Saturday, April 04, 2020

Pandemic Notes

1. It's remarkable how a large-scale catastrophe unites us all in the firm commitment to being right at any cost, and in the equally firm belief that everyone who disagrees with us is literally killing people by disagreeing with us.

2. I think it's important to be honest about what we are facing here. We have no plan. Without a vaccine in hand, all we are doing is trying to slow things down so that the medical system only has to deal with the deaths over a long period of time rather than a short one. And that's all we can do. We have going for us that trying to find an effective vaccine is a truly global project. But it's not the sort of thing for which we can guarantee any timetables. We are all improvising. Every proposal, every single one, is gambling on the truth of assumptions that cannot be guaranteed. There's no avoiding that. But it's important to recognize that every confident proposal for how to go forward is an overconfident proposal. We don't know how we are going to get past the epidemic; we are experimenting with ways to do that on a global scale. We don't know how we are going to recover from the economic problems that it will inevitably cause; we are in the middle of the largest economic experiment that we have ever done, trying things out as we go. We'll just have to see.

Similarly, one should be fairly generous about recognizing that there are lots of different ways to go about responding to the epidemic, and that it may turn out well in the long run that we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket, but instead trying different approaches in different places. We don't know what will save more lives in the long run; some things have better odds than others, but we are all gambling.

4. I've been impressed at the number of people who attack other people for not doing such-and-such thing that they themselves were doing just a few days earlier. The whiplash is going to trip us all up eventually, as we have to somersault over our own heads to adjust to new information. A little tolerance for people who are somersaulting more slowly is in order.

5. Most people are worried about the potential breakdown of medical services; something we unfortunately need also to worry about, but which people seem often to ignore, is potential breakdown of distribution networks. Truckers and the like are on the front line here, suddenly finding themselves in the position of, day after day, being emergency personnel. Transportation is an industry that's hard on people in normal times; it's important not to forget it now.

6. Despite rumors of 'panic buying' or 'hoarding', I've seen very little of it (and when you look at specific cases to which people apply these labels, they very rarely turn out to be accurate). What is happening is that people are reasonably buying more than they usually do, and when everybody is doing that, shelves start emptying out no matter what people are doing. (Although I confess I really don't understand the overbuying of toilet paper; I'd've thought that this was the sort of thing we all keep in large quantities already. I'm a little low and I still have enough in the bathroom cabinet to last half a year. I suppose one of the temptations is that it's something you know you'll use anyway, and perhaps people are sometimes not wanting to rely on their remembering correctly how much they actually have.)

7. Once I would have thought that no government agency could possibly be as despised by Americans as the IRS; after all, everybody hates the taxman. But then the TSA came along and proved that the IRS can have stiff competition in that unenviable category. If there's one thing that seems increasingly to be uniting Americans in these times it is a steadily rising river of loathing for the FDA, which I honestly would not have expected. Unfortunately, they seem very much to deserve it; they both have bungled things for which they should have been prepared and have repeatedly impeded honest attempts to solve particular unexpected problems until the pressure of events has forced them to change. We only started learning, even as late as we did, how bad things were in Seattle, for instance, because doctors became so worried that they started violating FDA regulations governing tests. And it's not become much better since.

But this seems to be the real problem. The people at large have been improvising on a rather impressive scale. But too many of those in charge seem to think it is just business as usual, with slightly more urgency. Both political parties and bureaucracies inevitably grow rigid as they get into the habit of mechanically putting everything into the same categories over and over again, but we have seen in clear light of day how utterly sclerotic it's all become. The interesting question is whether we will learn anything from it.

8. Transition to online teaching has not been smooth, but it's not been especially difficult, either, at least in my experience so far. But that too is all improvising in response to a continually changing situation. On the plus side, I am saving an immense amount of time by not losing any from commuting or having to be on campus. But it all seems a little unreal. I tell myself that that's fine, given the circumstances, but I worry a bit about whether it will affect my ability to get things done that need to be done. Nonetheless, this term looks like it will be quite manageable despite everything. But I have no idea what will happen for summer term, or even for fall. I had the bad luck of deciding that for my summer class I would try a new book and different format, and now I simply don't know what I'll be doing. On the plus side, if you can call it that, the class might not even make; there's no guarantee that any summer class will make at this point. We'll just have to see.


ADDED LATER: An interesting discussion by Stephen Pimentel:

Many Westerners may resist the insight, but competence rests not so much on well-planned systems as on virtue, beginning with phronesis (φρόνησῐς), or practical wisdom acting in the world. Government planning in Western nations too often rests on an overextension of episteme (ἐπιστήμη), or rationally grounded knowledge, to areas of human life and organization in which it serves poorly. The future, more often than we wish to admit, is unknown and unknowable, and the effort that we might expend preparing for it is better spent preparing ourselves.

The consistent error of Western modernity is thinking that everything can be done by method, that if you just have your methods right, everything is guaranteed. But method is not as important as being able to assess the situation and work out what is appropriate for it, which is precisely the function of phronesis. Methods and procedures have their place, of course; but that, too, is determined by prudence.


Three things were done to Christ. First, he was seized; for he says, the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus, who is not apprehensible: "great in counsel, incomprehensible in thought" (Jer 32:19). Perhaps they were thinking of the Psalm (70:11): "God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him." Again, "The breath of our mouth, Christ the Lord, is taken in our sins," that is, on account of our sins, in order to free us. "Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken" (Is 49:25).

Secondly, Christ was bound, and bound him, who came to untie their bonds and break their chains: "You have loosed my bonds" (Ps 115:7).

Thirdly, he was led away, they led him to Annas, so that they might destroy him who came to lead all to the way of salvation: "You have led me, because you became my hope" (Ps 60:4).

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapter 18, Lecture 3.

[St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-21, Larcher and Weisheipl, tr. The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2010) pp. 205-206.]

Friday, April 03, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning VII (Aquinas)

St. Tomasso d'Aquino, or Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), was born as a younger son to a powerful family in the Kingdom of Sicily. As he pursued his studies at the recently founded university in Naples, however, he became intrigued by the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans, and eventually joined them. He went on to study at the University of Paris, which is probably where he met St. Albert, the Order's most important teacher and a major figure in the surging field of commentary on Aristotle. When Albert was given the mission of teaching at a newly founded university in Cologne, Thomas went with him. He eventually returned for a degree in theology, and from then on he taught in a number of places, becoming the Order's second most important teacher after Albert. In the course of his work he taught and commented on a number of Aristotle's works. Besides being a significant Christian theologian, he is also considered one of the major figures in the history of Aristotelian philosophy, and is very likely the most important Aristotelian virtue ethicist after Aristotle himself.

As an Aristotelian virtue ethicist, Thomas accepts the essential outlines of Aristotle's ethics: eudaimonia, the doctrine of the mean, friendship. However, as a Christian writing many centuries after Aristotle, he has to relate Aristotle's work to the large body of ethical thought that had grown up since (deriving from Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, just to mention major influences on his ethical work) and also faces the problem that Aristotle's ethics in some ways seems inadequate to expounding Christian moral teaching. This will require him to step back and try to fit the whole framework of Aristotelian ethics into a larger framework that can make sense of its relationship with these other ethical strands. This will lead to a number of important modifications.

From Christian theology, Aquinas inherits a new definition of virtue, which he discusses in Summa Theologiae 2-1.55.4. According to this definition, virtue is

(1) a good quality of mind
(2) by which we live rightly
(3) which none can use badly
(4) which God works in us without us.

Thomas will accept this definition, although he thinks it needs to be understood a certain way. The bona qualitas mentis should be understood as a habit, the kind of second nature we saw in Aristotle's definition, and in particular as a rational habit. As with Aristotle, Aquinas takes virtue to be a habit concerned with acting, habitus operativus, and, of course, it has to be distinguished from vice (by it we live rightly) and from other habits besides vice (this is a habit none can use badly). Thus far, Thomas's interpretation of the definition treats this definition as covering the same ground, from a different direction, as Aristotle's definition of virtue, but the last element, which God works in us without us, is a new one, and Aquinas will handle it by holding that there is actually a distinction between two kinds of virtue. One, known to Aristotle, is acquired virtue or virtue that we gain by a process of habituation. The other, recognized only in Christian moral theology, is infused virtue or, in other words, a kind of virtue directly given by God (hence God works it in us) rather than by this natural process of habituation (hence God's giving it to us is 'without us'). The habit is given in a new and different way. In the Summa Theologiae, a work of theology, the virtues with which Aquinas is primarily concerned are infused virtues, to which this new definition applies. If we wanted to talk about all virtues whatsoever (acquired and infused), we would just focus on the first three elements.

The notion of infused virtues is ultimately rooted in the idea that faith, hope, and love, which are said to be given in Christian baptism, are virtues in a true and proper sense. These are called the theological virtues (Aquinas notes that they could also be called superhuman or divine virtues). A significant question, though, is whether there are any other infused virtues. Some Christian theologians (like John Duns Scotus) have held that there are no others. Thomas, however, has a very different view, and argues that Christian baptism confers not just the three theological virtues but also infused moral virtues. These infused moral virtues are necessary, he thinks, because the three theological virtues add a higher direction to human life than reason alone gives; that is to say, they contribute to the Christian's participation not just in human society (like ordinary acquired virtues) but in a supernatural society with God. Our acquired virtues, essential as they may be to good human society, are not adequate for this higher end that goes beyond our natural capacities, a higher happiness that Aquinas calls beatitude, and thus we need a new set of virtues. As he says in Summa Theologiae 2-1.63.4, drawing on Aristotle,

... the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 3) that citizens have diverse virtues according as they are well directed to diverse forms of government. In the same way, too, those infused moral virtues, whereby men behave well in respect of their being "fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19), differ from the acquired virtues, whereby man behaves well in respect of human affairs.

Despite this difference, acquired moral virtues and infused moral virtues will tend to mirror each other, and thus what you learn about one can be used to understand the other, as long as you make allowance for their different ends and the different societies to which they contribute. Thus Thomas in his discussion of the infused virtues will draw heavily from philosophical discussions of acquired virtues.

This conception of the two societies will also make it possible for Aquinas to use Aristotle's discussions of friendship in an innovative way to understand the Christian virtue of charity. Thomas takes the theological virtues to establish a basis for friendship with God; the virtue of love or charity (caritas) is in fact nothing other than friendship with God. Friendship for Aristotle is not a virtue because it requires two people (although Thomas himself thinks Aristotle is a bit more ambiguous about this than he is often thought to be). You can have a virtue of friendliness, but this friendliness does not actually guarantee that the people to whom you are friendly are friends. However, charity as friendship with God is infused by God; therefore this no longer poses a problem. Thus charity is both a special kind of friendship and a virtue. Friendship therefore plays an even more important role in Thomas's approach than it does in Aristotle's, having all of the importance it has for Aristotle but one form of it also being the highest of all virtues.

In order to organize his discussion of the moral virtues, Thomas draws on the traditional list of the cardinal virtues. This is an old list -- a version of it is found in Plato, for instance -- but the name 'cardinal virtues' is fairly late, being due to St. Ambrose of Milan. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. However, because of the age of the list, it has been used a number of different ways, so Thomas has to sort this out. One way we could take the list is as a description of the general conditions for virtue. In this sense, each one is like dimensions of the other virtues.

      prudence: virtues insofar as they accomplish rational good.
      justice: virtues insofar as they accomplish the good that is due and right in action
      fortitude: virtues insofar as they strengthen the mind against the passions
      temperance: virtues insofar as they restrain and suppress the passions

But more properly we could take the list to be a list of specific virtues of special importance. A way to think of this is that different virtues manifest the general conditions of virtue in more obvious or less obvious ways. So all virtues in some sense have a rational aspect, but some virtues are more obviously rational than others; and of these the virtue that is most important is that which actually concerns rational decision itself. Then we get:

      prudence: the virtue of actual decision or command
      justice: the virtue that concerns actions owed between equals
      fortitude: the virtue that strengthens against fear of death
      temperance: the virtue that represses the craving for physical pleasure

Of course, it's also the case that sometimes we speak more loosely, so that we use the word 'prudence' for any virtue that has an obvious rational component, etc. In this sense we are applying the term to a family of virtues.

Because of this messiness from long use, Thomas needs a way to sort out how different lists of virtues are related to the cardinal virtues. The way he does this, the method of parts, is remarkably comprehensive and flexible. The Latin word for 'part' could mean three different things: integral parts, subjective parts, and potential parts. By analogy these can be extended to virtue. As he says in Summa Theologiae 2-2.48.1:

Parts are of three kinds, namely, "integral," as wall, roof, and foundations are parts of a house; "subjective," as ox and lion are parts of animal; and "potential," as the nutritive and sensitive powers are parts of the soul. Accordingly, parts can be assigned to a virtue in three ways. First, in likeness to integral parts, so that the things which need to concur for the perfect act of a virtue, are called the parts of that virtue.... The subjective parts of a virtue are its various species.... The potential parts of a virtue are the virtues connected with it, which are directed to certain secondary acts or matters, not having, as it were, the whole power of the principal virtue.

Strictly speaking, virtues don't have integral parts, i.e., parts in our usual English sense of the word; virtues are unified things. However, the complete act of the virtue sometimes depends on other things, and these can be regarded as quasi-integral parts. So, for instance, prudence requires caution, understanding, willingness to learn, etc. Sometimes we give different names to one and the same virtue operating under different conditions. Thus chastity and sobriety are both temperance but with respect to different physical pleasures. They are subjective parts: you can 'divide' the virtue of temperance into these two parts, but each part is still fully the virtue of temperance.

Potential parts of a virtue are in many ways the most interesting. Some virtues are very like other virtues, but deviate from them in particular ways so that they are related but less central in some way; they are thus ancillary or annexed or secondary virtues associated with a principal virtue. Thus justice has a number of potential parts: virtues that are justice-like, that might even sometimes be called 'justice', but are more like satellite virtues in the justice family of virtues. For instance, justice is paying what you strictly owe to achieve an appropriate equality between equals; filial piety (pietas) is like justice in that it involves rendering to your parents what is due, but the debt is not a debt that can be paid so that you are now 'even' with your parents, who gave you life and raised you, while friendliness is like justice in that it concerns how you relate to another person, and could even be expressed in terms of rendering what you owe other people, but the 'owing' here is not a strict, definite debt that you really pay back, but more like an obligation to human beings generally. These are justice-like enough that you can talk about them in the same terms, and they are enough alike that you can see how, e.g., filial piety, while definitely a different virtue from justice, may facilitate being just.

By means of this classification, Aquinas is able to relate a wide variety of different discussions of virtues to each other in a consistent and unified way. If you find a virtue in a list, it is either a principal virtue or is related to a principal virtue in some way, either as a quasi-integral part, or as a subjective part, or as a potential part.

It is also useful to have a way of classifying vices. One could classify them according to the virtues they oppose, of course, but the result, while useful for understanding virtues, is unwieldy for the practice that would most benefit from a classification of vices, namely, self-examination. Vices, however, are difficult to put into a neat and tidy list, because they are legion -- the doctrine of the mean establishes that there are at least two for every acquired virtue -- and disunified -- unlike virtues, which are unified, vices oppose other vices. The traditional way around this is to take an indirect approach. Instead of trying to capture all the vices in a simple way, as with the cardinal virtues, focus on the thing that is most relevant for practice, which is the fact that some vices prepare the way for other vices, and make your list based on that. Some vices are 'gateway vices'; they mess with your head in such a way that if you get them, you have already started developing other vices. The usual metaphor for this, going back to St. Gregory the Great, is that of a queen vice and her seven generals, each coming at the head of the army. This metaphor is the source of the name of the list: the seven capital vices, from the Latin word 'caput', meaning 'chief' or 'head'. Pride, of course, is the queen, and the vices at the head of her seven armies are vainglory, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. The vices in their armies are called daughter vices; they don't have to originate in a capital vice, but they often do.

It's important to grasp that a vice is not on the list because it is among the worst vices. There are vices worse than any on the list of capital vices. For instance, the vice of odium (hatefulness/hatred) is a very terrible vice that is not a capital vice. Thomas calls it a terminal vice, because it's a vice so bad you can usually only get it in its complete form if you have a lot of other vices. It usually already requires a certain sort of wickedness to be able to do the actions that solidify into it. Capital vices, on the other hand, are initial vices. They all (1) are easy to get because they arise from common temptations and (2) make it so easy to get their associated daughter vices that if you are developing the capital vice you are probably also developing some of the daughter vices. And of course, the daughter vices often lead to other vices, even if not as virulently, in a cascade of moral deterioration, unless one deliberately works against them. Once a general breaches your wall, you have to fight the army that comes behind.

The list of the seven capital vices grew up over time from practical use in the practice of self-examination. However, Thomas thinks that the list can be justified more theoretically, as well. All moral temptation, and all moral error, branches off into two kinds: to treat bad as if it were good because it is associated with something that seems good and to treat good as if it were bad because it is associated with something that seems bad. The big categories of things that immediately seem good are those that pertain to soul, to body, and to human life insofar as it uses the external environment around it; and our assessment of what seems bad to us depends in great measure on how the goods involved are related to us. This helps us build an explanation for each of the seven capital vices based on the most powerful motivators in these areas.

Vices that treat bad as good
      (1) due to association with the most strongly motivating good of the soul, our own excellence: vainglory
      (2) due to association with the most strongly motivating goods of the body, physical pleasures
            (a) connected to individual survival, i.e., food and drink: gluttony
            (b) connected to survival of the human race, i.e., sex: lust
      (3) due to association with the most strongly motivating external good, i.e., possession of what is useful for self-sufficiency: avarice
Vices that treat good as bad
      (1) because of the most strongly deterring badness associated with ourselves, physical difficulty: sloth
      (2) because of the most strongly deterring apparent badnesses associated with other people
            (a) that their good seems to hurt us: wrath
            (b) that their good makes us seem less excellent: envy

Together these vices capture the most common paths by which temptation arises for human beings in general. Individuals may be tempted in other directions, but these identify recurrent, widespread, powerful temptations. When we fall to temptations, we sin, that is to say, engage in an act associated with vice. Many sins build up to a vice. These sins can be of all sorts, but some sins are more typical of vices than others. For instance, you might kill someone out of greed, but this is not the usual kind of greed-associated action people are tempted to, and killing out of greed itself depends and is a sort of extension of one of these more typical actions (which is why we recognize as it as killing out of greed rather than something else). These more typical actions of the vices generally concern desires and the like that directly affect our choices; and these typical actions for the vices have come commonly to be known as the seven deadly sins. It is important to grasp that both vices and virtues can serve as the root for a very wide variety of actions; they are not confined to individual occurrences of typical acts but are capable of organizing entire areas of human life.

If we have some understanding of virtues and of vices, we still want to know what kinds of actions are appropriate to developing and maintaining virtues, and reducing or avoiding vices, in our own particular lives. All moral action, however, is situated action. You cannot adequately determine what is appropriate for you to do simply by looking at a general characterization of virtue and vice; that may give guidance, but you are not living life in general but a very particular life with very particular conditions. We live and act under different morally relevant conditions, and this has to be considered. Some of the conditions under which we labor are quite passing, and these are simply handled by prudence on a case-by-case basis. But some of our morally relevant conditions are fairly stable, and the most important of these are those that are most closely related to us as persons, that is to say, those that affect our general degree of freedom to act on our own or, on the other side, that involve serving others. This kind of condition St. Thomas calls a state of life (status vitae). It is your moral station, the position from which you act virtuously or not. Through experience with a given state of life, we come to recognize certain offices (officia) or duties that have to be performed on a regular basis in order to act virtuously in that state. Both states and offices differ from grade (gradus) or rank, which is something that, while sometimes morally relevant, we have only indirectly relative to the whole of society, rather than something pertaining to us ourselves. Likewise, we have to distinguish (because failing to do so is a common modern error) all of these from class, i.e., whether you are rich or poor; your station in life is not a matter of your relation to external possessions but of your situation insofar as you are a person capable of acting and serving.

Thomas, concerned primarily with infused virtues, naturally focuses on states of life pertaining to the broader supernatural society to which humans are introduced by the Church. He identifies several kinds of state, which are pretty clearly not intended to be exhaustive but just particularly important for life in the Church, e.g.,

(1) (what calls for) beginning, progressing, or completeness in virtue
(2) the episcopal state or prelature
(3) the religious state, such as with monks, nuns, and the like, and the secular state, such as parish priests and deacons

Moral stations in the Church all fall into two general categories, those devoted to the contemplative life and those devoted to the active life, and, of course, we can be in multiple states of life at once.

Even adding states and offices to our consideration, we do not have everything we need in order to live the moral life, because these are things pertaining to yourself alone, and Thomas Aquinas does not think human beings can be moral entirely on their own. We need assistance from outside ourselves, of which the two primary kinds are law and grace, to which we will turn in the next post.


And hence, Judas, you are proved more criminal and unhappier than all; for when repentance should have called you back to the Lord, despair dragged you to the halter. You should have awaited the completion of your crime, and have put off your ghastly death by hanging, until Christ's Blood was shed for all sinners. And among the many miracles and gifts of the Lord's which might have aroused your conscience, those holy mysteries, at least, might have rescued you from your headlong fall, which at the Paschal supper you had received, being even then detected in your treachery by the sign of Divine knowledge. Why do you distrust the goodness of Him, Who did not repel you from the communion of His body and blood, Who did not deny you the kiss of peace when you came with crowds and a band of armed men to seize Him. But O man that nothing could convert, O "spirit going and not returning ," you followed your heart's rage, and, the devil standing at your right hand, turned the wickedness, which you had prepared against the life of all the saints, to your own destruction, so that, because your crime had exceeded all measure of punishment, your wickedness might make you your own judge, your punishment allow you to be your own hangman.

Leo I, Sermon 54, On the Passion.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Anscombe at OUP

G. E. M. Anscombe is Oxford University Press's philosopher of the month for April. They have a number of pieces of interest, including a very interesting chapter from John Schwenkler's Anscombe's Intention: A Guide on practical knowledge, and an article by Anscombe herself on intention.


Jesus, therefore, knowing all that was to come upon Him in accordance with the secret dispositions of the Most High, led His apostles in the recitation of a hymn and went out to Mount Olivet. there he prayed to His Father, as was His custom; but at this particular moment, with the agony of death approaching, with the flock which the gentle Shepherd had so tenderly nurtured about to be scattered and left without leader, the vision of death became so frightening to Christ's sensible nature that He cried out: "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from Me!"...

It was to strengthen us in faith by the knowledge that You did truly share our mortal nature; to lift us up in hope when we ourselves must endure hardships; and to give us greater incentives to love You--it was for these reasons that You showed the natural weakness of the flesh by such evident signs; making us understand how truly You have carried our sorrows, how really Your senses suffered from the bitterness of Your passion.

[Bonaventure, The Works of Bonaventure I: Mystical Opuscula, José de Vinck, tr., Martino Publishing (Mansfield Centre, CT: 2016), p. 117.]

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Acting in Uncertain Times

Two notable things on reasoning on the basis of uncertainty in matters like a pandemic. First, from Philippe Lemoine:

...The most important point I want to make is that we don’t need complicated mathematical models of dubious epistemic status to prepare for the worst. The economic consequences of locking down everyone are very serious, but if we don’t do it and the worst comes to pass, the consequences will be even more severe, including for the economy. I’m not American, but I think there are enough reasons at this point to fear that something really bad is going to happen unless you take strong measures to prevent it. At the end of a two-week lockdown, you can reevaluate in light of what scientists will have learned by then....

Second, from Liam Kofi Bright and Richard Bradley:

We are going to have to respond to COVID19 in absence of the sort of knowledge we should ideally prefer when making rational decisions of great social import. In the UK the current hope, if it may be called that, is that we can at least keep the death toll below 20,000. If even this is to be achieved we must decide responsibly and fairly about how to bear various burdens, especially when one remembers Sartre’s point that sometimes to make no choice is itself a morally weighty choice. Clear thinking about the principles that might underlie rational decision making in extreme uncertainty is thus important to us at this moment.

There's no mathematical solution to tragedy, nor an analysis that saves us the responsibility of hard choices. Whatever we do there will be terrible loss. May our decisions be guided by a reason that knows its limits, and a compassion that knows none.

Lent XXI

But Peter, in the ardour of his zeal, made profession of steadfastness and endurance to the last extremity, saying that he would manfully resist the terrors of death, and count nothing of bonds; but in so doing he erred from what was right. For he ought not, when the Saviour told him that he would prove weak to have contradicted Him, loudly protesting the contrary; for the Truth could not lie: but rather he ought to have asked strength of Him, that either he might not suffer this, or be rescued immediately from harm. But, as I have already said, being fervent in spirit, and warm in his love towards Christ, and of unrestrainable zeal in rightly performing those duties which become a disciple in his attendance upon his Master, he declares that he will endure to the last extremity: but he was rebuked for foolishly speaking against what was foreknown, and for his unreasonable haste in contradicting the Saviour's words. For this reason He says, "Verily I tell you, that the cock shall not crow to-night, until you have thrice denied Me." And this proved true. Let us not therefore think highly of ourselves, even if we see ourselves greatly distinguished for our virtues: rather let us offer up the praises of our thanksgivings to Christ Who redeems us, and Who also it is that grants us even the desire to be able to act rightly: by Whom and with Whom to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for over and ever, Amen.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Sermon CXLIV.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Some More Poem Drafts

A busy week, since school is starting up again. These are just a few experiments.


Chatter-birds in trees at night:
thoughts inside my drowsy head.

Classical Composer

He's a providential musician,
the classical composer,
contemporary and nontemporary,
a truly classical composer,
providential in miracle,
providential in law,
prudent with a heavenly fortune.

A symphony is solidary
for a classical composer;
foresightedness is his vision
and subsidiary his supposing,
every part in sympathy.
The shiver of his music
crests on the page,
a wave.

The orchestras are ruined;
they are but a word remembered.
They thrum upon the waters
and fall,
But the mind's a classical composer,
and God's a classical composer,
and they compose a solemn symphony
for the orchestra of dreams.

Summer Shadow and Autumn Sigh

Summer Shadow bears a weighty ring;
in dream-like lands he muses,
in fluid and shamanic realms
he muses in leucocholy,
for in the mirror we all are memories
saving yesterday's child.
Distant-far comes Autumn Sigh,
an unwavering anticipation,
lovely in hand, with heaven-eyed heart,
for in the mirror we are all hoping
for a thing that will be seen.

Eternity is for the wanting;
this world is for the holding;
and at the honeyed equinox
the sorrows form a crown
as sad and lonely seasons
drink their nectar-wine alone.

Book of Grace

Holy Mary, Book of Grace,
all of Truth in little space
between your pregnant covers lies.
The living meaning of the Lord
is lovingly breathed through the Word
and rests on you, for you have heard
and answered Yes, O Virgin wise.
We can scarce imagine it:
The Word of God in you is writ
to be the Word in ink and page
of human flesh, a Word most sage
that breathes on all who seek to read
meaning greater than the age,
Spirit greater than all wit.

Lent XX

I know, dearly beloved, that some may be moved, as the godly to inquire into the meaning of, and the ungodly to find fault with, the statement, that it was after the Lord had given the bread, that had been dipped, to His betrayer that Satan entered into him. For so it is written: "And when He had dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the Son of Simon. And after the bread, then entered Satan into him." For they say, Was this the worth of Christ's bread, given from Christ's own table, that after it Satan should enter into His disciple? And the answer we give them is, that thereby we are taught rather how much we need to beware of receiving what is good in a sinful spirit. For the point of special importance is, not the thing that is received, but the person that receives it; and not the character of the thing that is given, but of him to whom it is given. For even good things are hurtful, and evil things are beneficial, according to the character of the recipients.

Augustine, Tractate 62 on John.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Two New Poem Drafts


All failing things have an aim and an end.
To stray is not to find, sin is a lack,
a foe is a lapse of what makes a friend,
to lose presupposes a path to track.
But not merely in skill are failures found;
in nature too may things err from their way--
tending by impediment may be bound,
defects arise, monsters see light of day.
The doctor fails because he aims to cure,
the literate because he aims to read;
life too in success is not always pure.
Thus nature and skill are alike in deed
and aim for an end, for which they endure,
a target to which their success would lead.

Danse Macabre

Around and around the dancers will go,
their bones all a-rattle with music and song
as cremation-ashes are falling like snow.

We are always already in crisis and know
that soon it will come; it will not be long;
around and around the dancers will go.

Our ways overseen by the raven and crow,
we all come together as neighbors in throng
as cremation-ashes are falling like snow.

The smiles are all rigid with the burden of woe
on the guiltless as on those who do wrong;
around and around the dancers will go.

No rain washes heaven save tears that yet flow;
the clouds are all gray, the death-chill is strong,
as cremation ashes are falling like snow.

Each follows each and all of us go,
here pope, worker, king, and child dance along;
around and around the dancers will go
as cremation-ashes are falling like snow.

Lent XIX

Some have said that Christ during the supper gave His body and blood to His disciples, but did not partake of it Himself. But this seems improbable. Because Christ Himself was the first to fulfill what He required others to observe: hence He willed first to be baptized when imposing Baptism upon others: as we read in Acts 1:1: "Jesus began to do and to teach." Hence He first of all took His own body and blood, and afterwards gave it to be taken by the disciples. And hence the gloss upon Ruth 3:7, "When he had eaten and drunk, says: Christ ate and drank at the supper, when He gave to the disciples the sacrament of His body and blood. Hence, 'because the children partook [Vulgate: 'are partakers' (Hebrews 2:14)] of His flesh and blood, He also hath been partaker in the same.'"

Thomas Aquinas, ST 3.81.1.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God; Monday Starts on Saturday; The Doomed City


Opening Passage: From Hard to Be a God:

The black stock of Anka's crossbow was made of plastic, while the strings were chrome steel, operated by a single motion of a noiselessly sliding lever. Anton didn't trust newfangled technology; had had an old-fashioned arbalest in the style of Marshal Totz (King Pitz the First), overlaid with black copper, with a a cable of ox sinew wound around a little wheel. And Pashka had taken a pneumatic rifle. Since he was lazy and lacked the mechanical aptitude to work crossbows, he thought they were childish. (p. 1)

From Monday Starts on Saturday:

I was nearing my destination. On both sides the green forest pressed right up against the road, giving way now and then to clearings overgrown with yellow sedge. The sun had been trying in vain to set for hours and still hung low over the horizon. As the car trundled along the crunching gravel surface of the narrow road, I steered the wheels over the large stones, and every time the empty gas cans in the trunk clanged and clattered. (p. 3)

From The Doomed City:

The trash cans were rusty and battered, and the lids had come loose, so there were scraps of newspaper poking up from under them and potato peels dangling down. They were like the bills of slovenly pelicans that are none too picky about their food. The cans looked way to heavy to lift, but in fact, working in tandem with Wang, it was a breeze to jerk a can like that up toward Donald;s outstretched hands and set it on the edge of the truck's lowered sideboard. You just had to watch out for your fingers. And after that yo could adjust your mittens and take a few breaths through your nose while Donald walked the can farther in on the back of the truck and left it there. (p. 3)

Summary: These are three very different books. Hard to Be a God is sad and melancholy, Monday Starts on Saturday is comic and absurdist, and The Doomed City an endless mist of doubt and uncertainty.

In HtBaG, Anton is an undercover operative from planet Earth, which is a communist utopia, observing another planet that is undergoing a medeival-ish period. He has taken an aristocratic role as Don Rumata in the court of the Kingdom of Arkanar. Things have taken a turn for the worse in the kingdom, as the scheming Don Reba has begun a campaign to stamp out dissident intellectuals, which, for someone like Don Reba, always eventually becomes synonymous with intellectuals generally. Don Rumata tries to convince his fellow observers that something must be done, that this is no ordinary turn into fascism, but they are unconvinced: Earth has a rigorous scientific approach to history, basis theory, which shows that this is just an ordinary element in the course of progress to enlightenment. Don Rumata reluctantly confines himself to observation, investigation of what is going on, and occasional rescue of an intellectual or two. It becomes increasingly difficult to do this as things in the kingdom become worse and worse, with Don Reba managing a breathtakingly bold and effective coup that brings the kingdom into the hand of a fundamental religious-military order, the Holy Order, a sort of more ruthless Teutonic Knights.

Suppose that Communism and all its pomp and promises were true, that the theory of dialectical materialism were the true theory of all historical events and that on the basis of it you could know that all things, however bad they seem, were whirring through the machine of history to inevitable progress. Suppose it all. What then? You see the world with the eye of a god now, know how this pain and this suffering fits into the big picture, why it must be there if the glorious world of tomorrow is to come. What then? You have but to observe and see it all unfold, step by step by step. What then? You are still human, though you see the sweep of history with the eye of a god; you are still here and now, though you know where it all tends; you are still faced with human suffering though you know why it must be. The greatest gift a god could give to people, one of the characters suggests, is to leave them all alone. But if you had the knowledge of a god, it would still be human eyes that you see crying; the machine of progress is still lubricated with human blood, and it is the blood of people you know; your heart would still cry out when faced with the unbearable loss. If you knew it all, what then? Would it not break you to stand aside, even knowing that that was best?

MSoS is actually three linked stories, each of which ends with a comment about something that happens that would make it all make sense and the words, "But that's an entirely different story." In "The Commotion over the Sofa", Aleksandr (Sasha) Privalov is a programmer driving in Russian Karelia when he picks up two hitchhikers. The two hitchhikers, discovering that he is a programmer, convince him to stay in Solovets to work for the Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Wizardry (in Bromfield's translation it is National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy or NITWiT, to try to give a play on words analogous to the corresponding Russian acronym. They have some difficulty finding a place for him to stay, eventually settling on the Institute's museum, where he ends up meeting an array of wacky characters, from the merely odd to the Lewis-Carrollish, particularly over the sofa in his room, which everyone is trying to steal because it is the world's most effective universal translator. "Vanity of Vanities" sees Privalov settled in and getting used to the oddities of the Institute. The Institute has a large number of strange departments, all of which are geared in some way to improving human life, but all of which go off the rails somewhat in doing so, and each of them is headed by some odd person or other. There's the Department of Linear Happiness, the Department of the Meaning of Life, the Department of Predictions and Prophecies (headed by Merlin the liar, i.e., Mark Twain's version of Merlin), the empty Department of Defensive Magic, the Department of Eternal Youth (filled with senile old people), the Department of Universal Transformations, the Department of Absolute Knowledge (where people, knowing that knowledge is infinite, and that any finite inquiry will only be finite, which is as zero to infinity, get to zero work more efficiently by either doing no work at all or spending their time trying to calculate what happens when you divide zero by zero) and so forth. Much of the work of the Institute consists of the different researchers making modified doubles of themselves as models of happiness to test. The most famous of the researchers, Ambrosius Vybegallo, who thinks that happiness consists in always wanting more, repeatedly has experiments that end disastrously but also has good press because he always talks up his experimenters to reporters like a used car salesman. "All Kinds of Commotion" unfolds like a comic science fiction detective story as Privalov and his friends try to unravel the mystery of Janus Polyeuctovich, who is both A-Janus and S-Janus, two different people who are also only one person. (The other two stories were fun, but this story, I thought, was excellent.)

The Institute, of course, is a send up of all kinds of research institutes and academic organizations. After all, in a fairly straightforward sense, the point of these research institutes is human happiness. But as with the Institute, the people involved generally don't know what human happiness is, the people who are most successful in the Institute politics very definitely don't know what human happiness, and much of their research of human happiness consists of modeling the ideal human person after themselves with a few magical corrections. I found the work to be almost unsettlingly accurate in its satire of the lives of academics and researchers, who are indeed very often using their research as a sort of therapy for their personal issues, who do indeed tend to talk themselves up while having relatively little to show for it, who do indeed justify their work as essential to human happiness despite the fact that their views of human happiness are often lacking in all basic common sense, who are indeed often absurd peddlers of absurdities that only make sense on the assumptions of their own research. It's all exaggerated and pile together, of course, but the book ends with a notice from Privalov himself, in which we learn that the book, while told from Privalov's point of view, is not written by Privalov, but while it is exaggerated and sometimes inaccurate, it correctly captures the sense of life at the Institute. And it does.

There's a recurring cycle in philosophy departments of having to justify their existence to people who have entirely arbitrary views, often dubious, of what an academic department should be doing. What does the teaching of philosophy, say, contribute to the world? It teaches...hmmm...Critical Thinking! 'Critical Thinking' is a buzzword; it doesn't actually mean anything in general but it could mean something, and sometimes does mean something very specific in specific contexts, and if you can just get the people asking to accept that 'Critical Thinking' sounds like something they should be supporting, as something that would be important for human happiness, then a clever academic can come up with all sorts of arguments about how what they are teaching -- which in reality they are usually just teaching because they think it's interesting and they enjoy teaching it, or because it makes them feel like they are contributing to some important cause they otherwise would be doing nothing for, or because they have issues and are working them out by teaching-as-therapy -- is profoundly valuable for Critical Thinking in some sense of the word 'Critical' and some sense of the word 'Thinking'. And if anyone ever comes demanding that the piper be paid, that the academic prove that they are actually getting Critical Thinking out of students (as if teachers could get anything out of students), the clever academic can argue that what the demanders are demanding misconceives how Critical Thinking works, for some sense of the word 'Critical' and some sense of the word 'Thinking', for, after all, are the academics themselves not in fact the experts on what Critical Thinking is? To whom else would you appeal to show that you were right? And so it goes, until Critical Thinking is boring and the label game goes on with something else. And so it is with research, and so it is with every other department. The justifications never match the things that are done, except by sleight of hand, and the motivations never have much to do with the justifications, and everything ends up being valuable because it can be dressed up symbolically as something that sounds good, whether that be Critical Thinking or Social Justice or Pursuit of Truth or something else, and everyone's working for nominally the same goals conceived in ways that are absolutely, undeniably, mutually exclusive. It's a NITWiT life. But sometimes something interesting comes of it, and you undeniably do get to meet interesting people.

TDC gets its name from a painting by Nicholas Roerich, which depicts a city in a desolate landscape with a vast red serpent coiled around it. In his afterward, Boris Strugatsky suggests that what drew the brothers to the painting was "its somber beauty and the sense of hopelessness emanating from it" (p. 458), and that captures the book. Andrei Voronin is one of a vast number of people who have agreed to join the Experiment, run by the mysterious Mentors. None of them have any idea what the Experiment is really about, but all of them had been at a point in their life where that didn't matter. The Experiment is run in a vast City that sits between a sheer Cliff on one side (going up as far as the eye can see) and a vast Abyss on the other (which has no known bottom). Everyone there is from different times and places but can communicate with each other. The Mentors occasionally talk to the people in the Experiment, but they largely govern themselves, and they each get their jobs by a kind of arbitrary assignment that changes regularly. Voronin, a Leninist-Stalinist from the 1950s, gets assigned to garbage duty and the crew of co-workers and neighbors is a motley bunch. They all have their differences, whether it's European liberalism or Soviet communism or Nazism, but they are now part of the Experiment, and keep trying to make sense of their lives in that context. Sometimes people wonder if the Experiment has failed, because awful things keep happening, but pretty much anything could be justified as part of the Experiment, and so ultimately, if you ask why, the answer is always, "The Experiment is the Experiment." Voronin after several adventures will find himself a bureaucratic functionary after a military coup by one of the Nazis -- the idealistic Stalinist finding that he is really not so different from the barbaric Nazi after all -- and will eventually lead an expedition to see if there is anything to the north of the City, which seems to go on and on between the Wall and the Abyss.

Everybody goes about their lives in a society that's set up on certain principles. It might be liberalism, or Communism, or Nazism, or Imperialism, or any number of other ideologies. It provides the framework, the answer to "Why are we all doing this?" The answer to that question is always something like, "Because that's what liberalism is" or "Because that's what Communists do" or, sometimes defining the same thing by negatives, "Because doing anything else is fascist," or whatever it may be. That's the Experiment. And the answer to all the Why questions always boils down to: The Experiment is the Experiment. When people begin to think the Experiment is failed, sometimes it hits hard, as when the American Donald commits suicide, or they rebel and continue the Experiment while insisting that there is no such thing as the Experiment -- we are not victims of ideology! -- and yet in the end everything is justified by the Experiment. Since nobody really knows where it's going, everything comes down to, "The Experiment is the Experiment." But, of course, human beings are petty power-grubbers, so we use that to manipulate the people around us, and we concoct enemies so that we can spread our views, and we just muddle along trying to get by in a way that lets us get things we want. Sometimes you get a big shift in the Experiment -- who knows why, maybe it's a holocaust and maybe it's a plague and maybe it's the sun going out for a week, but who knows why -- and yet, whether people admit it or not, they still try to make sense of their lives against some version or other of "The Experiment is the Experiment." Stalinist Voronin becomes almost by accident a functionary in the government of Nazi Heiger, and as it turns out, fits right in. All these ideologies have the same structure, however different their rhetoric; people do the same kinds of things under each, but just dress it up differently. It all moves in circles like the serpent Ouroboros.

And what is the answer to it all? How can you answer a question about what the Experiment means when all your life you've been appealing to the Experiment to make things make sense? We start with "The Experiment is the Experiment" and that's sort of how we end, maybe having learned a bit about it, but still having no real idea how to live life with that background ideology. In his afterward, Strugatsky notes that the tale of Andrei rather maps the trajectory of the authors' own lives, and of the entire generation of Soviets from 1940 to 1985, and the baffling experiencing of an idealism that leads smoothly to selling out, and the shift, unimaginable without experiencing it, of having started with an ideology, not knowing what it means but certain there is a meaning, to being suspended in an empty ideological void, not knowing what it means and having no idea if it means anything at all.

Favorite Passage: From HtBaG:

"The essence of man," Budach said, chewing slowly, "lies in his astonishing ability to get used to anything. There's nothing in nature that man could not learn to live with. Neither horse nor dog nor mouse has this property. Probably God, as he was creating man, guessed the torments he was condemning him to and gave him an enormous reserve of strength and patience. It is difficult to say whether this is good or bad. If man didn't have such patience and endurance, all good people would have long since perished, and only the wicked and soulless would be left in this world. On the other hand, the habit of enduring and adapting turns people into dumb beasts, who differ from the animals in nothing except anatomy, and who only exceed them in helplessness. And each new day gives rise to a new horror of evil and violence." (p. 205)

From MSoS:

...They worked in an institute that was concerned first and foremost with the problems of human happiness and the meaning of human life, but even in their ranks there was no one who knew for certain what happiness is and what exactly is the meaning of life. And they had accepted as a working hypothesis that happiness lies in the constant cognition of the unknown, which is also the meaning of life. Every man is a magician in his heart, but he only becomes a magician when he starts thinking less about himself and more about othes, when his work becomes more interesting to him than simply amusing himself according to the old meaning of that word. And their working hypothesis must have been close to the truth, because just as labor transformed ape into man, so the absence of labor transforms man into ape or something even worse, only far more rapidly. (pp. 139-140)

From TDC:

"Maybe you think," Izya asked acidly, "that the most exceptional builders of this temple aren't swine? Lord Almighty, what hideous swine they are sometimes! The thief and scoundrel Benevuto Cellini, the hopeless drunk Hemingway, the pederast Tchaikovsky, the schizophrenic and black reactionary Dostoyevsky, the thief and gallows bird François Villon...My God the decent people among them are the rare ones! But like the coral polyps, they know not what they do. And neither does the whole of humankind. Generation after generation they guzzle, wallow in pleasure, ravage, kill, turn up their toes--and before you know it an entire coral atoll has sprung up, and how beautiful it is! And how enduring!" (pp. 442-443)

Recommendation: All Recommended. MSoS in particular is delightful, and Highly Recommended if you like comic stories of the absurd.


Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God, Bormashenko, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2014).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Starts on Saturday, Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2017).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City, Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2016).