Saturday, August 09, 2008

Even Aristotle or Kant

Brian Weatherson has a post up on the fact that philosophy is an importantly social activity. With one or two exceptions*, I agree with him, but I thought this was an odd statement:

For those of us who aren’t Aristotle or Kant, by far the best way to regiment our philosophical thinking is subjecting it to the criticisms of others.

But, of course, it's certainly the case even if you are Aristotle or Kant; the Aristotle we know is the result of spending a vast amount of time in Plato's academy, followed by the formation of his own school. And while Kant tended to socialize better with people outside the field, he also extensively interacted with others on philosophical questions in important ways (Mendelssohn is the most obvious example).

* I think there are signs that Weatherson is conflating features of the academic profession with features of the practice of philosophy (e.g., the substantial constraint point); to which I would say, as you would expect, so much the worse for the academic profession. Career is secondary to good thought (and the diffusion thereof). But that, of course, is a common enough conflation, and understandable. On the other hand, 'barstool philosophy' does not sound pleasantly social to me; it sounds quite the reverse, namely, unpleasantly failing-at-being-social!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Decalogue as an Outline of Friendship

An interesting passage in Herbert McCabe's On Aquinas (p. 55):

Of course discovering what kind of animals we are and what this implies takes a very long time and centuries of poetry and drama and critical philosophical thinking, and even then we are likely to make a lot of mistakes. That is why Aquinas thought it was very decent of God to help us out by giving us an outline of what it is to live in friendship: this is the Ten Commandments....[T]he Decalogue is part of God's summons to Israel to be his people, to share in his life and his righteousness. God is telling them that the first step to being God's people is to be human people, and that means living in friendship. This use of human means is a minimal requirement for living beyond our means, living in the divine friendship which is God.

It is, however, important to see that what is provided by such a document as the Decalogue is precisely an outline of friendship. That is to say, it draws a boundary around friendship to show where it stops: beyond these limits friendship does not exist. This is the characteristic function of law.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Holy Transfiguration

Fra Angelico's Transfiguration of Christ, c. 1440, San Marco, Florence, Italy.

My Education Was Not Entirely Wasted

In my experience a great part of academic life is the feeling of being extraordinarily stupid. You spend long days and nights working on a problem, and when you come up with the solution, it's so obvious and simple that you kick yourself for not seeing it before. Some of your better work often seems too easy -- one of my best papers on Hume, for instance, interprets Hume's discussion of coherence in Treatise 1.4.2; the research consisted of actually looking up the footnote to Part II that Hume himself explicitly gives. Monkeys with typewriters would eventually have hit on it; the only reason almost nobody had taken the trouble to take the footnote seriously before is that they were distracted by other issues. It was a very well-received paper when I delivered it; I felt a bit foolish, though, taking credit for a new and interesting way of looking at the passage when in fact it consisted entirely in -- reading the passage Hume says we should read. And, of course, when I actually took the trouble to read the passage I felt a bit stupid for not having done it before, since Hume virtually puts out a sign saying, "If you want to understand this passage better, go read this other passage." The list could be lengthened considerably. Much of it, of course, is just the mind playing tricks; but it's common enough that you sometimes wonder. But occasionally you do find, to your surprise, that you really and truly do know your field. I had a bit of this experience just now reading a question raised about Kant at Pea Soup; I looked at the question and said, "Ah, but Kant's directly quoting Thomasius." And this is both definitely, provably true and not at all obvious. For one moment I felt quite clever.

But now I have to go back to feeling extraordinarily foolish for not giving an obvious quotation from Bérulle, from virtually the first page of a work I was quoting anyway, in an article on Malebranche and the French School, despite having read the passage several times and missing each time the fact that it was exactly the quotation needed. It never does end.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lactantius on Equability

Reading Dooyeweerd's New Critique of Theoretical Thought, I came on a footnote to Lactantius's Divine Institutes that I thought was interesting, and so followed it up. Sorry for the long quotations, but they deserve to be read in full.

Divine Institutes 5.15:
The other part of justice, therefore, is equity; and it is plain that I am not speaking of the equity of judging well, though this also is praiseworthy in a just man, but of making himself equal to others, which Cicero calls equability. For God, who produces and gives breath to men, willed that all should be equal, that is, equally matched. He has imposed on all the same condition of living; He has produced all to wisdom; He has promised immortality to all; no one is cut off from His heavenly benefits. For as He distributes to all alike His one light, sends forth His fountains to all, supplies food, and gives the most pleasant rest of sleep; so He bestows on all equity and virtue. In His sight no one is a slave, no one a master; for if all have the same Father, by an equal right we are all children. No one is poor in the sight of God, but he who is without justice; no one is rich, but he who is full of virtues; no one, in short, is excellent, but he who has been good and innocent; no one is most renowned, but he who has abundantly performed works of mercy; no one is most perfect, but he who has filled all the steps of virtue. Therefore neither the Romans nor the Greeks could possess justice, because they had men differing from one another by many degrees, from the poor to the rich, from the humble to the powerful; in short, from private persons to the highest authorities of kings. For where all are not equally matched, there is not equity; and inequality of itself excludes justice, the whole force of which consists in this, that it makes those equal who have by an equal lot arrived at the condition of this life.

From Divine Institutes 5.16:
Some one will say, Are there not among you some poor, and others rich; some servants, and others masters? Is there not some difference between individuals? There is none; nor is there any other cause why we mutually bestow upon each other the name of brethren, except that we believe ourselves to be equal. For since we measure all human things not by the body, but by the spirit, although the condition of bodies is different, yet we have no servants, but we both regard and speak of them as brothers in spirit, in religion as fellow-servants. Riches also do not render men illustrious, except that they are able to make them more conspicuous by good works. For men are rich, not because they possess riches, but because they employ them on works of justice; and they who seem to be poor, on this account are rich, because they are not in want, and desire nothing. Though, therefore, in lowliness of mind we are on an equality, the free with slaves, and the rich with the poor, nevertheless in the sight of God we are distinguished by virtue. And every one is more elevated in proportion to his greater justice. For if it is justice for a man to put himself on a level even with those of lower rank, although he excels in this very thing, that he made himself equal to his inferiors; yet if he has conducted himself not only as an equal, but even as an inferior, he will plainly obtain a much higher rank of dignity in the judgment of God. For assuredly, since all things in this temporal life are frail and liable to decay, men both prefer themselves to others, and contend about dignity; than which nothing is more foul, nothing mere arrogant, nothing more removed from the conduct of a wise man: for these earthly things are altogether opposed to heavenly things.

This notion of equability is useful for giving practical content to the claim that all are created equal; the natural practical corollary to this is that all have a responsibility to be equable, to 'put oneself on a level even with those of lower rank' thereby to break open any rankings that spring up from the inside. The free should not merely hold as an abstract proposition that all human beings are equal; the free should make themselves equal to the slaves, putting themselves on a flat plane with them, as brothers and sisters; and so with all other mundane inequalities. The only real distinction wealth, fame, credentials, etc. bring are the ability to do great works of justice; all other distinctions are artificial and arrogant.


Yesterday was the Feast of St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859), better known as the Curé d'Ars. Some links.

The Life of St. Jean-Marie Vianney
(at EWTN)

Sanctuaire du Saint Curé d'Ars

Sacerdotii nostri primordia (Encyclical of John XXIII on St. Jean Vianney)

St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan (at HPR)

Satan and the Saint (at Ignatius Insight)

Il est lá! (at "Vultus Christus")

Monday, August 04, 2008

Augustine Blog Conference

The First Annual Augustine Blog Conference is underway at Per Caritatem. I would put up links to the essays as they come up but it looks like they will be temporary, each lasting for only two days.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


We have then a special name for human living with each other: we call it friendship. Friendship is more than love. Friendship is more than people wishing well to other people. It involves what Aquinas calls communicatio, sharing, and the New Testament calls koinonia, sharing a common life. Friendship is a matter of being with others.

Herbert McCabe, On Aquinas, Davies, ed. Continuum (NY: 2008) p. 54.