Friday, May 10, 2019

Apostle of Andalusia

Today is the feast of St. Juan de Ávila, Doctor of the Church. John of Avila was born to a wealthy Spanish family; he became a priest and, shortly after, his parents having recently died, he gave away the family fortune to the poor and set out to become a missionary to Mexico. There were delays, however, and while he was waiting in Seville for everything to come together, and he come to the attention of the bishop of Seville, who tried to convince him to stay and be a missionary in Andalusia instead. It took a lot of persuasion, but it was eventually successful, and he became well known throughout Andalusia for the quality of his homilies. As happened with a great many popular priests and religious of the day, his opponents eventually reported him to the Inquisition, and he ended up in jail in 1532; he was there about a year before they cleared him of all charges. In his 50s, he started having serious health problems, and eventually died in Mantilla on May 10, 1569. He was beatified by Leo XIII, canonized by Paul VI, and named Doctor of the Church by Benedict XVI.

From one of his letters:

The Israelites who journeyed through the desert had appetites so disordered that they could not enjoy the manna "containing in itself all sweetness," which God sent them. Their blindness was so great that they did not find fault with themselves, or with the evil condition of their health, but with the food, which was of the most savoury kind. They asked for some other sort of viand with which they thought they would be better satisfied and pleased:—it was given them, but at the cost of their lives. We are to learn by this that even if the things of God are not always agreeable to us, still we must not wish for what is contrary to them, however delightful it may seem to us, for without doubt it would poison our souls. We should rather rid ourselves of the disgust we feel for religion, and then, when the appetites of our soul are healthy, we shall feel a right and pleasant relish for the food God gives His children.

To work slothfully and tepidly in God's service will cause you to lead so unhappy a life that you will be forced to change your ways. Besides, such a life is disloyal to our Saviour Who laboured with such ardent love to redeem us, and so willingly took up the cross that His love for us exceeded His suffering. The tepid soul cannot enjoy the world's pleasures, having given them up in the desire of doing right, and yet, for want of fervour, it does not find happiness in God. In this way such a soul is placed between two opposites, each of which is a torment to it; it suffers such severe afflictions that at last it leaves the right road, and with miserable fatuity seeks the flesh-pots of the Egypt it had left, because it cannot endure the hardships of the desert.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Natural Law Theory

(I've been feeling a bit fried the past two weeks, so this last two weeks of term will likely see more sporadic posting.)

I've been looking at various ethics textbooks, and remembering why I don't really like ethics textbooks. Here is a good example from a textbook that, for the most part, is actually better than most you can find, Lewis Vaughn's Doing Ethics (5th Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., New York: 2019):

According to Aquinas, at the heart of the traditional theory is the notion that right actions are those that accord with the natural law--the moral principles that we can "read" clearly in the very structure of nature itself, including human nature. We can look into nature and somehow uncover moral standards because nature is a certain way: it is rationally ordered and teleological (goal-directed), with every part having its own purpose or end at which it naturally aims. From this notion about nature, traditional natural law theorists draw the following conclusion: How nature is reveals how it should be. The goals to which nature inclines reveal that we should embrace and the moral purposes to which we should aspire. (p. 139).

Literally every sentence in this paragraph is wrong, and not wrong in kinda-close-but-not-quite sort of way, either -- it is wholly wrong. The 'traditional natural law theory' that it imagines is entirely fictional.

(1) The first and most glaringly obvious mistake is the confusion about what 'natural law' means. Natural law is called 'natural law' because it is the law natural to human reason. The idea in Aquinas, and he is not atypical in this, is that there are certain principles of human reason that fit the definition of law, so law is not something that is merely made by us, it is something that is a part of reason itself. The paragraph above makes the common mistake made by beginners that 'natural law' in the sense used by natural law theorists has something to do with 'law of nature' in the sense of the stable course of natural actions and changes. It is in fact essential to natural law theory that this confusion not be made; 'law of nature' in the latter sense is a figurative sense of the term 'law', but in 'natural law' in the sense used in natural law theory, the term 'law' is used in a literal sense. What is more, natural law theory, as such, doesn't have anything to do with "the very structure of nature itself"; that is a matter of metaphysics, not natural law. And while there is a broad sense in which a natural law theorist might say that we read moral principles in human nature, this is only in the sense that it is part of human nature to have reason.

(2) The precepts of natural law are not discovered by 'looking into nature'; they are principles of reason without which we cannot reason about practical matters, applied to the common good of the human race. Not only are they not read "clearly", almost all natural law theorists agree that, except for the very most general principles, they are very hard to think through. Ethics on a natural law account is as difficult as logic or mathematics; the very basics can be recognized fairly easily, but it gets difficult very, very quickly, and navigating it very far requires a lot of serious thinking. Getting to the roots of thinking necessarily involves a lot of thinking.

(3) While natural law theory is teleological, the teleology that matters is the teleology of practical reason, not just any kind of natural teleology. This is why, for instance, New Natural Law Theory, which deliberately avoids anything that even sounds like what is described in the above paragraph, is a genuine form of natural law theory -- while it minimizes teleological-sounding claims, it still regards practical reason itself as teleological, as every sane theory of practical reason does. One can argue -- and traditional natural law theorists sometimes do -- that this NNLT minimalism gives us an inadequate account of common good, but it doesn't affect NNLT's status as a natural law theory.

(4) Not only do natural law theorists not generally draw the conclusion "How nature is reveals how it should be", in the sense in which this would usually be meant, it is inconsistent with every form of natural law theory I have ever come across. Nature may be subject to any number of defects, aberrations, ludi naturae. Natural law theory is not about nature in general; it is only about human nature in a very, very specific and limited way; it is entirely and wholly concerned with what is natural to human reason.

But what is most wrong with the paragraph above is what it does not really mention at all. Any purported account of basic natural law theory that does not begin with a discussion of practical reason is already wrong. Any discussion of natural law theory that does not at any point talk about common good is already wrong. There are two things at the heart of any natural law theory: practical reason and good we share in common as human beings. In a discussion of natural law theory that is supposed to start with the basics, you cannot avoid them, or you have substituted for natural law theory, as the above paragraph does, a completely fictional theory that's not actually natural law theory.

Now, of course, you can get at both of these things in indirect ways -- talk about basic goods, or sustainable and shared rational goals, or about the rational assessment of plans, or what have you. But both practical reason and common good have to be in there somehow.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Moral Grandstanding

Public moral discourse involves talking about serious and important issues: the evaluation of conditions that greatly affect the well‐being of millions of people, the leveling of accusations that could ruin lives, the consideration of a policy that could save or ruin a state and its subjects, and so on. These are matters that generally call for other‐directed concern, and yet grandstanders find a way to make discussion at least partly about themselves. In using public moral discourse to promote an image of themselves to others, grandstanders turn their contributions to moral discourse into a vanity project.

[From Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, "Moral Grandstanding," Philosophy & Public Affairs, Volume44, Issue3 (Summer 2016) 197-217, found online here.]

Monday, May 06, 2019

A Bow of Living Light

A Night Vision in the Colosseum at Rome
by Alexander Anderson

I sit upon a shattered shaft, as if Time, worn and blind,
Had smote himself in sudden rage and left one limb behind.
And lo the morn comes slowly up with sweet and saintly pace,
While all the crowding stars draw near to gaze upon her face.
O solemn moon, O sad sweet stars, thus looked ye in that time
When the dim years were red with blood, and drunk with lust and crime.
Come, let their spirit touch my brow, and let their spells be cast,
And fold me in their ghostly arms, and lay me in the past.

Ho! let there be a holiday that we may see once more
The wild arena thick with dust we soon shall lay with gore.
What! shall a Roman suckle not his iron strength that makes
His shield-fenced phalanx like the rock on which the ocean breaks?
Yea! by the gods, let all our veins leap with that blood anew,
Which from the she-wolf's dugs the twins in their wild hunger drew.
Hark! as a long deep sudden peal of thunder rolls along,
So through the corridors a hundred thousand footsteps throng.

Here proud imperial Titus sweeps for one swift hour a god,
And all the mightiest of Rome impatient wait his nod.
The bolts are drawn, and forth at once a hundred lions spring,
That, like a tawny whirlwind, sweep in rage around the ring.
Their naked fangs drip blood but still amid their savage play,
The Romans whisper each; 'what gladiators fight to-day?'

Clear the arena! we must see the muscles stretch and start,
Or heave in death; a life is naught if sculptors learn their art.
And forth each gladiator steps a proud look in his eye,
For well they know that Rome to-day looks on to see them die.
They fight. One falls, and falling, turns to make his last appeal,
In vain, there thunders forth the cry, 'Thou slave receive the steel.'
The victor strikes, the victim sinks — my God! what faith can come
To wrench this blood-thirst from the heart and strike the tiger dumb.

Lo, as an earthquake rends the hills that hem an inland lake,
And downward through each yawning gulf the black waves foam and shake,
So sinks the human tide, while Time, still faithful to his trust,
Rains through the years that muffle him a silent storm of dust.

Till, as a rainbow bends itself, so through the wasting night
There bursts, inwoven with keen stars, a bow of living light;
And underneath, the Cross on which with brow all dim and torn,
The Christ of sorrow, toil and pain, and of the crown of thorn,
At whom the gods of Rome fall down and shiver as they lie,
Or lift in white despair their shattered hands against the sky.
And from those grand eyes dark with love, a glorious light is shed,
The far-off nations feel its beams and bow in awe their head.

And now—as when a slave, set free from the corroding load
Of chains, springs up and in that love stands with his face to God—
'Behold our God!' they cry, and all the eager heavens above
Send on from spinning sun to sun the victor-shout of love;
For lo, the light that crowns the Cross shoots through the starry scope,
And rears against the rising years a golden arch of hope,
Through which, as when some mighty host looms upwards huge and dim,
March the great destinies to shape this God-made world and him.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

A Poem Draft

I tried looking for a good Cinco de Mayo poem earlier today; there's a lot of very boring lecturey stuff, and not much about the battle of Puebla itself. So I thought I'd try to whip up something to fill the gap, and here's a first attempt.


Zaragoza looks out on the fields wet with rain,
the mud that flows over the trampled terrain.
The wind in the face is now humid and hot.
He sighs, for he knows that his army is caught;
though at Puebla is safety, at least for a while,
defense on defense to weather the trial,
two forts newly linked by a trench laid in haste,
yet the French are now coming to lay all to waste.
Of the greatness of France, no word need be said,
the might of its force writ in soldiers now dead;
but here -- draw a line for its ruthless demand,
and let it be bitten as it stretches its hand.

Now hearken -- artillery booms out its cry;
insistent with tremor, the cannons let fly.
Too quick and too late have the French made advance,
and, seeking swift winning, they lost their best chance.
Their horses now turn in the sigh of retreat,
but soon are they met by hooves steady and fleet
as the Mexican cavalry swoops on their flanks
and troops in their ambush come out in their ranks.
The rain is now falling like heavenly grace
and all the French army is sliding in place,
and, frantic in flight, slip here and now there
as blood like to rust is incensing the air.

Zaragoza looks out on the field, lost in thought,
and sighs, for he knows that his army is caught,
and speaks the words hardest for commanders to say,
and tells his sure troops to stop now and stay:
Defeat may grow out of a win stretched too far;
repair and look well on the night filled with stars
that fortune has favored you this day to see
with eyes yet alive and spirits yet free.
The French are defeated, at least for a breath,
and now is the time to retreat from more death.
'The national arms have been covered with fame';
immortal shall be Zaragoza's own name.

Zaragoza looks out on the fields he has won.
Perhaps he thinks back on the course he has run.
Perhaps he hears pipers rejoicing in tune.
Perhaps he foresees that his death will be soon.


Rob Alspaugh recently noted the importance of recognizing the relation between Aquinas's comments on war and his comments on strife or quarrelsomeness (rixa), so I thought I'd put up a translation of ST 2-2.41.1, which (like Rob) I think is more important than it is generally regarded. This is all quite quick & rough, and no doubt needs polish. The Latin is here; the Dominican Fathers translation is here.


It seems that quarrelsomeness is not always a sin. For quarrelsomeness is seen to be a kind of controversion, so that Isidore says, in the book of Etymologies, that the quarrelsome one (rixosus) is called so from the maw (rictu) of a dog, because he is always ready to contradict, is delighted by abusiveness, and provokes controversy. But controversy is not always a sin; therefore neither is quarrelsomeness.

Further, Genesis 26 says that the servants of Isaac dug another well, and and for that they also quarreled. But it is not to be believed that the household of Isaac quarreled in public and were not contradicted by him, if it were a sin. Therefore quarrelsomeness is not a sin.

Further, quarrelsomeness is seen to be a kind of partial war. But war is not always a sin; therefore quarrelsomeness is not always a sin.

But on the contrary is the fact that in Galatians 5 quarrels are put among the works of the flesh, which are such that those who do them shall not attain to the kingdom of God. Therefore quarrels are not only sins, they are mortal sins.

I reply that it must be said that controversy means a sort of contradiction in words, just as quarrelsomeness means a sort of contradiction in deeds; thus on Galatians 5 the Gloss says that quarrels are when out of wrath one strikes another. Thus quarrelsomeness is seen to be a kind of private war, which is enacted between private persons, not from some public authority, but rather from disordered will. Therefore quarrelsomeness always means a sin. And in him who unjustly attacks another it is a mortal sin, for it is not apart from mortal sin when one inflicts noxiousness on another even by works of the hand. And in him who defends himself from it, it can be without sin, or sometimes with venial sin, and also sometimes with mortal sin, according to the different impulses of his spirit, and the different ways of defending himself. Therefore if he does it in the spirit of repulsing harm, and defends himself with due moderation, it is not a sin, nor is it properly called quarrelsomeness on his part; if instead in the spirit of vindictiveness and hatred, or defending himself in excess of due moderation, it is always a sin, but a venial one if some light movement of hatred or vindictiveness is mingled with it, or because it does not greatly exceed moderate defense; but it is mortal when in a locked-in inflexible spirit he rises against his assailant to kill him or seriously hurt him.

To the first therefore it must be said that quarrelsomeness does not simply name controversy, but three things are put forward in the preceding passage by Isidore that show the disorder of quarrels. First, swiftness of spirit to controversion, which is signified when it is said, 'always ready to contradict', that is, whether the other speaks or does well or ill. Second, that there is in him delight in contradiction, so that there follows 'is delighted by abusiveness'. Third, that he provokes others to contradiction, so that there follows, 'and provokes controversy.'

To the second it must be said that it is not there understood that the servants of Isaac quarreled, but that the inhabitants of the land quarreled with them. Therefore those sinned, not the servants of Isaac, who endured the calumny.

To the third it must be said that for a war to be just, it is necessary that it be done originating from public authority, as said above. But quarrelsomeness is from a private feeling of wrath or hatred. If therefore the servant of the prince or judge by public authority attacks some who defend themselves, he is not said to be quarrelsome, but thgose who resist public authority, so then the one who attacks does not quarrel nor sin, but those who in a disordered way defend themselves.

With True Books as with Nature

by James Russell Lowell

As one who on some well-known landscape looks,
Be it alone, or with some dear friend nigh,
Each day beholdeth fresh variety,
New harmonies of hills, and trees, and brooks, —
So is it with the worthiest choice of books,
And oftenest read: if thou no meaning spy,
Deem there is meaning wanting in thine eye;
We are so lured from judgment by the crooks
And winding ways of covert fantasy,
Or turned unwittingly down beaten tracks
Of our foregone conclusions, that we see,
In our own want, the writer's misdeemed lacks:
It is with true books as with Nature, each
New day of living doth new insight teach.