Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Error of Cowards

The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence--even mental. That is to say, as Aristotle points out, such men must make themselves vegetables. No doubt reason often errs, especially in the highest matters, and, as Cicero said long ago, there is no nonsense in the world which has not found some philosopher to maintain it, so difficult is it to attain truth. But it is the error of cowards to mistake a difficulty for an impossibility.

Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy, Sheed and Ward (New York: 1933) p. 181.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXIX

Whoever is free from captivity to this mammon, and is no longer weighed down under the cruel burden of money, stands securely with his vantage point in heaven, and from there looks down over the mammon which is holding sway over the world and the worldly with a tyrant's fury.

It holds sway over nations, it gives orders to kingdoms, it wages wars, it equips warriors, it traffics in blood, it transacts death, it threatens homelands, it destroys cities, it conquers peoples, it attacks fortresses, it puts citizens in an uproar, it presides over the marketplace, it wipes out justice, it confuses right and wrong, and by aiming directly at morality it assails one's integrity, it violates truth, it eviscerates one's reputation, it wreaks havoc on one's honor, it dissolves affections, it removes innocence, it keeps compassion buried, it severs relationships, it does not permit friendship. And why should I say more? This is mammon: the master of injustice, since it is unjust in the power it wields over human bodies and minds.

Sermon 126, section 5.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chrysologus for Lent XXXVIII

Why should Christians not trust Despair or Unbelief? They are the way Death wages war; with these generals and with these tactics in a battle of this sort she captures, crushes, and kills all those whom nature brings forth into the present life. She holds sway over kings, she conquers peoples, she routs nations. It has never been possible to bribe her with wealth, or to move her by entreaties, or to soften her by tears, or to conquer her by strength.

Sermon 118, section 6.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Austen, Aristotle, and Aquinas

There's some interesting discussion of Jane Austen's Aristotelianism by Brother Aquinas Beale at the Dominicana blog. Austen's Aristotelian ethics is interesting, because while it's not possible to rule out absolutely some direct line of influence (or perhaps lots of indirect lines of influence), her ethics overall seems to be Aristotelian not because she was following Aristotle in any way but because she was independently converging on the same ideas as Aristotle.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXVII

And so the farmer sings of a plentiful harvest and of bountiful feasting so as not to feel the toil and sweat of the plowshare which lie ahead of him; so too the soldier makes a melody about ports and profit so as not to be afraid of shipwreck or other hazards of the sea; thus the soldier repeats a refrain about booty and triumphs so as not to fear wounds nor be afraid of blows from a sword. Therefore, may the Christian await, sing, and think about the resurrection with his mind, mouth, and eyes, so that he can despise and tread underfoot all fear of death.

Sermon 118, section 2.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Virtues, Gifts, and Fruits

I had to do a presentation on the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the parish Confirmation class tonight. To unavoidable circumstances, the scheduling had changed, and the usual coordinator couldn't be there, so I ended up having to change what I was doing a bit, and made it mostly just a review of some things. It went so-so. I broke up the discussion with little games and contests with prizes (little magic kits and detective kits from the dollar store); they weren't hugely impressed, I think, with the contests or prizes, but it did keep them from falling asleep or getting too rowdy. I only once had to resort to the nuclear option for handling uncooperative teenagers (the last-resort principle for dealing with any teenager is: As an adult my capacity to embarrass you far exceeds your capacity to be embarrassed) by repeatedly saying, "OK, everybody is done except this table; we're only waiting on this table; as soon as this team is done we'll move on."

Teaching is one thing, teaching already tired high school students is another thing entirely, and it was a mediocre outing on my part. All my habits for dealing with college students are exactly the wrong habits to have for dealing with high school students, particularly a large group of them (there are nearly fifty students, and it really needs to be broken up, but there's simply not enough people to get it done properly), so it was exhausting work. And it's always difficult to know how substantive to make it. On the one hand, anything too complicated will lose them. On the other hand, they really do have substantive questions; for instance, I was asked tonight, out of the blue, why there was evil in the world. (I said it was complicated, but one reason is that being in the image of God we were all made to love, and love has to be free; but some people use their freedom to love less important things more than more important things. Not exactly an answer to the problem of evil, but it's accurate as far as it goes and was probably the best non-technical answer that could possibly be given in three minutes to such a major question.) I probably erred on the side of complicated; it's a less serious error when dealing with college students than when dealing with high school students.

In any case, I thought I'd put my notes for the night up. I tried to simplify and expand on them on the fly; I think this was a mistake -- too easy to break things down the wrong way. What I really should have done -- and I am kicking myself for not thinking in these terms from the start -- is to start with stories about the saints and tie them into the various lists. I can tell a story and they are much, much more likely to listen to (and remember!) stories than explanations. Jesus knew what he was doing in teaching by parable. But this would be a good skeleton for discussion by an older group. (The fruits of the Spirit I just went over very briefly, but I had to point out -- I was rather disappointed that every single Confirmation class program I looked at ignored the point completely -- that there are two different lists of fruits of the Spirit, one with nine, one with twelve, depending on whether one follows the original Greek or the Latin translations. The nine, of course, is found in most Bibles because they are translated directly from the Greek; but the Catechism follows the Latin tradition and gives, without any further explanation, the list of twelve. And I find it astounding that a lot of Confirmation resources will list the nine and then refer students to the Catechism without apparently any idea that the discrepancy -- and why it's not regarded as a serious one -- might need to be explained.)

A Summary of the Christian Life

(1) All human beings, being in the image of God, are called to live moral lives. This requires practicing the four moral or cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. Our ability to live according to these is part of what it means for us to be in the image of God.
In Bible: Wisdom 8:5-7
In Catechism: #1805-1809

Everyone capable of reason can see that these are good and work to achieve them, including non-Catholics. However, living a moral life is not enough because original sin guarantees that we will make many mistakes and because there is so much evil in the world that just being a good person sometimes will not compensate for it.

(2) Therefore God has called us to be part of the family of God. In Baptism we are adopted by God and receive the divine or theological virtues: faith, hope, charity (or love). These strengthen the image of God in us.
In Bible: 1 Corinthians 13:11-13
In Catechism: #1812-1829

Charity or the virtue of love has two parts: love of God and love of neighbor. It is the single most important part of Christian life and it is what makes us like God our Father. All Christians, even those who are not Catholic, are given the ability to be like God in this way if they are baptized.

However, because all of the theological virtues go beyond the ordinary moral virtues that can be reached by reason, none of us can practice the theological virtues without God's help, which is called grace, and which we receive by prayer and participation in the sacraments.

Further, we cannot completely live the life of faith, hope, and love without continuing Christ's work.

(3) Therefore God has called us not only to be adopted children of God but also to do God's work in the world, as His Son Jesus Christ did. In Confirmation we are given the grace to do Christ's work in the world, in the form of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord. These help us act in ways more appropriate to the image of God in us and to be more like Christ.
In Bible: Isaiah 11:1-4
In Catechism: #1830-1831

It is because He was anointed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Jesus was the Messiah or Christ. By being anointed with the same gifts, we are given what we need in order to continue Jesus's work in the world in some small way, each one of us in the way appropriate to us. The gifts are what make it possible for the Holy Spirit to work through us to accomplish amazing things we ourselves could never have planned or accomplished on our own; but for this to happen we must live lives of faith, hope, and charity.

(4) Because of original sin, human beings are often confused about what they need to do in order to live a Christian life or be like Jesus. In addition, it is difficult for us to do these things unless we can see the results. The results of Christian life that show us that we are on the right track are called the fruits of the Holy Spirit. There are infinitely many, so they can be listed in different ways, but some are especially important for everyone, like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
In Bible: Galatians 5:22-25
In Catechism: #1832

The fruits of the Spirit are not virtues but specific actions that become easier for you the more you grow in the virtues. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit, which are ways the Holy Spirit works in us, the fruits of the Spirit are things you yourself do when inspired by the Holy Spirit. We are only living Christian lives if our lives are full of these actions, but a life that is full of them is blessed, and brings a little bit of Heaven down to earth.

Womanly Fortitude

One of the interesting shifts in the history of thought about the virtues is the way in which the virtue of fortitude has been understood. The Greek word andreia literally means 'manliness', and the Greeks tended to think of it in precisely those terms. When Callicles in Plato's Gorgias says that the superior people are those with the andreia and phronesis to rule the city, his view can be almost perfectly summarized, using a more crude and modern expression, by saying that he thinks the superior man is the one who has the balls and brains to get what he wants.

This association is reduced somewhat when the ancient Roman philosophers like Cicero translated andreia as fortitudo, which literally means strength or mightiness, but it's still there; it's often associated with virility or manliness.

When the idea enters the realm of Christian thought, however, it changes quite a bit, and while the association with manliness never completely goes away, Christianity broadens the associations of the virtue considerably. In the pagan philosophers, the paradigmatic person of fortitude was the soldier. For Christians, however, the paradigmatic person of fortitude was the martyr. And many of the martyrs, of course, were not men at all; many of the most popular and prominent martyrs were women. Thus Christianity shifts the paradigmatic examples to a field in which women, in the form of virgin martyrs, had a very prominent place. People like St. Agnes and St. Lucy had become the most obvious examples of the virtue of fortitude.

This goes quite far. If you look at the works of St. Bonaventure, for instance, both his philosophical and theological works, it is quite clear that most of his main examples of fortitude are women. He talks at great length about the fortitude of the Virgin Mary; martyrs like St. Felicity and St. Perpetua come up; and more abstractly he often considers the Strong Woman of Proverbs 31 (who he argues also represents the Church itself). The importance of Felicity and Perpetua is particularly interesting for seeing how Christianity reshapes the landscape of fortitude. Perpetua and Felicity were both mothers: Perpetua, a noblewoman, was nursing an infant and Felicity, a slave, was pregnant. One of the ancient stories about Felicity, which remained very popular, was that because pregnant women could not be legally executed, her execution was delayed, and she was going to be separated from the other martyrs. But as she was in prison she went into early labor. It was a very rough labor, extremely painful, and one of the guards sarcastically commented that if she could not handle the pain of labor, she would never be able to handle the pain of being torn apart by lions. And to this, St. Felicity is said to have replied that today she was enduring the pain by her own strength or fortitude; tomorrow she would be enduring it by the strength or fortitude of the one for whom she was dying.

With the Renaissance, the associations with manliness seem to become much stronger again, due to the Renaissance's back-to-the-classics culture, but the broadened associations also never completely fade. And one can argue, I think, that the most important and profound examinations of the virtue of fortitude in the modern period are found in the works of Jane Austen, who makes the virtue a central element in the plot and characterization of Persuasion (under the name 'fortitude') and Mansfield Park (under the name 'constancy'), and gives it important subordinate roles in other works, most notably Sense and Sensibility. There is a long road, and a wide gap, between the andreia of Plato's Callicles and the constancy of Austen's Fanny Price. But there is still a thread linking the two.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXVI

The devil would be nothing, if only human beings were more careful and cautious. For when did he ever have sufficient strength to prevail over the human being except by craftiness, or by lying, by treachery, by fraud, by deception, by malice, by employing the vices, and by sins in full frenzy? He always examines human wills, and without question flees from good wills, but complies with bad wills, in order to be the servant of wickedness, the procurer of sins, and the very parasite of the vices.

Sermon 105, section 3.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Dante's Inferno, Canto V, Rap Translation

Did a little Dante today in my Ethics course, using Canto V as a case study in vices. While looking for something else, I happened to stumble upon this rap translation of the Canto.

Romances and Novels

The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things.--The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the time in which it is written. The Romance, in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen.--The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons of the story, as if they were our own.

Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance (1785), p. 111. Reeve, while not the first person to do a serious discussion of genre in English, has the most important early attempt to trace what these things called Novels really were; she draws together the bits and pieces that had been essayed before her and systematically investigates the question. One of her points, however, is to vindicate the older genre of Romance as also being a legitimate and important genre in its own right.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXV

Many blossoms hold out promise of abundant fruit, but, put to the test by gusts of wind, very few persevere and bear fruit. And so in a time of peace the Church seems to have many who believe in Christ, but when the storm of persecution blows, there are few who are found to bear fruit in martyrdom.

Sermon 97, section 3.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A Poem Draft

Still very rough, and probably in need of a stanza or two more.


At night I called your name;
it flickered like a flame.
The burning spread,
swiftly red,
a battlefield on which the gods had bled.

As fury rose on high,
its glory touched bright sky;
it dimmed the stars
where angels are
with cast of shade and cinnabar.

Links of Note

* Jennifer Fitz talks about the principle of double effect.

* Charles Murray argues that American innovation is in a state of deterioration.

* I was looking for something recently about Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, who was the first woman in the United States to get a doctorate specifically in Computer Science, and found this old blog post on early Computer Science degrees.

* Will Duquette considers Shel Silverstein as a lyricist. Most of the songs written by him are humorous, and "A Boy Named Sue" is certainly the most famous of these. But he has a few that aren't comic in intention or tone, of which "Sylvia's Mother" is probably the best known.

* John Rist discusses the obvious problems with Cardinal Kasper's recent arguments on divorced-and-remarried participation in communion.

* An interesting conversation about the increasing tendency of Evangelicals to participate in Lent.

* James Franklin has an essay at "Aeon" on the broadly Aristotelian approach in philosophy of mathematics. Franklin has a number of interesting works on Aristotelian realism about mathematics, all very readable and highly recommended.

* A representation of Tolkien's Ainulindale in comic book form.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXIV

Peter forgives sins, and welcomes penitents with complete joy, and firmly maintains that this power has been granted by God to all priests. For after his denial Peter would have lost the glory of being an apostle as well as life, if he had not had a fresh start through penitence. And if Peter returned by means of penitence, who can survive without penitence?

Sermon 84, Section 7.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Winter Soldier

Just got back from Captain America: Winter Soldier. It was very good. It's not so much a comic book movie as a spy thriller with comic book elements, which works well with this particular character. A few basic thoughts:

(1) Chris Evans is as perfect a Captain America here as he has been elsewhere. Johanssen's Black Widow finally gets some serious character room in between acrobatics. Mackie as the Falcon is an excellent newcomer. A surprisingly good minor role is found in Jenny Agutter's Councilwoman Hawley -- we've seen her before, very briefly, in Avengers, and she's not a crucial character here, but Agutter gets one stunningly good scene.

(2) The Falcon didn't quite work out, I think; Mackie plays him very well, but I don't think they've found the look or quite the right use of him. He just seemed thrown in.

(3) The shaky-cam presentation is sometimes a little distracting; at least, there are times when you need to know what's going on but things are happening too quickly and not in a clear enough manner. But on the other side, a lot of the stunts were done by the actors themselves, and that really makes some of the scenes much better than they would otherwise have been.

(4) The movie is through-and-through a sequel, but it is the strongest sequel in the Marvel franchise so far.

(5) There are a lot of little in-jokes in this movie, but most of them blended very well into the background; I'm sure I missed more than a few. Look in particular for the Pulp Fiction allusion.

Once in a Dream

A Dream
by Christina Rossetti

Once in a dream (for once I dreamed of you)
We stood together in an open field;
Above our heads two swift-winged pigeons wheeled,
Sporting at ease and courting full in view.
When loftier still a broadening darkness flew,
Down-swooping, and a ravenous hawk revealed;
Too weak to fight, too fond to fly, they yield;
So farewell life and love and pleasures new.
Then as their plumes fell fluttering to the ground,
Their snow-white plumage flecked with crimson drops,
I wept, and thought I turned towards you to weep:
But you were gone; while rustling hedgerow tops
Bent in a wind which bore to me a sound
Of far-off piteous bleat of lambs and sheep.