Saturday, July 15, 2017

The First Two Wings of the Seraph

As today is St. Bonaventure's day, I give here a re-post from 2013.

Today is the Feast of St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church. He is usually known as the Seraphic Doctor, but his older designation was Doctor Devotus, the Devout Doctor. The name 'Bonaventure' may itself be a nickname; it means 'Good Fortune' and is said to have been given to him by St. Francis of Assisi, albeit by a late legend. His given name was Giovanni di Fidanza. His two most important works are the Breviloquium, which is a brilliant summary of the Catholic faith, and the Itinerarium, the Journey of the Mind to God, which is a brief, very dense work full of good things.

The Itinerarium is a meditation on the Crucified Seraph seen by St. Francis of Assisi at La Verna when he received the stigmata. Bonaventure had been the Minister General of the Franciscan order for two years by this point, and it was the thirty-third anniversary of the vision. Bonaventure pictures the six-winged seraph as representing the ascent of the mind to God, each wing representing another step. The key theme of the work is that of speculatio, which in this context means 'contemplation', but is closely connected to the word speculum, which is the word for 'mirror'. Each step in the ascent is a way we find things mirroring God. Each pair of wings is divided into a way in which we see God through the mirror of things and a higher way in which we see God in the mirror of things. To see God as through a mirror is to see him as that from which things come; to see God as in a mirror is to see him as actively working in the things that come from him. With the first and lowest pair of wings the mirror is the material world; with the next pair of wings, the mirror is our own souls; and with the third and highest pair of wings, the mirror is the divine name itself, first the name Being, then the name Good. Thence, of course, we pass over into God himself through the union of love.

Throughout this ascent, Bonaventure's governing principle is omnis effectus est signum causae, et exemplatum exemplaris, et via finis, ad quem ducit: "every effect is sign of its cause, and exemplate of its exemplar, and path to the end to which it leads" (2.12). Thus in the material world around us, recognizing it to be an effect requiring a cause or originating principle, we find the vestiges (vestigia: the word literally means 'footprints', but is usually translated as 'traces') of divine power (for things come from him as an effect), divine wisdom (for things imitate his understanding of them), and divine goodness (for things tend toward him as their universal good). This is reflected in a very great many ways:

in themselves
weight or tendency, number or distinction, measure or limitation

as found in faith or belief
origin, course, terminus

as known in investigative reason
existing, living, knowing

One of the things that makes Bonaventure sometimes difficult to read, and certainly makes his theology difficult to convey, is his facility at thinking multidimensionally about whatever topic he is considering. Each triad noted above is a pattern reflecting the pattern of power, wisdom, goodness, and equally of causal sign, exemplification, way. But the three levels themselves also exhibit this pattern, so that the first triad, as a triad, is a sign of divine power; the second triad, as a triad, is an exemplification of divine wisdom; and the third triad, as a triad, exhibits a path of ascent to divine goodness. Further, the whole series reiterates the three pairs of wings of the seraph and thus the three stages of ascent: the first triad suggests the material world in itself; the second triad, while remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of the human mind; and the third triad, while again remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of something higher than our own minds because on the basis of this triad the mind can build three kinds of inferences to things more noble than itself. Further, the first triad gives the intrinsic character of that which is contemplated at the first wing of the seraph; the second triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the second wing of the seraph; and the third triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the third wing of the seraph. Thus the triads reflect the structure of the work as well as reflecting each other. And we, in knowing the material world, reflect the triads, in whose reflection we see the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. This is not even getting into the fact that there are seven ways in which these triads reflect God's power, wisdom, and goodness -- origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, plenitude, activity, order -- each of which is analyzable into a triad, and this triad is, depending on which of the three ways we look at it, one of the three triads above with respect to that particular property of creatures.

The second wing concerns the material world as sensible (and we have opinion or belief rather than rigorous knowledge about the material world precisely as sensible); it is the world as macrocosm ingressing, so to speak, into the mind as microcosm through the senses. Recognizing that everything that is moved is moved by another, we recognize in sensation itself the need for a higher cause of some kind. In each sensation we find an apprehension, a delight or fulfillment of our sensory capacities deriving from this apprehension, and a judgment about what we sense deriving from them both. At each level of sensation we have a suggestion of something divine: the first, in which we apprehend objects through their similitudes in the medium connecting them and us, gives us some recognition of the possibility of divine emanation through which we may know God; the second, in which we are pleased or fulfilled by this apprehension arising from the harmony of the object with our ability to sense them, we have some recognition of the possibility of divine harmony through which we may delight in God; and in the third, in which we abstract from sensible things their changeableness, we have some recognition of divine eternity and immutability. At the sensible level we are most familiar with the quantitative character of the world, and Bonaventure draws on Augustine to identify seven kinds of 'number', which is (you will recall from above) associated with distinction, and thus seven kinds of distinctions in the sensible world, through which we can rise to their exemplar in divine wisdom. And divine wisdom, again, is the second member of the triad of divine attributes reflected by creaturely effects, which goes with the fact that we are considering the second wing of the seraph.

I am simplifying all of this somewhat; there are intricate interrelations I haven't mentioned. And all this occurs in the space of about ten to twenty pages. No other Christian theologian in the history of the Church can seriously rival Bonaventure's capacity for stating his full position with succinctness and concision. His ability to concentrate an extensive chain of reasoning into a few sentences by means of list and analogy is sometimes dizzying. But it is not mere game-playing. It is all very well thought out; he can justify by argument every single one of these reflections of reflections of reflections, and does, sometimes in the Itinerarium itself (although these arguments are stated with the same kind of super-concision) and usually also elsewhere. Bonaventure, even at his most readable (as in his Tree of Life, which is about the life of Christ, or his Legenda maior, which is his official life of St. Francis for the Franciscan order) cannot really be read; he must be unpacked, unspooled, unzipped. Just as in Aquinas we generally get theological reasoning in a form that begins to approach maximal usefulness as a pedagogical reference point for further discussion, what we generally get with Bonaventure is theological reasoning in a form approaching its maximal degree of concentrated conciseness. At least, nobody has ever been able to come up with a more concentrated form. It is a bit much for the mind to take in at once. But by thinking through Bonaventure closely you can always, always, learn a new way to see the world, one you hadn't thought of before.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem Draft


I am a leaf that grows on an infinite tree
that is itself but a flower on an infinite tree
that grows on a hill by an infinite road
that is lined with trees that are greater still
beneath the expanse of an infinite sky
that has seen the trees grow for infinite years
and a sun that will shine for an infinite age
while the infinite worlds in their boundless array
are rolling forever under infinite stars
that make up a world among infinite worlds
that all grow like one leaf on an infinite tree
that I behold in my hand with my infinite eye.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Evening Note for Thursday, July 13

Thought for the Evening: On the Reliability Problem for Mathematical Platonism

Mathematical platonism is the view that there are mathematical objects, not reducible to any physical object, that are independent of us and knowable by us. (To be platonistic, strictly speaking, they must not be merely irreducible to physical objects but more fundamental than them, and the knowability must be strictly by intellectual apprehension than by any other way. In practice, the term 'platonism' is often used here much more loosely just to indicate actually existing and knowable abstract objects. But the elements of the more purely platonistic versions are worth remembering.) The reliability problem is an argument that mathematical platonism is unable to give an acceptable account of how we have the right kind of epistemic access to these mathematical objects. It is occasionally called the Benacerraf-Field problem, because the standard locus for it is Hartry Field's modification of a dilemma proposed by Paul Benacerraf. The SEP article on mathematical platonism summarizes it as the following:

Premise 1. Mathematicians are reliable, in the sense that for almost every mathematical sentence S, if mathematicians accept S, then S is true.
Premise 2. For belief in mathematics to be justified, it must at least in principle be possible to explain the reliability described in Premise 1.
Premise 3. If mathematical platonism is true, then this reliability cannot be explained even in principle.

Obviously, the real question here is why anyone should accept these premises. (1), of course, is not true if taken very strictly; mathematicians are wrong all the time, it is easy to be wrong in mathematics, and almost all major advance in mathematics consists of mathematicians cooperatively working very hard to prove themselves and each other wrong. There is a huge amount of error-elimination in mathematics, which can only be if there is quite a bit of error. But we probably should not take it very strictly; the idea instead is that when mathematicians using mathematical methods converge on S, then S is true, in which case we have a much more plausible kind of reliability. In any case, (1) is not particularly controversial. Likewise, (2), or at least some version of it, is generally accepted. (3) is more tricky.

The most natural way of defending (3) is to say that if we know something, we must have some kind of causal relationship with it. I see a bottle of water -- how? There is a physical object, the bottle, located at a certain distance from me, and light is bouncing off of it to my eyes, which activates receptors in my retina, which stimulates my optic nerves, which stimulate my brain. But how does this work with the number 2? The number 2, itself, doesn't seem to be located anywhere in my vicinity, nor does light (nor sound, nor chemical reaction, nor direct physical contact) bring me any information of number 2 as such. Furthermore, abstract objects are often characterized as being causally inert. And so, if we need some kind of causal link to know these alleged mathematical objects, there seems to be no way we could know them at all, in which case the reliability of mathematics seems unexplained.

Formulated this way, there is no particular reason why any mathematical platonist needs to be worried. It is true that people commonly assume that abstract objects are causally inert, and it is even true that there have been mathematical platonists who have accepted such a position, but there is nothing in mathematical platonism itself that requires such an assumption. And indeed, if we look at how mathematics functions in explanation, it is not difficult to find cases in which we seem to be saying that some result arises due to the requirements of mathematics. It is difficult to make sense of much of physics without taking mathematical truths to have real-world results. Mathematics is not just used as a sort of precise bookkeeping, a super-accounting; we appeal to it to explain why bodies, waves, and the like work the way they do. There is no obvious reason why we should not regard this as counting as causation -- 'A necessitates real effect B' seems like a good candidate for A causing B. But even if one wanted to confine 'cause' to physical causation involving conserved quantities and the like, almost nobody has an account of this kind of physical causation that does not presuppose some kind of mathematical dependence. Thus the mathematical platonist can simply take the relevant sort of dependence to be more fundamental than, and presupposed by, what his critics call causation. You can have a regularity account of causation that does not take this to be true -- but regularity theorists are not the people to be pressing unexplained reliability as an objection against anyone. Everyone else takes the kind of causation described by physics to be analyzable at least in part in terms of mathematical relations that we know, not vice versa.

Nor does the more specific complaint that there is no causal path from mathematical objects to us seem to do anything more than beg the question by assuming that the causal path must in some sense be sensory. A mathematical platonist like Gödel who holds that we have a special form of mathematical perception will obvious reject this. Gödel held, based on his own experience, that it is a psychological fact that we can perceive mathematical truths (although, of course, this is very different from saying that it is always easy to do so even with training, and is also different from saying that mathematics simply reduces to such a perception). We can in fact distinguish between the experience of simply accepting the mathematics as a procedural black box and being able to 'see' why it has to work the way it does in a given case. And if you hold that we have reason to accept that some such mathematical perception exists, why should one not regard that as an effect of what one perceives? If you have good reason to think that there is this mathematical perception, you already and immediately have reason to think you've discovered an effect of what you perceive. One can even begin to sketch out some of the features that the in-principle explanation would have (e.g., the ability to identify the negations of some of the things we see as contradictory and thus impossible), and by the nature of the argument it does not matter whether we can currently, or even ever in practice, fill in all of the blanks.

I think a bigger problem, though, is that it misconceives what it is to explain something's being reliable. Part of the motivation for thinking of (3) causally is in thinking that the most plausible account of the reliability of physics is causal, along the lines I noted for the water-bottle. But it's not so clear. What about this causal story actually explains the reliability of anything? It explains part of what it is to perceive a bottle of water, but nothing about this on its own explains anyone's ability to draw reliable conclusions about it. For one thing, all of the actual drawing conclusions here is obviously being left out, or at least treated as a black box. What the causal story is really doing is telling us what it means to say that it is objective, an object of perception. This helps to explain why it's not a bizarre accident that we are thinking about something that also happens really to exist in the world, as if you imagined that there was a building shaped like a tree, and, lo, it turned out by sheer happenstance that there was a real building exactly like it. Establishing that your conclusions are non-accidental is a big and important thing. But that your claims are non-accidentally representative does not imply that they are reliably true in the sense said by (1).

The confusion seems to arise in that non-accidental-ness does seem to be one reasonable requirement for an acceptable explanation of something's being a reliable in getting true claims. But it is not the only one, and what explains non-accidental representativeness is not what explains reliability, which is a kind of consistency. (You can have, for instance, something that is reliably false.) Reliability requires primarily an internal and structural explanation. In other words, it is the structure of a method that gives it its reliability, it is whether you are thinking logically that gives it its reliability, it is the features of a form of inquiry that give it its reliability; whether this reliability is a reliability useful for drawing true conclusions in particular will require bringing in non-accidental-ness. (If we want to say why something is reliably wrong, we want to understand why its structural reliability is not accidentally getting the wrong result, if we want to say why something is reliably useful, we want to understand why its structure and features make it not accidental that it is always of use).

Now, obviously this just moves back the problem, but notice what happens if we rephrase the premise to emphasize non-accidental-ness rather than the distinct issue of reliability:

(1) Mathematicians consistently reach claims that do in fact describe the way things are.
(2) For belief in mathematics to be justified, it must at least in principle be possible to explain why this is not a mere accident or happenstance.
(3) Mathematical platonism cannot explain why this is not a mere accident or happenstance.

But the explanation for why so many mathematical claims are not merely accidentally true is that we have good reason to think that it is impossible for them not to be true, that 'this claim (or set of claims) is false' often ends up being a contradiction. If I am getting A because ~A is impossible, then my conclusion's being true is obviously not a mere happenstance or accident.

Now, to be sure, one could make a fuss about the question of how we get necessities and impossibilities, but if we can reason about them at all, no matter how, then the challenge is answered: if we prove that it is a contradiction for X to be false, then it cannot be a mere accident that X is true, and it cannot possibly surprise anyone that we turn out to be right. And this is the sort of thing that mathematicians actually do. There is no reason to hold that mathematical platonists cannot give this explanation, and thus, whatever problems there may be with mathematical platonism, (3) is wrong.

Various Links of Interest

* Why Roman concrete is more durable than modern concrete in seawater.

* Darwin summarizes the Church's more-than-millenium-long struggle against the practice of dueling.

* The historical background to The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".

* A high school paper asked Secretary Mattis for an interview, and he gave it.

Currently Reading

Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Earth
Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England
John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Kenneth L. Pearce, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World
Stephen R. Lawhead, Dream Thief

Music on My Mind

Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, "Woh kaghaz ki kashti woh baarish ka paani". Kaghaz means 'paper', kashti means 'boat', baarish means 'rain', and paani means 'water'. It's a nostalgic song about how wonderful the world can seem when you are child. The first verse means something like,

Take this wealth away from me,
take this fame away from me,
seize my youth if you want,
but give back to me childhood's rain,
the paper boat, the rain-water.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lone Watch Upon the Topmost Tower

At Bamborough Castle
by William Lisle Bowles

Ye holy towers that shade the wave-worn steep,
Long may ye rear your aged brows sublime,
Though hurrying silent by, relentless time
Assail you, and the winter whirlwind's sweep!
For far from blazing grandeur's crowded halls,
Here Charity hath fix'd her chosen seat,
Oft listening tearful when the wild winds beat
With hollow bodings round your ancient walls;
And Pity, at the dark and stormy hour
Of midnight, when the moon is hid on high,
Keeps her lone watch upon the topmost tower,
And turns her ear to each expiring cry;
Blest if her aid some fainting wretch might save,
And snatch him cold and speechless from the wave.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Islands of Miranda, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a short story draft. I, II, III.

The several days after someone tries to kill you are always extremely busy. Diego had to talk several more times with the Costa Rican police and give a formal report for Mirandan Security. He had to do the insurance paperwork for furniture damaged by the struggle with his would-be assassin. It was unclear how the assassin had entered the house, so he had to get his locks changed. As the word spread, there were endless calls from family and friends and acquaintances, either of the worried or the gossip-curious kind. And, of course, he had to get on with his life, which at this point meant planning a trip to Italy as soon as could be arranged, a trip in which every arrangement had to be run past Mirandan Security before it could be finalized, for safety's sake, and past the Mirandan Organization bureaucracy, since they were paying for it. None of this was made easier by the fact that he was not sleeping very well. He kept waking up in the middle of the night with a sharp and sudden start, breathing heavily.

Two days into this juggling act, Carlota Pacelli sat down across from him at breakfast, ordered coffee, and said, "Teddy Chavez has gone missing. As near as anyone can tell, you were the last person to see him."

Diego stared at her. "Do you have any idea why he's missing?"

"None. No trace of him at all. After he left Nuevo Roque, he had a day free, then never showed up to any of his scheduled meetings afterward."

"Do you think it might have been the Venezuelans?"

Pacelli's coffee came and she took a drink, looking at him thoughtfully. "I think I see where you're going," she said finally. "You think it might be a political action of some sort for these computer problems they've been blaming on us. Did Chavez mention anything to suggest that he was worried about that?"

"No," said Diego with a shake of his head. "We just talked about my appointment to the Board. Nothing but timing suggests it. And I wonder, now that I've said it out loud, whether it makes any sense. Teddy was an American as well as a Mirandan. Why pick the one Speaker whose death would give the Americans even more of an excuse to back Miranda?"

"The current Venezuelan government is not exactly renowned for its rational decisions, but we don't even know yet what happened; we literally have no evidence. Since his meeting with you was the last appointment he made, you'll have to give a formal statement to Security sometime today."

Diego sighed and sat back. "Does the man who attacked me have any ties to Venezuela?"

"None that we've found so far."

"What really gets me is why anyone would go after me.I haven't done anything to anyone."

"While I've never dealt with a murder attempt, with other crimes I've found that people spend very little time reasoning about what other people actually deserve."

A few days later, Diego flew out to Italy with Pacelli assigned as security escort. Looking at the tickets he had, she said, "You do realize that since the Organization is ultimately paying, you could have bought first class rather than economy."

"Yes," he said, "but I've been spending more money than usual and have just filed insurance claims with Mirandan Insurance; I'd rather not make this month even more eventful by risking a red flag from Financial Audit."

The trip to Italy was uneventful. They flew into Fiumcino, and after the various preliminaries, took a train for the half-hour trip to Castel Gandolfo. Despite his hesitancy to spend, Diego had arranged for rooms at a hotel that, while not expensive, had an excellent location, a little to the south of Castel Gandolfo City State and overlooking Lake Albano.

The official address of the Pontifical Commission for the Insular State of Miranda is in the Villa Barberini in Castel Gandolfo City State, but this is in practice little more than a mailroom shared by three other commissions. The real offices were in a considerably more recent office building a few miles away in the town of Castel Gandolfo, Italy. It was a nice building in early twenty-second-century New Art Deco style, with clean lines on the outside and, inside, a lush lobby that, if not quite gaudy, tended a little toward the giddy.

They were met in the lobby by a young man wearing the neat and severe garb of one of the mercantile religious orders -- Antoninite, Diego guessed, correctly, as it later turned out. He introduced himself as Brother Andrew, his voice carrying just a hint of East Asian accent -- Japanese, Diego guessed, although he never learned whether this guess was right. Pacelli was shown to the Mezzanine waiting room and Brother Andrew and Diego took the elevator up to the fifth floor.

The small fifth floor hallway was decorated with Mirandan memorabilia. Here was an early twenty-first-century map of the Territorio Insular Francisco de Miranda. There was a display case of original Mirandan coins and visitor medals, all in mint condition and probably worth thousands of dollars on the collector's market. But the thing that mostly caught one's attention was the big square flag, slightly frayed, above the door at the end of the room. It was the Mirandan flag: half of it was the vertical tricolor, yellow, blue, and red from left to right, and half of it was plain white with the Keys of St. Peter, silver key above the golden key. There was a small plaque beside it, but Diego did not need to read the plaque to know that the flag was one of the first made for the island-state when it was newly born.

Brother Andrew paused with his hand on the doorknob. "You should address the Cardinal as 'Your Eminence'," he said, "and he likes to shake hands, but beyond that His Eminence is not one for formalities." Then they went in.

Cardinal Binaisa was a mountain of a man behind a very large wooden desk, and stood when they entered. "Come in, Mr. Páez! Have a seat!" They shook hands, and then both sat; Brother Andrew also sat, a bit off to the side, and began taking notes. After the usual introductory material -- 'How was your flight, Mr. Páez?' 'It was very good, Your Eminence,' and so forth -- the Cardinal leaned back in his chair and fixed a shrewd eye on Diego.

"There are a number of reasons for this interview, Mr. Páez. The Board of the Miranda Organization has been, for the most part, pushing your name very heavily, but appointment to the Board is the joint prerogative of the Council of Self-Governance and the Pontifical Commission, which are still, whatever the Board may think, the governing bodies of Miranda."

"I'm sure the Board fully recognizes that, Your Eminence."

Cardinal Binaisa laughed. "If that is what you honestly think, Mr. Páez, you are in for many surprises. In name, the Board recognizes the authority of Council and Commission, but in practice, what does that mean? We give the workings of the Board a diplomatic and legal color, and they talk sweetly to us in exchange for that, but beyond that, the Miranda Organization does as it wills. In principle, for instance, I have authority to audit all finances of the Organization, but what that means is that I have the authority to ask them to provide accounts. They say, 'Yes, Your Eminence, of course, Your Eminence', and send me a large pile of information through which I must sort; perhaps it has what I asked them to provide and perhaps it does not. If it does not, I give my authoritative request again, and they say, 'Oh, we apologize, Your Eminence, we will send it immediately.' Then I wait three months, and, not having received anything, call them up angrily. 'Oh, Your Eminence,' they say, 'we do not know how this has happened; according to our records, it was sent. We will send it without delay.' Then they will send the right kind of information, but for the wrong year, or the wrong division, and so it will go. Perhaps they think I do not see what they are doing, or perhaps they do not care, but it is transparent to me, for this is also how ecclesiastical bureaucracy works."

"Surely a Cardinal is capable of exerting a great deal of pressure," Diego said, amused. "After all, President of the Commission for Miranda is an extremely prestigious title; you are one of the major Cardinals in the Curia."

The Cardinal's face screwed up merrily. "A very prestigious title, yes. I am in this prestigious position because I have been wholly outmaneuvered in ecclesiastical politics. I have sufficient connections that they could not make me papal nuncio to Timbuktu, or whatever, so they settled for the second best -- a position too prestigious in title to be refused if the Holy Father asks you to do it, that looks very important because it is the conduit by which the Holy See receives the Mirandan Support, a considerable portion of its current income; and yet I do not collect that money, nor do I decide how it is spent, so I am a sort of accountant, moving it from point A to point B. An accountant with an amazingly prestigious title. I was put here to make sure that I would have nothing more than vestigial authority, so that I would be effectively neutralized. But one thing nobody dares yet to deny me is this interview, because it is one of the things that maintains the illusion that this is an important position, and therefore here we are.

"There are, in fact, a few things I need to know before approving your appointment. When you took the oath of full citizenship at sixteen, you were required to affirm that you were Catholic and would uphold the Catholic faith. The position to which you will be appointed requires a reaffirmation of your citizenship oath. Are you still Catholic and are you still able to affirm that you will uphold the Catholic faith?"

"Yes, Your Eminence," Diego said promptly.

"When was the last time you went to Mass?"

Caught off guard and embarrassed, Diego awkwardly said, "Last Easter, I think," and then, just as awkwardly, "Will that be a problem?"

"For your immortal soul, yes. But I thank you for your honesty; most people lie when I ask that question. Do you recognize the authority of the Holy See as the sovereign governing authority of Miranda?"

"Yes, Your Eminence."

"Since the islands no longer are in Mirandan possession, the Pontifical Commission has very little left to do but advise and audit; and the Holy See has very little to be sovereign over beyond some residual powers and privileges. The Board of the Miranda Organization is not accountable to anyone."

"They are accountable to Mirandan citizens, Your Eminence, through the Council of Self-Governance. That has always been our way."

The Cardinal looked at him a long moment. "Mirandans often say that, and, yes, the theory is that Mirandan citizens will be self-governing within the general framework provided by the Holy See. But there is no territory for the Council to rule. They can pass laws, but in practice the laws of the nations in which its citizens reside take precedence. All the effective organs of action are in the hands of the Board, and the Council can do little more than audit and advise -- and they can be just as easily stonewalled or deflected off into purely ceremonial matters as can I. No one can really believe that the Council matters anymore."

"With respect, Your Eminence," Diego said, trying not to speak heatedly, "I do not think you understand how we Mirandans think. The Board is an instrument; it exists to serve the citizens of Miranda. That is the way that was set out by Pope Leo Theodore, and that it is the Mirandan way."

Binaisa and Brother Andrew exchanged significant glances. Then the Cardinal said, "As you have been a member of the Mirandan Navy, I have been asked by the Holy Father himself to ask what you see as the function of the Navy."

"It is to protect Mirandan seasteads and shipping, and to further study and exploration of the oceans."

"That is what the brochures say," Binaisa replied drily. "Is that what you believe?"

"Yes," Diego said firmly.

"I will be quite frank with you, Mr. Páez, and say that the Holy See is concerned that some of the current policies and practices of the Miranda Organization are threatening to drag it into a diplomatic catastrophe it cannot afford."

Diego said nothing in response to this, and the Cardinal watched him closely. "We do not know everything that is going on, because they tell us nothing that they do not want to tell us. But we do know enough to suspect that the Organization is actively harassing the Venezuelan government. This is a course of action detrimental to the Church in Venezuela, and one that threatens the Holy See's ability to maintain even a nominal political neutrality. The Holy See cannot easily disentangle itself from Miranda; it is increasingly worried that it will be held hostage to a version of Miranda it did not intend. We no longer trust that the Miranda of Leo Theodore still exists."

"It still exists," said Diego.

Cardinal Binaisa steepled his fingers and looked into the distance, lost in thought. After a few moments, he fixed his eyes on Diego again and said, "Have you been to San Tommaso da Villanova to see his tomb?" When Diego shook his head. "You have seen pictures, I imagine? But it does not beat seeing it in person. The locals call them Leo and Teodoro, and they are quite striking. You should see it."

"I will certainly do so, Your Eminence. He was a truly great man; the greatest pope of modern times."

Cardinal Binaisa smiled broadly. "So the Council keeps telling us every time they press for his beatification. But it is not really enough."

"You don't think he will be beatified?" Diego asked, surprised.

Binaisa shrugged. "So much of the process is based on popular remembrance and the decision of God. But I do not think so. Leo Theodore was far from being a corrupt pope, but he was a very worldly one. He massively expanded both the revenue and the scope of action of the Holy See, giving it a temporal power that it has not had since the Renaissance, and without most of the problems it had then, but it is not the primary purpose of a pope. Everything temporal decays. And much of what he did has dried up and vanished away. Miranda was invaded and is a ghost of itself. He cleaned up the finances of the Holy See, and yet here we are again in scandal after scandal, bad financial decision after bad financial decision. We still have Castel Gandolfo City State, but who knows how long the Italian government will tolerate it; there are still secular politicians who resent how he wrested that treaty out of the Italian government. The only thing that makes them hesitate, I think, is that it is good for tourism. Caesar is always jealous, and will seize any power he thinks will be beneficial to himself; and one of the constants of Church history is that every good thing will be stripped away at some point by some Caesar who thinks he has a right to it. As a Mirandan, you should know that better than anyone." He spread his hands. "I do not deny that he was a great man, but a saint he was not. And, besides, to beatify and canonize is often to propose as a model, and I suspect the Congregation would hesitate to propose such an effective pope as a model."

"What do you mean?"

"Come now, Mr. Páez," the Cardinal said, laughing again. "Nobody wants an effective pope. They want a pope who will not be a hindrance, and they will complain about all of his failures, but there is nothing more terrifying than an effective pope. In terms of ecclesiastical politics, Leo Theodore himself was a horrible accident. Tired of endless financial and administrative scandals, the Cardinals risked picking someone who had a reputation for being a good administrator, in the hopes that a few bits and pieces of it would be cleaned up, so it would be easier for them to do whatever they wanted to do. He cleaned it up quite efficiently, and then the Curia learned, with a sort of growing desperation, that he wasn't going to stop with a few minor improvements and symbolic gestures. By sheer mistake, they had saddled themselves with someone who was too ruthless to be resisted and too cunning to be outmaneuvered, and all they could do was hold on for their dear lives as he kept succeeding at doing what he wanted to do. It is why the College of Cardinals has chosen the most mediocre and incompetent people they could-- with," he added drily, as if as an afterthought, "the exception of the current Holy Father, of course."

He was silent a moment. "You said before that you believe that the Miranda of Leo Theodore still exists. Do you really think that is true?"

"I do," said Diego.

The Cardinal turned his head to Brother Andrew and gave one clear, decisive nod, at which the Antoninite pulled an envelope out of a briefcase near his chair and stood. Then the Cardinal himself stood and held out his hand. "It is good to have met you, Mr. Páez. I hope we will get to talk again some time. Brother Andrew will show you out. At this time of day, the main elevator is likely to be busy. Please use my private one."

to be continued

Monday, July 10, 2017

Radio Greats: The Chinaman Button (CBS Radio Mystery Theater)

The Golden Age of Radio is generally held to have ended on September 30, 1962, the day that the two greatest titans of its last era -- Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense -- both went off the air. But radio itself did not die, and there were always a few variety shows, comedy shows, and, here and there, a radio drama series. And in the 1970s there were a number of attempts by the various networks to revive radio drama as a niche market. From 1974 to 1982, CBS put out a radio series under Hiram Brown, one of the great radio producers of the Golden Age, designed to cater precisely to those who were nostalgic for the Golden Age. While most of the revival attempts petered out quite quickly, CBS Radio Mystery Theater did quite well for most of its run -- I would guess that it was the most successful such series until Adventures in Odyssey began in 1987. It is generally not thought to be as high in quality as the best series of the Golden Age, but its output was prodigious, because it broadcast every day for its entire run, and the majority of its episodes were original -- 1,399 original episodes total. And taking into account that sheer quantity, the quality, while uneven, is not bad. And with the talent and effort that was put into it, some of them rise to a level that could be considered Radio Greats.

"The Chinaman Button", from 1974, is widely regarded as one of the best candidates, perhaps the best, for an episode that rose to the quality of the old Golden Age dramas. And while I have not listened to all the episodes of CBSRMT, I would hazard that this probably is correct -- it stands so far above the average CBSRMT episode that at least it could have very few rivals. The episode is a loose adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson (best known for his novel, I Am Legend), "Button, Button", which was originally published in Playboy in 1970. Matheson is said to have come up with the idea of his original story from a class his wife was taking; the professor used a scenario to stimulate class discussion that originally derived from Chateaubriand's Genius of Christianity, 1.6.2:

Conscience! is it possible that thou canst be but a phantom of the imagination, or the fear of the punishment of men? I ask my own heart, I put to myself this question: "If thou couldst by a mere wish kill a fellow-creature in China, and inherit his fortune in Europe, with the supernatural conviction that the fact would never be known, wouldst thou consent to form such a wish?" In vain do I exaggerate my indigence; in vain do I attempt to extenuate the murder, by supposing that through the effect of my wish the Chinese expires instantaneously and with out pain that, had he even died a natural death, his property, from the situation of his affairs, would have been lost to the state; in vain do I figure to myself this stranger overwhelmed with disease and affliction; in vain do I urge that to him death is a blessing, that he himself desires it, that he has but a moment longer to live: in spite of all my useless subterfuges, I hear a voice in the recesses of my soul, protesting so loudly against the mere idea of such a supposition, that I cannot for one moment doubt the reality of conscience.

"The Chinaman Button" differs considerably from Matheson's original story -- they use the same device, and the one inspired the other, but they are not really the same story at all -- but it goes back to this original inspiration, which is what gives the episode its title. And it is a very good story; one that works well with radio, and probably was easier to do well in the 1970s than in the Golden Age. It is a bit dark, vividly representing ordinary human evil and the terrible results of what happens when a man's morality breaks. Two corrupt businessmen are exasperated by the fact that their schemes have been foiled by the apparent honesty of a colleague, who works in the same firm, although they have never met personally, and take it on themselves to prove what they themselves believe, that people are only moral when they have nothing to gain by immorality: Everyone has a price, for anything....

Because of its popularity, there are lots of versions of it online. You can watch it on YouTube:

It is also available here, here, and here, among many other places.

Incidentally, the same theme to similar effect, although in a different story, is found in G. K. Chesterton's "When Doctors Agree", one of my favorite Chesterton stories.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

C. S. Lewis on Characterization in Science Fiction

It is absurd to condemn them because they do not often display any deep or sensitive charaterization. They oughtn't to. It is a fault if they do. Wells's Cavor and Bedford have rather too much than too little character. Every good writer knows that hte more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be....To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much: he who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange. He ought to be as nearly as possible Everyman or Anyman. Of course, we must not confuse slight or typical characterisation with impossible or unconvincing characterisation. Falsification of character will always spoil a story. But character can apparently be reduced, simplified, to almost any extent with wholly satisfactory results.

C. S. Lewis, "On Science Fiction," On Stories, HarperOne (San Francisco: 2017) p.90.