Saturday, July 24, 2021

Three New Poem Drafts

Delaware, Ohio

The sun is bright and clean, clear, splendid,
the honey-locust leaves breathe with lively zephyr;
travelers walk the ways, avoiding poison ivy,
ants explore with diligence the blades of grass.

Evening falls; the fireflies are delightfully sparking,
sunny heat is replaced by sweet breezes.
Light rain is busily coming and going.
Morning rises; a sleepy warmth descends.

The sun sings happily in the pure heavens;
the busy squirrels are leaping in the leafy branches.
The world is enfolded in each joyous, blazing flower
as wisdom's warblers sing the songs of peace.

A Song of Life

We walk before we crawl,
never knowing where we will end our road;
and each step is risk of fall
for we carry our hearts like a heavy load.

The sun beats harshly down
as it pours like lead toward the crushing ground;
and somewhere far from any town,
we might fall down dead, never to be found.

But I think stars will guide our way
to the morning-red through the evening gloam,
to where gentle waters flow;
at the break of day we will end our roam
by the garden-way where the roses grow.

This winding road is long,
so we do our best as we sing this song;
and each turn is a strange surprise
that opens out anew to unremembered skies.

The aging day brings sleep
as it blankets all with a endless rest;
but I will my paces keep
on a steady way, and get past this test.

And then stars will guide our way
to the morning-red through an evening gloam,
to a place I hope to know;
at the dawn of day we will end our roam
by the garden-way where the roses grow.

Not Smart

I'm just not as as smart as I think that I am,
rushing out of a pickle into a jam,
regretting my choices when I'm getting slammed.

I'll come up with a plan that'd probably do
if I left enough time for a follow-through;
I put medicine and toxin alike on the shelf,
might fix up a little scratch while I poison myself;
I'll burn every bridge just to make a small point,
then bend over backwards till I ruin my joints;
I fail through a self-defeating plan to succeed
that covers all bases save what I do need.

No, I'm not as smart as I think that I am;
it's out of one pickle, into a new jam,
beating down my own castle with a consequence-ram,
just not as smart as I think that I am.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Illuminated by the Dawn of Light

 Since, therefore, truth is one (for falsehood has ten thousand by-paths); just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light. Let all, therefore, both Greeks and barbarians, who have aspired after the truth — both those who possess not a little, and those who have any portion — produce whatever they have of the word of truth. 

Eternity, for instance, presents in an instant the future and the present, also the past of time. But truth, much more powerful than limitless duration, can collect its proper germs, though they have fallen on foreign soil. For we shall find that very many of the dogmas that are held by such sects as have not become utterly senseless, and are not cut out from the order of nature (by cutting off Christ, as the women of the fable dismembered the man), though appearing unlike one another, correspond in their origin and with the truth as a whole. For they coincide in one, either as a part, or a species, or a genus. For instance, though the highest note is different from the lowest note, yet both compose one harmony. And in numbers an even number differs from an odd number; but both suit in arithmetic; as also is the case with figure, the circle, and the triangle, and the square, and whatever figures differ from one another. Also, in the whole universe, all the parts, though differing one from another, preserve their relation to the whole. So, then, the barbarian and Hellenic philosophy has torn off a fragment of eternal truth not from the mythology of Dionysus, but from the theology of the ever-living Word. And he who brings again together the separate fragments, and makes them one, will without peril, be assured, contemplate the perfect Word, the truth.

St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.13.

Thursday, July 22, 2021


 The Pillar recently published a story about a high-ranking monsignor who was removed from his position when the news and analysis site obtained publicly accessible information that he had been actively using the hookup app Grindr, indeed seems to have done so even while on assignment for the conference of bishops. Something of a controversy erupted over the ethics of this; my view of all that is pretty much that of Darwin. I think most of the attempts to make a scandal of The Pillar's publishing the story border on morally obtuse, frankly. But one argument that came up is one I've heard in other contexts, and I think it needs to be addressed directly, namely, the argument that publishing this was detraction. So let's talk a bit about detraction.

Detraction, sometimes also called backbiting due to its use in the Dominican Fathers translation of the Summa, is the denigration or blackening of another's reputation (fama) by concealed words. 'Concealed' doesn't mean 'secret', exactly, although you could often translate it that way; rather, it means what we would mean if we said it was 'not done to your face'. (Denigration of someone's reputation to their face is a different sin, called 'calumny'.) The detractor uses words to injure your reputation when you are not actually present and cannot know that he is doing so, and this can happen even if the act itself is done quite publicly. It is an act of injustice. Injustice against our neighbor involves expanding rings, insofar as injuring a person can be done more or less directly; some injustices are directly against the person, others against the person's honor or body, others against goods external to but connected to the person. Of the external goods, the most connected to the person is reputation, with property less important but more obvious. Reputation is a means for achieving many things important for life; losing your good reputation is an even more serious loss than losing your property. You can lose your reputation due to someone else's words in many ways: someone might spread falsehoods about you; or someone might spread word that you have done something wrong that you really did do, but while exaggerating the wrongness of your deed; or they may reveal something bad you did that was otherwise unknown; or they may smear your good deeds by claiming that they were done from bad motives; or they might play down the good you have done by treating it as less than it is. 

However, if we think of property, it's pretty clear that while having your property taken from you is in some way bad for you, it nonetheless would not be true to say that every action that takes someone's property is itself a bad action. Punishments sometimes involve confiscation of goods people own; that this is bad for the owners is not, however, enough to say it is unjust. The same thing is true with acts that cause injury to another's reputation. Setting aside the obvious cases in which the injury is entirely accidental, there are many situations in which you could injure someone's reputation, even knowingly, that would not be detraction. The most important rule is this: an action done for what is good or necessary and in a way that takes into account the circumstances is never detraction. If, for instance, you were protecting someone else and the only way to do that would be to reveal that someone else had done something wrong, the loss of reputation to the latter person does not make it wrong if you have revealed the wrongdoing in a way that's not indiscriminate but takes into account any issues that might be relevant to the situation. If (and this is quite important for this particular case) you are protecting the integrity of a public office, or protecting society or the Church from being used as cover for repeated wrongdoing, this is a good and necessary thing. You still have to take care how you do it, but as long as you do, you have done nothing wrong.

In this case, the wrongdoing was repeated (indeed, it seems to have been done on quite the scale), it was by someone in an important public office and the wrongdoing was specifically inappropriate to the office (even setting aside the fact that he was a priest, one of the things the monsignor was in charge of was transparency and accountability for the purpose of avoiding more church scandals due to priestly wrongdoing), and it was only hidden or private in an incidental way to begin with (for better or for worse, it is the kind of information that is easily and legally obtainable, and only hidden in the sense that one leaf is hidden by being one leaf out of a very large number on the tree). You can decry, if you like, that so much of our lives that we think private is in fact open to anyone in the public who takes an interest in it, due to how social media and the internet works, but it doesn't change the fact that much of it is open to anyone who actually looks. All of us are sinners, to be sure; extreme or habitual sins nonetheless should entirely disqualify anyone who commits them for particular services and offices in the Church. The Church has had decades of struggle due to inadequate discipline for priests engaging in repeated misbehavior; a priest who keeps misbehaving in a context in which it just takes a data dive or algorithm to discover it should not be in an important office. To take steps to address this problem is a public service to everyone. And as to doing it the right way, The Pillar forewarned the USCCB that the story was coming out and gave the monsignor the option to respond, even though he chose not to do so. Beyond that, at most you can criticize some of the phrasing of the article, and that's a pretty limited ground for such bald accusations of detraction. 

And a good rule of thumb in these cases is to ask what the restoration would be. If detraction has genuinely been committed, the remedy for that is restoring the reputation; exactly how that is done will vary, but justice is the most regular and orderly virtue and sins of injustice have quite precise remedies. If you engage in detraction by trying to accuse someone's good deed of really having bad motives, you can remedy by apologizing and making clear that you had no basis for the accusation; if you spread falsehoods, you can publicly show yourself to have done so and correct the information; and so forth. When the detraction is based on truth, it is a little trickier, because in fact in such cases the loss of reputation is partly not due to the detraction but to the wrongdoing itself. But you should still be able to do some restoration for your part in the injury. In this case, though, what relevant restoration could you attempt that would not be covering up a serious problem that affects everyone in the Church? It's hard to see that there is anything at all that could be done. This is not an infallible sign, but it's a good sign that there is no detraction, or at least that the charge of detraction should not be applied glibly here. If there's genuine detraction, there's always a precise kind of restoration possible.

Some people, of course, are angered by the article because they don't think there's anything wrong with a priest repeatedly hooking up in casual sexual encounters while serving in an important office for the Church. Their opinion is of no consequence or value whatsoever. As to others, I don't really know what they are thinking. I started noticing a number of years ago a common (and I think quite lazy) tendency among Catholics of very different stripes to accuse others of engaging in detraction as (I guess) a sort of defensive reaction to exposure of some problem. It's odd, really; anyone with a serious regard for the matter surely could see immediately that going around accusing particular people of the sin of detraction without adequate cause and not specifically in their presence is in fact one form of the sin of detraction. It is one of the features of many forms of injustice by words that accusing people of committing them can sometimes be forms of the very same kind of injustice. This is definitely true of detraction. It is a charge that should not be made lightly. And one should also be quite wary about attempts to use accusations of detraction to shut people up about something; vice has a tendency to try to blackmail virtue by accusing it of really being vice, and our dove-like innocence should be crowned with serpentine savvy whenever accusations are made against anyone.

Detraction does occur, and it is not exactly a rare sin, but most people are quite aware of the dangers of allowing for easy injury to reputations, and are at least able to see far enough along reciprocity to recognize that it's an area in which we all benefit from restraint. There are always exceptions, but most actual cases of detraction are venial and nonmalicious, due to taking how someone's reputation can be affected by words too lightly, or even well-meaning, having matters of genuine good and right in view but just failing to take into account the circumstances. Deliberate, malicious detraction can be quite nasty, of course; it is also not especially common, and particularly not outside of situations in which people let themselves get heated up by political argument. Even when genuinely committed, it is usually not the end of the world, and voting yourself the authority to go around accusing people of engaging in it  is not usually reasonable or proportionate to the circumstances. And we also have to keep some room not to be rigorist about it. Not everybody sees the same circumstances, and some circumstances are even hard to see, so it happens that two entirely reasonable people can make different judgment calls about what the right thing to do is. Just because you would have done things differently, even if you would have been quite reasonable and prudent to do so, does not automatically mean that the other person was unreasonable and imprudent in doing what they did. There are many moral situations in which you could go either way, and do so well, not because the moral principles themselves are in any way ambiguous, but because there are lots of things that have to be taken into account.

So, in short: Even where there is genuine injury to reputation, we should not jump quickly to accusing particular people of detraction; even when there is detraction, we have to be careful about accusing particular people of it; even when accusing someone of detraction reasonably, we have to modulate our accusation according to the actual circumstances; we should often raise a skeptical eyebrow when people are accused of detraction; and in disputed areas it can sometimes happen that an action that would be detraction if you did it is not detraction if someone else does it because of different circumstances. But in this case, again, there seems to be no adequate grounds for the accusation; given the circumstances, it is hard to pin down any grounds for it at all, and I haven't seen anyone identify anything that was both relevant to the charge of detraction and incapable of an alternative interpretation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Doctor Apostolicus

 Today is the feast of St. Lorenzo da Brindisi, or Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church. He was born in Brindisi on July 22, 1559 as Giulio Cesare Russo and he died in Lisbon on July 22, 1619. He was famous in his own day for his unusual facility with languages, being fluent in at least half a dozen, and able to adapt easily to different dialects in each, and having a basic conservational ability in several others. Because of this, he spent much of his life in preaching and in work that required considerable travel. Early in his career he was assigned to be preacher to the Jews of Rome, who originally assumed he was a converted Jew because he spoke Hebrew almost as well as the rabbis. A Capuchin, he was eventually elected vicar general of the order, which apparently he did not particularly like, since he refused to accept the office again when re-elected. Instead, he did diplomatic work for the papal court until his death.

The most famous event associated with him is the siege of Székesfehérvár. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmed III had undertaken a large-scale invasion of Hungary. In 1601, the Emperor borrowed St. Lawrence, who was at the time founding a convent in Prague, to serve as an emergency ambassador to various German principalities, whom St. Lawrence helped convince to provide additional support for the Hungarian cause; St. Lawrence then served as chaplain for the army. Despite the recruited help, the army was at considerable disadvantage; the Turks outnumbered it by about four to one. Morale was collapsing, so he was asked to speak to the troops before battle; he did so very effectively, then, mounting a horse and holding up a crucifix, stayed on the front lines with them during the battle despite having no weapons or armor. The Turks had devastating losses and the imperial army took the city. At another battle in the next few days, he did the same thing, and the imperial army won again. The Turks would retake the city the next year, but the temporary setback slowed Ottoman momentum and contributed to turning the Long War (1593-1606) between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire from being the Ottoman success it originally seemed it would be into a draw. In any case, St. Lawrence has always been associated with the success in the siege of Székesfehérvár, and despite being a very small part of his actual achievements has always fired the imagination enough to play a large part in his iconography. He is often known as the Apostolic Teacher, though, for his extensive missionary work and preaching.

From his commentary on Genesis:

The Septuagint, Symmachus, and Theodotion translated bereshith as 'In the beginning'. Aquila rendered it 'In the little head'. The Aramaic version has beqadmin instead of bereshith; however, in Aramaic qdmin means the beginning of time. The second Aramaic translation of the Old Testament, called the Jerusalem Targum, rendered the Hebrew as bechokma, 'In wisdom'. This rendering rebuts the error of the impious founder of Manichaeism (who supposed two beginnings of things: one of good things, a second of bad; one of spiritual things, the other of bodily things) since in Genesis God is said to have created in the beginning, i.e. in the Son, the heavens and the earth. 

However, this last rendering is more in accordance with the sense than the letter. Moreover, it wonderfully supports Tertullian (in his treatise Against Praxeas), Origen, Hilary, and Augustine, who think that the phrase 'In the beginning' must be explained as meaning 'in wisdom', i.e., in the Son, Who is the Word and Wisdom of the Father and the beginning of all things, by whom all things were made (as is clear in the first chapter of John), Who also says of Himself in John 'I am the beginning who also speak unto you'. Also in support of this rendering is what God says of Himself in the Psalms: 'In the head of the book it is written of me', i.e. in the beginning of Genesis. In accordance with this reading, the word bereshith can be translated (1) 'in the beginning' or (2) 'with the beginning' and (3) 'by the beginning', because the Hebrew preposition for 'in' has three accepted usages. The first is the pre-eminent and most frequent; the second we find in Isaiah 7, 'they shall go there with bow and arrows.' The third usage we see in Genesis: 'I swear by myself.' However, the sacred theologians assert that God created the world in His Son and with His Son and by His Son....

[St. Lawrence of Brindisi, St. Lawrence of Brindisi on Creation and the Fall, Toth, tr., Warkulwiz, ed., The Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation (Mount Jackson, VA: 2018), p. 4.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Fruitless Death of Modal Collapse Arguments

 Joseph Schmid has a fairly nice paper coming out on modal collapse arguments against divine simplicity (which I've talked about here and here), in which he identifies a number of problems with this kind of argument. (He makes the standard analytic mistake of assuming too quickly that simplicity is identity in a particular sense, but it doesn't cause any serious problems for most of his points against the modal collapse arguments.) He wants to argue that the failure of modal collapse arguments points to and motivates inquiry into additional problems with classical theism, and so is "fruitful". In reality neither of the additional problems is a serious problem, and this is quite obvious when they are looked at more closely.

(1) The problem of intentional directedness. Creation is an 'intentional act'; intentional acts are intrinsically directed toward goals; in creation the goal is different across possible worlds; by divine simplicity, all God's acts are identical with Himself and therefore cannot vary across possible worlds; therefore we seem to have a contradiction. This problem is, however, incorrect at every point. First, it makes the standard analytic mistake of assuming too much about what 'identity' could mean here. Second, it confuses objects and goals. Intentional acts intrinsically have objects; these objects may or may not be goals as well. If we narrow what we mean by 'intentional act' to acts in which the intrinsic object is also intrinsically a goal, creation is not an 'intentional act' because on almost any account that accepts divine simplicity, creaturely existence (if one assumes that is the object of creation) is not intrinsically a goal for any divine action. Third, the argument is based on a misunderstanding of how possible worlds semantics applies to the actual world qua actual. Even if we assume that intentional acts intrinsically have goals, possible worlds semantics applied in contexts of modal metaphysics is simply a model of the actual world as involving possibilities. Not particular possible worlds but the whole manifold of possible worlds is a model (an incomplete one, as it happens) of the actual world as involving God's actual act of creation. Thus you cannot adequately describe God's actual act of creation as a list of propositions precisely describing one and only one possibility. So we use multiple lists. But these lists are not describing different things, since each incompletely describes one and the same actual cause, which could very well be simple. The variation, in other words, is a result of the complexity of propositional description; it doesn't tell us about the nature of what is being described. If it is legitimate at all to model possibilities with respect to divine causality by possible worlds, there is no reason to regard variation 'across possible worlds', which is just the very fact of there being differently describable possibilities, as a problem for divine simplicity. And this, again, is even assuming that we can formulate the problem in such a way as to avoid the previous ones, which I don't think we can. Thus intentional directedness is not a problem.

(2) The problem of providence. As Schmid puts it:

For under classical theism, one can fix all the facts about God himself and yet any creation whatsoever (or no creation at all) among the infinite array of possible creations can spring into being with a dependence on God. This simply follows from the radical indeterministic causal link between God and God’s effect needed to avoid modal collapse arguments. Every fact solely about God is perfectly compatible with any creation whatsoever coming into being; there is no distinctive intentional act to bring about this particular creation.

On typical forms of classical theism, it is impossible to "fix all the facts about God himself"; there is no set of all facts about God. But in any case (and this is relevant for the previous problem as well), even on divine simplicity "intentional act to bring about this particular creation" is just, by definition, not identical to God, because it composes or conjoins two different things (God, this particular creation), one of which is not God. Divine simplicity, even granted the analytic mistake, is not the view that everything is identical to God, and therefore God's intentional causing of a particular contingent effect is not identical to God; it's a particular contingent effect that exists because of God, and therefore can't be identical to God. Now, Schmid does get something right here: there is nothing we can "cite on God's end", as he puts it a little later, "to explain why this particular creation came into being". Of course, there isn't; to cite things on God's end would violate the principle of remotion. We don't have God's end; we necessarily start with this particular creation. The classical theist view is that what can create this particular creation would have to be simple, immutable, eternal, etc., all things that follow from the particular causal inference itself. And that is as far as it gets. And it is simply not necessary to know why something is true to know that it is; that's the standard point about demonstration quia vs. demonstration propter quid. So there is no problem here, either.

But all in all, it's an interesting paper.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Small, Lemon-Green Stars

July Midnight
by Amy Lowell

Fireflies flicker in the tops of trees,
Flicker in the lower branches,
Skim along the ground.
Over the moon-white lilies
In a flashing and ceasing of small, lemon-green stars.
As you lean against me,
The air all about you
Is slit, and pricked, and pointed with sparkles of
lemon-green flame
Starting out of a background of vague, blue trees.