I’ve long been struck by the philosophical and theological sundering of man from other men that began in the 16th century. Since ideas matter, as Sola anything and Cartesian navel-gazing replaced living tradition and the Question method and, indeed, the very notion of a ‘school’ of thought, these bad ideas have also resulted in the physical separation of people from each other.
You need people, lots of people, for there to be traditions. You need people, generally a good number of people, to have a school of thought. Neither traditions nor schools of thought are created and maintained through correspondence or Twitter. Real, often obnoxious, people rubbing elbows make them and keep them alive. In the case of Sacred Traditions, those people included the Person of Jesus and His apostles and disciples, and their disciples down to the present day; schools of thought, at least until that fateful 16th century, were formed, developed and reinforced by actual scholars, often in actual physical proximity to each other in actual physical schools, arguing, yelling and occasionally knifing each other (1). It may not have always been pretty, but, boy, you can’t get any more human than that!
In the early 1500s, Luther declares his ‘Alones’ shifting the standard of religious study from monasteries, which, despite the ‘mono’ in the name, were gatherings of men, to the lone plowboy reading the Bible all on his lonesome. Sure, that plowboy might benefit from talking with others, but in theory, all he needs for spiritual enlightenment is the Good Book and the ability to read it.
In 1630, Descartes goes to his room, pulls the curtains and writes his Meditations, shifting the process of philosophy from what men can figure out by interacting with the world around them – most particularly, interacting with the *people* around them – to what a man such as Descartes, Hume, Berkeley or Kant can figure out in the privacy of his own cranium. If that cranium can even be said to be known to exist.
If we hold being Alone in our theology and philosophy to be the highest court above which no appeal can be made, how long will it take for us to assert that being alone in our personal judgements about, say, culture, government and my true self are likewise beyond appeal?
About 500 years, evidently.
Three things this day bring this to mind. First, this excellent essay by David Mills: The Bible’s not enough, which discusses the pervasiveness of Sola Scriptura even among Catholics. Second, a Twitter thread (so shoot me. I mean, think less of me.) where Morgon Newquist tells of her father, in a wheelchair at Disney World, offering to let a little girl sit in front of him to have a better view of a parade – and the parents react like he’s a child molestor. Finally, I’ve recently become part of the the RCIA team at our parish, and was given the task (and 10 minutes!) to explain how the Church reads Scripture.
We are so Alone. The ruins of go it alone theology and philosophy are everywhere. Rather than discovering ourselves in our relationships, we defiantly declare that only we alone can say who we are, depending solely on what we feel we are. We define *individual* rights, and deny they come from nature or nature’s God or even from our relationships to other people. Even the right to vote – especially the right to vote – is seen as definitive of *individual* worth, even if it is only practiced occasionally, and then as part of a large group for the purposes of the large group. It is an expression not of my role in society, but of my personal universe of truth. Thus, instead of seeing losing a vote as a worthy and acceptable outcome and motivation to try to change people’s hearts and minds, each loser is personally threatened, the victors seen as evil people trying to destroy his world.
Many seem to both want rights and want to be able to define them away from others. You must bake me a cake or give up your guns even if neither has any real effect on me, but I get to tell you who I am (and woe if you mess it up) and what world view you must adhere to so that I can feel good about my feelings. This trick is only possible for an more or less unconscious nihilist, who of course believes other’s worthiness depends on how well they support his view of himself, but also betrays how meaningless he feels his own feelings are.
The antidote is religious by definition. We must believe we are all in this together, that nobody can go it alone, in order to understand why the modernist nihilism won’t work. Or rather, why modernist nihilism should never be tried. We can try, doomed though the effort is, to believe in the unity of Mankind without believing in the God Who created that unity. But with or without God, the Brotherhood of Man is like the Equality of Man: nothing you can observe will support such beliefs unless you already believe them without evidence.
Documents relate to “a student who attacked his professor with a sword” resulting in great damage being done to a lecture room – and to the lecturer himself. From Medieval Students. Violence in medieval university towns was not uncommon. I suspect there’s more than a bit of bias, both in the recording and interpretation of history – violent acts are memorable and judged noteworthy. A period of peace not so much. Read somewhere somebody saying that, by modern standards, the violence of the past was psychopathic. Of course, modern standards tend to overlook violence like firebombing cities, nuclear weapons, and the slaughter of a 100 million unarmed civilians by their own governments, so take that into consideration.
As so often happens, a philosophical confluence. In the course of my more or less random reading, came across two writes, a century apart and coming at the issue from different angles, who notice the same thing. First, in Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful and multiple-Pope-recommended 1907 novel Lord of the World, the rising English politician Oliver Brand thinks through what would nowadays be called his worldview:
As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of common sense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas…. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver’s mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving…. There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him “God” was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.
Later, Brand reads in the paper an account of the brave new world being ushered in by one Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American who is being called the Savior of the World:
“It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. ‘Not peace but a sword,’ said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. ‘Not a sword but peace’ is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.
“Let it be seen at least that England is not behind the nations in this work of reformation; let no national isolation, pride of race, or drunkenness of wealth hold her hands back from this enormous work. The responsibility is incalculable, but the victory certain. Let us go softly, humbled by the knowledge of our crimes in the past, confident in the hope of our achievements in the future, towards that reward which is in sight at last—the reward hidden so long by the selfishness of men, the darkness of religion, and the strife of tongues—the reward promised by one who knew not what he said and denied what he asserted—Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, for they shall inherit the earth, be named the children of God, and find mercy.”
and Brand’s young wife Mabel, trying to convince her dying mother in law to abandon Catholicism:
“Mother,” said the girl, “let me tell you again. Do you not understand that all which Jesus Christ promised has come true, though in another way? The reign of God has really begun; but we know now who God is. You said just now you wanted the Forgiveness of Sins; well, you have that; we all have it, because there is no such thing as sin. There is only Crime. And then Communion. You used to believe that that made you a partaker of God; well, we are all partakers of God, because we are human beings. Don’t you see that Christianity is only one way of saying all that? I dare say it was the only way, for a time; but that is all over now. Oh! and how much better this is! It is true—true. You can see it to be true!”
She paused a moment, forcing herself to look at that piteous old face, the flushed wrinkled cheeks, the writhing knotted hands on the coverlet.
“Look how Christianity has failed—how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties—the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children—the disobedience to the State, the treasons. Oh! you cannot believe that these were right. What kind of a God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that?… Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful…. Don’t you understand that that God has gone—that He never existed at all—that it was all a hideous nightmare; and that now we all know at last what the truth is…. Mother! think of what happened last night—how He came—the Man of whom you were so frightened. I told you what He was like—so quiet and strong—how every one was silent—of the—the extraordinary atmosphere, and how six millions of people saw Him. And think what He has done—how He has healed all the old wounds—how the whole world is at peace at last—and of what is going to happen. Oh! mother, give up those horrible old lies; give them up; be brave.”
Written in 1907.
Next, came across the Death of God Fifty Years On by Matthew Rose at First Things, published a year ago. In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” This article, what we would now call click bait, created a furor. For youngsters, way back then people took magazines like Time seriously as not only purveyors of “news” but as important social and cultural barometers. Weird, huh?
Rose’s essay is very hard to excerpt, as it spins together, from paragraph to paragraph, many sources and writers to paint its picture. What follows gives some of the flavor, but it’s well worth reading the entire essay:
Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)
A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”
From the perspective of classical Christian theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.
His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural development.
Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.
The essay concludes by remarking that, while the theology of the death of God has had little academic traction, as a reflection of what was going on in the culture, however inarticulately, it was dead on.
Benson might have agreed.
Finally, how does this sort of thing metastasize across a culture? Benson gives a clue earlier in his novel. Mabel and her mother in law went to hear Oliver deliver a speech. The people gathered began to sing:
There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:
“The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …
She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.
In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument. The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.
First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.
I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.
But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.
Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.
Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable. One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.
A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.
Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.
Tevye: You know… you are also right.
My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.
The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.
This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.
“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”
It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)
We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.
Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.
This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.
Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.
Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.
The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.
It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that
In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.
“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”
That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.
The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.
On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.
It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication by their nature.
Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.
(My head today is like an industrial coffee percolator: full of mineral deposits and in desperate need of a good scrubbing. No, wait – bubbling over with ideas! That it! That’s the image! Well, maybe a little of the other, too…)
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is accused of possessing the evil superpower of ‘making the weaker argument appear the stronger’. Be that as it may, the curious part of this accusation these days lies in noting that the Athenians were evidently under the quaint impression that some arguments are better than others.
An unavoidable impression one gets from reading Plato is that, in the Athens inherited by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, argument was both a full-contact extreme urban sport, as well as a spectator event. The Sophists, who really did teach how to make a weak argument appear strong, seemed to be everywhere, and an enterprising Athenian could probably have sold a lot of peanuts and Crackerjacks to the crowds that formed whenever Socrates took one on.
Callicles, and probably his teacher Gorgias as well, believed and taught that the stronger argument is the one that wins. Callicles cared nothing for the truth except insofar as it might help or hinder his attainment of Excellence, defined by him (and multitudes before and since) as the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.
It’s not like our modern obsession with truth being relative and a good argument being one that gets me what I want are new things under the sun. They may qualify as baseline human behavior. Those who argue that free will is a sham, that it’s deterministic turtles all the way down, are not really arguing anything different – they are just trying to place the blame somewhere else, like in a mirthless, mechanistic universe rather than in the hubris-ridden soul of Callicles. (1)
Sometimes one might read of someone who fully embraces lying to get whatever they want with bracing honesty. Alinsky springs to mind. But mostly, our children and ourselves back at least 3 generations have been taught that truth is relative, that arguments are acts of aggression, that reason has no privileged place in conversation or even in argument. What was done through omission furtively is now done in the daylight.
Frankly, what is surprising is to see anything else. Socrates leaps off the page with his willingness to follow wherever the argument leads; Aristotle is perhaps braver still: he lays his arguments out right in the open, for anyone who wants to to approach and attack.
But the hero of argument, the towering peak of all that is good about disputing among friends to get closer to the truth, is St. Thomas. Two things that are often missed: first, he knew and taught that what the Scholastics were doing was trying to get closer to truth, not settle everything once and for all. The conclusions reached by a team of people, the small group of friends gathered at the feet of the Master to play the Questions game, did not and were never meant to settle the issue in the sense of cutting off further discussion. We do the best we can, trusting that all Truth is One, and all Truth is God, Who lovingly wants us to understand.
Second, and this is utterly missing from the modern world, there’s a deep devotion to fairness. It would be unsatisfactory and a waste of time to argue against anything but the best, strongest, most convincing argument your opponent can put out. Whenever possible, you restate the argument and get sign-off from your opponent – yes, this is exactly what I mean. (2) Like a true sportsman, they don’t want to win if they have to cheat to do it.
Reading Aquinas, even for a guy like me who lacks much of the background to really understand him, is like breathing the fresh air on a high mountain, after having climbed from the dirt and gloom of the valleys below. The eagerness to hear the arguments out – the opposing view is always given first – and the care and honor given to even pretty weak arguments is unlike anything you’re likely to run into today.
Thus, reading St. Thomas, one realizes that all arguments are good, in the sense that, in the hands of a master stating them as clearly as possible, all arguments sound reasonable enough that you would not hold anyone in contempt for believing them. Nowadays, we settle for that superficial argument without ever pursuing the question: are there other arguments even stronger?
Half truths told by liars are the coin of the realm these days. Of course there is oppression. Of course life isn’t fair. But is that the whole story? Like Thomas, it would help greatly to lay these arguments out as strongly as possible, and then see what can be rallied against them. Or watch them crumble from their own flaws.
One day, when I have a month or so of free time, I’ll need to do a Luther/Erasmus/St. Thomas three-way comparison of Free Will. But it is not this day. Suffice it to say: Thomas says that to be rational, we must have free will. This is one of those so obvious it’s easy to miss things.
Since a cultivated mind is one which can consider an idea without agreeing to it, Thomas and his buddies were uniquely qualified to work through and express their opponents’ arguments. He may have had the most cultivated mind in history.
Remy: You could fill a book – a lot of books – with things Dad doesn’t know. And they have. Which is why I read. Which is also our secret.
Been reading Paolo Freire and Gramsci (Beginning to suspect reading Marxists is asymptotic to being hung, drawn and quartered. Nice Lenten project.) And: people fall for this? Or – a suspicion I’ve long harbored – run of the mill Marxists don’t actually read any Marxists beyond the Cliff Notes. And they skim those. I’ll write more later, perhaps, if my confessor, Fr Torquemada, assigns it. Basic complaint: after you’ve grasped the fundamental set of insane, self-contradictory and laughably stupid dogmas ‘validated’ by the usual cherry-picked ‘history’ and apply it to your chosen topic and vomit forth Marxist ‘analysis’ – once you’ve been through that processes once, reading more Marxists becomes like playing tic-tac-toe after you’ve figured it out. Same old same old. The only fun, such as it is, is in seeing Marxists come up with new ways to explain the utter failure of reality to live down to their theories and excuse their bloodthirsty violence. Not much fun.
The USPS tried to deliver my nice hardbound copy of Mike Flynn’s epic The January Dancerto my place of business – on a Saturday. Once. They are now bent out of shape enough, evidently, to threaten me with a trip to the post office to pick it up. Sheesh. Planning to wait a couple days, hoping that, in their incompetence, they will slip up and just deliver the darn thing, so that I can place it on the stack someplace. Still have the rest of the Firestar series to read. [update: yep, got here today.]
At WordPress’s suggestion, set up a Twitter account to publicize this blog. Working the Twitter angle does seem to increase traffic – on Twitter. Makes no difference for traffic here. Unless Twitter owns WordPress, this makes no sense.
We had to – I mean, like HAD TO – get the choir out of the choir loft, since adding beautiful music to the liturgy isn’t PARTICIPATION, whereas putting a rock band in the sanctuary is. Yet, somehow – and who could have predicted this? – putting people up in front, as if on a stage, invites such people to perform. I imagine most such folks aren’t actively thinking ‘I’m on stage, must perform!’ – it would just be all but impossible for anyone who grew up in America to see it any other way. Thus, the very nice man with a solid singing voice who leads the music at one of the local parishes can’t really help himself – probably can’t even hear it – from adding schmaltzy glissandos and molto rubato to every. darn. song. Thus, the congregation, some observably small fraction of whom might be willing to try to sing along with the modern pop tunes on offer, are pretty much shut down: how can you follow such a performance? I, punk that I am, sing along vigorously, right on pitch, right on beat. It doesn’t help, there is no help for it, other than owning that maybe some degree of performance is acceptable – and should be done out of sight somewhere, like, you know, up in the choir loft.
Hegel’s criticism of Aristotelian logic really and truly boils down to: it’s old, and hasn’t improved like everything else. (The gimlet eyed criticism of the criticism is: yep, and if it remains valid, you, Hegel, are blowin’ forest-fire level smoke.) See the introductory chapters of his Logic if you doubt me. There really isn’t any other objection, and Hegel even acknowledges that classic logic is necessary for scientists, mathematicians, technologists – you know, the little people, who produce all that stuff that has made the world better, on the whole, than it was in Hegel’s time. But logic is a total buzz kill for Hegel’s speculative philosophical high, and places limits – logical limits – on what syntheses a dialectic can arrive at. So it has to go. People fall for this?
A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.
To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.
But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.
On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.
Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.
We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.
Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)
Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.
I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.