Saturday, March 14, 2020

Lent XVI

It was becoming that Christ should wish to fast before His temptation....For since we are all in urgent need of strengthening ourselves against temptation...., by fasting before being tempted, He teaches us the need of fasting in order to equip ourselves against temptation. Hence the Apostle (2 Corinthians 6:5-7) reckons "fastings" together with the "armor of justice."

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 3.41.3

Friday, March 13, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning VI (Aristotle)

III. Virtue Ethics

As consequentialism treats consequence-based reasoning as the fundamental form of moral reasoning and deontology treats obligation-based reasoning as the fundamental form of moral reasoning, so virtue ethics treats character-based reasoning as the fundamental form of reasoning. If you think of actions as proceeding from a person according to a standard so as to have a result, the virtue ethicist takes us back to the source of the action, not immediately diving into the question of whether the action is right or wrong but first asking, "What kind of person should one be, living what kind of life?"

We run into an immediate problem in attempting to understand virtue ethics: it is a truly vast field. There are many kinds of virtue ethics, some of which are millenia old and have a vast number of branches. The vocabulary is sometimes not standardized because the general approach has been accepted across so many different cultures. In addition, virtue ethics by its nature is going to be concerned with details. One might even say that a fully developed virtue ethics is a pack or deck of different ethical systems. For instance, in Confucian ethics a central idea is that of the five constant virtues: benevolence/humaneness (ren), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and sincerity (xin). But each of these has an independent foundation and each works in its own way. They are integrated, but in a sense each is its own ethical system. To work in a virtue ethics is in a way to work in multiple ethical systems simultaneously, coordinating their results.

However, virtue ethics must in some way, somehow, give us an answer to the question of how we know what is good for a person to be. Thus while I do not know if it is the best way to classify different kind of virtue ethics, one way that seems to be common, or is at least implied by how many people talk about virtue ethics, is based on the question: How do we sort good character traits from bad character traits?

Perhaps there are other answers, but two major answers are easy to find. According to one answer, we sort good from bad character traits because we have something like a sensation, sentiment, or feeling that has this very function -- a moral sense, perhaps, or perhaps it is a normal feeling or sentiment that also under the right conditions gives us a distinction between good and bad with regard to persons. This form of virtue ethics is generally called sentimentalism. The most influential sentimentalist virtue ethicist in the Western world is David Hume (1711-1776). Hume held that our ability to recognize good and bad character traits is based on a specifically and distinctively moral feeling of approval and disapproval. When we see someone acting a certain way, we have this feeling of approval or disapproval of them for having the trait that leads them to act this way. The reason for this is what Hume calls sympathy (we feel with the people around us), so seeing someone do something brings us to have a sort of feeling-with what we think led to that action, which we either like or don't. If there are any victims, we might feel with them, as well. So, for instance, if we see someone kick a puppy, we would feel bad for the puppy and be repulsed by what we imagine someone must be in order to do that. By sympathy we also coordinate our feelings with each other and eventually develop general moral rules for judging actions. Other people argue that perhaps we develop morality from other kinds of feeling; one of the most popular today is the feeling of caring.

The dominant form of virtue ethics in the West, however, has given a different kind of answer to the question of how we sort good character traits from bad character traits: we do this by reasoning. There is no standard name for this group, but we could call it 'rationalism'. There are several major kinds of rationalist virtue ethics -- Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic are the most obvious and long-lasting -- but when people think of a virtue ethics of this kind, the version they almost always discuss is that of Aristotle, which we will discuss here.

While sometimes it gives us clear, definite families of approaches, this classification in terms of sentimentalism versus rationalism probably has a number of limitations. For instance, by our definition, Confucianism is certainly a form of virtue ethics. Is it sentimentalist or rationalist, or perhaps some other third kind? It's hard to say, and depends on how you see the virtues as related to the 'shoots', i.e., the first beginnings of them in human nature, how you understand those shoots, and how you understand moral cultivation. Now, Confucianism is one of the major forms of virtue ethics and a classification that leaves us unclear about how it is to be classified is not really acceptable for understanding virtue ethics as a whole. Certainly more work needs to be done on this. But the sentimentalist/rationalist distinction is still useful for our particular purposes here, namely, ethics and reasoning, because rationalist virtue ethics, by its nature, has a lot to say about reasoning.

With this we turn to Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) and Aristotelian virtue ethics.

Aristotle Altemps Inv8575
Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics begins with the widely recognized truth that in skill, inquiry, and action generally, we aim at some good; the goods we aim at are various, but Aristotle argues that there is a something that, by nature, organizes them all. He calls it politics, the knowledge concerned with the good of the city or (alternatively) of civilized life. We are rational and social, and thus the kind of knowledge that deals with human good is the kind that concerns rational society. If we ask what is the human good that politics considers, Aristotle answers that it is eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is often translated as 'happiness', sometimes as 'flourishing', but the important thing to grasp is that it is not subjective like 'happiness' in the sense utilitarians mean -- it is not a mere feeling, or a satisfaction of preferences. It is the complete good of a human life, chosen by human beings for its own sake and not for something further; it is to live and do well, not in a specific and derivative way, like living and doing well as a flute-player, but living and doing well as a human being. Virtues are human excellences contributing to our having eudaimonia; they aim at this in some way. There are virtue ethicists who hold that virtue is all that is required for eudaimonia or something like it (this is a position usually associated with Stoic virtue ethics), but Aristotle doesn't think this is the case. In addition to virtue we need other things, like friends, resources, leisure. But our control over these things is sometimes limited; virtue, however, we may develop.

The kinds of virtues we develop Aristotle divides into two groups, intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues are things like wisdom, knowledge, skill. Moral virtues are what we primarily mean by 'virtue'. Nobody has moral virtue by nature; nature gives us the ability to have moral virtue, but virtue has to be cultivated. It requires training; in a paradoxical way, you gain virtue by exercising the virtue. A virtue arises from doing the actions appropriate to the virtue until you have the virtue. Aristotle gives a famous definition of virtue that captures its essential features, as he sees them. Virtue is

(1) a habit (in the sense of an acquired disposition or kind of second nature)
(2) concerned with choice (the word could also mean either decision or preference),
(3) consisting in a mean (or middle) relative to us
(4) as determined by reason
(5) in the way someone with prudence (or practical thoughtfulness) would determine it.

A habit (hexis, habitus) is not quite a 'habit' in the usual sense of the term; the best way to think of it is as a kind of second nature. First nature, of course, is what you have from birth: by first nature, you breathe, sense, think, etc. But everyone over time has some things that they do so often that they become as if they were natural. People don't come out of the womb walking, speaking, reading, writing, driving, etc., but these are things they do so often that (eventually) it's almost as if they did. The ability to do these things is learned but, once fully learned, is stable and consistent; this acquired ability doesn't absolutely guarantee that you'll do the right things, but it does mean that doing the right things will come easily to you, and keep coming easily to you.

The most obvious kind of second nature (hexis) is skill, but since moral virtues aren't skills (at least in the ordinary sense), we need to identify the difference. Aristotle says that the distinguishing feature is that virtue is a hexis prohairetike. Prohairesis, the root word here, is difficult to translate. It is often translated as 'choice', which usually works very well as long as you don't make too many assumptions about what choice requires; Aristotle describes it as desire involving deliberation and as the cause of actions. Skills don't structure what you desire; they will structure your action if you desire something. Virtues, however, structure your very desiring. Virtuous people don't generally want to do bad things, intend to do bad things, or commit to do bad things; as if it were natural, they want, intend, and commit to do good things.

But we need a little more, because vices also structure desire in this way, just for bad actions. So what is it about virtue that makes it good-directed? The rest of the definition concerns this, and also gives us one of the most famous ideas in ethics: the doctrine of the mean, also known as the golden mean. The doctrine of the mean can be stated easily enough: Every virtue consists in a mean between at least one vice of excess and at least one vice of defect. (The 'at least' in each case is important because there are sometimes several ways to go to an extreme -- for instance, you could let anger guide you in the wrong situations, or let anger shape your actions in the wrong ways, etc., and there may be good reason to distinguish these sometimes.) 'Mean' technically means a kind of middle. We have to be careful here in a number of ways, though. First, while there is a sense in which virtue is a 'just right' point between 'too much' and 'too little', we have to understand this in a way that doesn't lose sight of the fact that virtue is concerned with choosing; thus courage is 'just right' not in the sense that the courageous person has just the right amount of fear (which might not be possible to control) but that for the courageous person, fear plays a role in their deliberate desire and action that is just right. Likewise, a coward is not a coward because he experiences too much fear, but because he chooses in a way that makes (in some way) fear play too big a role in his choices. It's tempting to think of the relation between mean and extreme as purely quantitative, but Aristotle thinks it's actually not about weighing things out exactly but about finding a sort of balance appropriate to a function.

Second, the mean is rarely if ever going to be the exact midpoint between two extremes. In most cases, the virtue is going to be 'farther' from one side than the other. This is often obvious. If people think of the opposite of courage, they almost always think immediately of cowardice, because cowardice (the vice of excess with regard to fear) is more obviously opposed to courage than recklessness (the vice of defect with regard to fear). Courage and recklessness, in fact, will often look alike; courage and cowardice rarely do, although courage will occasionally look like cowardice to reckless people, who because of their recklessness have an extreme perspective.

And third, Aristotle is clear that the mean is relative to us. You and I might both be courageous, but our forms of courage could be very different, just because we are very different people with very different backgrounds. Aristotle uses the analogy of the food eaten by Milo the Wrestler. Milo was one of the greatest athletes of Classical Greece, a man who obsessively devoted his life to greater and greater athletic achievements. Given that Milo is exercising everyday on an extraordinary scale, he needs to eat the right amount -- too little and he will not have the energy and nutrition he needs to be an athlete, too much and it will slow him down and impede his search for athletic excellence. But ordinary people who are not exercising on the scale that Milo is exercising should certainly not eat the amount of food that Milo eats when he is eating the right amount: it would be far too much for them. Likewise, the ordinary amount of food most people eat when they eat the right amount will not be enough to support Milo's athletic excellence. There's a right amount of food for everyone, but what it is depends on the person. So it is with virtue. Even if two people are both courageous, a courageous soldier on the battlefield and a courageous accountant in the office won't be doing exactly the same things, and they will have to find the mean with respect to fear that is appropriate for their situation. Excellence is destroyed by extremes, but exactly where it falls with respect to the extremes will be different in different cases.

Sometimes you find the argument that the doctrine of the mean is trivial. This is gravely mistaken; the doctrine of the mean is one of the most revolutionary ideas in ethics. While apparently simple in itself, it has extensive ramifications. Just a few of them:

(1) With the doctrine of the mean you can prove that there are virtues and vices for which we have no adequate vocabulary. This makes us less likely to overlook them just because we don't have common words for them. Even if you didn't have a term for the vice of recklessness, you could still figure out in general terms what the vice of recklessness would have to be, because there has to be a vice of defect to oppose both courage and cowardice: a vice in which you do not let fear play enough of a role in your decisions. Since one of the consistent problems we face in ethical reasoning is the limitation of our vocabulary in making ethical distinctions, this is a significant advantage.

(2) We often assume that virtue has one opposing vice. So, for instance, we will assume that the opposite of courage is cowardice. That is true, but the doctrine of the mean tells us that virtue has at least two opposites. If you assume that cowardice is the only opposite of courage, you will inevitably confuse courage and recklessness.

(3) It follows from the doctrine of the mean that the fact that you are not tempted by a vice does not mean that you are virtuous. It may, but it could also mean that you have the other vice. You might not be a coward, but this could be because you are at the opposite extreme, the opposite kind of bad. Sometimes we are saved from having a vice because we have the opposite vice. People are tempted to show that they are virtuous (or at least tending toward it) by listing off vices they don't have; but the doctrine of the mean proves that this will not necessarily work, because you might be vicious in the opposite direction. You need to avoid both opposing extremes. It takes no great experience of human beings to recognize that this will often change how people even go about their attempts to be good.

(4) In a similar way, it follows directly from the doctrine of the mean that it is impossible to have all vices, because vices are not only opposed by virtues but also by other vices.

Aristotle's virtue ethics involves much more than the doctrine of the mean; but the doctrine of the mean radically affects how we reason about virtue and vice, and affects every part of moral life.

There are probably many ways in which you could identify some kind of mean, but Aristotle is clear that the mean relevant to virtue must be determined by reason. If we think of something like a skill, every skill aims at some kind of good, a well-doing, which depends on the kind of task appropriate to that skill. We could think of being human as also involving a kind of task like this, one that is distinctive to human beings. Living is certainly in some sense a task of a human being, but this is something we share even with plants; sensation is also a sort of task, but we share that with other animals. The task that defines being human will have to be a rational task, one expressing reason; so the good of being human, human excellence, will have to be defined with respect to this task expressive of reason, as the excellence of a harpist is defined with respect to harping. The activity of humaning, we might say, is an activity of reason; excellence in humaning is a matter of doing this well. But reasoning well, in practical matters, is to act as does the person who thinks through what is, in the circumstances, appropriate to eudaimonia, since appropriateness to eudaimonia is where we find the mean; the person who does this stably and consistently has the virtue of prudence.

One of the implications of how Aristotle understands the role of reason in virtue is that ethics cannot be done wholly by rules or obligations. This is not to say that obligations are irrelevant; Aristotle, for instance, thinks laws play an important role in moral life. And Aristotle is perfectly happy to hold, for instance, that we can use rules as guidelines for action. What we cannot do is live a moral life wholly on the basis of them; they can at most give a structure or framework for moral living. It would be like trying learn archery from a book; it's not that books about archery cannot be useful but that they only become useful in a context of active exercise, practice, and, most of all, use of a bow. There is no algorithm or procedure for the good life; it is a target that can only be hit with practice. However, if we are practicing and training ourselves in virtue, we can find rules useful, either as telling us definitely what to avoid or as giving us hints about what to do. Aristotle, for instance, suggests three guidelines for our attempts to hit the mean in action: (a) Keep away from the extreme that is most opposed to the mean; (b) Learn what your own biases are and work against them; (c) Be especially wary with regard to pleasure, because it is the thing that is most likely to lead you to miss the mean. Plenty of other good advice could no doubt be given, especially for particular cases. But it is advice, one thing for reason to consider, and not the whole of moral action.

It follows from this that Aristotle's approach to living well is quite forgiving; the standards for good living are often not precise, and they can vary somewhat from person to person and time to time, so living well is largely a matter of consistently getting close enough, just as shooting well is not a matter of doing the same thing every time but of finding what makes consistent hitting of the mark possible. There is likewise room for people making somewhat different choices in the same situation and yet both being right enough.

Much of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is discussion of a set of virtues that he treats as particularly significant.

DefectMeanExcesswith respect to
CowardiceCourage/FortitudeRecklessnessfear and confidence
InsensibilityModeration/TemperanceIntemperancepleasure and pain
IlliberalityLiberality/GenerosityProfligacy/Wastefulnessminor giving and taking
MiserlinessMagnificenceVulgaritymajor giving and taking
Disinterest in honorA virtue with no standard nameHonor-lovingminor seeking of honor
PusillanimityMagnanimityArrogancemajor seeking of honor
A vice of defect with no standard nameA virtue such that people who have it are 'even-tempered'Irascibilityanger
BelligerenceA nameless virtue that seems like friendshipObsequiousness/Flatterypleasing and paining others
Self-deprecationA virtue that could be called truthfulnessBoastfulnesstruth and falsity in word and deed
BoorishnessQuickness of witBuffoonery/Frivolousnessamusement and relaxation
InjusticeJusticeA vice of excess with no standard nameequality

An obvious question is why these virtues in particular get singled out. I think the answer is obvious when one considers the point made above that Aristotle takes politics, i.e., civilized life, to be the organizing framework for goods at which we aim. All of these are matters that are especially important for the functioning of a Greek city-state. For instance, magnificence is an important virtue because it was standard practice in the ancient Greek city to expect the wealthy to contribute to the needs of the city; most of Aristotle's examples for magnificence -- outfitting a warship, leading a diplomatic delegation, supplying votive offerings and sacrifices, building a temple, funding a play -- are cases in which wealthy people would be expected or sometimes legally required to pay for something on behalf of the city, although he does also recognize examples of private magnificence -- weddings, special gift-giving occasions, furnishing one's house, feasting one's dining club. But notably even the examples of private magnificence are cases in which the giving has some benefit to the city at large. Obviously the best contributor to the city will be someone who will not skimp but will also not waste money on gaudy self-aggrandizing monstrosities, in short, the magnificent person. A similar reason is why eutrapelia, or quickness of wit, is a virtue of note; playfulness and humor are essential to the smooth functioning of the city. All of these virtues make one fit for participating in the civilized life that serves as a framework for pursuing what is good.

This also explains why one of the most extensive discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics is not about a virtue at all but about friendship (philia), which here means the relationship of mutual good regard we have with others on the basis of some mutual benefit. Aristotle thinks that there are three kinds of friendship: friendship of pleasure, friendship of use, and friendship of excellence, based on different kinds of mutual benefit. Sometimes we regard others well, and are regarded well by them, because of some pleasure we both receive from the acquaintance; sometimes we do so because of some usefulness each provides the other. Virtue is obviously relevant to maintaining these, although indirectly. Sometimes we have mutual regard with others precisely because of each other's virtue, which becomes, as it were, shared in the friendship. The latter are the best friendships, of course, although they are hard to find. But all three of these friendships make up the ties that bind the city together; without them the city stops being a city and becomes a collection of strangers and enemies. Part of what virtues do is make us fit to be friends, thus making sustainable a form of civilized life within which we can help each other pursue the complete good of a fully human life. In friendship we find, in a sense, the summary of the whole of Aristotle's virtue ethics.

Aristotle, however, is not the only Aristotelian virtue ethicist; that is, there are many other virtue ethicist who operate in the general tradition established by Aristotle, yet who often have their own positions within that tradition. Whenever Aristotelian virtue ethics is discussed, other names come up, and one comes up particularly often: Thomas Aquinas. To Aquinas we will turn when we get to the next post.

Lent XV

...when you have been deemed worthy of the grace, He then gives you strength to wrestle against the adverse powers. For as after His Baptism He was tempted forty days (not that He was unable to gain the victory before, but because He wished to do all things in due order and succession), so thou likewise, though not daring before your baptism to wrestle with the adversaries, yet after you have received the grace and art henceforth confident in the armour of righteousness, must then do battle, and preach the Gospel, if you will.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 3.13.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

New Poem Draft and Three Poem Re-Drafts

The Prophet Hud

In sandy 'Ad the buildings grew,
the palaces of gold and red,
and tombs to house the wealthy dead
above the dunes were white and blue;

above the dunes the temple flame
was burning hot, devouring beast,
devotional that never ceased,
to Samd, Samud, and Hara named.

To Samd, Samud, and Hara prayed
in sandy 'Ad a people great
whose wickedness did not abate
but stone on stone was greater laid.

But stony heart did Hud have none;
he saw the world, how it was made;
to God alone and one He prayed
from early light to setting sun.

From early light he saw the way
and of the only God would teach,
before the mocking people preach
of true repentance every day;

of true repentance was his word,
of casting from the soul all lie
before the judgment when we die.
His word was spoken but not heard.

His word gave promise of the rain,
for God would surely bless the lives
of faithful men, when each one strives
to turn from drought to God again.

To turn they would not do, but jeered.
So God sent rain in flashing gale
with waters none could weigh or tell,
and judgment came as Hud had feared;

so judgment came. And on the sand
the buildings red and blue remain
and ruin downward, grain by grain.
In sandy 'Ad they, empty, stand.


the wholeness of good possessed as a whole
the completion of powers inherent in you
at splendid things true joy of the soul
triumph at being your self pure and true
well-reasoned choosing of the natural thing
viewing the order of all things in all
to be like a circle or unending ring
in all choice and thought to hear virtue's call
achievement of life that is smooth in its flow
that which makes nature finished in kind
the good to will and the true to know
being the divine that in us we find

The Last Dragon

My kind was born in ancient day;
the world yet young, with stars we'd play
and joy we knew beyond desire,
of flight, of thought, of burning fire,
and graceful mothers taught to sing
the little ones who took to wing
beneath the careful, watchful eyes
of fathers older than the skies.
Our dreams were scarcely less than real,
with force to rule and truth reveal,
we learned dark secrets from the night
that never since have seen the light.
Our words were echoes of that Word
which first the turning chaos heard,
and like their sire they brought to form
the shapeless mass of primal storm:
to make a thing we would but speak,
and lo! whatever we might seek
was made to be. Those days are gone,
as vanished as our native dawn.
And we who were the world's first pride
in caverns deep must crawl to hide
from vermin clad with hide and steel,
ashamed of fears our hearts now feel.
O First of all, O highest Light,
cast down his hubris, slay this knight,
for through his bright but wicked blade
I fear I soon will be but shade
and I who breathe the flaming breath
will fall to bitter chill of death.


I carry moly in my pocket;
I use it to mollify
the spirits that meander
where my memories go to die.
The elephants in their graveyards
stack the ivory to the heights
where phantoms march and murmur
of long-lost loves and lights.
Deceptive and dishonest
are the markers of the dead;
wanderers sad and foolish
are those by them misled;
But I too shadow-wander
underneath a darkening sky
where skeletons of madness
on the sands of heartache lie.

Lent XIV

Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted of the devil, so that by humbly tolerating the enemy's attack, He might make us humble, and by overcoming him, He might make us strong. He firmly embraced a hard and solitary life in order to prompt the faithful to embrace perfection courageously, and to strengthen them in preparation for the bearing of heavy burdens to the end.

So now, disciple of Christ, penetrate with your good master the secrets of solitude. Once you have become, as it were, a companion of the wild beasts, imitate and share the mysterious struggle with a cunning enemy, and learn to have recourse to Christ in the critical moments of temptation: for we have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but One tried as we are in all things, except sin.

Bonaventure, The Tree of Life, I.10

[Bonaventure, The Works of Bonaventure I: Mystical Opuscula, José de Vinck, tr., Martino Publishing (Mansfield Centre, CT: 2016), p. 110.]

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Music on My Mind

Ella Roberts, "Siúil a Rúin". It's an old ballad, although very little is known about its history. It is mentioned several times in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae. Probably the best known modern version is that of Clannad:

Clannad, "Siúil a Rúin".

What really strikes me about the song is how effectively the English and Irish are blended; macaronic songs usually play on the sharpness of the difference between the two languages in question, but the English chosen has at least very broad sound-similarities to the Gaelic chorus (lots of sh and l and ending n, particularly).

As is sometimes the case with sufficiently old Irish or Scottish ballads, there is a closely related American Appalachian version, "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier". I like Suzy Bogguss's version.

Julian of Norwich on the Fall of Adam (Re-Post)

This is reposted from 2013, with minor revisions.


Julian of Norwich was born at some point in the fourteenth century, probably in the 1340s. She became an anchoress, that is, someone withdrawing into individual consecrated retirement; as an anchoress, she spent almost her entire adult life in a cell in a church, from which she could see Mass, and she would interact with the rest of the world only through a little window, through which, perhaps, pilgrims would give food donations to supplement her little garden and ask her spiritual advice. Indeed, although we know very little about Julian's life, one of the things we do have on record is a pilgrim visiting her for spiritual advice: Margery Kempe visited her and later had it written in her own book about her spiritual life. Julian was a common name in the area, but the advice Kempe records is so thoroughly Julianesque that there is no doubt of its being authentic. Julian is remarkable in a number of ways. The Short Text of her work, Shewings [or Revelations] of Divine Love, may well be the earliest extant text by a woman writing in English. More importantly, however, she is perhaps the greatest theologian writing in English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (a period which has quite a few theologians writing in English), and has good claim to being one of the most important theologians of any kind the same period, as well as one of the most important who has ever written in English.

Julian's theological career began with a prayer for mortification: she asked God to give her a year of suffering so that she might understand Christ's passion and suffering on the Cross. She became seriously ill, so seriously, in fact, that it was thought she was on her deathbed. Toward the end, beginning 8 May 1373, she had fifteen visions. She had a sudden recovery from her illness 13 May 1373, and she began putting her visions down in the text we know was the Short Text of the Revelations. It is mostly concerned with describing her experience and working out the immediate implications of it for the two questions, What is pain? and What is sin?

Were Julian only known through the Short Text, she would certainly be considered an important and perceptive mystic of the period. But her true claim to importance is the Long Text. After she had written the Short Text, she did not stop thinking about her experiences, but continued to think them through all her life, improving her interpretations of them and working out their implications more thoroughly. As she did so, she began to revise her Short Text, eventually giving us a work almost six times as long. Neither text seemed to have been widely read at the time, but their importance has increasingly been recognized since. The theology Julian develops in these two texts is thoroughly orthodox, but the orthodox themes Julian chooses to expand upon are very different from those that are usually discussed. Perhaps the most famous example is her discussion of the motherhood of Christ. This theme is not original to Julian; parts of it can be found in many theologian-saints prior to her. But it usually shows up as a secondary issue, as a side comment. Nobody ever worked it out as thoroughly and precisely as Julian does in the Revelations. Indeed, her text is still the primary locus for this theological theme; nobody has worked it out more fully and with more precision since. This, as I said, is the most famous example; but Julian's texts are full of instances in which she takes some genuine but minor orthodox theme or image that interacts with her visions in some way and draws out, with extraordinary balance and sobriety, its deepest implications.

What I would like to talk about here is another of Julian's intriguing developments and extensions of prior ideas, her interpretation of the Fall of Man and the doctrine of Original Sin. One of the major puzzles in Julian's original visions was that she kept not seeing sin. To some extent this was intelligible, since sin as such is not a thing at all, but a privation, a lack or a failing to have something, which, says Julian, is known only indirectly by the pain it causes. But Julian's visions went considerably beyond this. One of the major reasons Julian had asked for her year of suffering and her visions in the first place was so that she could better understand good and evil, so as to live a better life. But what Julian kept seeing in her visions suggested that God blamed no one for sin, that no one was guilty. This, she knew on the basis of Church doctrine, couldn't be true in the straightforward way, and thus she pressed this dilemma in prayer (c. 50):

If I take it thus that we be no sinners and not blameworthy, it seemeth as I should err and fail of knowing of this truth; and if it be so that we be sinners and blameworthy,—Good Lord, how may it then be that I cannot see this true thing in Thee, which art my God, my Maker, in whom I desire to see all truths?

In answer to this, she had another vision, the Parable of the Lord and the Servant (c. 51):

I saw two persons in bodily likeness: that is to say, a Lord and a Servant; and therewith God gave me spiritual understanding. The Lord sitteth stately in rest and in peace; the Servant standeth by afore his Lord reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will. The Lord looketh upon his Servant full lovingly and sweetly, and meekly he sendeth him to a certain place to do his will. The Servant not only he goeth, but suddenly he starteth, and runneth in great haste, for love to do his Lord’s will. And anon he falleth into a slade, and taketh full great hurt. And then he groaneth and moaneth and waileth and struggleth, but he neither may rise nor help himself by no manner of way.

It is quite clear from Julian's vision, however, that the Servant did no wrong: the problem was not that the Servant had failed the Lord in any way, but simply that down in the pit he could not see his Lord. He had fallen into the pit solely because he loved the Lord, and even in the pit he was completely blameless, and the Lord did not regard him as having failed at all. And because the Servant fell into the pit in an attempt to faithfully serve the Lord, the Lord considers how to reward him, far more than he would be rewarded if he had not fallen.

For obvious reasons, Julian's initial response to the vision was bafflement, since it seemed to be put forward as an answer, but how it could be such was utterly unclear -- it seemed simply to restate the problem. She did realize at the time, however, that while the fall of the Servant was in some way the Fall of Adam into sin, in the Servant she "saw many diverse properties that might in no manner of way be assigned to single Adam." Just short of twenty years after the vision, she had an internal prompting to pay much more attention to this fact, and to consider more carefully the finer details of her vision. This led her to a newer and more powerful interpretation of it. The Lord, of course, is God. The Servant is Adam. However, he is not some singular Adam, but the whole of the Adam: "that is to say, one man was shewed, that time, and his falling, to make it thereby understood how God beholdeth All-Man and his falling." He is Adam as Everyman. Nor is this some mere allegory, because, as Julian goes on to say, "For in the sight of God all man is one man, and one man is all man." Falling into the pit, All-Man is made feeble and can no longer behold his Lord, and thus suffers pain and lacks comfort. But although the Servant cannot see the Lord, the mercy and love of the Lord for the Servant has a regard for the Servant even in the pit; the merciful regard of God descends into hell with us, and sustains us in our trial. The task the Lord had given to the Servant was to retrieve excellent food for him, and to this end, the Servant had extraordinary labor to perform:

I beheld, thinking what manner of labour it might be that the Servant should do. And then I understood that he should do the greatest labour and hardest travail: that is, he should be a gardener, delve and dyke, toil and sweat, and turn the earth upside-down, and seek the deepness, and water the plants in time. And in this he should continue his travail and make sweet floods to run, and noble and plenteous fruits to spring, which he should bring afore the Lord to serve him therewith to his desire. And he should never turn again till he had prepared this food all ready as he knew that it pleased the Lord. And then he should take this food, with the drink in the food, and bear it full worshipfully afore the Lord. And all this time the Lord should sit in the same place, abiding his Servant whom he sent out.

In context, there is only one way to read the vision, then: the Servant is not just Adam but also the Second Person of the Trinity, who became Adam, "rightful Adam", that is, righteous or just Adam. The fall of Everyman into sin is a fall for the Son of God as well:

When Adam fell, God’s Son fell: because of the rightful oneing which had been made in heaven, God’s Son might not [be disparted] from Adam. (For by Adam I understand All-Man.) Adam fell from life to death, into the deep of this wretched world, and after that into hell: God’s Son fell with Adam, into the deep of the Maiden’s womb, who was the fairest daughter of Adam; and for this end: to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and in earth; and mightily He fetched him out of hell.

If the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, if the Son of God came into this world, He became Adam, for all of us human beings are Adam. We see here why the Fall of Adam is perceived as if it were blameless; for while we individually may sin and be blameworthy, All-Man or Adam, the whole Adam, did not sin and was not blameworthy, because the Son of God Himself was never blameworthy. He too is Adam, and because of it there is not just Adam fallen into sin, there is "rightful Adam", the true Servant who fell with us into the pit of mortality and pain so that All-Man, the corporate man, solidary humanity, might still be just and without blame. He becomes Adam, Head and Body, and we are rescued from the pit by being members of that Body, parts of Christ-as-Adam.

Thus the fall into sin is not the full Fall; the Fall is only complete when the Son of God falls into us, taking on our nature. But given that, the Fall of Adam is not so much a fall into death but a fall into mortality and suffering, and when we are rescued from the pit, we will not stand before God blameworthy, because we will stand before God as All-Man, as Adam, and not just Adam as we might have been, but Adam as we are in Christ.

In the meantime, we Christians are each of us a two-fold Adam, representing as we do both Adam in his fall into death and Adam the Servant who is risen. In a sense, we might say that there are two interpretations of All-Man, and each of us is Everyman in a mystery play, with the two interpretations at war within us (c. 52):

And thus in the Servant was shewed the scathe and blindness of Adam’s falling; and in the Servant was shewed the wisdom and goodness of God’s Son. And in the Lord was shewed the ruth and pity of Adam’s woe, and in the Lord was shewed the high nobility and the endless worship that Mankind is come to by the virtue of the Passion and death of His dearworthy Son. And therefore mightily He joyeth in his falling for the high raising and fulness of bliss that Mankind is come to, overpassing that we should have had if he had not fallen.—And thus to see this overpassing nobleness was mine understanding led into God in the same time that I saw the Servant fall.

Sin does not vanish, in any absolute sense, on this view; but it is by its very nature something that can only be found insofar as it is a particular kind of incompleteness. Considering only now, the story lopped off before the end, we can see the sin in each of us by which All-Man falls into the pit of mortality and suffering; but considering the whole, the never-ending story, even the fall into the pit is just the story, indeed, just part of the story, of rightful Adam doing his Lord's work blamelessly out of love. We see our sin, because we see our failure to be the rightful Adam; but the Son of God fell into the pit with us in order that there might be a rightful Adam, an All-Man alive with justice and love, that we could become. The practical implications of this are clear:

And if we by our blindness and our wretchedness any time fall, we should readily rise, knowing the sweet touching of grace, and with all our will amend us upon the teaching of Holy Church, according as the sin is grievous, and go forthwith to God in love; and neither, on the one side, fall over low, inclining to despair, nor, on the other side, be over-reckless, as if we made no matter of it; but nakedly acknowledge our feebleness, finding that we may not stand a twinkling of an eye but by Keeping of grace, and reverently cleave to God, on Him only trusting.

God has always loved All-Man, and our individual sins are but our individual failures to be All-Man in his love of God, the fracturing of Adam; but All-Man does not at any point stop being the loving Servant of God, because Christ became All-Man with us and keeps the unity of Adam. We have to be careful about precisely how we interpret the claim, but in a sense God forgives because He has made it so that there need be nothing to forgive. Adam has always been faithful, even in falling into the pit, because while we have not been faithful (and this is what makes for the falling into the pit), failing to complete the work of faithfulness, Christ has always been faithful, and Christ is also Adam, and as such it is He who completes the work of All-Man (c. 61):

For one single person may oftentimes be broken, as it seemeth to himself, but the whole Body of Holy Church was never broken, nor never shall be, without end. And therefore a sure thing it is, a good and a gracious, to will meekly and mightily to be fastened and oned to our Mother, Holy Church, that is, Christ Jesus.

There are so many facets to this discussion that it can hardly be covered in a blog post. But it's certainly an interesting discussion. What the story of Adam in the garden really tells us is something that is true of each of us, because Adam is Everyman. We are each of us Adam, and we all find ourselves falling outside of paradise. Our sins are our failures to follow through on our own humanity, failures to complete our task as the Servant of the Lord. Ironically, Adam in us falls through failing completely to be Adam, failing to complete the work of Adam; but Christ succeeds in being Adam, the Servant of God making a garden for His Lord, and thus Adam stands before the Lord complete in justice and faithful in love, and when through Christ all of us stand before God, we do so as the All-Man who fell only into the hardship of death and never into sin, and thus is rewarded for blameless travail. God became Man that Man might be sinless even in the weakness and isolation from God that come from the sins of men. All of this has roots elsewhere in the history of Christian doctrine, but the particular blend is a very Julianesque blend, one developing ideas that are often treated as secondary, so that their full possibilities might be seen.


But John baptizes, Jesus comes to Him...perhaps to sanctify the Baptist himself, but certainly to bury the whole of the old Adam in the water; and before this and for the sake of this, to sanctify Jordan; for as He is Spirit and Flesh, so He consecrates us by Spirit and water. John will not receive Him; Jesus contends. "I have need to be baptized by You" says the Voice to the Word, the Friend to the Bridegroom; he that is above all among them that are born of women, to Him Who is the Firstborn of every creature; he that leaped in the womb, to Him Who was adored in the womb; he who was and is to be the Forerunner to Him Who was and is to be manifested. "I have need to be baptized by You;" add to this "and for You;" for he knew that he would be baptized by Martyrdom, or, like Peter, that he would be cleansed not only as to his feet. "And You come to me?" This also was prophetic; for he knew that after Herod would come the madness of Pilate, and so that when he had gone before Christ would follow him. But what says Jesus? "Allow it to be so now," for this is the time of His Incarnation; for He knew that yet a little while and He should baptize the Baptist.

Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 39, section XV.

The comment about baptizing the Baptist is a reference to John's martyrdom, the baptism of blood.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Shall Only Hear, and Feel, but Shall Not See

by Archibald Lampman

Move on, light hands, so strongly tenderly,
Now with dropped calm and yearning undersong,
Now swift and loud, tumultuously strong,
And I in darkness, sitting near to thee,
Shall only hear, and feel, but shall not see,
One hour made passionately bright with dreams,
Keen glimpses of life's splendour, dashing gleams
Of what we would, and what we cannot be.
Surely not painful ever, yet not glad,
Shall such hours be to me, but blindly sweet,
Sharp with all yearning and all fact at strife,
Dreams that shine by with unremembered feet,
And tones that like far distance make this life
Spectral and wonderful and strangely sad.

Lent XII

Our Lord opened up Baptism — in the midst of Jordan the blessed river.— The height and the depth rejoiced in Him — He brings forth the first fruits of His peace from the water — for they are first fruits, the fruits of Baptism. — The good God in His compassion will bring to pass — that His peace shall be first fruits on earth.

Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn 11 on Epiphany.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Lent XI

...we behold and see as it were in a divine spectacle exhibited to us, the notice of our God in Trinity, conveyed to us at the river Jordan. For when Jesus came and was baptized by John, the Lord by His servant (and this He did for an example of humility; for He shows that in this same humility is righteousness fulfilled, when as John said to Him, "I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?" He answered, "Suffer it to be so now, that all righteousness may be fulfilled" ), when He was baptized then, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit came down upon Him in the form of a Dove: and then a Voice from on high followed, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Here then we have the Trinity in a certain sort distinguished. The Father in the Voice — the Son in the Man — the Holy Spirit in the Dove.

Augustine, Sermon 2 on the New Testament.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Evening Note for Sunday, March 8

Thought for the Evening: Kantian Marcionism

The postmedieval period sees a number of people attempting to put forward purely moralized interpretations of Christianity. There are several things in Christianity that resist such an interpretation, however. Kant, who is a major figure in this kind of moralized interpretation, puts a great deal of effort into addressing some of these in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason. One that requires particularly drastic action is Christianity's Jewish inheritance. While it's impossible to ignore that historically Christianity originated in a Jewish context, that the Founder of Christianity was Jewish, and that the Apostles and Church Fathers clearly saw Christianity as continuous with, and a fulfillment of, all of Jewish history up to that point, the connection with Judaism has to be minimized for his moralization of Christianity to work. As Kant puts it:

...the Jewish faith stands in absolutely no essential connection, i.e., in no unity of concepts, with the ecclesiastical faith whose history we want to consider, even though it immediately preceded it and provided the physical occasion for the founding of this church (the Christian). (6:125; p. 120)

The easiest way to break the unity of concepts when you want to interpret Christianity as a purely moral religion is to deny that Judaism was originally any kind of religion at all. This is precisely what Kant sets out to do, and he is helped by two things: the beginnings of the rise of Higher Criticism in a Lutheran context and the work of Enlightenment Judaism. Jews in the Enlightenment had finally begun to make some headway in convincing Christians that Judaism was primarily a religion of practice and not of doctrine; as Mendelssohn would put it in Jerusalem, the Jewish religion was not a religion of divine revelation, in the Christian sense, but of divine legislation. Mendelssohn obviously still regarded Judaism as a religion; but, from the Kantian perspective, a position like his makes Judaism, as such, purely a matter of positive law, which Kant, influenced of course by Lutheran suspicion of legalism and ceremony, can treat as not relevant (at least as positive law) to morality and doctrine. The work of various scholars like Johann Salomo Semler had begun argue that the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity was that Judaism was nationalistic in character whereas Christianity was universal; thus Christianity, to rise, had to nullify Judaism, and start over with the New Testament, casting aside Jewish law and ceremony. Judaism for Semler and others like himwas purely a ceremonial and political entity, concerned wholly with external observance; while some of the Old Testament had moral value, it was thoroughly interlaced with the family stories of a provincial people, which always and everywhere were the primary focus.

Kant will proceed along similar lines, but in his own way. The Jewish faith in its original form is, he argues nothing but a collection of statutory laws for a political state. It is structured like a political state, even though a theocratic one, with laws of a kind appropriate to a state, focused purely on external observance, and involving rewards and punishments that are purely this-worldly, and, far from being universal, excludes almost everyone from its communion. True, the Jews saw themselves as a theocracy, ruled by God, but it was a purely political relationship with God. On the basis of this,

We cannot, therefore, begin the universal history of the Church (inasmuch as this history is to constitute a system) anywhere but from the origin of Christianity, which, as a total abandonment of Judaism in which it originated, grounded on an entirely new principle, effected a total revolution in doctrines of faith. (6:127, p. 132)

Thus Kant's moralized Christianity has to be purely and totally a Christianity of the New Testament.

Now, obviously the big objection here is that Christian teachers regularly, and perhaps have always, taken care to connect Christianity to its Jewish roots, and especially have affirmed the divine character of the Old Testament, so that they are in some way continuous. Kant's reply is that this was purely in order to make the pure moral religion palatable to those habituated to the old way of doing things. He gives as an example Christianity's rejection of circumcision as one of its signs: circumcision marked off the Jews as different from other nations, but Christianity, for the world, rejected that limitation. The appeals to continuity were in fact just concessions to the bigotries of the early audience. (He will argue in an analogous way when considering another objection, the apparently divine character of Jewish survival, arguing that it speaks more for Jewish insularity than divine favor.)

Why is all of this embrace of a version of the Marcionite heresy important? The answer is found in the very explanation: early on, Christians found it useful to appeal to Jewish history to convince their audiences of the pure moral faith, but over time and due to custom, later Christians began to treat these rhetorical stratagems as essential to Christianity. Thus a church, in our usual sense of the word, was born, distorted by the Councils and by treating traditions and interpretations of Jewish history as relevant to the interpretation of Christian doctrine. The result was a religious delusion resulting in a counterfeit service to God -- fake worship -- rather than the real service of pure moral action. What should have been a moral service became a temple service, and from this came priestcraft and the view that the Church is superior to the state, as well as the view that by performing certain actions like baptism and church-going you can be more pleasing to God. All of this, Kant thinks, comes from the view that Christianity has roots in Judaism, which therefore ends in treating ceremonies as giving grace and being themselves of value.

Of course, the problem with all of this is that there has always been good reason to take various forms of Marcionism as heresies, namely, that they are bosh and nonsense. The Old Testament cannot be torn out of the Christian Bible, being essential to understanding the actual Christian message. (One can also, of course, question it from the other end, namely, the view that, for all their differences, the Jewish religion and the Christian religion are quite so different; later the Neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen would write the Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, which would attempt a moralized interpretation of Judaism along the lines that Kant had attempted for Christianity.)

Nonetheless, the attempt to replace actual Christianity with a moralized imitation stripped of its inheritance and tradition has arguably been one of the consistent impulses of the age.

[Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Wood & di Giovanni, eds. Cambridge University Press (New York: 1998).]

Various Links of Interest

* literalbanana, Ignorance, a learned practice at "Carcinisation"

* I've recently talked about Oulipo. Probably the major work of Oulipo is Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets, which consists of lines, fourteen groups with ten lines each, in which any one of the ten lines can be used for a line of a sonnet. It is probably the most famous example of Oulipo concept of 'potential literature'; the work is potentially 10^14 different sonnets. Of course, it's rather awkward to put to paper; but the digital age lets you do an electronic version.

* How make your own hand sanitizer at home.

* Rob Alspaugh, Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

* Jamie Lombard on how Marcus Aurelius helped her to get through a particularly difficult time of her life.

* Waugh's religious conversion

* Martha Nussbaum, The Weakness of the Furies, discusses the limitations of anger.

* Sarah Hutton, Lady Anne Conway, at the SEP

* Ashok Karra on Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail

* Hans Boersma discusses the new Monothelites at "First Things".

* Ian Birrell, Where the American dream goes to die, discusses the predatory practices aimed at people who live in trailer parks.

* World Cheese Map. Obviously the big cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar, etc.) are on there, but you can also zoom in to discover cheeses like the highly illegal Sardinia casu marzu or the barely-a-cheese Icelandic skyr or the relatively recent Mauritanian caravane.

* Allauren Samantha Forbes on Mary Astell.

* Kenneth Libbrecht, probably the world's foremost expert on snow crystallization, has provided online a monograph on practically everything we currently know about snow crystals.

Currently Reading

Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian Norwich
Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


There is an aesthetic concept that we certainly use but have no definite name for; we find it (sometimes) when people talk about some brief bit of life being the sort of thing that would make a good story. The idea is not that it would make a good epic, or that it would make a good novel, or even necessarily a short story, but that it works as a little story-episode, a vignette. It makes sense to have a word for it, so we could call it vignettesque, on the model of 'picturesque'.

And the analogies between the vignettesque and the picturesque are quite strong, I think. Both require a (mental) frame; that is, they don't deal with kinds of beauty that are indefinite and unrestricted but, even if they deal with something vast, do so in a way that can be expressed compactly and with borders. As the picturesque is that which expresses the particular kind of beauty agreeable to a picture, or else that which pleases from some quality capable of being expressed in a picture, so too the vignettesque is that which expresses the particular kind of beauty agreeable to a literary vignette, or else that which pleases from some quality capable of being expressed in such a vignette. As Gilpin says that the picturesque concerns 'rough' beauty, so we can say that the vignettesque concerns 'striking' beauty -- in both cases, we are dealing with a kind of beauty that involves an apparent breaking up of symmetries and continuities.

We can perhaps even make the analogy stronger. As the picturesque is based on the composition of the scene, so the vignettesque is based on its memorability. As the picturesque is a form of beauty especially capable of being captured in a pictorial sketch, so too the vignettesque is a form of beauty especially capable of being captured in a literary sketch. In fact, this analogy between literary sketch and picturesque sketch has been recognized before; Washington Irving notes in The Sketch Book:

I have wandered through different countries and witnessed many of the shifting scenes of life. I cannot say that I have studied them with the eye of a philosopher, but rather with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print-shop to another; caught sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature, and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape. As it is the fashion for modern tourists to travel pencil in hand, and bring home their portfolios filled with sketches, I am disposed to get up a few for the entertainment of my friends.

Sketch of the vignettesque and sketch of the picturesque both rely heavily on suggestion; the picturesque sketch suggests by way of a line, the vignettesque sketch by way of a few narratively connected details. And we might even say that, as travelogues are to the picturesque, so memoirs are to the vignettesque. When people travel, they want to experience the picturesque (hence the popularity of photographs), but they also want to experience the vignettesque, the little things that can be put into a story for others.