Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Dominion of Aristotle (Repost)

This is a reposted version, somewhat revised, of a post originally published in 2007.

Dante Alighieri is a very philosophical poet, but he's something of an odd bird with regard to his philosophy. This comes out very strikingly in the fourth book of the Convivio. One of his major concerns in this book is to address a claim made by Frederick the Great, that gentilezza or nobility is ancestral wealth and fine manners. Dante is firmly against this bit of philosophical legislation on the part of an Emperor; and in arguing against the right of the Emperor to address the issue, he makes some very strong, very unusual claims.

The Emperor, Dante says, exists due to the human need for society, which we establish in order to live a happy life (because we can't provide everything necessary for such a life ourselves). The complete fulfillment of this need can only exist when all human societies are united into a single principality, with a Monarch capable of keeping all the lesser kings in line. Thus, the perfection of the human species requires a "universal and indisputable office of command," the office of the Emperor. By experience, says Dante, we have found that the Emperor should be Roman, because the Latin race is seen to have a natural talent for the exercise of rule and acquisition of power, and because in history God in his divine providence clearly gave sway to the Romans. Rome had a special birth, a special development, a special end. The world needs a Roman Emperor, someone who can be "rider of the human will," who can have authority over all practical, voluntary activities.

That's a strong claim, and an unusual one, but that's not the claim I was talking about. The claim I was talking about was this: in contrast to the practical realm, the philosophical realm is not governed by the Emperor but by Aristotle, to whom we are all required to render "faith and obedience." Yes, obedience. For Dante, Aristotle is to philosophy what the Emperor is to politics; he exercises a universal and indisputable office of command as the teacher and leader of human reason. Here is what Dante says, in the Lansing translation (IV, 6):

That Aristotle is the most worthy of faith and obedience may be proved as follows. Among workmen and craftsmen of various arts and activities which are ordained to a single final activity or art, the craftsman or workman pursuing such an end must above all be obeyed and trusted by everyone as being he alone who considers the final end of all the other ends. Hence the knight should be trusted by the sword-maker, the bridle-maker, the saddle-maker, the shield-maker, and all trades that are established for the purpose of achieving the goals of chivalry. Since all human activities require a final end, namely the end of human life to which man is directed insofar as he is human, the master or the craftsman who studies this and reveals it to us should be obeyed and trusted above all others. That man is Aristotle: he therefore is the most worthy of faith and obedience.

It's hard to get more plain than that. Other philosophers deserve our respect inasmuch as they approximate to Aristotle, and Aristotle, like a Pope in spiritual matters or an Emperor in political matters, because of "his singular and almost divine genius," is to hold full sway. He is il sommo Filosofo, the supreme philosopher, the Philosopher himself. He is "invested with complete power". This power is not opposed to the Emperor's power, but requires it and is required by it; without the Emperor's authority, Aristotle's authority is weak, and without Aristotle's authority, the Emperor's authority is dangerous. To have good government, each must keep to its domain, and each must exercise unconditional authority over that domain. It's clear enough that this means mostly the primacy of Aristotle in ethical matters -- it is chiefly for this reason that the Emperor needs to respect the domain of Aristotle. And it is worth pointing out that the actual result of this is the freedom of philosophy from every external imposition: neither the Emperor nor the Pope have any direct say in philosophical matters. But we still have Aristotle as the philosopher-king of philosophy itself.

That is a very strong, very unusual claim. Needless to say, even Aristotelians would usually balk at the idea that Aristotle not only deserves respect but complete trust and obedience as the Supreme and Sovereign Philosopher. But Dante is not just any Aristotelian; he is in a sense the most vehemently Aristotelian Aristotelian of them all, the one who holds that philosophy was given to Aristotle by God as his own personal empire. Etienne Gilson notes in Dante and Philosophy that this odd sort of move is actually very characteristic of Dante's thought. In every realm of human endeavor, there is need for a proper ammaestramento, instruction by a proper authority. So Dante divides human life into distinct and air-tight domains, each with its proper authority, each such authority subject only to God in that domain. Such thinking pervades the Divine Comedy. Gilson points out that throughout the Comedy Dante repeatedly condemns those who try to usurp authority (as he would see it) -- thus Pope Boniface is in hell -- but repeatedly forgives those who, whatever their errors, tried to preserve distinct domains. Thus he's very forgiving of the Fraticelli (and thus Joachim) even though he thinks they went too far, because they insisted that the Church should keep to spiritual things and leave matters of property to the Empire. And he's also very forgiving of Siger, even though he probably thinks he went too far, because Siger tried to preserve the distinct authority of Aristotle. So Siger and Joachim are lauded in heaven by their more saintly earthly opponents, Aquinas and Bonaventure. As Gilson sums it up:

And where, it will be said, are those who wish to exercise [authority] where they do not have it? They are in Hell. And it may indeed be said that they alone have put themselves there by their violation of the holy law of divine Justice which is not only the supreme creator of the constitutive orders of nature and supernature, but also the inexorable protector of the authorities which it has wisely placed at their head. There is no greater crime than to betray the divine order, and it is betraying it to refuse to follow Aristotle in the matter of philosophy, because philosophy is the daughter of God and it was God Himself Who desired that it should be taught to us by Aristotle. But it is no less a crime for a Franciscan to betray St. Francis, for a Dominican to betray St. Dominic, for a subject to betray the Emperor, for a Christian to betray the Gospel, and the worst crime of all, the one which in this world gives rise to disorders, abuses, wars and miseries without number, is to betray all forms of authority at once through a desire to install one of them, which is competent in its sphere, in the place of those which are equally so in theirs, for each form of authority is master in its own house and even the humblest of all is directly responsible to God alone.

[Etienne Gilson, Dante and Philosophy. David Moore, tr. Harper & Row (New York: 1963), p. 156]

That's what you can call an extreme commitment to subsidiarity. And, as I said, it's a very strong, very unusual sort of philosophical viewpoint.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Bonfire of Bibles

I was hoping to do a substantive post about Hume tonight, but I'm quite tired and have a great many logic quizzes to grade. But while taking a short break I came across this post about a recent book-burning at a church in North Carolina. The church's announcement:

Halloween Book Burning
Burning Perversions of God’s Word
October 31, 2009

7:00 PM – Till

Great Preaching and Singing

Come to our Halloween book burning. We are burning Satan’s bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT, Good News for Modern Man, The Evidence Bible, The Message Bible, The Green Bible, ect. These are perversions of God’s Word the King James Bible.

We will also be burning Satan’s music such as country , rap , rock , pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, southern gospel , contempory Christian , jazz, soul, oldies but goldies, etc.

We will also be burning Satan’s popular books written by heretics like Westcott & Hort , Bruce Metzger, Billy Graham , Rick Warren , Bill Hybels , John McArthur, James Dobson, Charles Swindoll , John Piper, Chuck Colson, Tony Evans, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swagart, Mark Driskol, Franklin Graham , Bill Bright, Tim Lahaye, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn , Joyce Myers, Brian McLaren, Robert Schuller, Mother Teresa , The Pope , Rob Bell, Erwin McManus, Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, Brennan Manning, William Young, etc.

We are not burning Bibles written in other languages that are based on the TR. We are not burning the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva or other translations that are based on the TR.

We will be serving Bar-b-Que Chicken, fried chicken, and all the sides.

If you have any books or music to donate, please call us for pick-up. If you like you can drop them off at our church door anytime. Thanks.

Actually, it almost sounds like fun. We Americans don't have enough bonfires, and in its own weird way there is something extraordinarily striking about the very idea of eating good fried chicken and fixings while singing hymns around a Halloween bonfire of Bibles and Gospel music CDs. Chesterton or (perhaps better yet) O'Connor could write a stunningly good story about it. And, despite being a bit of bibliophile, I am pretty much indifferent to bookburning as such; I don't regard it as seriously different from any other form of symbolic protest, and while I think such protests are usually silly, there are worse things. But I always wonder where they are getting the books. Surely Amazing Grace Baptist Church isn't recommending that people steal the books first; but how many people attending a church like Amazing Grace are going to have handy copies of Westcott & Hort, or the writings of Mother Teresa and the Pope?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Today is the feast day of Teresa of Avila.

It is certainly true that very frequently the joy I have in that the multitude of Thy mercies is made known in me, softens the bitter sense of my great faults. In whom, O Lord, can they shine forth as they do in me, who by my evil deeds have shrouded in darkness Thy great graces, which Thou hadst begun to work in me? Woe is me, O my Maker! If I would make an excuse, I have none to offer; and I only am to blame. For if I could return to Thee any portion of that love which Thou hadst begun to show unto me, I would give it only unto Thee, and then everything would have been 19 safe. But, as I have not deserved this, nor been so happy as to have done it, let Thy mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.

Teresa of Avila, Life, IV.5

The most famous event in Teresa's life is the Transverberation, the subject of the famous sculpture by Bernini. She describes the event in Chapter XXIX:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(The Carmelites celebrate the Transverberation itself on August 26.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beginning to See

I consider, then, that the position of our minds, as far as they are uncultivated, towards intellectual objects,—I mean of our minds, before they have been disciplined and formed by the action of our reason upon them,—is analogous to that of a blind man towards the objects of vision, at the moment when eyes are for the first time given to him by the skill of the operator. Then the multitude of things, which present themselves to the sight under a multiplicity of shapes and hues, pour in upon him from the external world all at once, and are at first nothing else but lines and colours, without mutual connection, dependence, or contrast, without order or principle, without drift or meaning, and like the wrong side of a piece of tapestry or carpet. By degrees, by the sense of touch, by reaching out the hands, by walking into this maze of colours, by turning round in it, by accepting the principle of perspective, by the various slow teaching of experience, the first information of the sight is corrected, and what was an unintelligible wilderness becomes a landscape or a scene, and is understood to consist of space, and of bodies variously located in space, with such consequences as thence necessarily follow. The knowledge is at length gained of things or objects, and of their relation to each other; and it is a kind of knowledge, as is plain, which is forced upon us all from infancy, as to the blind on their first seeing, by the testimony of our other senses, and by the very necessity of supporting life; so that even the brute animals have been gifted with the faculty of acquiring it.

John Henry Newman, Idea of a University 2.9.6

Phil. Sci. and Myers on Wade

PZ Myers has a post on a recent review (of Dawkins's most recent book) by Nicholas Wade, and as Myers often is when he manages not to play for the sensational, it makes some excellent points. He quotes Wade as saying:

He [Dawkins] seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only of of these categories, and it's a theory.

And he responds:

Whoa. Scientists everywhere are doing a spit-take at those words. Philosophers, sweet as they may be, are most definitely not the "arbiters" of the cognitive structure of science. They are more like interested spectators, running alongside the locomotive of science, playing catch-up in order to figure out what it is doing, and occasionally shouting words of advice to the engineer, who might sometimes nod in interested agreement but is more likely to shrug and ignore the wacky academics with all the longwinded discourses. Personally, I think the philosophy of science is interesting stuff, and can surprise me with insights, but science is a much more pragmatic operation that doesn't do a lot of self-reflection.

This is surely right, despite the clunky metaphor. Part of the reason is that any 'philosophy of X' will by its nature have something of the Owl of Minerva to it (to use Hegel's excellent phrase): you can't have a philosophy of X without X to study. Philosophy in this mode always comes too late to tell you how things ought to be; it has to discover how things ought to be at the beginning if it is even to start in the right place. In the case of science in particular I think this can be very tricky for several reasons:

(1) The course of science keeps surprising everyone, including scientists. Part of scientific progress is the expansion of the sorts of things scientists study by the discovery of new tools and the like.

(2) Despite being largely ignored for most of the time since, Whewell was probably right a hundred-something years ago when he suggested that you really had to have a philosophy of sciences rather than a philosophy of science. Science is extraordinarily diverse, and therefore you are always running one of two dangers: either you manage to cover everything, and your claims about science end up being rather banal, because you have lost the richness of the detail, or you manage to come up with robust claims that only cover the particular area of science you happen to be looking at for the moment.

(3) Philosophy of science is, and has always been, a highly speculative venture. The best philosophy of science -- work of the quality of Whewell and Duhem and a handful of others -- has always been heavily grounded in actual facts about scientific inquiry. But it's important to understand (and while there are no doubt exceptions, I find that actual philosophers of science I've talked to do usually understand) that philosophy of science is heavy on hypothesis. These hypotheses get tested, sometimes sporadically and sometimes systematically, against the history of science and new directions science takes, but it's hard work, takes a long time to do properly, and has resulted in plenty of dead ends. To some extent this is the way any philosophy in 'problem' mode works -- that is, any philosophy of X, whatever X we may be considering. But it is often very noticeable in philosophy of science.

(4) Which is not to say that philosophers of science have not influenced the course of science; if you grew up with Kant and Mach like Einstein that would have an effect on the sort of questions you might ask, for instance. But this is the fourth reason it can be difficult to do philosophy of science. Much of the language in which people talk about the way science works is the philosophical terminology (often modified, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident) of decades ago. And if you are a philosopher of science you are often having to cut through the residue of your predecessors, seeking to shake off the bias of the way we used to think of things, trying to navigate the constantly shifting meaning of the terms we use to talk about science (especially if scientists use the term to talk about science, since from pretty much the beginning they have been taking words that they think have a nice sound -- i.e., that sound about right -- and using them in their own sense).

The list could no doubt be extended and improved; beyond a little bit of dabbling, it's not really my field, so I can only lay down rough outlines. But Wade's facts-laws-theories example shows many of the problems with talking about such things: which philosophers of science does he have in mind? What rigorous argument, if any, is supposed to lie behind the trichotomy? Why (as Myers goes on to note) are we taking these to be the most useful definitions, and why are we talking about evolutionary science as if it were a single unitary thing that could fit into only one of these categories? We are left in the dark. Conceivably he has some specific account in mind that would clear it all up, but it's unlikely, and, if it is the case, he forgot to give his readers a key to the lock.

I'd be interested, though, in what a philosopher of science would make of the dispute between the two.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cardinal Virtue

Tuesday's my long teaching day, so I'm a bit worn, but here's a tidbit that came to mind since I am teaching Ethics and we are currently doing virtue ethics. We've all heard the phrase 'Cardinal Virtue' -- well, I shouldn't say that, since I always find that there are plenty of students who have never heard of it, just as I found today that not a single person in my very diverse class could name any of the three books of the Divine Comedy, not even the Inferno. And because of their lack of familiarity with this common bit of Western culture, I usually ease my students into the topic by showing and discussing Raphael's allegory of the virtues (Justice is in the tondo). In any case, it's a fairly well known label. But most people don't know its origin. St. Ambrose was the first to call them Cardinal Virtues, and he seems to have had something different in mind than most people did later. The Latin word cardo indicates something that allows you to transition easily from one state to another, a turning point; the most common translation in this context is 'hinge', and most etymologies you will find will say that these are called 'cardinal' because the other virtues hinge on them. And this is indeed the way it has standardly been understood. But it's possible that Ambrose was using it in a slightly different way, although he never explains his usage, so we must guess. According to Hauser, Ambrose himself never seems elsewhere to use cardo and its cognates to mean anything as mundane as a hinge; the word had a very expansive meaning in Cicero, Seneca, and the like, and Ambrose elsewhere uses it to talk about the directions of the wind and the foundations of the earth. In some authors (e.g., Seneca) the word is sometimes used to describe death itself -- the ultimate point of transition. It is very plausible that Ambrose has this meaning in mind: the cardinal virtues are the virtues that prepare you for a smooth transition across the ultimate cardinal point, death itself. Ambrose uses the phrase for the first time ever in a funeral oration for his brother Satyrus, in which he talks about how Satyrus was his other self and displayed the four virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Thus the four virtues are the things that make the transition from earthly life to standing before God smooth and easy. It's possible he also meant to suggest, as later philosophers and theologians understood the phrase, that these were the foundational virtues, the virtues on which all other (moral) virtues turn; no doubt he meant the word to suggest more than one thing. But it's interesting how a striking phrase briefly mentioned in a funeral oration came to play such an important role in how people through history have understood the virtues.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Kingdom of Darkness (Repost)

The following is a repost, slightly revised, from 2005.

[T]he kingdom of darkness, as it is set forth in these and other places of the Scripture, is nothing else but a confederacy of deceivers that, to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavour, by dark and erroneous doctrines, to extinguish in them the light, both of nature and of the gospel; and so to disprepare them for the kingdom of God to come. (Leviathan ch. 44)

While Hobbes's Leviathan gets a lot of attention for its discussion of the state of nature and social contract, the second half of the book gets quite a bit less attention; in those chapters, Hobbes first looks at the Kingdom of God, or Christian Commonwealth, and then discusses the Kingdom of Darkness, which he defines as above. He identifies four ways in which this Kingdom of Darkness is furthered:

(1) "abusing and putting out the light of the Scriptures"
(2) "introducing the demonology of the heathen poets"
(3) "mixing with the Scripture diverse relics of the religion, and much of the vain and erroneous philosophy of the Greeks"
(4) "mingling with both these, false or uncertain traditions, and feigned or uncertain history"

The most serious form of (1) is the claim that the Church is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, as Hobbes understands it, is a political organization, instituted by Moses, for the sake of governing the Jews, which ended with the election of Saul as king. This Kingdom will, according to the Prophets, one day be restored. In his first coming, Jesus began to lay the groundwork for its actual restoration; and since he hasn't come again, there is no Kingdom of God at all (except in the weak sense that we Christians are, as it were, signing up for the future Kingdom of God through the ritual of baptism). The people who are most egregious in making this identification are, of course, the Catholics. Most of Hobbes's discussion of the Kingdom of Darkness is a discussion of the participation of Catholics in the "confederacy of deceivers." Hobbes sees the Catholic Church as a serious threat to his account of sovereign, wherein the sovereign is chosen by the people to exercise the fullness of power. Popes and Catholic councils do not treat heads of state as Hobbesian sovereigns. Hobbes notes with some distaste the statement of the Fourth Lateran Council, "That if a king, at the pope's admonition, do not purge his kingdom of heresies, and being excommunicate for the same, do not give satisfaction within a year, his subjects are absolved of the bond of their obedience." In other words, under certain conditions, the Church can abolish the power of sovereign. Claims like this darken the minds of people and lead to religious wars, Hobbes thinks, because it makes it impossible for ordinary people to tell who they should obey. The Church has an alternative prince (the pope), it has alternative laws (canon), it has an alternative government (the clergy). His concern goes even so far as to worry that the Church has the means of raising an army:

From the same it is that in every Christian state there are certain men that are exempt, by ecclesiastical liberty, from the tributes and from the tribunals of the civil state; for so are the secular clergy, besides monks and friars, which in many places bear so great a proportion to the common people as, if need were, there might be raised out of them alone an army sufficient for any war the Church militant should employ them in against their own or other princes.

This is a very odd worry; perhaps it is a version of Jesuit fears.

Another abuse of Scripture that contributes to the Kingdom of Darkness is "the turning of consecration into conjuration, or enchantment"; he has Catholic sacramental theology in view. Yet another is the claim that the soul is immortal (Hobbes thinks that we lost eternal life at the Fall and it was only restored by Christ for those who enter into the Kingdom of God; he doesn't, I think, believe in hell). There are quite a few things that go with this:

This window it is that gives entrance to the dark doctrine, first, of eternal torments, and afterwards of purgatory, and consequently of the walking abroad, especially in places consecrated, solitary, or dark, of the ghosts of men deceased; and thereby to the pretences of exorcism and conjuration of phantasms, as also of invocation of men dead; and to the doctrine of indulgences; that is to say, of exemption for a time, or for ever, from the fire of purgatory, wherein these incorporeal substances are pretended by burning to be cleansed and made fit for heaven.

The second way in which the Kingdom of Darkness is furthered is by introducing the demonology of the heathen poets, and one example of this is the claim that there are incorporeal spirits. So Catholic angelology and demonology takes a beating. Another example is "the worship of images," and Catholic iconography is in view. Ditto with the canonizing of saints:

The first that ever was canonized at Rome was Romulus, and that upon the narration of Julius Proculus, that swore before the Senate he spoke with him after his death, and was assured by him he dwelt in heaven, and was there called Quirinus, and would be propitious to the state of their new city: and thereupon the Senate gave public testimony of his sanctity. Julius Caesar, and other emperors after him, had the like testimony; that is, were canonized for saints: for by such testimony is canonization now defined, and is the same with the apotheosis of the heathen.

Indeed, as is clear from the other examples Hobbes notes, just about the whole of Catholic liturgy is implicated.

The third and fourth ways way in which the Kingdom of Darkness is furthered are through vain philosophy and superstitious traditions. Needless to say, scholastic thought (with an honorable mention to the Talmudic discussions of Jewish rabbis) comes under the gun here. He also mentions hagiography.

In other words, although 'Kingdom of Darkness' has a larger extension than 'Catholic Church' (all non-Christians are members of the Kingdom of Darkness), the attack on the Kingdom of Darkness is undeniably an attack on Catholicism.

The Kingdom of Darkness, as Hobbes sees it, expands through a will to power. By spreading around these ideas, which obscure the simplicity of Scripture and Hobbesian civil philosophy, priests and the like gain power over their fellow men.

He ends the discussion in an ominous tone:

It was not therefore a very difficult matter for Henry the Eighth by his exorcism; nor for Queen Elizabeth by hers, to cast them out. But who knows that this spirit of Rome, now gone out, and walking by missions through the dry places of China, Japan, and the Indies, that yield him little fruit, may not return; or rather, an assembly of spirits worse than he enter and inhabit this clean-swept house, and make the end thereof worse than the beginning? For it is not the Roman clergy only that pretends the kingdom of God to be of this world, and thereby to have a power therein, distinct from that of the civil state.

It's interesting that anti-Catholic polemic takes up such a significant place in Hobbes's political philosophy; he spends an immense amount of space attacking the Catholic Church both qua Catholic and qua the perfect summation of priestcraft. It's difficult to say more; one area in which Hobbes scholarship is very weak is precisely in this area. There are a number of interesting things that have been noted -- e.g., that Hobbes clearly has in view on some points the censuring by the University of Paris of Gassendi's philosophy, and that this entire section is supposed to illuminate in some way Hobbes's reflections on the Christian Commonwealth -- but it has been difficult for Hobbes scholars to provide a unified view of the whole. It isn't clear what, precisely, the role of the Kingdom of Darkness critique plays in his political philosophy at large, in part because it's obscure in itself, but in part because there hasn't been enough work done on the matter.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Highest on the Tree

The Ripest Peach
by James Whitcomb Riley

The ripest peach is highest on the tree--
And so her love, beyond the reach of me,
Is dearest in my sight. Sweet breezes, bow
Her heart down to me where I worship now!

She looms aloft where every eye may see
The ripest peach is highest on the tree.
Such fruitage as her love I know, alas!
I may not reach here from the orchard grass.

I drink the sunshine showered past her lips
As roses drain the dewdrop as it drips.
The ripest peach is highest on the tree,
And so mine eyes gaze upward eagerly.

Why--why do I not turn away in wrath
And pluck some heart here hanging in my path?--
Love's lower boughs bend with them--but, ah me!
The ripest peach is highest on the tree.

MacIntyre's Newman Lecture

There are five parts in all.