because they think any sort of large-scale opposition of good and evil is morally simplistic, regardless of the actual psychology.

* Andrew Arlig, A study in early medieval mereology: Boethius, Abelard, and pseudo-Joscelin

* Ian Barstrum, Constitutional Value Judgments and Interpretive Theory Choice

* The CDF has delivered its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR (PDF; ht)

* The number of ways in which this new diet trend is disturbing cannot be counted on two hands.

* Dick Clark has died. New Year's Eve will not be the same.

* Edward P. Butler, The Intelligible Gods in the Platonic Theology of Proclus (PDF)
Edward P. Butler, The Second Intelligible Triad and the Intelligible-Intellective Gods (PDF)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some Points about the Four Elements

I've been looking around recently for some easily accessible and reasonably accurate resources on the history of alchemy; there are some but, as one might expect, a great deal of the useless. One thing that seems to be entirely missing is any useful explanation of the medieval view of the four elements. Since this is often misunderstood, I thought I would contribute a few baby steps of progress on this point.

(1) Almost everyone knows the names of the four elements: fire, air, water, earth. What people don't usually grasp is that elemental fire is not identical to the fire we experience, and so forth. Pretty much everyone in the tradition agrees that we never experience pure forms of these, only impure mixtures. If you make a campfire, that is merely a predominance of elemental fire over the other elements; all three of the others are there. Likewise, the air you breathe is not pure elemental air; we breathe in all the elements. And the same is true of earth and water. We never experience the pure elemental versions; they are indirectly inferred from what we do experience.

(2) The elements are themselves explained in terms of something more fundamental, the primary qualities. 'Primary qualities' in this sense does not mean primary qualities in the later sense (shape, size, etc.) but the active dispositions by which the elements manage to do anything at all. These primary qualities are hot, wet (moist/humid), dry (arid), and cold. Any explanation using the elements in medieval accounts can be reduced entirely to an explanation involving these primary qualities. The medieval scholastics are actually pretty forceful about the importance of this: every material explanation of the world is reducible to the operation of the primary qualities. This is not a pure reductionism because they believe that some explanations of the physical world are not material in the relevant sense -- explanations that appeal to the operation of light, for instance, or those that appeal to size, shape, or other quantities. But the greater bulk of physical explanations, and virtually all chemical explanations, were considered reducible to the operation of the primary qualities. Pasnau has a good paper on this point, and notes that this explains a number of features about medieval physics that might be considered odd. For instance, medieval thinkers quite often show that they are perfectly aware that there is a connection between motion of air and sound, or between heat and motion, but they repeatedly refuse to draw the (apparently) obvious conclusion that the one is the other. But the whole move would have looked odd to them: it would from their perspective be like giving up on any material explanation for what obviously seemed to be the sort of thing you would want a material explanation for, or else conflating material explanations with other kinds of explanations, like formal or intentional explanations. Likewise, we see here why the four-elements theory was dominant for so long, why generation after generation of medieval thinkers, often perfectly willing to question other parts of their worldview, take it for granted that physical explanation must be in terms of the four elements: the primary qualities underlying the theory of the four elements were so fundamental to their very conception of certain kinds of physical explanation that there was no way to avoid them. Giving up the primary qualities, and thus the four elements dependent on them, would be like us trying tomorrow to build a physics on the assumption that there are no such things as fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, atomic forces do not exist) or fields.

Each of these primary qualities was a specific disposition to act. Fire has the primary qualities of heat and dry, air has the primary qualities of heat and wet, earth has the primary qualities of cold and dry, and water has the primary qualities of cold and wet. These primary qualities give each elements its characteristic activities.

(3) However, just as we don't have any direct experience of the elements, we don't have direct experience of the primary qualities; they are inferred. There's a sense in which they were thought to show up in our experience -- hot things are those things in which elements with the primary quality of heat predominate, for instance -- but this is what we might call a 'statistical' or 'populational' feature. It is not experience of the primary quality of heat as such, just of the effect of an object that has a lot of parts exercise the heat-activity, enough to predominant over other activities.

This gets us to the single most serious mistake people make when talking about medieval theories of the elements. Heat, Humidity, Aridity, and Cold are not, in this context, the sensible things we intuitively associate the words. They are abstracted from experience and known by inference only. And they really represent kinds of activity. The dispositions for these kinds of activity are transferred from these sensible experiences to activities we do not directly sense.

This goes back to Aristotle, who has some cryptic but influential comments on the point. Heat is the disposition to "associate the homogeneous alone". Cold is the disposition to "associate the homogeneous and heterogeneous alike". These are both (relatively) active qualities. What this means in practice is that heat as a primary quality is the tendency to unite with similar things and expel foreign things. Cold is the tendency to unite with other things regardless of their similarity. The relatively passive qualities are understood along similar lines. Wet as a primary quality is what makes something easily susceptible to taking the shape of other things but not able to confine itself within limits, according to Aristotle; dry is the opposite, easily confining itself within limits but not easily responsive to being shaped by other things. Thus in the context of the medieval theory of the elements, when scholastics talk about 'wet' they mean the tendency to respond to other things by conforming and when they talk about 'dry' they mean the tendency to cohere and retain its character even in the face of environmental factors. When they talk of fire being hot and dry, then, they aren't making a sensory observation. They are saying that something counts as pure elemental fire if its action is exclusive of things other than itself and maintains internal coherence, with no countervailing tendencies. Each element has its own characteristic activity;

Fire: primarily exclusively associating and secondarily cohering in response to external factors
Air: secondarily exclusively associating and primarily conforming to external factors
Water: primarily freely associating and secondarily conforming to external factors
Earth: secondarily freely associating and primarily cohering in response to external factors

One of the difficulties with reading scholastic accounts of the elements is that we keep wanting to read imaginable qualities when talking about fire, air, water, earth, hot, wet, dry, cold, but this is precisely what we must not do. We should read 'hot' as shorthand for 'disposed to unite only with things like itself', 'dry' as a shorthand for 'disposed to maintain its own coherence regardless of environment', and so forth through them all. They no more mean what we usually mean by hot and dry than physicists mean that black holes are ordinary holes that are visibly black. There is, of course, a reason for using these particular terms, one that does connect up somewhere with our ordinary sensory experiences (fire in our sense, for instance, is taken to have sensible heat and driness because of these underlying dispositions), so if you want to say that heat and cold in these senses are sensed in some way that would be perfectly consistent, but it's not a straightforward connection.

The medieval world, then, is one in which material explanations are entirely in terms of attraction and resistance; elemental theory arises from the logically possible combinations of these.

(4) Because the behavior of the elements is explained by their primary qualities, the four elements can change into each other, by changing their primary qualities. Indeed, this is essential to Aristotle's conception of an element: elements change into each other directly, by their very nature. (This is a radically different conception of 'element' than later became enshrined in chemistry.) In principle, any element can change into any other element. However, this is not true in practice; some transformations were usually taken to be very rare, while others were taken to be quite common. To some extent this is common sense. To change fire into water, hot has to be overcome by cold and dry has to be overcome by wet, whereas all that has to happen to change fire into air is for dry to be overcome by wet. Aristotle says that these kinds of transformations do happen, but they are more difficult and take more time, although he doesn't explain why, and there are different interpretations of him on this point.

All this is, it should be said, a bit rough and basic; Aristotle could be read in a number of different ways, and this means that there are subtle differences among different scholastics. Likewise, the medieval scholastics, despite their reputation, were perfectly willing not to stick closely to Aristotle if they didn't want to do so, so there are further variations because of this -- for instance, Ramon Lull introduces all sorts of innovations into his account of the elements. But these points give the basic account of why. And this is sometimes useful to know beyond mere academic interest in the four elements; for instance, medieval philosophers will often use the elements as analogies or metaphors, and having a very wrong view of the elements can lead to misunderstanding of those analogies or metaphors.

Direction of Search

The Christianity of today has let itself become contaminated by its adversaries....The metaphor of a search for God is suggestive of efforts of muscular will. It is true that Pascal contributed to the spread of this metaphor. He made several mistakes, notably that of confusing faith and autosuggestion to a certain extent.

In the great symbols of mythology and folklore, in the parables of the Gospel, it is God who seeks man.

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace p. 195

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Altogether Elsewhere

The Fall of Rome
by W. H. Auden

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession I: The Individual

Soren Kierkegaard's Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits is a somewhat complicated work. It was published in 1847 under Kierkegaard's own name; thus there is a way in which it is more direct than Kierkegaard's own works. At the same time, however, it is still a work that is devoted to indirect communication: Kierkegaard does not come out and say directly what is on his mind, but slowly builds around it. An 'edifying discourse' is by its nature sermon-like; it is, in essence, a sermon written to be read aloud. It is also, however, a work that is not put forward from a position of authority the way a proper sermon would be. These upbuilding discourses are divided into three groups: the first is on confession, the second about the joy of being human, and the third about the spirit of martyrdom. Of these the first is the longest, and has had far and away the most influence, often being published separately. Its full title is An Occasional Discourse: On the Occasion of a Confession: Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, but it is usually just known by the last striking phrase: Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Like Catholics, Lutherans have a sacrament of Confession or Absolution, although Lutherans are somewhat more likely to consider it as simply an adjunct of Baptism. Unlike the Catholic view of Confession, which regards full repentance as consisting of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, Lutherans tend to focus much more on the second, because in their view we can never properly make amends for sins -- we must simply trust to Christ. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, however, is not about the theology of Confession, but about preparation for confessing at Confession; it is an ethical treatise devoted to self-examination.

Part of what is required to understand the work is to recognize that in Confession we explicitly stand, as it were, before the Eternal. We change, but the Eternal is always present and never changing, and thus is the only thing that applies to us in every stage of life: "Only the Eternal is always appropriate and always present, always true." (p. 33). Because of this, we are always in some sense before the Eternal; there is no special time for Eternity. It is always there. Thus the stance we have before the Eternal in Confession is actually something we should always have. But we fail in this, and quite often, and therefore there are messengers of Eternity that lead us back: remorse and repentance. When we are in danger of self-deception, remorse guides us back. So important is remorse that if we never feel it, this is a sign that something has gone very wrong; remorse protects us from the danger of being lost in self-deception, but the danger of being lost in self-deception will arise, so we can only be utterly free of remorse when we are truly lost in self-deception already. As Kierkegaard says, "So wonderful a power is remorse, so sincere is its friendship, that to escape it entirely is the most terrible thing of all" (p. 39).

Kierkegaard speaks of the time for remorse as "the eleventh hour": there is always a lateness to remorse, a suggestion of calling us back at the last minute, saying that there is no more time to waste, that we must come back now. At whatever time it comes, it gives that time the urgency of the last hour before too late. He goes so far as to say that we must repent at this time, the eleventh hour, and no other: repentance that is not at "the eleventh hour" is merely temporal repentance, concerned only with the changes of time. True repentance occurs at the time of remorse, the eleventh hour. In other words, in true repentance we are not pretending that repentance is a matter of leisure, that we can repent in our own good time. We truly repent when we are under a summary necessity to repent. Only this repentance can be eternal. Only this repentance stands before Eternity and recognizes that Eternity is overwhelmingly present. Because of this, repentance must be prepared for; we must ready ourselves for repenting at the eleventh hour, collect our minds out of their distracted state so that we can recognize the insistent presence of the Eternal.

This, of course, is the context of the discourse: we are preparing ourselves for the office of Confession, for true repentance, collecting our minds together so as to stand before the Eternal and recognize its unchanging presence.

The Eternal met in Confession, though, is omniscient. We do not render an account of ourselves before Eternity in the way we render an account to our employers or to our friends. The Eternal was always there; there was no time when it did not know what we did. We are not reminding the Eternal of our life; we are recognizing the true character of our lives: "Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession." In confessing (we are not talking at all about absolution here, and in fact Kierkegaard explicitly confines himself only to the confession part of Confession) we are coming out of the fog of self-deceit, drawn back to a recognition of the never-changing presence of the Eternal. Having followed a wavering way, we return to the one thing needful.

But it's also the case that we find ourselves without mitigation. There is, Kierkegaard says, no company before the Eternal. It's not that we are alone with the Eternal, I think, so much as that we are completely unhidden before it. The Eternal knows us in full detail, in all our individuality. We go through our lives trying to hide in crowds, trying to blend into our backgrounds. But before the Eternal this is impossible: we are seen in stark contrast and perfect resolution. We are individuals, and confessing requires that we recognize ourselves as individuals, take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, and act without trying to divide ourselves: "In eternity, the individual, yes, you, my listener, and I as individuals will each be asked solely about himself as an individual, and about the individual details in his life" (211-212); Kierkegaard repeats this sentence several times. "Each one is an individual before God" (214). No one can repent for me and I cannot repent for others, and the clear and uncompromising command to repent is said directly to me. In true repentance we do not compare ourselves to others and say that we are not as bad as they are; we recognize our failing for what it is, on its own, and repent of that. In true repentance we do not compare ourselves to others and say that we are decent folk because we are like everybody else; we recognize our failing for what it is, on its own, and repent of that. Confession, however, is not the occasion for recognizing ourselves as individuals; it is the occasion for giving an account of ourselves as individuals. Thus the individuality we have in Confession is, by the very nature of Confession, demanded of our entire lives. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard dedicates the discourses to "that individual".

To be an individual requires that we live undividedly; if we divide our loyalties, if we are double-minded, we are trying to wriggle out of being an individual before the Eternal. In Confession we recognize that the demand of the Eternal is that we be pure of heart, not double-minded, but always willing one thing. And as Kierkegaard discusses throughout the discourses, there is only one thing that can be willed as one thing.


Quotations are from Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Steere, tr. Harper (New York: 1956).