So Many Things

Monday, 02-06-2017

 

People of my age often say "Kids are so much smarter these days than we were.  They know so many things that we didn’t."

They do know more “things,” just because they have the new media.  But that sort of knowledge is all breadth, with no depth.

Imagine trying to see one thing closely with lights strobing and flashbulbs popping in every square inch of the visual field.

Imagine trying to hear one thing clearly with a brass band, a symphony orchestra, a gong, an industrial metal crusher, a pack of barking dogs, and half dozen dueling drum soloists all making sound at one time. 

Imagine trying to take a clean breath in a mudslide.

God help them, it’s like that for them all the time.

Young people in the mudslide are slower at reading, and they lose interest more quickly when they do put their hands to a book.  They are less well equipped to evaluate their own opinions, and more likely to conform to the attitudes of their immediate social group.  They display less ability to follow a logical argument, and they are less inclined to think that arguments matter in the first place.

They do have an enormous intellectual capacity – unformed, of course, as in every generation.  The great thing is to form it, not to shatter it.

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Interiority

Monday, 01-30-2017

 

Modern thinkers suppose that only a mind, mysteriously shut into itself yet somehow conscious of an “outside” world that it can never reach, can be truly said to have an interior life. Because of this prejudice, we view all things other than minds as mere mechanisms, assemblies of moving parts, fully accessible to inspection, if only we have the right instruments. (Physicalists view even minds that way, but that is another story.)  This way of thinking may lead us to suppose that when Thomas Aquinas speaks of an irrational creature’s inward active principle, at most he means that in order to see some of its movements, we have to open up the inspection panels and expose the clockwork. Or -- if we realize that he does mean something more -- we may consider him confused, as though he were attributing mental properties to non-mental things. 

But St. Thomas does not share our prejudices. For him, inwardness or interiority is not a psychological but an ontological fact. He is not in any doubt about the possibility of metaphysics, of a science of what is. Yet he holds that all things, or at any rate all substances, have, so to speak, an inward life known only to God, which metaphysics can acknowledge but cannot reach. The problem is not that we cannot define essences, but that even when we define them correctly, we do not penetrate to that intimate level at which God knows them; “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.”  This is what Leo Elders has in mind when he writes,  “Aquinas’ metaphysics is a metaphysics of interiority in this sense that in their most intimate depth things are touched by God and flow forth from his causal action. They strive to attain God in whatever they do and pursue ... This Divine causality and cooperation ... works from the inside and depth of things and their actions .... Those who fail to discover this metaphysical dimension of reality and their own being, remain at the surface of things.”

The difference between the inner life of a rational and an irrational creature, then, is not that only rational creatures have inward lives, but that rational creatures have the dignity of knowing that they and other things have inward lives. Irrational creatures have inward lives, but lack knowledge of them; they are opaque to themselves. 

The idea of interiority is more often associated with the later Scholastic thinker, Duns Scotus, because of his theory of haecceities or individual essences, popularized by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins through his term “inscape.” But Scotus went too far. One does not need individual essences to make sense of individuals; worse yet, the hypothesis of individual essences makes it difficult to see how different individuals could have a shared essence, a common nature – it makes it seem that individuals are all that exist, and such things as humanity are but constructs of the mind. By contrast, although St. Thomas recognizes that each individual is distinct, he thinks we owe the particular texture of our inwardness precisely to the kinds of beings we are. That tiny fly, which the philosopher has such difficulty understanding, has a different inner life than a man, just because it is a fly, and he is a man.

 

Can Politics Be Reduced to a Science?

Monday, 01-23-2017

 

I don’t think much of David Hume’s philosophy, but he was an astute observer of government.  If he was right in his famous 1742 essay “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” then the prospects of applying the sort of science he had in mind to our own country should be rather dimmer now than formerly.

Hume’s argument was that in the bad old days, the study of politics could never be scientific, because too much depended on the whims and quirks of those who held unchecked power.  It isn’t that one cannot form any generalizations about chaotic processes, but they are chancy.  Consider the difference between the sciences of chemistry and weather.  It is easy to guess that iron will rust, but no one knows for sure whether it will rain on a given future day.  Old-style politics was more like weather.

However, now that we have learned to construct systems of checks and balances, he thought political events would be more routine, more subject to inertia -- therefore more susceptible to scientific generalization.

The reason I say the prospects of the sort of political science that Hume favored are growing dimmer is that although the system of checks has not collapsed, our executives are becoming more autocratic.  Obama and Trump are conspicuous examples, but the trend has been a long time in the making.

Hume’s analysis does need to be updated.  The sort of checks he had in mind were checks among social orders represented in the legislature.  A roughly stable balance among the Lords, the Commons, and the Crown kept things from becoming too volatile.  However, he left out of account a number of other things that enter into the mix.  Consider the rise of willful courts and enormous, sclerotic bureaucracies.  Consider the change in the practice of patronage, in which instead of bribing just individuals and small groups for political support, parties seek to bribe entire social classes at once.

Yet he was right that insofar as rule devolves to individual strong men – especially strong men of unstable character -- generalizations about what may happen become very difficult.

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Spoiler Alert

Monday, 01-16-2017

I had not learned until recently that George Orwell, the author of several dystopian stories, had also reviewed C.S. Lewis’s supernatural thriller, That Hideous Strength.  Though he conceded that the novel was worth reading (and it is), he finished by complaining that supernatural elements “weaken” a story because “in effect they decide the issue in advance.”  One has the impression that he may have written the review just to have an opportunity to say so.  “When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict,” he goes on, “one always knows which side is going to win.  The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.”  Although Orwell also suggests that supernatural agencies are implausible, his main complaint isn’t that he doesn’t believe in them, but that they take the steam out of the story.  Including God, he thinks, is like building in a spoiler alert.

One may call this attitude methodological naturalism.  Orwell doesn’t ask that we disbelieve in God, but he thinks we should write as though we do.

Methodological naturalism in literature is much like methodological naturalism in science.  According to Orwell, believing in God squeezes out suspense, because the same party prevails in every struggle; God always wins.  According to materialists, believing in Him squeezes out scientific wonder, because everything has the same ultimate cause; God does everything.

Both complaints are naïve.

As to stories, it is enough to point out that God created free and rational beings, not puppets or divine beasts.  Though He cannot be overcome by evil, human beings can be.  Though He offers aid, they may not accept it.  The drama of the story is not that we do not know what will happen to God, but that we do not know what will happen to men and women.  To find out, we have to keep reading.

And as to science, notice that God works through secondary causes.  Although He is the origin of the whole causal order, that order is nonetheless real.  Knowing that water is His idea does not tell us why it boils; knowing that gravity is of His doing does not tell us the geometrical properties of the space-time manifold.  To find out, we have to investigate.

So rather than depriving stories of their drama, God’s reality increases it:  For what could be more thrilling than the fate of souls?  And His reality increases the wonder of scientific inquiry, for now we can ask not only how things happen -- but why!

The Revenge of Conscience Is Now an Ebook

Thursday, 01-12-2017

My book The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man is now available electronically, as a Kindle.  Among other things, that makes it much cheaper.  Here is the link.

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What it Really Means to Be Great

Monday, 01-09-2017

In a conversation with one of the Athenian bully boys, Socrates suggested that what makes statesmen great is not whether they are good or bad at doing things and at giving the people what they want -- but whether, by their conduct and rhetoric, they leave the people better or worse than they found them.

Making allowances for the fact that today, statesmen practice rhetoric chiefly by tweeting and playing the fool on late night talk shows rather than by orating, the question is still a good one.  Socrates posed it about recent Athenian statesmen.  We ought to pose it about recent presidents, and it is not too soon to begin posing it about the president-elect.  For although he has not yet entered upon his rule, he has certainly begun to influence the character of the people.

Here is how Socrates presented his suggestion, in the great Platonic dialogue Gorgias.  I am using the well-known translation of Benjamin Jowett.

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Socrates:  I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts; one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience; but have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?

Callicles:  But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.

Socrates:  Well, then, can you mention any one of a former generation, who may be said to have improved the Athenians, who found them worse and made them better, from the day that he began to make speeches?  For, indeed, I do not know of such a man.

Callicles:  What!  Did you never hear that Themistocles was a good man, and Cimon and Miltiades and Pericles, who is just lately dead, and whom you heard yourself?

Socrates:  Yes, Callicles, they were good men, if, as you said at first, true virtue consists only in the satisfaction of our own desires and those of others; but if not, and if, as we were afterwards compelled to acknowledge, the satisfaction of some desires makes us better, and of others, worse, and we ought to gratify the one and not the other, and there is an art in distinguishing them — can you tell me of any of these statesmen who did distinguish them?

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Callicles:  But surely, Socrates, no living man ever came near any one of them in his performances.

Socrates:  O, my dear friend, I say nothing against them regarded as the serving-men of the State; and I do think that they were certainly more serviceable than those who are living now, and better able to gratify the wishes of the State; but as to transforming those desires and not allowing them to have their way, and using the powers which they had, whether of persuasion or of force, in the improvement of their fellow citizens, which is the prime object of the truly good citizen, I do not see that in these respects they were a whit superior to our present statesmen, although I do admit that they were more clever at providing ships and walls and docks, and all that.

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Trusting in Princes

Monday, 01-02-2017

 

Commenting on CBS This Morning on the end of her husband’s term of office and the election of a rival, the outgoing First Lady said “We feel the difference now.  See, now, we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

It is said that in Washington, she and her husband attend an Episcopalian church.  I guess the following passage has never been discussed during worship.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.  When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.  Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

-- Psalm 146:3-7 (RSV-CE)