Social Justice

Tuesday, 04-12-2016

It is a trifle for the upper strata to promote sexual liberation; those who have money can shield themselves (to degree, and for a while) from at least some of the consequences of loose sexuality.  The working classes do not have that luxury.  In a country like this one, serial cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage contribute more to poverty, dependency, and inequality than a million greedy capitalists do.

Do you to really want to raise up the poor?  Then do as the English Methodists did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  First live the Commandments.  Then go among the people and preach them.  Start with the ones about marriage and family.

I do not say this is all you should do, but if you won’t even do so much as this, then the rest of your social justice talk is hypocritical.  You may as well admit that it is all about you.

 

Diving In

Monday, 04-11-2016

Question:

I have been inclined to read your commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law for some time, but I have been stumped by a prior question.  I am worried that I cannot understand St. Thomas on law without a better understanding of his thought on politics.  The two go hand in hand, right?  But I know that his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics is really not complete, and what else we have from him (On Kingship, for example) is not extensive either.

So, I guess my question is this: what would you recommend as the proper preparation for assimilating the teaching of the Treatise?  Aristotle's Politics?  Plato?  Leo Strauss?  Alasdair MacIntyre?   Or maybe I have it wrong, and your commentary is sort of sui generis?   Maybe it is a mistake for me to try to situate the ideas fully in a political teaching and so I should just dive in?

Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

Reply:

I think it’s fine to begin with St. Thomas, but by all means read the other classical writers too.  Read as much as you can!  Feast on all those riches!  Most people find it better to read the ancient and medieval writers before the moderns, not just because they came first, but also because the moderns forgot so much of what the previous writers wrote and became confused about the rest.  But there is no one way to do this.  The important thing is to jump in and start swimming.  Since you’re drawn to the Angelic Doctor and his views on law, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t dive right into the Treatise.

True, you should read the Treatise in the context of St. Thomas’s other work, but that doesn’t mean you have to read all the other works you mention first.  In fact, I would suggest saving them until later.  His work on kingship is a quirky special-purpose work.  His commentaries on Aristotle are intended to explain Aristotle’s thought, rather than his own.

Yes, secondary sources can be helpful, but even so, I think you should always begin with the author’s own words -- otherwise your baloney meter won’t be calibrated well enough to detect whether the secondary source is helping you or feeding you baloney.  Of course, my own commentary on the Treatise is a secondary source too, so don’t throw away caution!  But in a line-by-line commentary, where you have all of the author’s original words, you can tell more easily whether the commentator is playing tricks with them.  That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to bring this genre of writing back.

Still, if my book doesn’t help you, drop it like a hot potato.  You can always come back to it later.  The same goes for the work of any scholar.

 

Forked Tongue

Sunday, 04-10-2016

How often we hear people argue that we ought to promote animal rights, because, since we can’t read animal minds, they might, for all we know, be persons.

Yet often people of the same persuasion argue that we ought to allow abortions, because, since we can’t read baby minds, we have no reason to think they are persons.

 

Gods of the Lash

Saturday, 04-09-2016

And I should imagine that this is equally true of the soul, Callicles; when a man is stripped of the body, all the natural or acquired affections of the soul are laid open to view.  -- Socrates

Those who reject God don’t reject gods in general.  Each of them makes something else his god.

Some, of course, make gods of cruel causes such as fascism, communism, and Islamic terrorism, but it seems that far more pursue the gods of pleasure, wealth, power, sex, or being thought well of by others.

Could it be that people in that larger category are seeking gods that don’t ask anything of them?  Maybe that is what they think they are doing.  But every god but the true God is a slavedriver and taskmaster, a god of the lash.

Consider just the god of the hedonists.  Think of all you must sacrifice to give pleasure your unconditional loyalty.  Think of all the things you must give up.  Think of all the longings you must uproot.  Think of all the nerves you must kill.

 

History

Friday, 04-08-2016

When you hear that history is against you, tell your accuser that if that flimsy cudgel is all he has for beating you, he has nothing.  Social change as rapid as we are experiencing suggests not a permanent new configuration, but the opposite of permanence and the reverse of a configuration.  None of this will last.  Those who croon hymns to history, who prostrate themselves before futurity, who caper to every tick of the clock, are adoring but the image of their desires.

Too often decent people give up and become fatalists.  They misread the times; they misread all times; they fall in with the chant of the accuser.  They forget that when everything is in motion, small interventions can make great differences.  Even a little rock may divert the rushing water into a branching channel.  Even a touch on the bob of a pendulum may dampen the violence of its swing.  How do you know what is possible and what is not?

Besides, the care of history has not been committed to us.  What is in our care is a few nearby souls:  Our sons and our daughters, our wives and our husbands and our friends.

 

Wherein to Spoil the Conscience of the King

Thursday, 04-07-2016

The Demagogue advances himself neither by shrewd argument, nor by mastery of procedure, but by daily shock which enslaves the media and keeps himself in the eyes of his admirers.

It is not so much that people believe what The Demagogue says, as that they are impressed that anyone would say it.  They admire his lies even as lies.  He appeals to them not despite these mendacities, but because of them.  The more careless and enormous they are, the more they make his followers gasp or even whoop, the more they think that here is someone to be reckoned with, Someone Who Cannot Be Ignored.

This is not the first time a politician has employed sensational tactics, but it is the first time a politician has embraced sensationalism as a strategy.  Senator Joseph McCarthy was sensationalistic about Communism, but The Demagogue – who believes in nothing -- is sensationalistic about everything.  His strategy is not shock for a cause, but shock for its own sake.

The real precursor of shock for its own sake is found not in politics, but in entertainment.  For two generations we have laughed at, applauded, and followed the careers of musicians who destroy their instruments and stage sets, singers who clothe themselves in raw meat, and actors who arrange to be arrested for driving while intoxicated.

No, you say, this cannot explain The Demagogue’s appeal.  People expect different things of entertainers and politicians.  They make distinctions.

No, I say, they used to make distinctions.  People who have been habituated to finding shock entertaining lose interest in who offers it to them.  The shock’s the thing.

 

Turtles All the Way Down?

Wednesday, 04-06-2016

Question:

Your appeal to God’s simplicity is powerful; it protects God’s freedom and explains how God’s wisdom can be neither above nor below him, since it is Him.  But, on the other hand, doesn’t it arrive at the same place I was trying to avoid?  Let me explain.

If Wisdom does not exist outside of or above God, by what standard can God be considered “wise” and His will not arbitrary?  The only standard is God!  God’s will is not wise because He conforms His will to wisdom, but God’s will is wise for no other reason than it is of God, who is Wisdom.  It seems, than, that we have arrived at the same place by a different route.  Wisdom is arbitrary -- or, if we wish to say that wisdom could not be other than it is, then necessary.

Reply:

I appreciate your reply, but you assume, instead of proving, that for God to be wise, He must conform to some standard of wisdom other than Himself.  Also, you seem to have changed the terms of the dilemma.  At first you were trying to see how God’s wisdom could be other than arbitrary, but now you won’t allow his wisdom to be necessary either.

Think of it this way.  Whenever we say that some being, P, is wise, we can ask the further question “Why should P be considered wise?”  In every such case there are two possible answers.  One is that P is the first principle of wisdom, its very root and unchangeable meaning – that it isn’t wise because of something else, but is the very thing that makes other wise things wise.  You don’t want to give that answer, because to you, first principles seem to be arbitrary, just because no further reason can be given for them.  You want to say that if P should be considered wise, the reason must lie in the fact that it conforms to some deeper standard – call it P2.

Very well.  But wait:  Now we have to ask “Why should P2 be considered wise?”  Again, there are two possible answers.  Either P2 is the very root and meaning of wisdom, or it isn’t.  Again you worry that this makes it arbitrary, so suppose we say it isn’t.  In that case, P2 must be wise not because it is the very root and meaning of wisdom, but because it conforms to some still deeper standard – call it P3.

As you can see, if you continue to object to a root and meaning of wisdom, then we are going to have an infinite regress of reasons for considering P wise:  P is wise because it conforms to P2, P2 is wise because it conforms to P3, P3 is wise because it conforms to P4, and so on without end.  But an infinite regress of explanations is no an explanation at all.  If you are worried about arbitrariness, the thing to avoid isn’t a necessary first principle, but an infinite regress.

Thus we must believe that at some point the regress has to stop.  We do, finally, arrive at something, call it P Prime, which is the very root and meaning of wisdom.  And if that is what it is, then just because it doesn’t depend on anything else, it cannot be other than it is.  And just because it cannot be other than it is, it isn’t arbitrary.  A mystery, yes, in the sense that it is greater than our minds.  But arbitrary, no.

I am not sure what tempts us to think that something is arbitrary just because it cannot be other than it is.  We don’t say that the arithmetical principle that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other is arbitrary.  We say that it is a standard by which we can tell what other things are arbitrary.  I think we should think that way here.

But P Prime is much more than a principle of arithmetic.  As we continue to reflect, we find P Prime to be not only the very root and meaning of wisdom, but the very root and meaning of being, of goodness, of beauty, and of everything that is worthy of admiration.  In P Prime we find even the very root and meaning of Personhood, so we are right to view P Prime not as It, but as Him.

This necessary being P Prime is what we call God.  We Christians make the further daring claim that He is the very God of our faith and has come among us.