Saturday, December 05, 2020

Maximus the Confessor, The Life of the Virgin


Opening Passage:

I hear this, all you nations, and take heed, all you inhabitants of the earth (cf. Isa 34.1)! Come all believers and gather all lovers of God, kigns of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth, boys and girls, the old with the young, every tongue and every soul, let us hymn, praise, and glorify the all-holy, immaculate, and most blessed Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
the throne of the king more exalted than the cherubim and the seraphim,
the mother of Christ our God,
the city of God of which glorious things are spoken (cf. Ps 86.3),
chosen before the ages by the ineffable forethought of God,
the temple of the Holy Spirit,
the source of the living water,
the Paradise of the tree of life,
the growing vine from which drink of immortality was brought forth,
the river of the living water,
the ark that contained the uncontainable,
the urn of gold that received the manna of immortality (cf. Heb 9.4),
the unsown valley that sprouted forth the wheat of life,
the flower of virginity, full of the perfume of grace,
the lily of divine beauty,
the virgin and mother from whom was born the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
the treasure house of our salvation that is more exalted than all the powers of heaven. (pp. 36-37)

Summary: The tale told in the Life is known in its general outline, but it's worthwhile to go through it step by step. Our sense of the life of the Virgin is partly from Scripture, partly from Christmas pageant, partly from our suppositions about what things must have been life, and many extrapolations, some reasonable and some just to make the story; the author of the Life, traditionally thought to be St. Maximus, is getting his account from prophecy (much more than we do), from the Gospels, from the traditions associated with the relics of the Virgin Mary, from comments by the Church Fathers (he explicitly notes he only uses apocryphal and legendary sources when he has some basis for doing so in the Fathers), and his extrapolations are sometimes different from ours, and sometimes just as reasonable or interesting. It is good, in any case, to see the same tale told a different way.

Mary is born to Joachim (of the tribe of Judah and house of David) and Anna (of the tribe of Levi), who were growing old and yet had no children (ch. 3). They prayed, and their prayer was answered, with Joachim hearing a voice in the Temple saying he would receive a child glorious not merely for them but for the whole world, and Anna being met by an angel who tells her, "God has heard your prayer and you will give birth to the cause of joy, and you will name her Mary, through whom the salvation of the entire world will come into being" (p. 39). So was Mary born, and when she was three years old, her parents "brought the Temple of God to the Temple" (p. 39), where she was dedicated to be one of the maidens who assisted the Temple, which was prophesied in Psalm 44 (ch. 7-9; it's Psalm 45 in most Western numberings). At the age of twelve, she had a foreshadowing of the Annunciation when she was praying in front of the doors of the Temple (ch. 14). A great light shone around, and she heard a voice from the sanctuary saying, "Mary, from you my Son will be born" (p. 46). Shortly after, she entered the next phase of her life; by custom, women were not allowed to be continually present in assisting at the Temple beyond this age. However, she was under a vow of virginity. Therefore, on the recommendation of her relative Zechariah, a priest who was husband to her cousin Elizabeth, she was betrothed to an elderly man of excellent reputation, Joseph, who could be trusted to protect her and not to take advantage of her (ch. 16). He was seventy, of good family and reputation, but poor in material possessions, being a carpenter famous for his selfless good works, and he took her to his residence in Nazareth (ch. 17). There she became teacher of his family, and their house was a house of prayer. 

Not long afterward, the angel announced the conception of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth. And in the sixth month after this, the archangel Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth as she stood in morning prayer beside a fountain (ch. 19). He declared to her that she was favored, for the Lord was with her; that she was blessed among women; that she would conceive a Son and call him Jesus, to whom the Lord would give the throne of David, so that he would reign forever with a kingdom without end. She was greatly troubled by this, but not by the angel himself, although she did not "naively accept the message right away" (p. 52); rather she was worried that the message of the angel meant that her vow of virginity would be broken (ch. 23-24). But the angel reassured her that it would be accomplished not by her act but by the power of the Holy Spirit. She kept the angel's revelation to herself, and revealed the message to no one for a long time afterward. Instead, she went to the house of Elizabeth, "whom she imitated in virtuous deeds" (p. 57).When she reached Elizabeth's house and Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, Elizabeth's child, John the Baptist, prophet from the womb, leaped in greeting at the coming of the Mother of the Lord, and thus Elizabeth and John, mother and child, prophesied together of the blessedness of the Virgin (ch. 25). Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months, "because after the death of the holy Virgin's parents, she saw Elizabeth in the place of her mother" (p. 60).

When she returned to the house of Joseph, Joseph soon recognized her to be pregnant; "he could hardly bear it" and "he was filled with sadness" (p. 61). Being a just man, he came up with a plan to handle the scandalous matter in a way that would harm Mary least, but an angel appeared to him, and calmed his fears. In those days a census went forth from Caesar Augustus; this census is symbolic of a higher census, that of the kingdom of heaven (ch. 32). According to the census, people should register in their hometown; but while Joseph lived in Nazareth for purposes of work, he had been born in Bethlehem, where all his family lived. Because Bethlehem was crowded, the normal places to stay were unavailable, so they had to spend a night in a cave where animals were ordinarily kept. And there was born the Word of God, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (ch. 33). Elizabeth was in attendance. Angels brought shepherds to the cave. And Mary pondered in her heart all of the things that had happened to her. 

Magi came from the east following a star that had already been long guiding them, stopping and starting and descending as appropriate, thus showing that it was not an astronomical event but a rational being (ch. 36). They came from to Jerusalem to ask about the newborn king, a question that did not please Herod, who was already paranoid that his wife and his brother were scheming to take his throne. But the Magi soon enough came to Bethlehem to stand before the newborn infant and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh "as to a king and God" (p. 69). The Magi returned to their own lands, being warned in a dream not to inform Herod of the child's location. The child was presented in the Temple according to the Jewish law, and there was recognized by the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna; Simeon warned her that her soul would be pierced as by a sword.

In the meantime, Herod intended to murder members of his family whom he thought a threat to his throne, and to do so without suffering the wrath of Rome, he had to make his way first to Rome in order to make his case before the emperor. When he returned, he strangled his sons, and, remembering the questions of the Magi again, began to reflect on a wider possible threat to his power. Almost two years had passed since the questions of the Magi, so he had slaughtered all children two years and younger. Because of this, Joseph, Mary, and the child fled into Egypt, only returning to Nazareth after about two more years (ch. 55). When Jesus was twelve, they went down to Jerusalem, where Jesus was separated from them; after days of searching, they found him in the Temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Then Jesus, in his first divinely inspired teaching, said to them, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (p. 89).

The ministry of Jesus began when Jesus was thirty years old, and his cousin John a little older. The latter was living the wilderness, preaching repentance and the baptism of repentance to the people, who were amazed at his asceticism. Jesus came to John to be baptized, despite John's recognition that he did not require it, and then Jesus went into the desert to be tempted. Afterward, he began to gather his disciples, first Andrew and John (the evangelist), who had been disciples of his cousin, and then others. And they all went to a wedding in Cana, which Mary also attended. When they ran out of wine, she made known the situation to her son, and although her son was modest and humble, he honored her and complied with her wishes, performing his first miracle by changing water into wine (ch. 68). Shortly afterward, he healed Peter's mother-in-law. The result of these and other early miracles was that more disciples began to gather around him, including women, and Mary would become the leader of these women and their ministry to Christ. "And she held authority: as the Lord did over the twelve disciples and then the seventy, so did the holy mother over the other women who accompanied him" (p.102). At the passover before his death, as Jesus showed the mysteries to the twelve disciples, he gave to his mother the care of the women who attended him, "and she encouraged them and was his surrogate in their labor and ministry" (p. 102). As Peter was chief among the disciples, Mary Magdalene was chief among the women who were guided by the Virgin.

Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples and seized by his authority, and unjustly condemned to crucifixion. All of the disciples abandoned him, some by fleeing outright, some by following but only 'at a distance', but the Virgin Mary alone remained with her son through all things (ch. 75), and indeed, she is the source of much of what we know about the Lord's passion (ch. 76). When she was forcibly separated, she nonetheless did not cease to try to find out what was happening. And so she was aware of all of the suffering of Jesus, which pierced her soul like a sword. And when he was nailed to the cross, she was at his feet, grieving. The disciple John, the evangelist, joined her, and in one of his final acts, he gave her to John to be his mother, and him to Mary to be her son, thus showing that we should care for our parents until death.

After the death of Jesus, Mary began immediately to organize the affair of his burial, finding an appropriate tomb, which belonged to Joseph of Arimathea; she asked him to use his influence to request of Pilate that the body be delivered to her. Then Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, was strengthened in courage by the words of Mary and helped her to retrieve the body and bury it, along with two other women named Mary who had joined the Virgin at the Cross, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. Jesus was laid in the tomb, but because of the Sabbath, the funereal preparations could not be completed. The tomb was then sealed by order of Pilate, and the two Marys went away, to return later with the perfumes needed to complete the preparations; but the Virgin Mary remained by the tomb, and thus saw the events surrounding the Resurrection of her son, a fact hinted at in prophecy but not explicitly stated by the evangelists, who were more concerned with confirming the event by other witnesses (ch. 92). St. John, taking seriously the trust Christ had given him on the cross, bought the Virgin a house in Jerusalem where they could both stay, and it was in this house that Jesus manifested himself to his disciples (ch. 93). Mary was with the disciples when Jesus ascended, and afterward, "the holy mother of Christ was the model and leader of every good activity for men and for women through the grace and support of her glorious king and son" (p. 121). She instructed the apostles in fasting and prayer, and on the fiftieth day, when the grace of the Holy Spirit fell like fire from heaven, she was there with them.

Mary sends the disciples out to preach, while remaining in Jerusalem herself, where she could pray at the tomb from which her son had risen. And as she had shared mentally in the Passion of her son, she shared mentally in the sufferings of the disciples preaching in his name (ch. 97), organizing prayer for them whenever they were thrown into prison or harmed. however, she was not wholly satisfied with this, particularly since John stayed with her, and she felt that she was holding him back. So she decided they would both go out into the world to preach, along with Mary Magdalene and the other women. As she was on the road, however, Jesus appeared to her in a vision and told her to return; John and the women should continue, but his mother was to remain for a while in Jerusalem "so that she would lead the believing people and direct the church in Jerusalem with James the brother of the Lord who was appointed as bishop there" (p.125). John went on with the women to Ephesus, where he and they preached the gospel, the women becoming co-apostles with him. And through all the sufferings of all of those going forth, the Virgin suffered with them and interceded for them with her son; at one point the enemies of the Church even tried to burn down her house, although it backfired on them and that put a quick end to that. And the apostles would return, when they could, to celebrate Easter each year with her.

The time came when the end of the Virgin's time on earth drew near, and the archangel Gabriel was sent to her again, giving a date palm branch as a symbol of victory over death, to let her know that she would brought into heaven, as predicted in Psalm 44 (ch. 103). (This was the same psalm that we saw in the Presentation, and not accidentally, because the Presentation foreshadowed her Dormition.) Rejoicing, she went to pray at the Mount of Olives, and as she prayed, all the trees bowed down before her, and when she returned St. John was brought by the Lord to her. She showed him and all the women the date palm branch, and they began to prepare for her falling asleep in the Lord. From every corner of the world, the apostles began to return to pay their respects, and she taught them how they should proceed and gave her blessing to them. Then Christ with his angels manifested before them, and as the angels sang songs of praise, the holy mother died a painless death, and Christ took her soul to heaven (ch. 110). The apostles prepared her body according to her instructions, with St. Peter as head of the apostles leading the funeral prayer, and they processed through the streets to lay her body in the grave. Some of the enemies of the Church attempted to cast down the bed on which her body was being carried, but when they did so, their hands were struck with terrible wounds. They begged for mercy, and Peter healed them, and there was no more disruption (ch. 114). Then they laid the Virgin's body in the tomb she had laid her son, and the tomb was sealed, and they visited the tomb for three days. But St. Thomas, who had the farthest to go, his mission being in India, arrived late; so they opened the tomb so he could see her one last time. But there was no body in the tomb (ch. 117).

The Virgin, being poor and devoting most of her resources to the poor, had only two garments. One she entrusted to a woman who had attended her, and it eventually came to the city of Constantinople in the reign of the Emperor Leo, through the devotion to the Virgin displayed by two noblemen, Galbius and Candidus (ch. 119-124). Thus we see that the Virgin continues her care for the Church.

One of the very notable things about this whole story is how extraordinarily active the Virgin Mary is; the tale presents her as a constant and very active presence. What is more, she is in the Life a very authoritative presence; she organizes a great deal of the ministry of Christ, and is the primary mover of the expansion of the Church, a still small point around which the entire Church revolves. She never pushes her way in, but she has a way about her that leads to her teaching, organizing, influencing others to do better and be better. And, of course, all of her earthly ministry is a sort of picture of the way the author thinks her heavenly ministry is; the tale has almost all of the components of modern Marian devotion, although not always linked in exactly the way they often are today.

Favorite Passage: From the Dormition:

Such a blessing and teaching she spoke to them according to her glory, and she explained to them the rites of anointing her with myrrh and her burial. And she extended her hands and began to give thanks to the Lord and said:

"I bless you, O king and only-begotten Son of the beginningless Father, true God of true God, who constented to become incarnate from me, your handmaid, through the incalculable, philanthropic good will of the Father and the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

"I bless you, the giver of every blessing, who spread forth light.

"I bless you, the source of very life of goodness and peace, who bestow on us knowledge of yourself and of your beginningless Father and of the co-beginningless and life-giving Holy Spirit.

"I bless you, who were ineffably pleased to dwell in my womb.

"I bless you, who so loved human nature that you endured crucifixion and death for our sake, and by your Resurrection you resurrected our nature from the depths of Hell, and led it up to heaven and glorified it with an incomprehensible glory.

"I bless you and glorify your words, which you have given us in truth, and I believe that all the things that you have said to me will be fulfilled." (pp. 133-134)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Maximus the Confessor, The Life of the Virgin, Stephen J. Shoemaker, tr., Yale UP (New Haven: 2012).

Last of the Church Fathers

I had intended to put up something for the feast of Damscene yesterday, but forgot. December 4 is the memorial for St. Yanah ibn Mansur ibn Sarjun, better known as St. John Damascene, Doctor of the Church. 

The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God's body and blood. But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit. And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energises and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out. But one can put it well thus, that just as in nature the bread by the eating and the wine and the water by the drinking are changed into the body and blood of the eater and drinker, and do not become a different body from the former one, so the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

[St. John Damascene, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 13.]

Friday, December 04, 2020

Soria Moria

 "Soria Moria Castle" is a Norwegian fairy tale, probably the most culturally important fairy tale in Norway itself, despite not being as world-famous as "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". It tells the tale of a talentless and good-for-nothing lad, Halvor. His fortunes change when he decides to go to sea (notably a life he can't easily run back home from); a storm drives him to strange shores, where he walks until he sees in the distance a castle shining in the sun. Inside he finds a princess at the spinning wheel, who warns him that it is no place for Christian folk, as the castle belongs to a troll with three heads. The princess schemes to have Halvor kill the three-headed troll, and then convinces him to rescue her three sisters, held by trolls in other castles. Then Halvor and the three princesses live happily together in Soria Moria Castle, but it almost comes to ruin when Halvor becomes homesick. The princesses give him a magic wishing ring that can take him home, and he really impresses everyone with his fine clothes, but he fails to follow their instructions in using it, so he loses it and the princesses as well, and has no idea where Soria Moria Castle is. He sets out to try to find it again, asking the advice of the Moon and the West Wind, and finally returns to discover that the youngest princess, the one he likes most, is having her wedding. But seeing Halvor, the princesses agree that he is more worthy to wed her, so the youngest princess throws the unfortunate bridegroom out the window and marries Halvor instead.

The story generally tends to be a symbol of the search for happiness and gives its name to one of the most famous paintings in Norway:

Theodor Kittelsen, Soria Moria.jpg
Theodor Kittelson, Soria Moria

It also gives the symbolism of Sissel's song, "Soria Moria":

Outside of Norway, it is much less known, but it has its occasional influence. "Soria Moria Castle" is the source of the name for Tolkien's Mines of Moria (Tolkien himself explicitly notes this in a letter somewhere). Most of the other associations that Tolkien's Moria has arise from what the name 'Moria' suggests in the context of his languages, but it's possible that the tones of longing and the Fellowship's finding that the Orcs have a troll with them might also be due to the fairytale.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Poetry and Philosophy

Of all the imitative arts poetry alone embraces and by its nature is intended to embrace the whole man. It is therefore free to borrow its similes or colours and manifold figurative expressions from every sphere of life and nature, and to take them now from this now from that object, as on each occasion appears' most striking and appropriate. Now, no one would think of prescribing unconditionally to poetry, and compelling her to take all her similes and figures either from flowers and plants, or from the animal world, or exclusively from any one of the several pursuits of man,from the sailor's life, for instance, or the shepherd's, or the huntsman's, or from any of his handicrafts or mechanical arts. For although all such similes, and colours, and expressions, appropriately introduced, are equally allowable in every poetical composition, and none of them need be rejected, still the exclusive use of any one class of them as a law would hamper the free poetic spirit and extinguish the living fancy. In the same way, philosophy is not confined to any one invariable and immutable form. At one time it may come forward in the guise of a moral, legislative, or a judicial discussion; at another, as a description of natural history. Or, perhaps, it may assume the method of an historical and genealogical development and derivation of ideas as best fitted to exhibit the thoughts which it aims at illustrating in their mutual coherence and connexion....Every method and every scientific form is good; or at least, when rightly employed, is good. But no one ought to be exclusive. No one must be carried out with painful uniformity, and with wearying monotony be invariably followed throughout.

Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., pp. 188-189.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Two Poem Drafts


The world is smaller than you know, my friend;
from vantage of our cramped and little souls
it seems to go forever without end,
as hill on hill in endless series rolls,
but no! it turns upon itself and curves
around so that you meet yourself again.
Instead of onward pace, the highway swerves,
you've met the end as soon as you begin.
So too our souls curve inward like a sphere;
with bounded surface touching outer world
our smallness makes a wall against our pride;
and yet we also hold a vastness dear,
true boundlessness within our sphere is curled--
but not ourselves, no! we hold God inside.

The Craft of Reason

The craft of reason none attain
except by matching wit and skill
against the sharpest minds before,

except by asking why and how,
by finding puzzles in the kinds
of things too easy to accept,

except by wonder reaching out,
except by patience hunting long,
except by musement, care, and hope.

Yet I Live, I Live

He Loves Me
by Mark Van Doren

That God should love me is more wonderful
Than that I so imperfectly love him.
My reason is mortality, and dim
Senses; his--oh, insupportable--
Is that he sees me. Even when I pull
Dark thoughts about my head, each vein and limb
Delights him, though remembrance in him, grim
With my worst crimes, should prove me horrible.

And he has terrors that he can release.
But when he looks he loves me; which is why
I wonder; and my wonder must increase
Till more of it shall slay me. Yet I live,
I live; and he has never ceased to give
This glance at me that sweetens the whole sky.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Andrew Wilson's Traditionary Argument

 Andrew Wilson (1718-1792) was a Scottish physician and philosopher, who lived most of his life in Newcastle and London. He wrote a fair number of works; all of his philosophical works were published anonymously, although he doesn't seem to have made any rigorous effort to keep his authorship secret -- my impression, just from his scattered comments, he published mostly for circulating among friends and just kept his name off the works to reduce any scandal that might arise from his often unconventional philosophical views, or at least to reduce the chances of that side of his intellectual interest interfere with his medical career. For instance, he was a sharp critic of Newtonian physics at a time when it was increasingly held as the gold standard of scientific progress.

Many of his philosophical works are on natural philosophy, and one could easily get the impression that he was a materialist. Indeed, this seems to have been the impression created among his friends from an early little book on the matter; to correct this, he wrote another, and packaged them together as Human Nature Surveyed by Philosophy and Revelation, which was published in 1758. One of the things that is interesting about this work is that it is an early example of the traditionary argument for God's existence.

I've talked some before about the traditionary argument, which had a particular vogue in France in the first part of the nineteenth century, after which it largely vanished. It is most associated with Maistre, Bonald, and Lamennais, and can be seen as something that arose out of conflicts between empiricists and rationalists and the attempt to find a third way. The most common form of the argument is fairly easy to understand:

(1) The senses cannot convey a number of ideas we clearly have (infinity, necessity, obligation, etc.).
:: :: :: This is the anti-empiricist premise, and is common among rationalists.

(2) Human beings are only able to think of these things with the aid of language.
:: :: :: This differentiates the weak rationalism of the traditionalists from the strong rationalism of more typical rationalists like Malebranche, and generally involves some concession to the empiricists of the necessity of sensible symbolism.

(3) Language is something that human beings only have through learning from another.
:: :: :: This is the traditionary part of the traditionary argument, and what gave the traditionalist movement its name.

(4) It is impossible to have an infinite regress of people learning language from teachers who learned language from teachers.

(5) Therefore there is a first teacher of language who was not taught language, which all call God.
:: :: ::  By (3), of course, this first teacher at least cannot be human, and by (1) would have to be able to communicate things like necessity, infinity, etc.

Andew Wilson's version is found in the the second essay in Human Nature, the Essay on the Dignity of Human Nature. The essay depicts human nature as a sort of continual interaction between mind and body, one in which the mind cannot even recognize its own existence except by interacting with the physical world. The highest expression of human nature is our faculty of language, for which our body is clearly adapted. Language, of course, has to be distinguished from vocalization (vociferation, Wilson calls it), which can only convey passions; language, however, communicates the operations of the mind. This, like much else in human nature, appears to subserve the end of knowing, and our capacity to understand the world is our most remarkable one. This capacity, though, is limited; our body is only partly subservient to knowledge, our capability for knowing vastly exceeds any actual opportunity we will have to know (due, e.g., to the shortness of our lives), and human beings seem to live rather erratically.

Our knowledge is based on the senses and on testimony, which gives us ideas of things not present to our senses. These foundations are extended through calculation (which Wilson takes to be analysis of sensible things) and analogy, by which we transfer ideas about sensible objects to nonsensible things; these extensions are part of that interaction that makes up human nature, as Wilson calls the former an appeal of the senses to understanding and the latter an appeal of our understanding to the senses. 

One of Wilson's major steps in reasoning toward a traditionary argument is his claim that "Man is born not a rational creature, but a creature capable of rationality"(p. 59). We cannot actually be rational without proper development. In order to be rational beings, then, we need to things to sense and language to go beyond them; we also need education and social relationships that give us what is necessary to our coming to know. (This effectively involves a rejection of strong rationalism.)

Given everything that has been said so far, it is therefore unsurprising that Wilson concludes that human beings are incapable of thinking about spiritual objects at all unless they are within a society that communicates them to us. Then how does any human being have these ideas at all?

It must be a Being of another and superior nature who only can discover and exemplify that kind of Knowledge to us. He must be one who is thoroughly acquainted, 1. with the frame and energy of our intellectuals; 2. with the extent and efficacy of the objects formed for impressing our senses; and 3. with the propriety of the analogy between what is mechanically obtruded upon our minds by Nature, and the things we are capable of being taught: in short, he must be God. None inferior to the Creator is equal for the administration of such Knowledge. (pp. 60-61)

To emphasize this, Wilson argues that it is impossible for Deists to prove on the basis of pure reason that God exists (emphasizing the weak rationalism component of the argument), and it is impossible for Skeptics to explain how anyone is able to think about something like God at all (emphasizing the anti-empiricism component of the argument). The key point in Wilson's argument against the Deists, one which he find him arguing elsewhere in other works, is his argument that you can't prove that the universe was the sort of thing that could begin to exist unless you can already prove that there is a cause capable of beginning the universe, and you can't prove there is a cause capable of beginning the universe unless you can already establish the universe is the sort of thing that could have a beginning. Nothing we know of through the senses gives us any reason to think that the universe was once nothing, so it would have to be something we get from testimony -- but on what testimony could pure reason rely in this case? It would have to be a revelation from the source. If we try instead to argue by some other route, like a governing mind giving order to the universe, the senses give us no reason to regard such a mind as separate from the universe. Again, we would need a testimony. Thus the Deist cause is hopeless: "...Man cannot discover God, tho' God can discover himself to Man" (p. 64).

The freethinkers are in no better position than the Deists, however. If Atheism were true, it is inexplicable how human beings ever got the idea of God to begin with. The senses, again, don't convey to us anything that suggests that the universe had a beginning or that there is a God; if they don't have testimony of such things, then, human beings could never conceive of them. And yet conceive of them we have, and, while not universal, they are in fact very common. How did we get a very common idea of something about which we can apparently form no ideas? Wilson gives the Skeptics credit for recognizing this themselves, and for seeing that their big challenge is not to find objections to theistic arguments but to find an explanation for the rise of religion. However, the attempts in this direction, Wilson does not find adequate; the common early modern explanation that religion arises from fear, Wilson thinks, explains exactly nothing that actually needs to be explained about religion.

If this is all true, the conclusion is unavoidable:

If the Mind of Man cannot discover God, and cannot out of its fund of thought yield what we know of his works and perfections; then the discovery must inevitably come from himself. (p. 68)

We are capable of believing or disbelieving the existence of God only because we are able to think about God; but we are able to think about God only because God communicated the idea of God to us, and therefore had to exist. Thus we have all the components of the traditionary argument.

One of the interesting things about Wilson's argument is that it is very early; he is writing well before Bonald, with whom the traditionary argument is most closely associated. Another is that the argument is generally found in a Catholic milieu, and in particular at a point where Catholicism mixes with skepticism (one reason why it did so well in France, but tended to be doubted by Catholic intellectuals at large despite the eminence of the intellectuals who defended it). Wilson is not Catholic. It's hard to say, beyond general terms, what his own religious views were, but he was Scottish and his son became a Presbyterian minister, there's no room for doubt whatsoever that here we have an example of the traditionary argument arising in a Presbyterian context. Catholic intellectuals tended to criticize traditionalism, which flourished in very skeptical environments, for being too much like fideism and for being too pessimistic about the powers of reason; there's a lot more room in Scottish presbyterianism for both fideism and pessimism about reason when it comes to discovering God, so one common link may be similarly skeptical environments.

Other posts on traditionary arguments (Brownson and Bonald are supporters, Rosmini a critic who nonetheless partly agrees with it):

* Brownson's Traditionary Argument for God's Existence
* Bonald and the Traditionary Argument
* Rosmini and the Traditionary Argument

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Straining of Hume's Chair

 In surveying, in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, several different possible candidates for the original impression from which our idea of power or causal connection is derived, Hume considers the suggestion that it could be do to our sense of effort (7.15n):

It may be pretended, that the resistance which we meet with in bodies, obliging us frequently to exert our force, and call up all our power, this gives us the idea of force and power. It is this nisus, or strong endeavour, of which we are conscious, that is the original impression from which this idea is copied.

He rejects this proposal for two reasons, only the first of which I want to consider here. This first reason is that we apply the idea of power to things we don't think have experiences of effort or endeavor, namely, God, minds in control of their own thoughts, and inanimate objects:

But, first, we attribute power to a vast number of objects, where we never can suppose this resistance or exertion of force to take place; to the Supreme Being, who never meets with any resistance; to the mind in its command over its ideas and limbs, in common thinking and motion, where the effect follows immediately upon the will, without any exertion or summoning up of force; to inanimate matter, which is not capable of this sentiment.

How much of a problem is this, though? Take a famous case: Hume visiting a friend once sat in a chair (I think the friend was Ambassador Keith), which then collapsed under his weight. (He remarked, I think to the friend's daughters, who were the other people in the room, that their father should keep stronger chairs for heavy philosophers.) Unless we are panpsychists, we can take as given that the chair did not have an experience of trying to hold Hume up, that it did not feel any straining of its parts as it collapsed. Given that Hume doesn't think that there's any contradiction in having an experience without a mind (he takes minds just to be bundles of ideas and impressions and thus not more fundamental than they are), it's unclear that he himself can actually assume this to be true, but let's take it as granted. There is still more to be said here.

One of the most important inferential patterns is analogy. Analogy plays a significant role in Hume's account; he thinks, for instance, that most of our understanding of mental operations depends on analogy. And Hume is, as I've noted before, a maximalist about analogical inference: he thinks analogy has at least some force as long as at least some resemblance exists. As he puts it in the Treatise (SBN 142):

Without some degree of resemblance, as well as union, it is impossible there can be any reasoning: but as this resemblance admits of many different degrees, the reasoning becomes proportionably more or less firm and certain. An experiment loses of its force, when transferred to instances, which are not exactly resembling; though it is evident it may still retain as much as may be the foundation of probability, as long as there is any resemblance remaining.

This account is reaffirmed in the Enquiry (9.1):

Where the causes are entirely similar, the analogy is perfect, and the inference, drawn from it, is regarded as certain and conclusive: nor does any man ever entertain a doubt, where he sees a piece of iron, that it will have weight and cohesion of parts; as in all other instances, which have ever fallen under his observation. But where the objects have not so exact a similarity, the analogy is less perfect, and the inference is less conclusive; though still it has some force, in proportion to the degree of similarity and resemblance.

Now, an important point here is that analogy already has to be involved when we are talking about nisus or endeavor, because we attribute to animals, and indeed to animals very different from us. We only experience our own. But due to the resemblance of animals to us, we have no problem taking them to have something like our experience of endeavor, even though we may well admit that we don't know exactly how they experience it. And if we turn our eyes to inanimate objects, can we say that there is no resemblance to exactly the kinds of situations in which we attribute effort to animals?

Consider our language, for instance. If I say that the chair tried to hold Hume up but failed, or say that the chair strained or struggled to hold him up, you all know exactly what that means. If you see an automobile struggling to get up a hill, and remark, "It's trying so hard!", I know exactly what you mean. And Hume himself recognizes that when we talk about power and causation colloquially, endeavor is often involved:

As to the frequent use of the words, Force, Power, Energy, &c., which every where occur in common conversation, as well as in philosophy; that is no proof, that we are acquainted, in any instance, with the connecting principle between cause and effect, or can account ultimately for the production of one thing to another. These words, as commonly used, have very loose meanings annexed to them; and their ideas are very uncertain and confused. No animal can put external bodies in motion without the sentiment of a nisus or endeavour; and every animal has a sentiment or feeling from the stroke or blow of an external object, that is in motion. These sensations, which are merely animal, and from which we can a priori draw no inference, we are apt to transfer to inanimate objects, and to suppose, that they have some such feelings, whenever they transfer or receive motion.

In this comment we have again the two reasons for rejecting it mentioned ("which are merely animal, and from which we can a priori draw no inference"), but it is, first, not really clear that people are actually supposing that inanimate objects have feelings when they say that an object is straining under the weight of a heavier object, and, second, since we are already having to analogize to attribute endeavor to animals, it's not really clear that we can't just keep analogizing and say that, to the extent that the behavior of inanimate objects is like that of animate objects, we can attribute to them something like what we experience as effort or endeavor. We don't even have to say that we know exactly what it is; the question at hand is not "What is it like to be a chair?" but "Is being a chair straining under Hume's weight in some way like being a human being straining under a heavy load?" If it is, the likeness gives some force to the attribution. If we get the idea of power from the experience of endeavor, then we can attribute something at least like it to the chair.

We can get out of this if we can break the likeness, and say that a chair's straining is, despite the similar language, actually nothing like our straining, so there is no resemblance. But this is not easy -- as Hume notes, the effects (transfer or reception of motion) are similar, so by analogy, one can conclude there is similar endeavor. You could get out of it by the Berkeleyan notion that nothing is like a perception except a perception, but then, if inanimate bodies are just bundles of perceptions (which that notion inevitably requires), it's not clear why it's impossible to say that one of those perception is an idea or impression of endeavor.

So we have the similarity. Analogy falls off as the resemblance falls off, but for a lot of physical actions, there isn't much difference, for that obvious reason that our body itself is engaged in physical actions. If I stoop under a heavy load, in physical terms, it's not actually all that different from a chair sagging under a heavy load. Why would it be? If we can separate off the feeling of effort in the former case, we can block the analogy despite the resemblance. This is what Descartes would do: the feeling of endeavor is a modification of thinking thing, the sagging is a modification of extended thing, and in our case they are causally connected, but they do not themselves have anything to do with each other, so we cannot attribute anything like the endeavor to the purely physical chair. (Descartes would regard that as a mistake like an Aristotelian might make.) But Hume is not a Cartesian; he can't separate off the endeavor as having to do with a different kind of substance.

Hume also says that the idea we get from the impression of endeavor can't be attributed to God or to minds doing things with their own ideas. It's not very plausible to say that we never experience endeavor of will or thought; again, we use language suggesting otherwise all the time. The same argument would seem to imply in the mind case. It would be, to say the least, a remarkable irony if a Humean were to reject endeavor as the original source of our idea of power on the grounds that it does not give us an adequate account of divine omnipotence, but in any case, Hume's own view of the idea of God is Lockean, which is to say, he takes it to be based on our ideas of our own mental operations, so on Humean principles the case of God would stand or fall with the case of the mind's internal operations.

There are reasons indeed not to tie the idea of causal power too closely to the experience of effort, but in the context of Hume's own positions, the claim that one can't be derived from the other because only animals experience effort seems inadequate to the conclusion that he wants to draw. Indeed, it seems to fail entirely. On Hume's account we get the idea of shape from impressions of shape, but nobody thinks that physical objects have the experience of shape, which is something we only attribute to animals, despite the fact that everyone, even Hume, attributes shapes to inanimate objects; and any skepticism about whether a physical object really has shape is irrelevant to the question of whether we get the idea of the shape attributed to physical objects from our experience of shape.

Thus there seems no reason not to recognize the straining of Hume's chair, even allowing that this straining is only analogous to the straining we experience under a heavy weight.

Sunday, November 29, 2020


 I have been deliberately avoiding saying anything about the recent Supreme Court decision (rightly) criticizing unrestrained restrictions of religious activities using the epidemic as excuse. One reason for that is that many of the things to which I might respond are, I think, not things to which I can easily respond temperately. I realized that I should not give direct responses to others when, reading something on the matter by a philosophy professor, the first words of evaluation that formed in my mind on reading it was the phrase 'brain-damaged delusional stupidity'. Best to avoid going down that road.

However, I did want to say something more general, about something which I think is very widely not understood, namely, that the reason the decision was right does not have to do with COVID but with the fact that the actions of certain governors on this point are a usurpation of an authority that is not theirs.

Let it be assumed: This is an emergency situation, and restriction on gatherings of any kind, including religious services, is an action that must be taken. This is not, as many of the anti-liberal critics of the decision have argued, the definitive point. No state authority has infinite power even in an emergency. And this is particularly true in a free society, in which by definition some of the governing authority belongs to the citizens themselves.

This authority is not and cannot be restricted to voting; all the major rights and freedoms of the citizens are relevant to this. All of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (and extended by the usual interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and generally guaranteed by state constitutions) are forms of self-government. The free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and of publication, the right peaceably to assemble and to petition the government -- these are all powers of self-governance.

When we assume the need for restriction on religious gatherings, the next question is: Who is the primary responsible authority for overseeing this? And there is no question whatsoever: in a free society, in which freedom of religion is one of the explicitly guaranteed freedoms, the citizens who participate in such religious gatherings are. Governors and mayors can provide recommendations, help coordinate, etc., but the primary responsible authority for making sure that a church service takes reasonable precautions is the church and everybody attending. This is because religion is one of the ways in which American citizens are self-governing. Eating into this, even in an emergency, is usurpation of power and responsibility that belongs to the citizens.

This applies, of course, as well to peaceable assembly; the primary authority responsible for overseeing how to handle COVID restrictions for peaceable assembly, for protest or any other civic reason, is found in the participants. (My own view, which might not be upheld in courts, who tend to be quite deferential to state executives in emergencies, but which I think is actually necessary for a consistent understanding of peaceable assembly, is that the recent attempts of several governors and mayors to restrict Thanksgiving celebrations were blatant cases of state officials going beyond their authority to usurp authority that belongs to the citizens. Thanksgiving is a specifically civic festivity; Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends should be regarded as falling under the right to peaceable assembly, just like a protest.) All of the First Amendment rights protect forms of self-governance. And it is important to uphold the principle that state authority is not infinite even under emergencies, that in an emergency situation, the rights and authority of citizens do not evaporate.

For Autumn Charms My Melancholy Mind

by Elizabeth Stoddard

Much have I spoken of the faded leaf;
Long have I listened to the wailing wind,
And watched it ploughing through the heavy clouds,
For autumn charms my melancholy mind. 

When autumn comes, the poets sing a dirge:
The year must perish; all the flowers are dead;
The sheaves are gathered; and the mottled quail
Runs in the stubble, but the lark has fled!

Still, autumn ushers in the Christmas cheer,
The holly-berries and the ivy-tree:
They weave a chaplet for the Old Year's bier
These waiting mourners do not sing for me! 

I find sweet peace in depths of autumn woods,
Where grow the ragged ferns and roughened moss;
The naked, silent trees have taught me this,--
The loss of beauty is not always loss!