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Vomit the Lukewarm
12/30/2004
 
The First Article, First Question, of the First Part.

1.) Revealed theology has a claim to being the highest of the sciences: both as speculative (it gives us the highest grasp of the highest object- to which all other things are subordinate) and as practical (it reveals to us the greatest good, and makes known the means to attain that thing to which all actions are subordinate)*

2.) In whatever way we take the first principle of the Summa to articulate the first principle of revealed theology, this principle the highest principle of any of the many first principles of the many sciences.

3.) The first principle given in the Summa is that man is called to a beatitude that consists in the knowledge of God.

4.) This call to beatitude is superabundant in two different ways: a.) the beatitude itself exceeds the powers of man’s nature to attain by his own agency; and b.) God desires that this beatitude be given to more than merely a few- at least to many, perhaps to all.

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*the first observation is set forth here not as a first principle, since it is established later in the question. It would be pointless to talk about something that was true about revealed theology before one even gave a reason to believe that revealed theology existed at all, a reason that is given in article one.
 
12/28/2004
 
Question, Answer, Comment

Q. Why doesn't God reaveal imself more clearly? Why doesn't give people more tangible proof of his existence? Why does his mysterious strategy seem to be a game of hide-and-seek with his creatures?

A. The questions you ask- and which many ask- do not refer to St. Thomas or Augustine, or to the great Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems to me they stem from another source, one that is purely rationalist, one that is characteristic of modern philosophy- a history that begins with Descartes, who split thought from existence and identified existence with reason itself.

How different from the approach of St. Thomas! I think the way I think because I am the kind of thing that I am- and because he is who he is, the absolute uncreated mystery. If he were not mystery, there would be no need for God to reveal himself.

Your questions would only be legitimate if man could overcome the whole existence that separates him from his Creator, the not necessary being from the necessary being.

Comments:

The answer is perfect, not merely for being true, but for a half dozen other more striking reasons. First of all, the answer is perfectly charitable, and yet perfectly refutes the challenge implicit in the question. The answer opens with the wonderful balm of you ask-and which many ask- the questioner knows he is taken seriously. But there is no hiding the rebuke of the question- Your questions would only be legitimate if man could overcome the whole existence that separates him from his Creator. The charity shown to the questioner is not sullied by a muddle-headed equivocation or circumlocution; and at the same time the force and clarity of the rebuke does not come across as hostile, condescending, or caustic.

The answer also calls the questioner to see himself as deeply involved in a tradition- he is asked to relate to philosophy not merely as something in a book, but as something that he already holds as real. It is all too easy for us to relate to philosophical and theological opinions and truths as though they were safely interred in books and had no consequences. But the questioner is being asked to see that those traditions he draws from are either living in him, or killing him.

This answer also gets to the error at the bottom of the question. The first principle of the question is simply defective, and cannot be worked with. Rationalism denies the intelligible possibility of mystery, that is, of being that is super-intelligible to man, and that man must relate to though negation, analogy, and faith. Man also stands before mysterious things with a need for the mysterious to reveal itself: a discussion that St. Thomas places as the beginning of both the Summa and the Summa Contra Gentiles.

The answer also shows a love of truth that is missing from many philosophical discussions. The answer begins with something almost painfully obvious: that the question does not refer to St. Thomas or Augustine, or to the great Judeo-Christian tradition. Most people I have heard "argue" are content to just categorize the problem- to give it its very own "-ism" or "-istical" or "______ theory" status, and then leave it at that. This answer proves something true, in a way that is more or less clear to the extent that one understands the arguments as they are formally given in St. Thomas.

This question and answer also are wholly typical of the way most theological debates occur. The "objections" to theism are couched in questions (other methods are to use satire, bitter irony, or some other kind of negation that avoids making a positive claim.) Because the method of the objector is so typical, and the answer to him is so perfect, the whole exchange is a template for how we should best argue with others.

This answer is also quietly hides some of the best things in modern philosophy, even though the answer does critique one strain of modern philosophy . One can reconstruct a good deal of what is good about "existential personalism" or "the dignity of the human person" if they firmly ground it in the principle that is articulated above: I think because I am the sort of thing that I am, and He is what he is, the absolute uncreated mystery. If one wants to understand the human condition of acting moral persons- so much the concern of the best modern philosophers- they need to understand the radical and fundamental need that man as an acting and moral person has for mystery, and for the revelation of mystery. Such philosophers should try beginning where St. Thomas does, starting with the links given above.

(The excerpts are from Crossing The Threshold of Hope, p. 37. The questioner is Vittorio Messori. The answer was given by John Paul II)
 
12/20/2004
 
An Important Argument Simplified

Every science aims to explain what is complex in terms of what is simple.

The simple here is understood in its aspect of being "most fundamental", and as "the cause in some way of the more complex things dealt with in the science"

Simplicity in science can mean two different things.

For the physical sciences, the most simple things are the simplest parts of matter, and energy. All explanations that the physical sciences give strive to root their conclusions in these simplest parts. For Natural Theology, or Philosophy, the simplest being is God, and all things are explained by reference to this one most fundamental being that is the cause of all other things in the science.

Scientific knowledge can therefore mean two things.

We must stop confounding the two meanings. Common examples of this confounding are a.) the creationist/anti-Darwinian vs. Evolutionist debate; b.) the science (understood as physical science) vs. theism debate; c.) The science vs. Humanities debate (where the humanities are understood to include philosophy and theology).

A great deal of our grief and concern is wrongly spent on debates like (b). They all amount to one side or another blustering about how it is the only kind of science that exists.

 
12/19/2004
 
Three Thoughts on Existentialism

There are no doubt a thousand different opinions about what constitutes this "-ism". But it seems safe to say that a central idea of the whole thing is that we are supposed to boldly define our own existence, as opposed to assuming that we have a set nature that defines what is good or not good for us.

1.) Existentialism's greatest cultural power is the power it gains through feminism. The idea that ones nature as a female is determined in a way that makes it different from the male is a taboo subject for all of us. In some way, we all accept the 70's feminist slogan that "biology is not destiny". We have obliterated the difference between the sexes in speech, e.g. "parenting" (as opposed to fathering or mothering), "spouses" (as opposed to husband and wife), "single parent" (as opposed to unwed mother), "sexuality" (as opposed to "masculine and feminine") even "teenager" seems to be invoked to abstract from saying "young men" or "ladies" (who are all now considered "young people" anyway). We have all accepted some kind of bright yellow line between "sex" and "gender", where previous generations would have seen the second as firmly rooted in the first. We have gotten to the point were we are willing to consider something called "gay marriage" which under the old idea where one thought of marriage as meaning "husband and wife" the idiom "gay marriage" would have made no more sense than "wordless sentence". We might disagree with it, but we must reason about it, it is no longer given as absurd.

Since even to speak of these things is taboo, it is probably thought that I hate all these changes and would seek to do away with them. Perhaps. But at least understand that like most folks, I grew up in the system and experienced it from the inside. Before I was even interested in women I was trained to treat them as absolute equals, and I was never allowed to speak of women having any meaningful difference from myself. I knew that women liked dolls, makeup, and dressing their little brothers up as girls*, but I was never allowed to let any of these differences be grounded in any idea of a natural feminine difference. I was trained to treat all the differences I saw as utterly groundless, as "lifestyle choices" and nothing more. When we "went out" there was nothing a girl had to do or the boy had to do. None of our dances had "leads". None of the popular ones do anymore.

2.) Existentialism seems to be a by-product of cultural decay. By "cultural decay" I don't mean that there is a moral decay, but simply at there is a dying away of things that people do inasmuch as the are members of a culture. If someone wants to "boldly define themselves" as, say, a traditional Catholic, or as one who has "a traditional wedding", they must make, in a certain sense, the same sort of decision as one who chooses to 'do their own thing'. It was of the very essence of "traditional Catholicism", when it existed, that every Catholic had to do it that way.. The same with traditional weddings. We can never have a traditional wedding in the same way that our grandparents might have. For them everyone got married that way. What we call traditional were things that people didn't use to have to "choose". It was set for them by the culture at large, and when they did it they acted as members of a culture. Now we act more as individuals. We must define things for ourselves since fewer of them are defined for us.

Existentialism seems to feed off of the dying of roles, whether they are social roles, gender roles, or the roles of a certain status. There is certaily some good in this, pehaps even a certain amount of increased human nobility and freedom. We strike an ambiguous note, however, when we recognize that these roles were what the ancients would have called mores, or ethos. These things are the principles of what is called "morality" and "ethics"- they were the unspoken and long established ways of doing things that one took as the givens of living life as it ought to be lived. Under the force of Hegel's critique, these morals were relagated to a lower status, one that must be transcended. Few moral phlosophers since have disagreed with him, and in present times, it seems impossible to disagree with him even if we wanted to. The roles simply don't exist enough to be defended.

3.) In my own experience, if you try primarily to "boldly define yourself", as opposed to primarily following certain long established moral givens (like "do onto others..." or , "if you don't have something nice to say..." or "don't get wasted", or "forgive your brother seventy times seven times") you will become a raging arrogant jackass. If this does not happen to you, it will certainly bring out your absolute worst side.

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*In fact, the response one expects from any particular example of a feminine or masculine activity is a swelling chorus of "I know lots of girls who never..." To avoid this argument takes a great deal of skill. We have to soak for a while in the difference between what is feminine and what every particular female does. Always sometimes means "for the most part" or "typical". This latter word, however, is just a cognate of that most hated modern word: "stereotype".
 
12/15/2004
 
To set the scene: Socrates and Phaedrus have both finished listening to a carefully reasoned, perfectly articulate, and completely public speech made by a famous, older, high-society Athenian intellectual. The theme of the speech was on the benefits of what we presently call "sexual liberation".

Phaedrus: The outstanding feature of this discourse is that it has not overlooked any important aspect of the subject, so making it impossible for anyone else to outdo what he has said with a fuller or more satisfactory oration.

Socrates: ...really, it seemed to me that he said the same thing several times over. Maybe he's not very clever at explaining at length on a single theme, or possibly he has no interest in these topics. In fact, it struck me as an extravagant performance to demonstrate his ability to say the same thing twice, in different words but with equal success.

Those who are newer to philosophy see a full, exaustive, and imposing argument in the same words that the wise see only as a mechanical and drab repetition of the same point.

 
 
Equivocal Causality

Agent causes either produce effects that are of the same species, or they do not. When a tree makes another tree by means of its seeds, or a man makes a man by his own material principle, the effects are obviously in the same species as their agents. When a man makes a calculator, the effect is just as obviously not in the same species as its maker. The first sort of causality is called univocal; the second, equivocal.

Given that equivocal causes are not in the same species of their effect, they must either be a higher sort of thing, or a lower sort of thing. But to be a lower sort of thing means that one lacks the perfection of something higher. But if something lacked a certain perfection, how could it be responsible for giving it to another? Equivocal causes must therefore be higher sorts of things than the effects that they produce.

At the same time, every cause causes some perfection that is similar to itself as cause; for to be dissimilar is to either have a different perfection, or the lack of some perfection. But no agent can give some different perfection than its own, nor can it be a cause of the lack of some perfection. And so the greater perfection of the agent equivocal cause must be in this: the agent causes an effect which that same agent possesses in a more perfect way.

It is necessary to look to equivocal causes when there is something in the nature of the effect that cannot be attributed to the univocal cause as such. Two things in the effect fit this description, first, that it exists with a certain essence; and second, that it has existence at all. No univocal cause, which by definition must produce an effect that is the same sort of thing, can explain why this sort of thing exists at all. If it could, it would have to be the cause of the existence of sort of thing that it is, but then it would have to be the cause of itself, which is impossible.How could I, or you who are reading this, be the cause of human nature? If we were, it would have to have never existed before we were conceived, but this would have destroyed the possibility of us ever being conceived. It would, therefore, not exist. But it obviously does exist- both in me and in you- as one of the givens that philosophy cannot explain away.

So long as we do not simply ignore the question of why our nature, or any nature exists at all, we must look to some equivocal cause. When we describe this cause, we must be careful to attribute to attribute to it all of our own perfections, and yet we must admit that they exist in a higher and more perfect way in the one who caused our nature. We will therefore only speak of this cause analogously, using words that we borrow from the names from our own perfections, always realizing that these perfections exist in a more perfect way in this higher cause. We will negate from our concepts all that belongs to our imperfect existence or being; even negating, when necessary, the imperfections that will attach to our way of speaking about things. With these analogous words, that are appreciated just as much for their negation as for their content, we can hope to approach this equivocal cause that caused our own nature, and the nature of all things.





 
12/14/2004
 
Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it s safe to say that the most celebrated works of literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive a more opaque and visionless title tan The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that... Crime and Punishment [is] almost as dreadful.

Jorge Borges, 1938

"since fault may be a punishment, by having something in it that is contrary to the sinner's will, it can in this sense call for mercy"

S. T. II-II Q. 30, a.1, ad 1.

Mercy exists because every fault is its own of punishment. As Dostoevsky would have it, crime is punishment.
Roskolnikov's civil punishment is ridiculously slight, and he seeks it as relief anyway. It is the torture of conscience that is his real punishment, and we are spared no detail of it. And the form of his punishment is nothing but the awareness of his crime.

Men are tight-lipped about the reality of guilt. I have heard almost no one say that they avoided doing some evil because they feared the guilt to come. Guilt is a singular phenomenon, universally torturous and universally brushed aside. Even the best moral philosophers tend to ignore its power when they discuss why people should seek virtue. Those who advocate "the life of pleasure" can only sound plausible because the treat guilt like the proverbial "elephant in the corner"- what pleasure is there in an act which, once done, we would throw ourselves in fire to remove? What hedonistic calculus could make this the ideal arrangement?

It might be said, however, that guilt tends to fade with enough repetition. This is fair enough, perhaps, but the enjoyment we take from the crime fades too. Guilt doesn't lessen because we over whelm it with habit, it lessens because our very being becomes smaller ad contracted. And guilt is no less able than vice to take on subtle forms and deep roots that can trigger at the most trivial signal, or that can pour poison in the bloodstream as quietly and certainly as vice. Beyond all this, even the men I know who don't have enough acting talent to be walk-ons in B movies can give Oscar-caliber performances if they need to hide their guilt. No surprise here- we all have fooled ourselves first.

One of the most hellish punishments of guilt is that we have to suffer it so alone. To speak of it is to break more than a taboo, it is to speak of the one thing that no one can fathom happening before they commit the crime. Even among those with the same crimes as ourselves, we cannot bring ourselves to mention the guilt of the offence. We would no more do this than a person who was ashamed of their body would stand naked in front of a stranger. I have known a few people who would speak of their own humiliations- but I have known no one who would speak of this ultimate humiliation- unless he knew that he could barter this humiliation for a chance to rid himself of it. And we all know that we cannot so barter with men.
 
12/11/2004
 
Preliminary Response to John Deck

John Deck's thesis in "St. Thomas and the Language of Total Dependence" is that any any composition in a creature is completely incompatible with a creature's total dependence on God; i.e. one or the other can be true, but not both. This claim is more than idle hair splitting- almost nothing of St. Thomas's natural theology could survive the success of this critique. This is not to say that all of St. Thomas's language would disappear, or all his proofs fall into ruin, but many, if not most of them would either have to be redefined, or be placed in the service of very different conclusions.

I write this post only to those who have already read Mr. Deck's article carefully. While I have taken great care to give his arguments exactly as he sets them forth, I have not included the any texts he cites (and cites powerfully), nor have I included the minor proofs that he uses to explain his premises. In addition to all this, Mr. Deck is simply a better prose stylist than I am, and is capable of presenting his case far more pleasantly.

Mr. Deck's argument proceeds in two parts. In the first, a.) he gives proofs for why the composition of essence and existence is incompatible with total dependence on the creator, in the second b.) he gives proofs for why any sort of composition is incompatible with total dependence on the creator. After Mr Deck lays down that for St. Thomas, total dependence means "everything is dependent upon God, and nothing else, as the originative cause of its existence", he gives his proofs.

1a.) Essence is not from another, but is self-caused; but to be totally dependent means to be totally from another. Therefore, if the creature is composed of essence and existence, it is not totally dependent.

2a.) Essence is a sort of potential being, but all that comes from an agent is being in act. Therefore, if a creature is composed of essence and existence, the part of it that is essence cannot come from God as an agent cause.

3a,) If a creature is composed of essence and existence, then essence receives existence. But to receive presupposes a thing that can receive- nothing can receive something unless it has, as Deck puts it "some shade of being in its own right ". Therefore, if a creature is composed of essence and existence, the creature is not totally dependent on the action of the creator.

Arguments 2.a and 3a. can easily be modified to show the general argument, sc. that any composition is incompatible with total dependence. Mr. Deck also gives another argument:

1b.) If a creature is in any way composed, it must be composed of parts that are either equally dependent on God, or unequally dependent. If the parts are equally dependent, then to multiply them is superfluous. If the parts are unequally dependent, then this can only happen by one part being less dependent on God. But to be less dependent seems to mean "to be in some way not dependent".

I Respond

In order to reason to Mr. Deck's position, we have to revisit the very basis of the terms that he uses. My response here has two parts: first, I will give the basis for why we understand creatures as composed, and then why this composition requires total dependence upon a first agent cause, God.

We distinguish potency from act when we notice that all the things around us can in one way be something other than what they are, and in another sense, they cannot be something other than what they are. Rose buds, for example, can become something other than rose buds in a number of ways: they might blossom into fully open flowers, or they might be crushed into an oil and made into perfume, or the bud might be eaten by a cow, and turned into the cow's muscle, bone and tissues. Now not all these changes are the same. We call a rose a rose regardless of whether it is a bud or an opened bloom, but if a cow eats a roses and grows muscle we don't call that cow's muscle "roses". In the first case, a rose survives the change; in the second, it does not. The changes also do not come about in the same way. If someone asks why roses bloom, we will give more or less precise accounts of "well, that's what roses do". They feed on the nutrients in the earth, and then use them to grow. The cow example is different. It needs, well, a cow to eat the rose. The flower, and all the things around us can be something else, but its also obvious that all of them are something. The term for the first sort of thing is a "potential" thing, for the second an "actual" thing.

At this point, the potential means "what can be something else in any way", and the actual means "what cannot be something else" (we have to destroy the rose to make it muscle, and the bud must open to be a flower). This "cannot be...etc." is a negation that hides an obvious positive statement, sc. "it is some thing" (a bud, a bud of a rose, etc.) From these first ideas, we get a second idea of potency and act: potency is what simply can be, and act is what simply is. But if we generalize the terms in this way, new sorts of things come to light, like,

1.) Potency and act are capable of being used relative to each other. What is a seed can be a sapling, though it is actually a seed; what is a sapling can be a tree, though it is actually a sapling. Because the later stages are more mature than the ones before, the term "act" begins to mean "completion" or in the equivalent scholastic vocabulary, "perfection".

2.) The Thing that we call potential is characterized by the fact that it can be. In one sense the potential is not anything at all, for we call it potential in light of it not having or not being something. But in another sense, we can understand that things really do have the ability to become something else. Inasmuch as potency is considered in itself, it can be called "nothing". Inasmuch as it is considered as either in some being, or as ordered to something and as having an ability to become it, it is considered a sort of being. This is what Aristotle means when he says "the principles of a thing are in one sense two, in another three- for the potential "underlying thing" can be considered either as something or as the lack of something (nothing).

A particular instance of potency and act, essence and existence.

When people talk about "knowing the essence of something", they are looking for more than just something that is true about the thing. They are asking what the thing is fundamentally- what makes it different from all the other things we see it as different from. This is why one of the root meanings of "essence" is "a definition".

Human beings have shown modest success at defining things perfectly, at grasping what exactly the essence of something is. We are somewhat better at figuring out that some things exist- just to open ones eyes is to have a thousand examples at hand- things whose essence we my understand only very imperfectly. There is also a more fundamental difference between essence and existence- we don't expect definitions to prove that something exists. We would make an easy job of science if we could show that something exists by imply defining it... "Time travel is the ability of human beings to go forward and backward in time". Perfect definition! It could have been given by a medieval! But he would not be a wit closer to showing that any such thing exists, or is even possible. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't..

Focus for a moment on that "maybe". It may be the case that we understand the essence of many things, and that we also know that they have existence; but we didn't figure out that they existed by the mere act of defining them. The definition, or essence, always leaves us with a "maybe so, maybe not". The essence, in other words, has a sort of potency: it can be. This potency is not simply due to our ignorance of whether a thing exists, but is a real potency in the world .If I ask why I exist, don't respond that I exist because I am a rational animal. If, per impossibile, I existed by essence or definition, then I could never cease existing, for definitions are always true. If the definition of a thing included existence, then existence of the thing defined would be always true. It isn't.

And so, at least for everything I see around me, there is an impassable wall between essence and existence. We get the essence By looking at the thing, or at last hypothesizing it in some way from other things. Both the essence and existence are "of the thing", but the first is a simple statement of what the thing is, the second, a property that in no way is contained in the essence. If I want to figure out what something is, then I consider, well , what it is. But there is something other than this exact "what" that determines whether something is. There is a real duality in things between what they are (essence) and whether they are (existence). And the what, in itself, always is characterized by a "maybe" or a potential to actually existing.

On why composed things require total dependence on another.

To exist as a composite thing requires that the composite be composed by another . The composite cannot be responsible for this composing of itself, since this would mean it acted before it even existed. But to exist as a composite means to be actually composed; therefore every composite depends on another for its existence. For all these reasons, the composed being stands to the other that composes it as potency to act, for the composite requires some actual agent to compose it and make it exist in act.

Also, for any composite thing to come to be, some potential being is necessary, for nothing can come to be unless it is possible that it can be. But potential being can be understood to mean two things: first, we can understand potential as the potential of a certain thing that has some act, like logs that have some potential to be a log cabin, the potential of straight lines to make a square. We can also consider the potency simply as potency, and in this sense, the potency is said to have being only inasmuch as it is ordered to act. It can not be stated forcefully enough that potency has absolutely no being, except inasmuch as it is ordered to act. This idea can be seen even in the sort of potency that logs have to being log cabins; for if there were absolutely no such things as log cabins- if the existence of these things were as contradictory as "a square circle"- then there could be no such thing as "a potential part of a log cabin" either. The contradiction is inescapable: If some x cannot be, then nothing can be (or be a potential) x. Unless some act exists, no potential being can exist in any way. Potency, simply peaking, is wholly dependent on act, and has no being independently of it. Act is prior to potential being.

When we say that act is prior, moreover, we do not imply that act cannot be unless it exists as prior to potency. This would be trying to get something out of nothing; an attempt to say that because act is prior, it must be in not prior. When we say that act is prior, what we mean is that if potency is given, then act must be given, or that if both potency and act are given, then act is prior.

At this point, let me briefly lay out all the conclusions reached:

1.) There are things composed of potency and act
2.) One such composition of potency and act is the composition of essence and existence.
3.) to exist as a composite of potency and act means to have no existence until the composite is composed.
4.) Whatever is composed of potency and act is dependent on another for its existence in act.
5.) The composed thing stands to the one who composes it as a potential being to an actual being
6.) Potential being has absolutely no existence except inasmuch as it is related to act.

From this it follows that the composed beings, tat we actually see in our universe, have absolutely no being apart from some other. This other I call God. Though I have said nothing of his attributes, I can get to them should anyone ask.

responses to the objections

1a.) When we say that essence is self caused, we do not mean that it is the cause of its own existence (which is impossible, since nothing can cause its existence before it exists) nor that it has no cause (for every potential thing, as potential, can only be said to have being from being in act). What we mean when we say that essence is self caused is that that the what of the thing (its essence) does not differ from what it is. A sign of this is that when we seek to find what a thing is, we do not look to something other than the thing, but to the thing itself. When we compare essence an existence to each other, we therefore see them as related as self caused to caused by another, because we look to the thing to see the essence of the thing, but we look to something other than this essence when we seek to find the reason for its existence

2a.) Any agent that is responsible for the act of things simply speaking is responsible for potential being, simply speaking, because potency has absolutely no being unless the existence of things in act is given.

3a.) We presuppose a receiver existing in act only when we grant the existence of some act and some potency; but while it is necessary to grant some act if potency is given, we need not grant some potency if act is given, just as if "an infinite sided rectilinear figure" is given, then a rectilinear side is given, but if we grant the existence of a side, or straight line, we need not grant a figure with infinite sides.

1b.) The parts that compose all composite things are wholly dependent on another, for the act of the composite is wholly dependent on another for its existence in act, and the potential being of the composite, is wholly dependent on act. Neither is it superfluous to multiply these parts, for we only multiply them because we look to the world and see things composed of potency and act, essence and existence, form and matter, etc.











 
12/09/2004
 
Identity and the Per Accidens

We get this identity of the one and the many cropping up everywhere as a result of the sentences we utter, in every single sentence ever uttered... as soon as a young man gets wind of it, ...he is beside himself with delight, and loves to try every move in the game. First he rolls the stuff to one side and jumbles it into one, then he undoes it again and takes it to pieces, to the confusion first and foremost of himself, and second to whatever neighbors are by him at the moment... he has no mercy on his father or mother or anyone by him.

Plato
Philebus, 15e.

A sentence is one in meaning, but composed of more than one word. Beyond this there is a sort of manyness in the difference between the thing and the sign of the thing in speech. The young play with this meaning as soon as they find it, playing a game which in our present age is called "deconstruction", or as Socrates puts it: first he jumbles all things into one, then he undoes it again.

"First he jumbles all things into one". This is the creation of some false definition, which, since it is a "jumble" is really just a heap of the per accidens. These false definitions are not always false statements (and the best ones are true), but they are always partial or distorted truths that leave out a good deal of the thing one is speaking about, and certainly leave out the thing that is most fundamental*. Hence we get statements like "I think, therefore I am" or "All philosophy is a game of linguistics" or "to be is to be perceived" or "There is nothing known outside the realm of empirical experience". There is no problem with any of these statements as truths that may find there justification in philosophy. It is inarguable that my thinking proves my existence, or that every statement of or advancement of philosophy will happen with words. Nor is there any problem in saying that all being is perceived by some intelligence, nor with saying that there is no supra-sensible being that we must derive philosophy from. The problem with all of these principles is not that they are false, but rather that they are taken as fundamental. Any one of them would merit some mention in philosophy, but the attempt to found a whole philosophy on them is bound to fail. None of them get to the heart of what it is to exist, do philosophy, to be, or to be known.

The problem is that any part of the many can be confused with the one: the words of a sentence, for example, are in a certain sense "all that there is to a sentence": certainly the sentence would not exist without the words that compose it. Being, as St. Thomas shows, would not exist without some action of an intelligence, and this action might certainly be called "perception" after a manner. So too with the other opinions. All of them claim to grasp something essential, but they merely grasp the accidental. That they grasp something true is inarguable; that they grasp something fundamental is ultimately ridiculous.

But I have wandered away from the point (again). Why is it that the accidental has such power over the youth? The accidental does have this going for it: it is infinite. Any clever person can find some corner of the per accidens and claim it as uniquely his own. The youth are eternally neurotic about their own identity, and they would prefer just about anything that was their own to something true- if that true thing did not distinguish them from their elders. This is not true of all youth- some prefer the conformity of common of traditional ideas, which are almost all common or traditional because they have gotten to the essence of something- but the aorit o youth, or at least the most vocal of the youth, are not content with the traditional or common. Anything but that! I would have to think just like my parents! And so the per accidens lends its assistance, with its claims to make them independent and unique.The per accidens allows us to have a philosophy that is uniquely our own, even if it has no value outside of our own skulls.

______________________________

*We are most familiar with the per accidens principles that have a moral tint: Sex is for people who love each other- drinking is okay under certain circumstances- There's nothing wrong with dressing so that boys will take an interest in you- People have got to have a good time...etc. All these statements are perfectly true. To take them as fundamental is a recipe for disaster. Please don't think that I figured this out by reading some book.




 
12/08/2004
 
When confronted with the problem of moral evil, people usually try to explain it by blaming it on free choice. I admit that free choice does make moral evil possible, but how can this explain its existence? What is there in the idea of free choice that requires us to use it for immoral purposes?

All evil is a sort of lack. Moral evil is a sort of deliberately chosen lack- a deliberate rejection of things we know to be good. There is nothing in the idea of free choice that says we must choose poorly. This would be like trying to explain why a certain man walks poorly (say, with a limp) by saying "he limps because he is able to walk". Everyone knows that there is more to the story. He limps because he is broken and damaged.

Free choice is only free in human beings because it is a rational power, and our reason is capable of understanding contraries. Because our mind is capable of understanding contrary things, we are able to seek contrary ends. But this does not explain moral evil. It is positively irrational to reject what is truly good, while knowing it is so, but such is the very definition of moral evil. We cannot explain this fundamentally irrational act simply by pointing to a rational faculty. We must go further and say that our faculties are broken and damaged.

I bring this up because I have spent the last day reading discussions about what is classically called "the problem of evil" which all argue that there is an incompatibility between omnipotence and evil, and so God must either not exist or must not be omnipotent. What is conspicuously absent in all such discussions is the idea that man is a broken and damaged being, a being that- for all his dignity- can be considered a blight on the cosmos- a corrupted and broken animal that deserves to be blotted out. That we exist at all is not because we deserve to exist- we can make no claims upon the universe or its author. Whatever evils we suffer can justly be seen as punishments, and punishments that have all, as yet, stopped short of the one we truly deserve. Our race is still allowed to exist, by an act of unspeakable mercy and love.
 
12/05/2004
 
Grounded Meaning In Church Architecture

We have purged icons, statues, and old Catholic architecture. Can anyone imagine walking into St. Patrick's, or the old cathedrals of Europe, and saying "the problem with this place is that the ceiling is too high, there is too much art, it has high arches, too many statues, no carpet on the floor, walls that aren't made out of sheetrock, and too many paintings by the great masters."

Until we can say this, all the justifications for our modern ideas of building are mere thoughtless pretence. I have heard at least a hundred such justifications in my life, all of which were given in calm tones that argue from some reasonable sounding principle. Jacuzzi- style baptism fonts, offset tabernacles, carpet, sheetrock, and the rest of it all can be explained in a way that makes it "mean" something. In all these arguments, there is no fault with the architect's discursive reasoning process, the fault is that he has no grasp of the principles he should be working with. The principle in this case is beauty, and like any first principle, it does not need to be discovered, or reasoned to, but simply seen and acknowledged. Go to an old cathedral and see it. Then find meaning in and from what you see.



 
12/04/2004
 
Vulgar Art

In a response to a comment about my Disney post, I said that I objected to vulgar art. "Vulgar" is a difficult term for me to use, since I don't find either myself or anyone else using it very often, and whenever it is used, it tends to be only said of obscene interjections (the meaningless barks that serve as the glue for modern "street" language). But I think we miss something very important when we lose the ability to see things as vulgar.

"Vulgar" is the opposite of "noble". This may not help much, since the the clearest example of "nobility" has died out. "Nobility", of course, used be a status that a certain group of peple had from birth, which easily distinguished them from all other social groups. Nobles were above the common folk, but below the royalty. They died out under the lead-weight of a contradiction- nobility as a social class is granted by birth, but nobility as a genuine human trait comes from a noble character. Any free society will look at the nobles and go out of its way to find a reason to say "If they're so noble, then why do they do _______?" A free society will destroy or marginalize nobles inevitably; if not out of a sense of justice, then certainly out of envy. We allow the nobles existence either to mock them (see the tabloid stories of the British Royal family, or to a lesser extent, the Kennedys) or to fulfill some fantasy that we may one day join their careless life (see the eternal Hollywood story of the poor girl who somehow wins the heart of the hot prince).

In all of this, however, the reality of human nobility remains. While it is simply untenable to think it comes from birth, the idea remains that there is some kind of character that sets itself apart from the sort of character that is most commonly found, and this character is an ideal that all naturally want to have- just as all men naturally desire to be happy. Two things follow from the elevated status of a noble character: 1.) it is something desirable, since it is something more perfect; and 2.) it is harder to understand, because it is something we are less familiar with, and it is different from our own character. At this point, the artist can feel almost giddy with delight, for he is the only one who can solve the problem that arises from the noble life being both most desirable naturally, but least knowable, and therefore least desirable to the average person. The artist can show the noble life in ways that make it intelligible to everyone- through pictures or stories or poems he can show the things we want by a natural impulse, but understand too vaguely to seek for. Tied to this positive ability is also a negative ability: the artist can show ignoble things as they really are; he can show us the ultimate ugly roots of the sort of life that we are most familiar with.

It cannot be said quickly enough that for an artist to talk about the noble life does not mean that he must limit himself to talking about lofty political figures, or write in stuffy or tedious language designed to "make you think". Art that is not entertaining is not worth the name, and art that moralizes is perhaps the most tedious of all things. But to speak of noble things is not to moralize- one sign of this is that our most tedious moralizers in contemporary times are those that positively hate anything that is morally noble.

Vulgar art is art that has is written without a sense of nobility in human actions, or which fails to show the true character of the ignoble. Vulgar art is not without its charm- it is a mistake to think that our spontaneous reaction to it will be one of disgust. Chances are we will think it reflects our life better than most noble art- to the extent that we wax philosophically about vulgar art we will tend to think that it "tells us the way things are", and even if we give up on this line we will still think that it is a good release from the sort of art that makes us think. Vulgar art is cool , and everyone wants to be cool. Right? I shouldn't even talk about being cool, for fear that the gods of cool might deem this horribly uncool. Here I am, a thirty-year-old man, grey haired in unmatched clothes and typing alone on a computer- and I fear being seen as uncool. whatever.

I'm sick of the vulgarity of the cool- with all its trendiness, obscurity, narcissism, insecurity, and courts of ajudication that are staffed by those with the moronic and awkward beauty of youth- youths all lead by some stuffy executive who wants to sell jeans for eighty bucks or a billion recordings of "artists" that pant, whine, croon, threaten or bitch. Vugarity will always hold up as good those goods that come to us most easily and without effort- those goods of youth; with all its supervenient energy, vitality, and beauty. But we must choose either these goods, or those which are noble. Whichever one the artist holds up will be the one we are assisted in attaining.


 
12/03/2004
 
...As Maimed

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given... but this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry.

Nic. Eth, 1:9

I have no idea whether Aristotle ever gets around to making this "other inquiry", and I have no suspicion either way. But since what is most formal to happiness is virtue, then the question seems to be whether virtue comes from God.

In the very next sentence, Aristotle says:

All who are not maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue may win it by a certain kind of study and care.

What does it mean to be "maimed" here? Like all terms in Aristotle's writings, the term can probably mean several things, all of which we can trust him to make clear later. St. Thomas will no doubt pick up the slack if there is any. For the moment, though, I want to forget the book and look at the world for a moment. Is this "maiming" a minor problem, or a major one? Are wounded men the exception, or the rule?

Look to anything the universe that reaches maturity: fish, oak trees, dogs, roses... good grief, look at anything in the plant or animal kingdoms. Now ask yourself, "does any of these _________ have a difficult time living as a _______ should live? The answer will be a resounding "no". There will be the occasional bizarre exception, the beaver that is exiled from the rest of his clan or the lone wolf that runs alone. There are, arguably, struggles that make certain animal lives difficult- the "survival of the species" and all- but these problems are beside the point. Even if a coyote kills a deer, we all know the deer was living the best deer-life he could under the circumstances up to that point. He didn't die because he got high on wild hallucinogenic mushrooms and couldn't run away. He didn't die because he was killed by the new buck- friend of his last doe. He didn't die because he hanged himself out of deer melancholy. He didn't die at the hands of a deer tyrant. Just as he didn't die for these reasons, he didn't live a life under any of these conditions either. There are no porno shops, illegitimacy problems, divorces, murders, tyrants, drunks, drug addicts, obese gluttons, liars, disobedient children, whores, sophists, witches, drug dealers, felons, or anything of the kind in the animal or plant kingdom. Dogs in the wild will not eat until they can't walk, or dull their wits with chemicals until they are in a stupor. If an animal is the sort of animal that mates for life, then we know that they will stay together until one of the spouses dies.

And then there's us.

It is no objection to blame this all on the fact that we have reason or freedom of choice. How can pointing out that we have freedom explain why this free choice must fail us so often? What is there in the idea of "free choice" that lends it to being the sort of thing that should so often fail, and fail so drastically for so many? It also makes no difference if we point out that the goods that are offered by sensation (which can often go against what is good for us as men) are more vivid to us than the goods that are really good. This is simply to beg the question. Everyone agrees that certain sensible things, which are bad for us but apparently good, are more attractive than what is really good. But why is this the case? This merely re-states a conclusion that we all know as though it were a proof for the conclusion. Why is it that we are the sort of things that are so often deceived by sensible apparent goods? The "argument" above says nothing. That we sometimes do evil because it is more vivid to us does not explain why it is that we so often find actual evils more vivid, and more appealing: or why we are alone among animals in doing so for the most part. What is there in the idea of sensation that it must be stronger than reason? Nothing. Why is it stronger in us?

We must be maimed. We are born maimed. If we look to the faculties that we have, we stand on top of a universe that would not even make sense without us. If we look at the disorder among our faculties, we are the only thing that doesn't belong in the universe. We are both the crown of the cosmos and its one mistake.