Saturday, July 07, 2007

Seven Wonders

Several months ago I noted a contest going on to name the New Seven Wonders of the World, and gave my suggested list from the nominated candidates (in no particular order):

1. Angkor
2. The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá
3. The Great Wall of China
4. Hagia Sophia
5. Machu Picchu
6. The Great Pyramids of Giza
7. The Taj Mahal

The results of the voting are in. Four of my suggestions got in; one of the final selections was one of which I said that I had no idea why it was even on the list; and one of the candidates on my list that I thought was a must-have did not make it. I still think that any list of Seven Wonders that does not include the Great Pyramids is asking not to be taken seriously. But it's interesting to see how the voting went.


Ahistoricality notes in the comments that in fact the Pyramids were taken out of the running at some point. Here's a news article indicating why.

The same organization is opening up nominations for the seven natural wonders of the world.

Busy, Busy, Busy

But I did see the Transformers movie recently. There are a few plot points that have to be filed under willing suspension of disbelief, but it's extraordinarily well done; I imagine it will be one of the better movies of the summer. A note for those taking your kids (since I noticed that quite a few people did): it's a movie whose humor is clearly intended for teenagers and up, so keep that in mind when deciding.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

St. Thomas the Apostle

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, so I thought I'd retell my favorite hagiographical legend about Thomas.

Thomas the Apostle, traveling with a merchant into India, was brought before King Gundaphorus, who asked him his craft. Thomas said that he was a carpenter and a builder, capable of building many things, including palaces for kings. So Gundaphorus asked him to build him a palace. Thomas replied that he would wait for the winter months to build the palace; which amazed Gundaphorus, because everyone else built in the summer. Thomas insisted, and Gundaphorus gave him a large quantity of money for building the palace, and continued to send him large quantities of money and provisions as the months went by. But Thomas took all the money and provisions he received from Gundaphorus and began dispensing them to the poor, saying, "Kings know how to receive the reward of kings, but at this time the poor need the things that sustain."

After a while King Gundaphorus sent a messenger to Thomas, and asked him how the palace was going.

"Everything is built except the roof," Thomas replied. So Gundaphorus sent him gold and silver to roof the palace, and Thomas gave it all to the poor, saying, "This is the gift of the Lord to you, for He is rest and relief to those who are poor and afflicted."

After a while the king came to the city and began inquiring of his friends and allies about the palace. They told him that Thomas had done nothing about any palace, but instead had been going about giving large sums of money to the afflicted, healing the sick, and preaching a new God. Needless to say, Gundaphorus was a bit angry and sent for Thomas.

"Have you built me my palace?" he asked.

"Yes," the apostle said.

"Then show it to me," the king said.

Then Thomas shook his head. "You cannot see it now; you will only be able to see it when you have departed from this life."

The king, of course, was exceedingly angry; Thomas was thrown into prison to await being flayed alive.

In the meantime the king's brother Gad had become deathly ill and, apparently, died. The king loved his brother, and with great sorrow made preparations to mourn him. However, as they were putting the burial-clothes on his body, Gad revived. The king was overjoyed and ran to his side.

Then Gad said to Gundaphorus, "Brother, I know your generous heart, and how you would give half your kingdom to anyone asked for my sake; I beg that you grant me one favor."

And Gundaphorus said to Gad, "Ask anything and I will grant it."

Then Gad said, "Brother, sell me your palace in the heavens."

The king was amazed by this request and asked, "How could I have a palace in the heavens?"

Then Gad told him that when he died, his soul was carried by angels up to the heavens, where they showed him many palaces. At length they approached to one that was particularly beautiful, and Gad had begged the angels to let him live in even the humblest room of this beautiful palace. But the angels shook their heads, saying he could not dwell in that building. It had been built by Thomas for his brother. Then Gad had asked them to let him return to his brother in order to buy the palace from him. And they let him return for this very purpose.

Then Gundaphorus said to his brother, "Brother, it is not in my power to sell you that particular palace. But if you wish to build such a palace for yourself, it is in my power to give you the means to build it."

So Thomas was set free in order to build a palace for Gad, just like the one he had built for Gundaphorus. The two brothers were baptized and devoted much of their lives to relieving the poor in their dominion; for it is of such stewardship that the best palaces are made.

That Hideous Strength

Is That Hideous Strength a good book or an atrocious one? It's getting a discussion in the comments at John C. Wright's blog. My own view is that it's very uneven. Some of it is extraordinarily good -- the characterization of Frost and Wither, for instance, or the descent of the eldila, or the description of Merlin, or the whole Babel theme. The chief problem with it is that structurally it's essentially the same type of story as that of Tolkien's long defeat of the Elves leading to the march of the Powers of the West against Morgoth; but it lacks the two advantages Tolkien's story has: lots of space for developing a suitable plot for this deus ex machina ending and the effect of epic distance. Being a solid fan of Euripides, I love deus ex machina; but you have to build up to it well, and I think Lewis struggles (valiantly, and with much ingenuity) against impediments he doesn't entirely overcome. And it's a bit harder to convey a sense of the scope of the battle of the gods if you are showing it here and now and not in some ancient age long ago. The characterization is often exquisite, and some of the irony is as well. But much else in it is a mixed bag.

Providence, Predestination, and Foreknowledge

Paul Hamilton recently asked what my views on predestination and foreknowledge are. My views on this, I think, are pretty basic; to the extent I have any view on it, it's all Boethius and Aquinas. That would make it pretty straightforward except Molinists and Bañezians have also claim the same thing. I'm not Molinist, although I am open in the end to being convinced otherwise -- I find it intriguing, and think it good intellectual exercise to think it through, but I think ultimately that no one has given a good reason to think Molinism even coherent; Molina, in fact, does the most, and the quality of defense of Molinism from then on out seems to me to have deteriorated considerably, being little more than prestidigitation to obscure the fact that no one has much idea how to understand middle knowledge, i.e., knowledge that is neither natural knowledge nor free knowledge. I'm not Bañezian, either; I don't think physical premotion is any better motivated than middle knowledge. (I also think that most of the plausibility of physical premotion comes from confusing what happens under sanctifying grace with what happens naturally.) Neither premotion nor middle knowledge serves any real function, since they both turn out to be elaborate mechanisms for saying we do not know what it is like to be God insofar as He is a knower. Bañezians refer us to mystery when we ask how predetermining motion is compatible with free action, and Molinists refer us to mystery when we ask how it is that free counterfactuals are definite in truth value. They therefore provide no serious advance on simply affirming a standard view such as one finds in Boethius and Aquinas, without all the elaborate machinery that leads to very interesting discussion but does not increase our understanding of the problem. And that's perfectly fine; the things on which Molinists and Bañezians don't agree are not particularly relevant either to our salvation or (at least usually) to what we can know of God by negative theology. This leaves me with a minimalist position on the subject; but it's surprising how resilient and flexible a position that simply insists on holding to the doctrines of creation and divine eternity can be in the face of problems and objections proposed to it.

That's my view on the general topic. Of course, I have more specific views on various particular subtopics, while on others my views are very sketchy indeed. But I think this is the state in which we all find ourselves, whether we wish to admit it or not. After all, providence, predestination, and foreknowledge make for an extraordinarily massive subject: they include everything.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Discretionary Pardoning Power

Ed Brayton suggests a remedy for abuse of the power to pardon:

The solution is to amend the Constitution to set limits on the president's ability to pardon and commute sentences. At the very least, they should be forbidden from pardoning or commuting the sentences of anyone they know personally or have any substantial involvement with. We do not allow people to serve on juries involving defendants they know or have worked with, nor do we allow judges to preside over trials where there is such a clear conflict of interest. The power to pardon people was intended as a tool to avoid miscarriages of justice, not to engage in them.

I don't think this is quite the right suggestion, in part because it is based on a misconception of the intended purpose of the pardoning power. The power of pardon does not exist to avoid miscarriages of justice (although it can respond to them); it exists to give mercy to the unfortunate. If you look at discussions of the pardoning power in the eighteenth century -- Blackstone, Hamilton, James Wilson, etc. -- you find that it is almost unanimously assumed that the person pardoned is a genuine criminal, rightfully convicted. The desirability of pardon arises due to the fact that the criminal is sometimes unfortunate. That is, the discretionary power to pardon is supposed to extend to cases where justice would genuinely be served by punishing the offender to the full extent of the law. What was recognized is that there needs to be "an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt," in Alexander Hamilton's terms. Too narrow a focus on miscarriage of justice leads to suggestions like Brayton's, in which the concern becomes exclusively to avoid conflict of interests, because the only people are supposed to receive pardon are those who are merely victims of a misfiring of law, and not genuine criminals at all. If, however, we regard a discretionary pardoning power as focused on misfortune -- the criminals who are truly criminals but who are (as Wilson puts it) "unfortunate in a higher degree, than that, in which they are criminal" -- then it becomes problematic to make such a restriction, because it puts some of the potentially unfortunate out of the range of pardon. The pardoning power should (again in Hamilton's words) "should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed". A more reasonable approach when pardons are seen in this light is to make them subject to review for purposes of official censure. This would allow the power of pardon to be as unfettered as possible; but also give Presidents a reason to think twice about using the pardon for political purposes.

History Carnival LIV

History Carnival 54 is up at "Historianess"! Head on over.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Cyril and the Victorians

Reading McGuckin's article, "Cyril of Alexandria: Bishop and Pastor," in The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria (Weinandy & Keating, eds. New York: 2003), I came across a fascinating footnote. In the main text he says (pp. 207-208):

In sections of my historical study on Cyril, which for me were significant (though peripheral to the fundamental narrative), I tried to point out how Gibbon's Enlightenment agenda of villainizing Cyril (as a demonstration of how Christianity corrupted the Roman Empire), or the Victorian agenda which flayed him morally (as part of the attempt to dislocate Anglo-Catholic Alexandrian Christologies int eh cause of a newly ascendant Kenotic-Humanist Christology) were profoundly anachronistic approaches mounted by scholars with vested interests lying not too far below the page.

To which is appended the footnote (no. 9):

See McGuckin (1994). The irresponsible condemnation of Cyril's moral character is found especially in the romantic nonsense pedalled as history in Charles Kingsley's novel Hypatia. This latter cost Cyril his volume in the Victorian series of patristic translations into English, such as The Nicene and the Post-Nicene Fathers. C. Gore and H. M. Relton exemplify those who, while versed in early Christian doctrine , advocated a Kenotic-Humanist Christology. Cyril then was one of the victims of a sea-change transpiring in the face of Anglican Christology in the generation after the Oxford Movement and in the time of that church's increasing self-alignment with the continental Liberal Protestant agenda.

What rather startled me was the claim that Kingsley's Hypatia is the reason for Cyril's having no significant place in The Nicene and the Post-Nicene Fathers. McGuckin (1994), of course, is McGuckin's book, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts, generally considered the best modern study of Cyril and the spark that started a major renewal of interest in him. I don't recall anything about Hypatia in it, but it's literally been years since I've read it. I'll have to go back and see if McGuckin fills out this interesting charge there.

Preambles of Faith

I've just recently finished reading Ralph McInerny's Praeambula Fidei. In many ways it's a decent book, but it struck me as poorly organized. The nominal concern of the book is to restore to their proper place the praeambula fidei that philosophy provides for theology. It starts out with something like this, drifts off into a mixture of rant against Etienne Gilson and defense of Cajetan, finally drifts back into considering "in what sense metaphysics is a theology, the sense that makes the praeambula fidei the crowning and defining term not only of metaphysics but of the whole of philosophy" (p. 168), to this end discusses Aristotle's Metaphysics and Aquinas's commentary on it, and never actually ends up saying much about the preambles of the faith, since it then ends relatively abruptly with a triumphant declaration of a need to return to a more Aristotelian, and less Gilsonian, Thomism. It's a book that impresses in its parts but fails to impress as a whole. It never properly unfolds, being torn between separate ends; on the one hand, it is supposed to be re-asserting the place for the preambles on the faith, but on the other, McInerny is clearly more interested in re-asserting a historical thesis about the relation between Aristotle and Aquinas, and the two keep messing each other up, with the latter usually coming out on top. One could just as easily imagine the book being called, Gilson Was Being Stupid: The Superiority of Aristotelian Thomism over Existential Thomism, as its actual title, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers.

If we follow the table of contents, the argument is supposed to break into three parts:

(1) The Doctrine of the Praeambula Fidei
(2) The Erosion of the Doctrine
(3) Thomism and Philosophical Theology

The first part works very well, although it is surprisingly brief for a discussion so central to the nominal theme of the book. The second part makes for fascinating reading on its own, but never properly defends the initially implausible thesis it seems to imply, that the reason that Catholics tend not to appreciate the preambular character of metaphysics anymore is the fault of Chenu, Gilson, and de Lubac, particularly by Gilson's characterization of the esse/essentia distinction. How exactly existential Thomism manages to do this remains throughout unclear. The idea is pretty clearly that it reverses the genuine Thomistic relation between metaphysics and theology by making certain key aspects of Thomas's metaphysics dependent on theology, but, as this is in some measure dependent on Gilson's readings of Aquinas's view of the He Who Is of Exodus, and Being as a name of God, and McInerny never really gives us an alternate reading, preferring to focus on other texts entirely, we really don't ever get a clear articulation of the reasoning on which McInerny is relying. And then the book gives an interesting and worthwhile discussion and defense of Aquinas's Aristotelian view on metaphysics.

In short, the book suffers from a failure to distinguish (1) a salutary critique of anti-commentator polemic on the part of existential Thomists; (2) an interesting and plausible argument for giving Aristotle a greater prominence in studying Aquinas; (3) another interesting argument that Aquinas gets Aristotle right, or comes much closer to it than most people give him credit for; (4) a claim, only vaguely argued, that existential Thomism is not really consistent with the doctrine of praeambula fidei; (5) a claim, not really argued at all as far as I can see, that existential Thomism is the major historical reason for Catholic loss of interest in metaphysics as providing such preambles; and (6) a much-needed account, one nonetheless not found in the book, and only on occasion even vaguely gestured at, of how we are to understand Aquinas's theological discussions of being if McInerny is right. These various lines of thought lead to some very interesting discussion at times, but they need to be distinguished before being united; and the failure to do so makes the book seem jumbled and rambling. One learns remarkably little about the preambles of the faith; it is as if the discussion keeps bringing up points that, when developed in full, will contribute to one's understanding of the doctrine, but which are rarely developed as they should be.

That's a fairly negative set of comments. I don't want anyone to get the idea that it's a bad book -- it is an enjoyable read, and you will learn a great deal reading it. But it fails in fulfilling its purpose; it's a great failed book. And this is from someone like myself, with an immense amount of sympathy for much of what McInerny is trying to defend. But there are a number of issues that are raised that are simply not properly addressed -- the connection between the philosophy of being and the theology of being, mentioned above, for one; and how this relates to Aquinas's definitely Platonistic moments, for another.

In any case, it's interesting that there's currently an interesting discussion of McInerny's argument in the comments at "Godsbody". As arguments in comments boxes seem often to be, it's often interesting and informative, often unhelpful and petty, stopping and starting, sometimes making progress and sometimes chasing red herrings. But it's worth reading.