Saturday, September 04, 2021

Infused Moral Virtues

 I am currently reading Angela McKay Knobel's Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues, on the subject of how the infused virtues relate to the acquired virtues, and it is quite a good discussion of the issues, although I disagree with Knobel's argument in a number of ways, and don't think her account viable. I thought I would say a few things about it.

What we usually call acquired virtues are virtues in the most common sense, namely, they are habits of choice consisting in a mean relative to us as determined by the reason of a prudent person. We get them by repeatedly doing the acts relevant to them; for instance, we become honest by repeatedly doing honest things until it honesty becomes second nature. In the Christian tradition, there is also a general recognition that there are virtues that are similar to these but are not acquired by habituation but by divine grace; the uncontroversial ones are the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, which as virtues in the proper sense can only be achieved in us by God. Once we have them, we can strengthen them by an analogue of habituation, sometimes called radication -- your faith becomes more ardent or deeply rooted the more you do things so as to grow in it, for instance. Historically, the more controversial question is whether there are infused virtues that are not theological virtues -- the infused moral virtues. Thus, for instance, there is an acquired virtue of honesty; but one can ask if there is a grace-given or infused virtue of honesty (or of some other virtue like it) in addition to this. On some accounts, usually associated with the Scotists, there are no infused moral virtues in the proper sense; what happens, is that we receive the theological virtues and they (especially charity or love) give a new kind of structure to our acquired virtues. The most popular account, though, and to such an extent that I think it's fair to say that it is the generally accepted position even among people who don't adhere to it very consistently, is that there are indeed infused moral virtues, and, indeed, that we have a whole set of infused moral virtues that are like the acquired moral virtues. There is, besides the general human virtue of honesty, for instance, a specifically Christian virtue of honesty, and so forth for every acquired virtue. Besides the ordinary virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, achieved by hard work, there is a specifically Christian version of each, given only by the grace of baptism, lost by sin, restored by repentance (and lost by sin, restored by repentance, lost by sin, restored by repentance...). This is the view of Thomas Aquinas and quite a few others.

This doubling is an interesting feature, and, if discussions of virtue in moral theology are any guide, a very confusing one for most people. In all such matters of confusion, the key question to keep in mind is exactly why one would accept it. After all, things would be simpler if they could be taken out; this is likely one of the motivations for the Scotist position. Thus the most important thing to understand, in order to understand anything about infused moral virtues, is why they are needed in the first place.

Aquinas's argument for them is quite short (ST 2-1.63). He notes that all virtue completes us with respect to some good according to a rule. There are two such rules: human reason and the divine law. Acquired virtues complete the principles of our nature according to the rule of reason. But in giving the theological virtues, God sets us on the path to a higher good than that for which reason alone is appropriate; these theological virtues serve as new principles which then must be completed according to divine law. This is what infused moral virtues are. These infused moral virtues will be analogous to the acquired moral virtues in terms of their structure, but they will in fact not be a mere doubling. There is a generic similarity between, say, acquired temperance and infused temperance, but whereas acquired temperance is concerned with subordinating our eating practices to health and reason, infused temperance is more ascetic because it is concerned with subordinating them to Scripture and God. Further, while acquired virtues tend toward living well in human affairs, the infused virtues tend toward living well in the divine household.

This last point is perhaps more important than it looks, but it ties the whole thing together. Law is always concerned with the common good of some community; natural law is concerned with the common good of the human community, civil law is concerned with the common good of civil society, and divine law is concerned with the common good of the Kingdom of God. Thus our virtues are related to the common goods of the societies of which we are members, an aspect of Aquinas's account that is too often forgotten. We can have human virtues, as we might find among people grown up in contexs without much civilization; these are perfected into civil virtues, with which people participate well in the civilized life of civil society. In addition, different kinds of civil society yield variations in the civil virtues. Aquinas explicitly says in the Disputed Questions on Virtue in General (art. 10) that the relation of the infused moral virtues to the acquired virtues is somewhat like the relation of civil and human virtue; virtue of a human being qua human is directed to civil good by the virtue of a human being qua citizen. Thus the fortitude of the human being qua human is just a general sort of moral toughness according to reason; but if someone develops the fortitude of the human being qua citizen, this is a fortitude for others (namely, one's fellow citizens), and in addition to its own acts, it directs the human virtue of fortitude, that general moral toughness, toward acts concerned with the public good of the city. Likewise, Christians are baptized into the heavenly city, so there are virtues that correspond to being citizens of the heavenly city, which, in addition to their own acts, direct the acts of acquired virtues to the heavenly good. The primary difference between the one side of the analogy and the other is that whereas civil society is a natural perfection of the principles of our nature, heavenly society is not; it is instead a development of grace given to us.

You will notice, first, that 'doubling' is a bit misleading, and something of an understatement: Aquinas thinks that there are lots and lots of virtues, because our virtues have a social aspect and we are not members of only one society; this is the case even if we are only looking at acquired virtues. Every society needs its members to have a virtue of (say) justice; but significantly different societies -- say, tribal societies that are only incipiently civil, Ancient Athens, the modern United States, and the City of God -- will have some variation; in some cases, like the difference between the natural human societies and the divine city, this will be quite considerable. And it is in fact possible for someone to be a member of more than one such society -- as all Christians are with respect to human society and the heavenly society. This is where the apparent doubling happens, not with virtue in general, but specifically with Christians, who are members both of natural societies and of the society of grace. I think that failing to appreciate fully the idea of the social character of virtues that Aquinas inherits from Aristotle is the point at which many people, including Knobel herself, go wrong in considering the relationship of the inherited moral virtues to the acquired moral virtues.

Knobel identifies three general possible ways one might conceive the relation between the two. The first, which she calls the coexistence view, holds that (1) Christians can have both acquired virtues and infused virtues, (2) which each produce acts appropriate to their ends, (3) but in such a way that the acquired virtues receive new direction from the infused virtues to the ends of the infused virtues as well. She argues that these three also require (4) acquired and infused virtues operate in distinct domains of moral life.

The second, which she calls the unification view, holds that in the Christian life, our virtuous actions are more tightly unified than this, either because all virtues in the Christian are infused virtues (which either replace or are themselves just transformed versions of acquired virtues) or because, at least typically, virtuous actions in Christian life are joint actions of acquired virtues and infused virtues.

The third position, her own, attempts to find middle ground between the two. She argues that there remains a distinction between acquired virtues and infused virtues, and that prior habits persist even when one has received infused virtues, but that acquired virtues previously cultivated persist merely as dispositions; acquired virtue in a sense becomes irrelevant, because the whole work of the Christian living a Christian life is to cultivate the infused virtues.

It is, of course, the coexistence view (or at least something very similar) that is actually right. It's the view that most easily fits most of the texts of Aquinas; but more than that (since Aquinas wasn't expositing Aquinas but attempting to characterize a real feature of Christian life) it is really what is required by the Thomistic account of virtue applied to Christian life. Knobel has some arguments that the coexistence view isn't coherent and that it does not fit well with some things Aquinas says about the infused virtues. But the primary question that motivates the arguments that it is not coherent is "Why would it ever be appropriate to merely act in a way proportionate to one's natural fulfillment when one could instead act in a manner proportionate to an adopted child of God and adopted sibling of Christ?" (p. 124). Despite my rejection of Knobel's view, I think this is quite the right question to ask; it's just that I think it's easily answered.

It is, first, somewhat ambiguous. "Merely acting in a way proportionate to one's natural fulfillment" makes it sound like (and Knobel seems to interpret it as) "acting in such a way rather than in a manner proportionate to a child of God". But the coexistence view doesn't commit one to 'rather than'; it commits one to 'as well as'. Knobel comes close to recognizing this in recognizing that for the coexistence view, acquired moral virtues and infused moral virtues have different 'domains', but oddly she almost always interprets the domains as times, that there are times when we act according to acquired virtues and times when we act according infused virtues. This is a tempting but not a great way to interpret it; for one, it's essential to the position that sometimes (perhaps even always) we are, in fact, acting according to both, because we are acting according to acquired virtues given direction by infused virtues. But the distinct domains are not times but societies. And this brings us to the second, and more important point, and the reason why, despite liking much of Knobel's discussion, I absolutely cannot get on board with her proposal. Human beings do not stop being members of human society by becoming members of the divine society; they do not stop being members of their civil societies by becoming members of the Kingdom of God. I did not cease to be an American citizen when I was baptized. My participation in American society still continues. To be sure, it is and should be subordinate to my participation in the heavenly society; my American citizenship became part of my pilgrimage in this world, but I am still a member of that society, and of the general human community, and need to work on the virtues appropriate to those. It's not that there are times to be an American and times to be a Christian; I'm actually supposed to be both all the time. Some things may be more Americanish things, and other things may be more Christianish things, but everything I do needs to be Christian, including the American things, and I need actually to be American in doing American things. The view we find in the New Testament is not one of absolute severance from human society; we do not become angels, we continue to be men and need to respect the king and magistrates operating in their legitimate spheres, and, like Paul, who remained both Jew and Roman, none of us renounce our earthly citizenships and allegiances even in gaining a superior heavenly one. A view in which Christians only cultivate infused virtues is a view in which Christians stop being human; it would perhaps be good for a Gnostic movement, but it does not fit well with the actual faith.


Angela McKay Knobel, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN: 2021).

Friday, September 03, 2021

Gregorius Magnus

 Today was the feast of Pope St. Gregory I, the Great, Doctor of the Church. Born in Rome to a senatorial family, he became Prefect of Rome, the highest civil office in the city, at the age of thirty-three. After the death of his father, he converted the part of his family estate within Rome itself into a monastery, the Monastery of St. Andrew (later St. Gregory the Great on the Caelian, which as an institution still exists in a later building on the same bit of land), and lived there for a while in prayer. He was ordained a deacon of Rome by Pope Pelagius II; in those days, deacon of Rome was still an extremely important ecclesiastical position, since they did a lot of what is currently done by the College of Cardinals. In 579, the Pope chose him to be apocrisiarius, a kind of ambassador, to Constantinople; the aristocratic Roman fit in very well with the aristocracy of New Rome, although his primary mission -- to get Imperial help against the Lombards in northern Italy -- was largely a failure. He returned to his monastery in 585 but was elected Pope in 590. He hated the office, but performed it exceptionally well. Rome was deluged with refugees from the Lombard invasions and food began to go short; he built a highly innovative system of charitable relief for the poor to distribute relief, one that was able to handle the problem. He died in 604.

From his Homilies on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Book One, Tenth Homily):

Almighty God so acts in the hearts of men as He does in the regions of the earth. For He could grant all fruits to any region but if one region did not need the fruits of another it would not have communion with the other. Thus it happens that He gives to this abundance of wine but to another of oil; He makes this region to abound with a multitude of cattle but that one with a wealth of pulses so that when that one offers what the other lacks, and the other renders what that one did not bring, countries at the same time separate from each other are joined together by the communion of grace. As therefore the regions of the earth, so are the minds of the Saints when they transfer to each other what they received, like the regions disburse their fruits to regions, so that all are joined in a single charity.

[Saint Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Tomkinson, tr., Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies (Etna, CA: 2008) pp. 203-204]

Dashed Off XIX

 Aggressive engagement in politics either subserves negotiation or it is corrupt.

Every state implies at least a fragmentary account of human dignity.

Failure is just the state of learning enough to succeed.

the extremely common phenomenon, despite diversity across cultures, of treating marriage as sacred or religious -- thus either its nature, or its origin, or both, is suggestive of the divine

the holy as the oath-protected

We need not only to read but also to hear Scripture, for we do not always receive in the same way by reading as we do by hearing.

liberty of school
(1) right of parents and church to establish their own means of education, including schools and similar institutions;
(2) provision of ways in which credentials of such schools may be certified equivalent to schools and institutions of the state;
(3) just distribution of educational subsidies.

Respect for the dignity of the person requires respect for the dignity of the family or household.

Advertisement and polling create an artificial public opinion, one whose connection to real opinions of the public may become very loose.

Extensions can only be identified intensionally.

the Agrippan taxonomy of skeptical arguments: (1) disagreement (2) infinite regress (3) relativity (4) mere assumption (5) circularity

The subjective self-evidence of modern philosophy (e.g., Cartesian clear and distinct perception) is aesthetic; it identifies a form of beauty which is (as Plato says, Phaedrus 250d) the most clearly seen and most lovely of them all.

jussive, hortative, optative good

'Banana republic' was coined by O. Henry, Cabbages and Kings.

"To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it." Santayana

wonder as openness to being

"Without careful investigation of the nature of deity, you cannot know that of man; just as you cannot manage civic affairs successfully without some knowledge of the wider world-society of men." Minucius Felix

the connection between nostalgia and friendship

relevance, thoroughness, strength, and balance of argument

parity argument as argument squared; parity of parity arguments as argument cubed; etc.
-- one could do this with a fortiori, as well

creation as protosemiosis
semiosis as having creation and/or subcreation as preconditions
the creation as sign of God
primary and secondary semiosis

Catholic : Church as correspondence network :: Apostolic : Church as hierarchy

Christ's Ascension -> Christ as King of Angels
(cp. Mary's Assumption -> Mary as Queen of Angels)

frameworks for virtue, honor, profit, and freedom

Each argument for the existence of God suggests a particular kind of apologetics.

Sign, object, and interpretant may be more or less tightly unified.

presential self-knowledge as pre-semiotic (on which point it differs from reflective introspection, which is semiotic)

using phantasms as indexical signs, using phantasms as iconic signs, using phantasms as symbolic signs

phantasm as
rhemic iconic qualisign -- as felt content
rhemic iconic sinsign -- as model
rhemic indexical sinsign -- as felt effect
dicentic indexical sinsign -- as effected by world
rhemic iconic legisign -- as model-type, model-family
rhemic indexical legisign -- as imaginative quasi-gesture at something
dicentic indexical legisign -- as articulated quasi-gesture capturing relations
rhemic symbolic legisign, dicentic symbolic legisign, delomic symbolic legisign -- as linguistic

intellect as immediate, dynamic, or final interpretant

Voting should be seen less as a purely additive matter and more as a political-temperature-taking, complicated by density.

hagiography as building a vocabulary for devotion

To hope is to dwell on that wherein one does not yet dwell.

sacra doctrina as the seed of sacra patiens

'we must often remain silent / we lack a sacred language -- hearts beat / but speech does not emerge'

language as orientation vs language as equipment

the burning bush unburned as symbol of the unmoved mover

The proper ultimate end of the family, like the proper ultimate end of the individual person, is the beatific vision.

legal justice : civil society :: moral justice : human society
-- but of course, the sense of 'society' here is analogical, not univocal

rights of the family
(1) to what is required for procreation
(2) to what is required for education of children
(3) to what is required for mutual aid of spouses
(4) to what is required for remedy of concupiscence
(5) to what is required for indissolubility
(6) to what is required for unity
(7) to relative self-governance

Every legitimate transfer of property presupposes some prior common good.

Property exists to subserve life and virtue.

just strikes and just war criteria

the sola fide view of self-esteem

If you exhaust people with your demands for justice, they will in defense begin embracing injustice.

consequentialism + partisan politics -> reinterpretation of opponents as victimizers
-- consequentialist justification for partisan positions in a manner usable in practical politics requirs simplification; one simplifies consequentialist discourse by focusing on grave harms and on impediments to massive benefits

retorsion-testing of arguments

possible results of retorsion test
(1) self-defeat
(2) self-conformity
(3) neutrality -- requires assessment in combination with additional assumptions

Love of money can corrupt anything because it easily inverts ends and means.

It is better to have teaching historians than history teachers.

rhetoric & the art of argument abbreviation

A battle by its nature involves continually deteriorating conditions for all parties.

Best not to boast of your martyrdom before you've even faced the lions.

A successful code of professional ethics will necessarily be fairly forgiving.

hierarchy as structured reflection of light

People only very rarely steal from desire of money/possessions alone. That is a reason to be greedy, but theft requires crossing a boundary. Some cross that boundary due to some obsessive craving for some particular kind of thing; some for the thrill of transgression; but most from a will to take advantage of someone, which might result from any number of motives -- envy, resentment, anger, contempt, or anything else that might lead us to take advantage of another.

Irrational decisions are, in general, defectively reasoned, not reasonless.

defective causes and irrationality
(1) prejudicial assumptions
(2) fallacious habits
(3) passional motives distorting means and ends
(4) biological failure (e.g., brain disorder)
(5) external disruption (e.g., drugs)

causes of irrationality
(1) external
(2) internal
-- -- (a) physical
-- -- (b) mental
-- -- -- -- (i) occasional
-- -- -- -- (ii) enduring
-- -- -- -- -- -- (a) bad assumption/principle
-- -- -- -- -- -- (b) bad reasoning

assets & liabilities analysis of philosophical positions, systems, etc.
(Every position includes resources for solving problems and raises questions and problems that require resources from outside.)

"Every nation should think only of its own duty, not paying any attention to other peoples, and not demanding or expecting anything of them. It is not in our power to make others fulfill their duty, but we can and must fulfill our own." Soloviev

Encouraging sex and discouraging having children is not a sustainable policy under any conditions.

Philosophy by its nature posits the falsehood of consequentialism. 

The problem with judicial review is primarily the lack of adequate constraint on erroneous tribunal.

What would normally be venial sin becomes mortal sin when
(1) subordinated to a mortally sinful end; or
(2) pursued in such a way  that one would commit mortal sin for it; or
(3) done in contempt of precept as precept; or
(4) done in a manner actively scandalous; or
(5) done so as to disregard known danger of mortal sin, without just cause

the n-evidence problem for Bayesianism

substantive inexhaustibility of inquiry --> existence of God as infinite intelligible

Protesting is a collapse of politics; it is a retreat, a local failure to advance. Like a retreat, it can have strategic purpose, but only within a broader plan.

evening and morning knowledge with respect to moral truths

Any serious causal modeling requires making judgments about what is important, what is essential or nonessential, etc. These are ultimately based on assessments of final causes.

consequentialist, deontological, and virtue-ethical accounts of freedom

wars // industrial accidents

emergency parasociality vs infrastructural parasociality

apparent miracles and the intersection of the sense of novelty and the sense of the sublime
novelties that open up on infinities

the unintelligible foreign is common trope in horror, but rare elsewhere, although you do find it in comedy (e.g., Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

the bene esse of a republic requires
(1) respect for conscientiousness
(2) vigilance
(3) neighborliness
(4) civic pride

"In love of neighbor, love of God is included, just like a cause in its effect." Aquinas

torque, torsion, torture, tortuous, torturous

the juridicality of communication (obvious in privileged communications, shared secrets, private conversations)

translation as an act of linguistic hospitality (Ricoeur, Pope Francis)

We don't so much act on desire as within desire.

You can only vote for that which you can articulate.

modes of failure of argument
(1) unexcluded alternate interpretation of premise-evidence
(2) failure to clarify dispute
(3) arbitrary assumption
(4) circularity
(5) infinition (infinite deferral)

The typeface 'Perpetua' is named after St. Perpetua.

Every concept of rationality requires a concept of perversity.

dignitates (axioms), first principles, immediate propositions, common notions

rights as endowed

Persons personify; the capacity for a natural person to 'spin off' multiple moral, juridical, etc., persons is inherent in what it is to be a person.

Political violence does not just harm those at whom it is directed but the whole polity.

Kantian ethics arguably makes more sense if you understand it as capturing the ethics of the *juridical* person.

a faith that will not fail, a hope that will not falter, a love that will not die

Progressivism has a tendency toward treating everything, even fundamental things, as a means; conservatism toward treating anything (even things that have value almost entirely as means) as an end.

Liberalism all too often prepares the way for totalitarianism by tearing down the bulkheads that normally make totalitarianism impossible, and then not replacing them with anything.

Voltaire's Principle: God as bulwark against tyranny, a principle of civil theology

moral order as a precondition for friendship between states

People use politics as a substitute for doing good to those around them, and this is corrupting.

the imp of the perverse

baptism as the pool of truth

trance shamanism, ritual shamanism, omen shamanism

Collective ownership is always only a legal fiction.

ownership vs. ownership-on-behalf-of

All scarcity is in part a scarcity of time.

rosary as catechesis

Beauty is what ties us to things.

Every salience is a form of goodness for something.

Either there is a just Governor of the World, or all is just an imposition of power.

difficulty vs hassle
-- Notice that people will often take a harder route to avoid one with more hassle, at least up to a point

Much of propaganda consists of planting a flag on something.

Ethical views inevitably degenerate into collections of wax-nose slogans.

cogency as argumentative aptitude for persuasion
-- structural (logos), relative to passions (pathos), relative to character of one putting it forward (ethos)

Transience is always against a background of endurance; endurance is either per accidens or per se.

conversive vs aversive passions

possible positions on hell
(1) hell is incoherent
(2) hell does not exist due to some defect/wrongness
(3) impeded hell: hell is only a hypothetical, it could exist, but it is prevented
(4) hell exists

the magisterial, ministerial, and regal aspects of motherhood

levels of mechanism
(1) agglomeration (Democritean)
(2) collision (Cartesian)
(3) attraction and repulsion
(4) computation

mechanisms vs mathematicisms

Seek virtue first and maximizing happiness will be given unto you.

Treating humanity with dignity requires treating the human race as a whole with dignity.

scientism as a usury of scientific authority

To make a hypothesis always presupposes something to make a hypothesis about.

"Satan, trying to make a new start and gain new triumphs, borrows the language of victims." Girard

Men have a tendency to confuse pusillanimity with niceness or tolerance.

coexistence, convivium, co-cogitation

The distinction between rational and irrational inference presupposes alternative possibilities and free decision among them.

metaphor, conceit, myth

Thursday, September 02, 2021

The Dignity of a Rational Being

 The natural religion gives rational sanction to all the demands of morality. Suppose reason directly tells us that it is good to subordinate the flesh to the spirit, that it is good to help others and to recognize the rights of other people like our own. Now in order to obey these demands of reason, one must believe in reason--believe that the good it requires from us is not a subjective illusion, but has real grounds and expresses the truth, and that that truth 'is great and overcomes.' Not to have this faith is to disbelieve that one's own existence has a meaning--is to renounce the dignity of a rational being.

Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good, von Peters, ed., Catholic Resources (Chattanooga, TN: 2015).

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Two Poem Drafts

Good Fortune

The lawn is lush,
and dappled by the dawn
beneath the appled bough
of the dewy apple tree;
the air is cool,
and newly cold,
but the sun is shining warm;
soon the sunshine's ray
will color all.
And by some subtle chance,
in happy happenstance,
the lottery of time,
I understand the shadows
where stands the dewy tree
and an apple gently falls
into a wisely waiting hand.


The Holy Spirit like a fox
is leaving footprints in the snow
through unexplored and woody waste
beneath the skydome's shifting glow.
Here the snowy prints are clear,
there they grow more scarce and dear,
but He is master of the snow.

The Holy Spirit like a fox
is sparking splendors in the sky;
above our heads the Northern Lights
a foxprint shows for seeking eye.
Bright above the snowy lawn
shifts the light of midnight dawn,
for He is master of the sky.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Two Are One

I Died for Beauty
by Emily Dickinson

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room. 

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth - the two are one;
We brethren are," he said. 

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fortnightly Book, August 29

 We don't know for sure the author of Egil's Saga, a thirteenth century saga that is one of the earliest sagas to have been given a written form, and is generally considered one of greatest. Almost everyone, however, attributes to Snorri Sturluson, because frankly there's not only no better candidate, we don't know of any other candidate at all: besides being the known author of a number of other works from the same period, Snorri had the erudition, the literary capability, and the broad experience of Scandinavia that would be required. It purports to depict the life Egil Skallagrimmson, about three centuries earlier, who was a warrior-poet. We don't know for sure whether Egil is a historical figure or a folklorish one, or both, or (for that matter) an invention of the author, but while they are not entirely consistent, the saga makes a great deal of effort to tie Egil to actual historical events and figures, so we have good reason at least to think that the author saw himself as trying to tell the history of a real Viking hero.

Egil's family has been locked into a long feud with King Harald Fairhair and his descendants; this will end up serving as the impetus for Egil to do a lot of traveling in order to avoid King Eirik Bloodaxe's continual manhunts to find and execute him. He will fight for King Aethelstan in England; he will cause some massacres and take out his vengeance for others; he will raid lands; and live a remarkably long life given the circumstances. But Egil is the ultimate that could possibly have been imagined in a man in the period when Scandinavia is Christianizing but not yet Christian, a pagan hero of the highest caliber. As a warrior, he is ruthless, unforgiving, and unbeatable, capable of transforming into a terrible wolf; as a poet, his words are unmatched and have a magical power to change the world around him. His virtues are all pagan virtues: loyalty to the point of vengeance, honor to the point of irrationality, friendship to the point of destroying anyone who stands in the way of his friends. He does nothing small whether it be done in joy or in grief or in anger. He has not a drop of humility, that strange Christian virtue, but his boasting is not mere boasting, because he can back every bit of it up. He is a man who has no problem with kings, but is ruler of himself. And in the end, such a man cannot but be alone.

I will be reading it in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Bernard Scudder.

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany


Opening Passage:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice -- not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ -- and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me, when I go to church. I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days -- the prayer book is so much more orderly. (p. 1)

Summary: John Wheelwright, from an old and important family in Gravesend, New Hampshire, is the narrator; he is narrating, from the perspective of Toronto in 1987, the events leading up to the formative event of his life, which took place July 8, 1968. The dates are quite important, first, because much of he story is concerned with an actual specific event that made it impossible for John to doubt the existence of a divine power, and second (and less successfully, I think, although the political element makes the point that religious doubts are often part of a more general miasma) it weaves events and themes of the Vietnam War with those of the Reagan Iran-Contras scandal. John's best friend growing up was Owen Meany. Owen was a weird-looking runt -- he is very short, he is strangely pale, and his ears look too big -- with a blown-out voice. His vocal chords do not work properly, and therefore everything he says is done with loud, shouted, high-pitched nasality, like a controlled scream. (At one point it is compared to the combined dying screams of thousands of mice, and when he speaks in the novels it is always in capital letters.) They are from very different parts of Gravesend society; John's family are Yankee aristocracy, Owen's are fairly successful laborers who have come to own a granite quarry and monument workshop. They are also very different in personality. John is quite bland and ordinary in many ways, but Owen is an entirely vivid and colorful personality who believes that God has chosen him as an instrument for some definite purpose. And it's increasingly hard to be skeptical of the latter, because so many things end up swirling around Owen, and they will do so more and more until that day, July 8, 1968, when everything that has ever been strange and bizarre about Owen's life suddenly jumps together.

Even in our own case, even in minor cases, if we do something 'for a reason', like, say, buying bread at the store, that one thing done 'for a reason' guarantees that other things are also done 'for a reason'. If you buy the bread for a reason, you got it off the shelf for a reason, you went to the store for a reason, even if some of these reasons are relatively undefined in themselves.  Magnify this to the size of the world. If there is one event, even one event, in which the courses of the world come together in a way that is clear 'for a reason', then for that event to be possible, many other things related to it have to be 'for a reason', and anything might be 'for a reason'. Owen knows almost from the beginning, and John comes to know in the course of time, that there is in fact such an event in Owen's life.

There are some weirdnesses in the way in which the story is told. Some of them get some kind of explanation (we learn why John is so angry at America, for instance, angry enough to become a Canadian citizen, and we learn why Owen has such a strange anti-Catholic prejudice), and some of them are connected with the weirdnesses of Yankee towns. John's view of the world is strangely sexualized, particularly given that he never actually has any sex; there's an odd incestuous tone to a lot of what he comes up. I suppose it fits the era in which the story occurs; at least, the weird mish-mash of sex, spirituality, hijinks, and politics that is treated as not only normal but as the normal seems very 'Boomer-ish' to me. Some of it works better, some worse. The book is quite humorous, in a tragicomic way, although the humor is very uneven: I think much of the humor surrounding John's mother and his lack of a father is not very funny, for instance, whereas some of the messes John and Owen get into are; I think the sexual humor is mostly not very good, while the religious humor usually is. The central chapter of the book is concerned with Owen's highjacking two plays, a Christmas pageant and A Christmas Carol, which serve as bridges to the culminating event of tale. The humor of the Christmas pageant itself is not all that great, I think (I've certainly read stories of Christmas pageants that were funnier), but the description of the aftermath is hilarious; the Dickens works better, I think. Nonetheless, it stays humorous enough to carry one through.

John is in some ways so unexceptional that someone might wonder why Owen would even be such close friends with him -- they are so different. But this is, of course, the point. There is a famous couplet from Euripides that is mentioned in passing, to the effect that what we expected never came to pass and what we did not expect the gods brought about. It is not an expression of hope. It is a terrible thing to be governed by a definite purpose that will be fulfilled, and one of the strengths of the novel is that it is one of very few stories that make this clear. (I think, of all the works I've read, only C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces does it better.) It does not matter how good the definite purpose is. Inexorable good is terrifying and unbearable. Inexorable good is something you can't outmatch, you can't outmaneuver; it comes on with a force that you can't do anything about, and thus is terrifying as you are carried along with a helplessness that is unbearable. It demands sacrifice, and seizes it from you whether you will or nill. Owen is friends with John because John is so ordinary; he escapes when he can to John and his family because they are the closest he will ever have to a normal life. He has an unyielding purpose, and he can't help think at times that a wide world of desirable things have been taken from him because of it. Destiny -- not a vague sense of purposefulness, but an actual destiny -- is a heavy thing for slight human shoulders. It is almost impossible to bear it well; it takes a hero to bear it at all.

Favorite Passage: An insightful passage on a certain kind of liberal Christianity that is portrayed very sympathetically in the book, but is also criticized as inadequate in its conceptions of both faith and evidence:

What made Mr. Merrill infinitely more attractive was that he was full of doubt; he expressed our doubt in the most eloquent and sympathetic ways. In his completely lucid and convincing view, the Bible is a book with a troubling plot, but a plot that can be understood: God creates us out of love, but we don't want God, or we don't believe in Him, or we pay very poor attention to Him. Nevertheless, God continues to love us -- at least, He continues to try to get our attention. Pastor Merrill made religion seem reasonable. And the trick of having faith, he said, was that it was necessary to believe in God without any great or even remotely reassuring evidence that we don't inhabit a godless universe.

Although he knew all the best -- or, at least, the least boring -- stories in the Bible, Mr. Merrill was most appealing because he reassured us that doubt was the essence of faith, and not faith's opposite. (p. 111)

Recommendation: Recommended.


John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Ballantine Books (New York: 1989).