Saturday, November 13, 2010

Template Change

No substantive posts today because I've changed my template for the first time since I started this weblog on June 2, 2004. The reason for the change was that I finally became fed up with how Blogger had started chopping off the first week or two of every month in my archive pages (there's a 1 MB limit for a page, and I post enough that I regularly exceed that in a month). This led to changing to a weekly archive system, which, of course, had well over three hundred lines, which was absurd. This led to another thing, and that led to another thing, and that led to another thing, and finally I just changed the template entirely.

I really didn't like any of the new templates available; I just chose this one because it didn't look awful. There will probably be some tweaking in the weeks to come. The color scheme certainly needs to be reworked.

I also took down the old description, which doesn't go back quite that far, but does go back almost that far: saying that it was a golden chain from tar-water to the Trinity linked it to its namesake, Berkeley's Siris, and, of course, I do post thoughts on philosophy, theology, and the universe generally. But, honestly, the latter is pretty obvious from the get-go, and the former is an allusion obscure enough for most people that one might as well go whole hog. So I did: seiren chruseien ex ouranothen kremasantes ("Hang from heaven a chain of gold") has long been the Greek motto of the blog, being the source (in the Iliad) of Berkeley's word 'Siris', which was his anglicization of the Greek word 'seira', i.e., a rope, cord, string, or chain. I talked about it a bit in my fifth anniversary post.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The March of Mankind

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
by Rudyard Kipling

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four-
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man--
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:--
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Is Faith a Virtue?

The answer is, and must be, that it depends.

Aquinas, as one might expect, considers the matter explicitly. His response is not so much that faith is a virtue, however, but that faith can be a virtue, if certain conditions are met. If those conditions are not met, however, it is not a virtue, although it may at times be virtuous.

Faith is a pretty broad term; there are people who don't like the fact that it's as broad as it is (because of the religious associations of the word they like to pretend that they hold nothing on faith) but it's just plain fact that it is, and has always been. One can, for instance, call it faith when one accepts a conclusion on the basis of premises that don't rule out all alternatives. Faith in this sense is the result of probable arguments of any sort; the category of mental dispositions and acts this describes has no particular or typical relation to the good, and thus is not a reasonable candidate for a virtue. There is no special virtue to mere belief as such. It does not follow, of course, that there are no relevant virtues; a particular case of belief could belong to the virtue of prudence, or of fortitude, or of justice, or of any other virtue to which belief can be at all relevant. Such virtues set up what we might call presumptions for reasonable and unreasonable belief: if you have a friend, it may well be unjust to believe a particular claim about him if you don't have very strong evidence, and it may well be that the just thing requires the sort of belief that falls under the category of faith given the probabilities. And, of course, faith on the basis of authority, which is faith in a narrower and more proper sense, is simply a subspecies of faith on the basis of probability.

Faith as such cannot be a virtue at all unless certain Christian doctrines are true. As the Christian understands faith, it can fit the definition of a virtue because it can have some sort of reliable inclination to the true and the good. In order to have this reliable inclination it must be formed by charity; as it has traditionally been put, faith is a virtue only if it is a living faith. And the faith in question has to be faith in the First Truth. Thus the Christian can make sense of faith as such being a virtue, but it depends crucially on Christian belief: that there is First Truth, namely, God, and that divine Truth is presented as authoritative for belief, and also that that this disposition is informed by the sort of charity made possible by grace. There is a sharp distinction between the acquired faith mentioned above and this infused faith.

I think there is room to worry when people try to make it a virtue of itself outside of this very precise context, which seems to have become very common in certain circles. As I said above, particular cases could belong to other kinds of virtues, depending on circumstances, but acquired faith is too diverse a category to be a virtue in its own right. There is no reliable inclination of any sort to the true and the good -- some cases will hit and some will miss. The person who takes acquired faith to be an acquired virtue is doing violence to prudence; he is attributing to acquired faith characteristics that are really just usurped from theological faith. If Christian doctrine is true, there is a real virtue of faith; it does not follow from this that all faith is this virtue of faith.

On Tyerman on Ranieri

From Christopher Tyerman's God's War:

Unlike the rest of Latin Christendom, twelfth-century Outremer produced no successful candidates for canonization, although a sabbatical in the Holy Land could prove useful on a saint's curriculum vitae, such as that of the bizarre St. Ranieri of Pisa, who, while living as an ascetic in Palestine c. 1138-54, claimed to be 'God's second incarnation'.
[Christopher Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades, Harvard UP (Cambridge, MA 2006) p. 219.

This is, I think, an error. Tyerman is following B. Z. Kedar here (and notes in the endnotes that this is Kedar's phrase and not, as one might think from the context, a phrase actually attributed to Ranieri by anyone). Kedar is here glossing Ranieri's hagiographer, Benincasa, and I don't think it is an accurate gloss. This is the context:

The most startling revelation takes place some time after Ranieri's miraculous Christmas transposition to Bethlehem. God tells him: 'I have made you like me; as I made myself the son of my [Jewish] people for the salvation of the human race, assuming flesh of my maid, and as I carried that flesh to heaven, so I am made now the son of my Christian people, for its salvation, by putting on your flesh. And I shall make this flesh remain on earth, to be adored by all the peoples that are on it.' What had been implied by Sidon's bishop, and the priest of the Lord's Temple, what had been alluded to in God's glosses on the Psalter at Quarantena, God proclaims now in so many words: Ranieri is nothing less than his, God's, second incarnation. Evidently Ranieri, whose first act in Jerusalem was -- as Benincasa puts it in his prologue -- to follow in his nakedness the naked Jesus, goes far beyond a mere imitation of Christ and comes to believe that he is his equal, the Father's second Son.
[Benjamin Z. Kedar, "A Second Incarnation in Frankish Jerusalem," The Experience of Crusading, ii, ed. P Edbury and J. Phillips (Cambridge 2003) p. 89.]

But Kedar is surely over-reading here; it is not Ranieri but Benincasa who is portraying Ranieri's life in these terms, and therefore even if you read Benincasa as describing Ranieri as the second Incarnation, there is nothing about this suggesting that Ranieri thought so. But more than that, Benincasa is simply laying on hagiographical conventions very thickly here: the whole point of hagiography is to show the saint as someone through whom Christ can be seen, and Benincasa is an extraordinarily florid storyteller as it is. And, in any case, it doesn't make sense to read this as a claim of Incarnation; Benincasa earlier has God telling Ranieri in a vision that he was created. Rather, Benincasa is claiming that Ranieri was a dwelling-place, habitaculum, of God (to use a phrase he uses). We see this operating long before the scene Kedar relates in the above paragraph, in the Quarantena glosses, in which Ranieri, reciting the Psalter, finds God speaking through him, and then has a vision in which God tells him that all the angels and the saints will adore God in him. Kedar himself notes that Benincasa explicitly claims that people who thought he was putting himself before the Virgin, the angels, and the saints simply misunderstood him; and this should be a red flag against interpreting anything Benincasa attributes to Ranieri in a strictly literal sense. Many of the tropes are found regularly in hagiographical works; Benincasa's only remarkable feature in this regard is a lack of restraint.

But Tyerman's book is quite good; it manages to keep track of the extraordinarily complicated strands of the Crusades without getting too confusing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Lion of Rome

The above painting (I am using the Wikimedia Commons version) is Raphael's famous depiction of the meeting of Pope St. Leo I and Attila the Hun. This is one of St. Leo's most famous feats:
Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy...To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo - trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials - undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.

The exact reason for Attila's turn back is unknown, and very likely there was more than one contributing reason. Attila's resources seemed to have been stretched fairly thinly by this point, so he probably was primed for a peaceable settlement that would allow him to consolidate his gains. He was also famously superstitious, and so it's possibly he was just plain awed by the liturgical panoply accompanying the Pope. But, of course, what makes it morally impressive is not the success, but the courage it must have taken. Emperor Valentinian had simply holed himself up in Ravenna; the leaders of the city cowered or fled, and Leo went out unarmed to talk the most powerful warrior in that part of the world to turn around and go home. And this was not a fluke of the time; when Genseric (or Henzerich) the Vandal approached the city a few years later, and the Emperor and the leaders of Rome fled or cowered yet again, out went Leo to see if the problem could be solved. Genseric was not going home empty-handed, so Rome was sacked for the second time in the fifth century, as the Vandals looted the city for two weeks and shipped people off to be sold as slaves. (But if Prosper is to be believed, Genseric reined in his men so that the population wasn't massacred, and only a few buildings seem to have been burned.) But it was the same force of will.

Leo's most important contribution, though, was his Tome of Leo, which was recognized by the Council of Chalcedon as a summary of orthodox Christology:

Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And by "ours" we mean what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For what the Deceiver brought in and man deceived committed, had no trace in the Saviour. Nor, because He partook of man's weaknesses, did He therefore share our faults. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human and not diminishing the divine: because that emptying of Himself whereby the Invisible made Himself visible and, Creator and Lord of all things though He be, wished to be a mortal, was the bending down of pity, not the failing of power. Accordingly He who while remaining in the form of God made man, was also made man in the form of a slave. For both natures retain their own proper character without loss: and as the form of God did not do away with the form of a slave, so the form of a slave did not impair the form of God.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Poem Re-draft and Two New Poem Drafts

Hurried Prayer

Creator of this ever-rolling orb,
the earth your footstool, all of space your robe,
as you have made this cosmos come to be,
so bring the waywardness of man to bay!
And work in me, most holy Lamb of God,
a power born of heaven, aimed toward good,
as you by greatest mercy ransom brought
to all our race, and hope of glory bright!
And music Spirit, with your winds inspire
the souls of we who pray, and do not spare
one moment of delay; to all who fear
descend in mighty love, pure heaven's fire!
O God, three-personed, one in substance true,
redeem your slave-sold people from their tears,
and as you give from each to each again,
so give to us, that we might Godhead gain
for, though not Gods by right or nature born,
in you we may be Gods, our mere dross burned!


See these wings outspread,
rising high to heaven!
Swift mind wearing wings
looks down upon the earth;
it soars beyond air,
racing clouds in the path.

Outpacing pure fire
that glows bright in the stars,
it sails light itself
to God's throne, the ether
upholding its feet:
it comes home to the One.

Sleepy Town

Twilight gleams
look down;
beyond dreams
the town
holds its breath
as night overlays
the business of day
with soft death.

No Chivalry Braver than His Precision

Duns Scotus
by Thomas Merton

Striking like lightning to the quick of the real world
Scotus has mined all ranges to their deepest veins:
But where, oh, on what blazing mountain of theology
And in what Sinai's furnace
Did God refine the gold?

Who ruled those arguments in their triumphant order
And armed them with their strict celestial light?
See the lance-lightning, blade-glitter, banner-progress
As love advances, company by company
In sunlit teams his clean embattled reasons,

Until the firmament, with high heavenly marvel
Views in our crystal souls her blue embodiment,
Unfurls a thousand flags above our heads -
It is the music of Our Lady's army!

For Scotus is her theologian,
Nor has there ever been a braver chivalry than his precision.
His thoughts are skies of cloudless peace
Bright as the vesture of her grand aurora
Filled with the rising Christ.

But we, a weak, suspicious generation,
Loving emotion, hating prayer,
We are not worthy of his wisdom.
Creeping like beasts between the mountain's feet
We look for laws in the Arabian dust.
We have no notion of his freedom

Whose acts despise the chains of choice and passion.
We have no love for his beatitude
Whose act renounces motion:
Whose love flies home forever
As silver as felicity,
Working and quiet in the dancelight of an everlasting arrow.

Lady, the image of whose heaven
Sings in the might of Scotus' reasoning:
There is no line of his that has not blazed your glory in the schools,
Though in dark words, without romance,
Calling us to swear you our liege.

Language was far too puny for his great theology:
But, oh! His thought strode through those words
Bright as the conquering Christ
Between the clouds His enemies:
And in the clearing storm and Sinai's dying thunder
Scotus comes out, and shakes his golden locks
And sings like the African sun.

Hopkins's Scotus poem, which I recently posted, is a great poem; this is, I think, an almost-great one, a non-great poem that could have been great. The idea behind the line "Nor has there ever been a braver chivalry than his precision" is well-nigh perfect: Hopkins has nothing approaching it. But it's an extraordinarily clunky way of making the point. Hopkins's works better not merely because Hopkins is a greater poet (although he certainly is); it works better because a great poem about the Subtle Doctor must have more subtlety than this. But the ideas are right and linked in about the right way. A problem with Merton in general, I think: lots of Idea, lots of Power, surprisingly little Energy.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Toast a Scotist

Some being is not eternal, and therefore it does not exist of itself, neither is it caused by nothing, because nothing produces itself. Hence, it is from some other being. The latter either gives existence in virtue of something other than itself or not. And its existence, too, it either gets from another or not. If neither be true—i.e., if it neither imparts existence in virtue of another nor receives its own existence from another—then this is the first efficient cause, for such is the meaning of the term. But if either of the above alternatives holds [viz. if it receives existence, or imparts it to others only in virtue of another], then I inquire about the latter as I did before. One cannot go on this way ad infinitum. Hence, we end up with some first efficient cause, which neither imparts existence in virtue of another nor receives its own existence from another.

John Duns Scotus, De Primo Principio (sect. 41). He expands elsewhere in the treatise on the various parts of the argument, of course.

And today is his feast day, so toast the Scotists! I would say to hug them, but that wouldn't be subtle enough.

Pain and Warning

Bill Vallicella has an interesting pair of posts (One, Two) in which he argues for the failure of a common argument for the claim that pain, while real, is not intrinsically evil. (I put it this way because as far as I can see he doesn't give any argument for the claim that pain is intrinsically evil; the only arguments given seem to suggest only the much weaker conclusion that pain really is evil in some way. I have never, in fact, seen an argument for the claim that pain is intrinsically evil; I once read something by McCloskey on the subject that went on for pages and everything in those pages really just boiled down to saying that pain must be intrinsically evil because it just obviously was. Conceivably I'm missing some crucial argument that everyone just assumes and no one ever elaborates. Or, conceivably, there are just steps that are left out as obvious that I don't find obvious, which might well be the case here.) The particular argument in question is that pain is actually, insofar as it is a real thing, a good because it is a warning signal. In response, Vallicella lists four points (I leave off the fourth because I am unsure how it's supposed to be relevant, and therefore have nothing to say about it):

(1) "If pains are warning signals, then they are instrumentally good. But what is instrumentally good may also be intrinsically evil. The searing pain in a burnt hand, though instrumentally good, is intrinsically evil. Its positive 'entity' (entitas in scholastic jargon) is apparently not well accommodated on the classical doctrine that evils are privationes boni. Again, the pain is not the mere absence of the good of pleasure, but something positively bad. After all, the hand is not numb or as if aenesthetized; there is a positive sensation 'in' it, and this positive sensation is bad. So even if every pain served to warn us of bodily damage, that would not detract from the positive badness of the pain sensation. One cannot discount the intrinsic positive badness by pointing to the fact that the pain is instrumentally good."

(2) "The intensity of many pains seems out of all proportion to the good that they do in warning us of bodily damage. This excruciatingness is part of the evil of pain."

(3) "The argument that pain is good, not evil, because it warns us about bodily damage fails to account for the pain that persists after the warning has been heeded. The pain in my burnt hand continues, of course, because the hand has been damaged; but then that pain is intrinsically and positively evil and the evil cannot be discounted in the way the pain at the time of the contact of hand with stove can be discounted."

I don't think the Warning System Response is the strongest argument for the claim in question, despite its relative popularity, but I am unconvinced that these three points do much to weaken it. I think we need to be particularly careful with (1), because it is not clear what is meant by intrinsic badness in the first place. One way to gloss 'intrinsic badness' would be to say that something is intrinsically bad if and only if it is bad by its nature considered on its own and relative to nothing else. Read straight, that would make it impossible for any experience, like pain, to be intrinsically bad, because if pain is intrinsically bad it must always be bad for someone: pain is always for someone, and therefore can't be considered in abstraction from its relation to something other than itself. But there are many different ways one could tweak it. One could drop the "relative to nothing else," for instance; but it would seem that there could be things whose nature, as we find them in the world, consists of good + privation, with, obviously, the intrinsic badness coming from the intrinsic privation. If pain is intrinsically bad in this sense, it isn't a counterexample to the privation account. One could, alternatively, say that something is intrinsically bad if and only if it is the opposite of intrinsically good, understood as worth having for its own sake. Such an opposite, however, couldn't be "not worth having for its own sake," because then all instrumental good would be intrinsically bad. So the opposite must be "worth not having for its own sake," and I don't see how any sense is to be made of that. So we seem to have several alternatives here, and it's not clear what could be in view.

But setting this aside and assuming we have some solid account of intrinsic badness, I don't think we can move as quickly as (1) moves. For while it is true that, on the assumption that there is intrinsic badness at all and the plausible assumption that if there is any, intrinsic badness would have to be distinct from instrumental badness, we nonetheless have to consider that instrumental goodness often -- even if not always -- builds on features that can be recognized as intrinsically good. For instance, it's a common view that pleasure is intrinsically good; but if so it's precisely pleasure's intrinsic goodness that makes it apt for being instrumentally good in all sorts of ways (rewards). Likewise, if something is intrinsically bad, it's entirely reasonable to ask what it is about the thing that makes it nonetheless possible for it to be instrumentally good. It is entirely reasonable to take something's aptness for instrumental good as a sign that it is not intrinsically bad; even if it is not an infallible sign. So (1) on its own does not, I think, do enough. One can, however, see (2) and (3) as attempts to supply the lack.

The key thing we need to know in order to evaluate (2) is the precise relationship between excruciatingness and privation of proportion in pain. If excruciatingness is just one form of privation of proportion in pain -- e.g., one that involves excess with regard to a capacity for experience sufficient to disrupt the normal functioning of the capacity -- then (2) concedes the point at hand. Now, it is certainly clear that the two are related somehow, that what is excruciating is out of proportion; but one would have to say that there is something else in the excruciatingness that is not the privation and is intrinsically bad. (It's worth noting, as an incidental point, that there obviously is also a privation of proportion of pain in the other direction, i.e., a lack of proportion due to insufficient pain; lepers get it and because of it have to be very, very careful. Lepers often have sores and the like, but leprosy as such apparently doesn't do this kind of damage; what it does is make it very easy to damage yourself severely because you lack a sense of just how much damage is being done. It's this sort of thing, I take it, that makes the Warning System Response plausible to so many people. And it has to be admitted that it's difficult to make sense of what 'intrinsically bad' means if it's consistent with being worse off for lack of it, claims about instrumental goodness not withstanding.)

Similar things can be said about (3). But (3) in particular seems to be based on the idea that if pain is a warning it can only serve this function while damage is going on. This seems certainly not true: people with pains in their hands are motivated to take better care of their hands than people whose hands don't hurt; when the pain isn't noticed, people forget easily that damage has been done and still needs to be given space to heal. Thus the warning pain that a hand is burned seems to be just as functional as the warning pain that a hand is being burned.

So there seems something missing in the response, and I think it's pretty clear what it is. What we actually need to see is an account of intrinsic badness that shows (1) that pain is intrinsically bad; (2) that it is not intrinsically bad purely because it intrinsically involves a privation; and (3) that the way in which it is intrinsically bad according to the account allows its warning function, at least under proper circumstances, to be instrumentally good in the way it is. Without such a thing, I don't think any objection to the Warning System Response will be very persuasive.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rarest-Veinèd Unraveller

Duns Scotus’s Oxford
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.