Paradoxical Beauty

Monday, 09-25-2023


These lines, delivered by Joseph Ratzinger three years before his accession to the papacy, are such pure gold that I can add nothing to them.  They come from a talk he gave in August, 2002, titled “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” and ought to be better known – not least by those of us who attempt rational apologetics.

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“All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it ‘has a wax nose’:  In other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough.  Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?

“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments.

* * *

“Now however, we still have to respond to an objection.  We have already rejected the assumption which claims that what has just been said is a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism. 

“Rather, it is the opposite that is true:  This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.

* * *

“Today another objection has even greater weight:  … Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion?  Isn’t reality perhaps basically evil?  The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true “reality” has at all times caused people anguish.

“At present this has been expressed in the assertion that after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to write poetry; after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to speak of a God who is good.  People wondered:  Where was God when the gas chambers were operating?  This objection … shows that in any case a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough.  It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty.

* * *

“[In Christ] the experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism.  The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way.  However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty:  The beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end’; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence.  Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world.  It is not the false that is ‘true,’ but indeed, the Truth.

“It is, as it were, a new trick of what is false to present itself as ‘truth’ and to say to us:  Over and above me there is basically nothing, stop seeking or even loving the truth; in doing so you are on the wrong track.  The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today.  However it imposes a condition:  That we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.

* * *

“Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often-quoted sentence:  ‘The Beautiful will save us’?  However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ.  We must learn to see him.  If we know him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him.  Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems.  Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”



The Old Is-Ought Thing

Monday, 09-18-2023



I’m writing to you about the old is-ought thing.  Years ago, in the Q&A period after a lecture I heard you give at a university I was then attending, you replied to someone who said that we can’t get an “ought” from an “is” – you argued that on the contrary, descriptive premises do have evaluative conclusions:  A “good” eye sees, and a “bad” eye doesn’t.  Since good is to be done, one should fix the bad eye.

But it seems to me that the goodness of a good eye is not moral goodness like the goodness of a good man.  We mean only that it does what we want it to do.

I don’t actually deny a connection between what “is” and what “ought” to be done.   I just don’t think you can connect them without bringing in premises about God’s will.



It’s true that the adjective “good” means something different for eyes than for people.  But are you so sure these two senses of “good” have no relation?

In a seminal article in 1952, the philosopher Peter T. Geach pointed out that there is a difference between predicative and attributive adjectives.  The adjective “red” is predicative; it means the same thing no matter what kind of thing we are talking about.  By contrast, the adjective “fast” is attributive; what it means depends on what kind of thing we are talking about.

The evaluative adjective “good,” like the adjective “fast,” is attributive, because its meaning depends on the kind of thing we are talking about – just as we mean something different when we call a rocket “fast” than when we call a little boy who is running “fast,” so we mean something different when we call a sandwich “good” than when we call a medicine “good.”  However, the applicability of the word “good” doesn’t depend merely on what we want something to do – it depends on the function or proper work of the thing.  Since even if I don’t care about seeing, the proper work of an eye is to see, a good eye is one that sees well.  Since even if I don’t like sports, the proper work of a soccer ball is to be suitable for playing soccer, a good soccer ball is one that has the qualities requisite for the game.

To apply this teleological analysis to the goodness of a human being, we must know what a human being’s proper work may be.  Can we get anywhere with this question?  I think so.  As Aristotle rightly tells us, the proper work of a human being is living well and doing well; it means the appropriate exercise of his powers.  This means pre-eminently his highest, rational powers, which in turn regulate his lower ones.  In the practical realm, the argument leads us to the conclusion that a human being must live in accordance with the virtues.  But as Thomas Aquinas points out, in the still higher, contemplative realm, it leads to the conclusion that a human being must come to see God, not just through words and images, but as He is in Himself.

Now we aren’t naturally endowed with the power to see God as He is in Himself.  On the other hand, we are naturally endowed with the potentiality to receive from Him the grace which makes this possible.  Therein is the overflowing joy of the blessed.

As you see, I agree that God belongs in the picture – but perhaps we mean different things by this.

For I don’t think I need to say “God commands P” or “God forbids Q” just to talk with someone about whether something is good or whether we are living well.  But of course, if the conversation about living well lasts long enough, eventually it will be difficult not to talk about Him, since He is the author of what it is to live well, and none of the finite goods of this world are enough.

Subsequent give and take:

“Is the intellectual vision of God in His essence the same as glorifying God and enjoying Him forever?”

I would say it is a good description of what we are doing when we are glorifying Him and enjoying Him forever.

“As a telos, though, isn’t the vision of God pretty vague?”

In this life, certainly our mental images of God are vague, since we don’t perceive Him directly with our minds.  But God in His own being is not vague.  St. Paul says that now we see in a mirror darkly, but then, we will see face to face, knowing as we are known.  That doesn’t sound vague to me.  And even now, when we do not yet see God Himself, we can say a lot about Him without a bit of vagueness.  For example, He exists; He is the origin of all good; there is only one of Him; He is not composed of other things; and He is the Creator of all that is.

“Isn’t there a difference between judging character, judging conduct, and judging a whole life?”

Of course.

“But isn’t it the case that Aristotle provides materials only for judging a life as a whole?”

To me that doesn’t seem to be at all what he says.  True, he says we can’t tell whether a man has been happy until his life has been completed.  But we can certainly say that this or that act conduce or detract from his flourishing.

“So would you call yourself a virtue ethicist?”

If the question is whether I think any reasonable account of the moral life has to deal with the virtues, then yes.  But if by “virtue ethics” you mean an approach that tries to get along without ever mentioning any rules -- this really is how some people use the term – then I think it is absurd.

“But doesn’t MacIntyre teach that virtues are always relative to practices?”

In his later work, Alasdair MacIntyre explicitly contradicts this view.  For example, he does think the virtue of honesty is “internal” to the practice of speech – but he also regards speech, undertaken with a view toward reaching agreement in the truth, as a universal human practice, universally necessary for human flourishing.  It isn’t something we can take or leave, like the practice of baking corn muffins.

“But aren’t the virtues always relative to roles?  For example, couldn’t ruthlessness be a virtue for a soldier?”

Someone who willingly does what is intrinsically evil so that good will result may be a “good” assassin, but he is neither a good man nor a good soldier.  Of course he will seem a good soldier if you view good soldiering as mere efficiency at killing, but not if you view war the way Augustine viewed it.  The purpose of a just war, he observed, is to bring about rightly ordered peace.  Thus the principles of just war are not criteria for when you may commit atrocities, but criteria for avoiding them – and a good soldier will observe them.

“When we get right down to it, isn’t the nature of the virtues vague?”

I don’t think so.  For example, it’s pretty clear that fortitude is a virtue, that it requires choosing the right action in perilous situations, that that the disposition to do it is acquired by repeatedly doing it, that it is opposed by cowardice on one hand and rashness on the other, and that we need wisdom to discern the difference.

True, fortitude doesn’t always require the same choice.  Sometimes the right thing is to advance toward the danger; sometimes to retreat from it.  But that doesn’t make fortitude “vague” any more than trying to stay alive while crossing the street is “vague” just because it’s not always safe to cross.

“If you think they are precise, then do you deny the need for judgment?”

You are confusing questions like whether we can say precisely what a virtue is, and whether there is a right answer to the question “May I do this?”, with the question of whether I can reach that right answer without exercising judgment.  Of course I need judgment, because I can’t program a computer to tell me who has courage, or whether in a given situation courage requires holding my position or advancing.  Even so, those who do have courage usually agree pretty closely about which deeds are cowardly and which ones are rash.

“But don’t you agree that at least the way people talk about the virtues is vague these days, for example in the public school system?”

Oh, yes, and sometimes worse than vague.  People say a lot of vague things about quantum mechanics too.  So what?  It isn’t vague in itself, and the math seems to be pretty well understood by those whose business is to understand it.  Quantum physicists speak in terms of probabilities, but “P will happen with probability Q” is very different from saying “Who knows whether P will happen?”  Similarly, “The courageous choice avoids both rashness and cowardice” is very different from saying “Who knows what courage is?”

“But surely you don’t think that we can make a list of virtues that everyone should have, do you?”

Sure I do.  What’s wrong with the classical list, justice, fortitude, temperance, wisdom, faith, hope, and charity?  To make the list complete, of course, we should include not only each of the four cardinal and three spiritual virtues, but also the “parts” or subordinate virtues of each one.  The virtue of patience, for instance, is a subordinate virtue of fortitude; the virtue of honoring parents, of the virtue of justice; and the virtue of modesty, or the virtue of temperance.

“But even if you think we can list them, you don’t imagine that we can describe them without crippling ambiguity, do you?”

I’m afraid I do.  Thomas Aquinas did a superior job of this.  For starters, look here.  I’ve written about his analysis here.

“But how could you suggest that goodness lies in superficially good rules and virtues instead of in fellowship with others and walking with God?”

What a false alternative!  I don’t think goodness lies in rules and virtues instead of in human fellowship and walking with God; I think the rules and virtues are norms for human fellowship and walking with God.  I would also deny that virtues like charity and justice, and rules like being faithful to our spouses, are only “superficially” good.  True, some marital counselors tell people that a little adultery might be good for their marriages.  I would tell such a counselor that he didn’t have a clue about marital love.

Perhaps in calling rules like being faithful to our spouses merely “superficially” good you mean something different -- that someone might follow them for bad motives.  If I am faithful to my wife not because I love her with the love of charity, but only so that I won’t get caught cheating, then yes, my motive is stained and I cannot please God.  But for this-worldly purposes, we should sometimes be grateful even for bad motives.  Maybe the only reason Dad sticks with Mom instead of having an affair with his secretary is that he doesn’t want a bad reputation.  Then he is not an admirable man, but the children will still be better off.

“But the pagans thought they were virtuous too.  Doesn’t that cast doubt on what you say?”

From the fact that a lot of people and a lot of nations think themselves more virtuous than they are,  how does it follow that there isn’t any truth about virtue to be found?  What really follows is that the vice of self-righteousness is widespread.  A lot of people and a lot of nations have also thought the earth is flat.  Does it follow that there is no truth to be found about the shape of the earth?

I find enormous insight in St. Augustine’s wonderful analysis of how the glittering glory of the pagans was not true virtue, as they thought it was, but only a vice masquerading as virtue.  But I also take seriously his teaching that there really is such a thing as virtue, that it is necessary for the right ordering of our loves, and that we ought to practice it.  Don’t let your judgment be paralyzed by the fact that some people judge badly.

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We seem to be pretty far apart, but this will have to close our exchange for now.  Thank you for writing.  I assure you that I haven’t neglected these things.



What Do You Mean, The Election Was Crooked (or Wasn’t)?

Monday, 09-11-2023


Donald Trump and his defenders argue that the 2020 election was rigged.  His critics protest that there is no compelling evidence of fraud.  A point mostly missed about this controversy is that the two sides talk past each other.  They are using different definitions, assumptions, standards of judgment, and rules of evidence.

As to definitions:  By a crooked election, the defenders mean only a fraudulent election, but the critics mean one which is rigged.   Rigged and fraudulent elections are not the same thing.  For an extreme case, consider an election with no coercion and no miscounting, in which everyone is honest, only qualified voters vote, and only one party is allowed to run candidates.  The election isn’t fraudulent, but it’s plainly rigged.  Its outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Now consider an election in which dramatic changes in voting rules make mail-in voting and ballot harvesting much, much easier.  That’s what we had in 2020, and what we may have in 2024.  Should such an election be considered rigged?

The critics think it is rigged because whether fraudulent or not, it invites fraud, as well as manipulation:  Fraud, because mail-in voting and ballot harvesting make it much easier for legally unqualified persons to cast votes; manipulation, because the earlier people send in their votes, the less information they have about the candidates.  One party or the other may be better positioned to exploit these facts, and doing so may be part of its strategy.  The defenders say all this business of inviting fraud is mere speculation.  And as to manipulation, who are we to say how quickly voters should make up their minds?

But now we come to the differences in assumptions, standards of proof, and rules of evidence.

In assumptions, the critics and the defenders are unequally suspicious.  The critics think that the stronger the temptation to commit fraud, the more people will engage in it, and the more effort it requires of them to become well informed, the fewer will go to the trouble.  But the defenders think we shouldn’t draw such dark conclusions without compelling evidence.  They resist criticism of electoral rules on the basis of what might happen, and insist that we consider only what can be proven to have happened.

In standards of proof, the critics and the defenders rely unequally on courts.  The defenders emphasize that no court has found the case for massive fraud sufficient.  “You have had your day in court, and you have lost.”  But the critics believe that although courts are right to use the standard “innocent until proven guilty” when individuals are accused of crimes, life would be impossible if we made probable judgments that way.  For judging who to marry, whether to cross the street, or how to design electoral procedures, they say, the standard should be common sense grounded in human experience.

In rules of evidence, the critics and defenders disagree about what should be counted as a fact or a possible fact.  The defenders demand judicially admissible evidence of phony votes.  But the critics believe that it is in the very nature of successful cheating not to be easily discovered.  They are also willing to weigh many sorts of evidence of phony voting which a historian might be right to take into account, but which a court of law must reject out of hand.

Logically, it would be entirely possible for those who deny that the election was fraudulent to be justified by their lights, but for those who say that it was rigged for fraud to be equally justified by theirs.  Questions about assumptions, definitions, standards of proof, and rules of evidence are largely about the meaning of fairness and the requirements of prudence.   They surely have right answers, but the right answers can’t be ascertained by the crude techniques of the “fact checkers.”

Unfortunately, the patient discussion of these difficulties is hindered and skewed by the fact that one side risks public censure or even legal punishment for peacefully pressing its views, and the other side doesn’t.



So Long as It Shall Be Cool for Us Both

Monday, 09-04-2023


On this day my wife and I celebrate our 52nd anniversary.  When we married, we had scarcely any idea what we were doing.  I am glad to announce that even as boneheaded as we are, we have learned something.

Everyone knows that the matrimonial union requires work and faces difficulties.  In traditional marriage vows, the lovers promise to love each other “for better or for worse” and “until we are parted by death.”  Today these words are often repeated with the mental substitution, “so long as it shall be cool for us both.”  In the decade in which we were married, some people actually used those words during the wedding ceremony.  No wonder so many see no difference between marrying and shacking up.

Trust me, it gets easier.  Only hang on, and you may wonder why you ever considered putting an end to your union.

The basis of the marital friendship is not primarily affection, or even sexual desire.  C.S. Lewis said that lovers look into each other’s eyes, but that friends look ahead to the task.  With appreciation for his great book on The Four Loves, I think Lewis missed something important, for husbands and wives look into each other’s eyes and look ahead to the task.  Feelings may change, and sexual desires may wax and wane, but matrimonial union is a partnership in the hope and intention of making family, in bringing the future into being.

This partnership cannot be revised or redefined.  It transcends the feelings, desires, and even personal intentions of the spouses.  So true is this that if the hope and intention of family are missing, the lovers should not be surprised to lose interest.  That’s how we are made.  Even when, through no fault of their own, a couple are unable to have children, they will naturally desire to be spiritual parents to their young relatives or godchildren.

After all, if not for making family, then what on earth would the sexual powers be for?  People say “for pleasure,” but that is absurd.  Of course sexual intercourse produces pleasure; the exercise of every voluntary power produces pleasure.  Eating does.  Looking around does.  Flexing the muscles does.  Pleasure is certainly a strong motive for employing our powers, but why we have them is another matter altogether.  We may eat for pleasure, but eating, as such, is for nourishment.  Besides, pleasure vanishes if pursued as an end in itself.  Gratefully accepted as a byproduct of doing something worthwhile in itself, it becomes surprisingly strong.

Because matrimony brings the future into being, it must be permanent.  I give some credit to thinkers like John Locke, who wasn’t strong on teleology, but at least recognized that since matrimony concerns children, the marital bond shouldn’t be dissoluble at will.  Yet Locke erred in thinking that the bond would need to endure only so long as the children were young.  This view ignores a number of reasons for permanency, which are obvious once our attention is drawn to them, but easy to overlook.  For example,

(1)  The procreative mission doesn’t end when the children grow up, because grown children need the continuing help of their parents in establishing their own new families.  Children need not only parents, but also grandparents. 

(2)  Intimacy requires security.  How can the spouses expect to have a robust confidence in their shared life, when in the back of their minds they harbor the thought that either one of them may exit at any moment?  If you expect failure, you will get it; if you hold the back door open, you will use it.

(3)  It isn’t true that if only the husband and wife have a strong friendship, they will stick together and be faithful.  Say rather than if only they stick together and remain faithful, they will have a strong friendship.

“But what if we don’t love each other any more?”  True, romantic feelings may dissipate or fade.  But although love is accompanied by feelings, the essence of love is not a feeling, but an enduring will to the true good of the other person.  You can continue to love the other person – to rejoice in her existence and will her true good every day -- even if, at this moment, you are not feeling romantic or finding much joy in her presence.

And here is the thing about lost joy:  If you keep loving, it comes back.  Often it comes back deeper than before.  And that is very cool for you both.

Related (book):

On the Meaning of Sex

Related (article):

“Thomas Aquinas on Marriage, Fruitfulness, and Faithful Love”



Virtual Jurisprudence

Monday, 08-28-2023


Before you complain that by overturning certain precedents which have stood for years, the new majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is “threatening democracy,” consider how some of the Court’s precedents were established in the first place.

One of the first warnings of how headstrong and arbitrary courts could be is due to the Anti-Federalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Brutus” (probably the New York State judge Robert Yates).[1]  His favorite example, drawn from William Blackstone, was how the Court of Exchequer in England slyly expanded its jurisdiction by allowing plaintiffs to claim that they were debtors of the crown when they were not.

An even stranger example is found in the annals of the Court of King’s Bench, which was supposed to be restricted to suits by parties who had suffered trespasses or other injuries by violence.  On one occasion, a plaintiff who was angry about having been sold diluted wine alleged that the merchant had watered it "with force and arms and against the peace of the King, to wit with swords and bows and arrows."[2]  The Anti-Federalists, who believed that under the new Constitution the judiciary would be too powerful and heedless, expected American courts and judges to behave in much the same way.

Brutus was right to be concerned.  The bizarre lengths to which determined judges can take this sort of thing is suggested by the dissenting opinion of Justice Douglas in Sierra Club v. Morton, a 1972 case in which an association of environmental activists sought to halt the construction of a resort in a national park.  Mr. Douglas proposed fashioning “a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded,” so that “environmental objects” could “sue for their own preservation.”[3]

The prospect of vegetables and minerals bringing suit in federal court makes today’s arguments about animal rights seem almost quaint.  Although in that case, the majority declined to swallow the particular legal fiction suggested by Justice Douglas, it would be a grave mistake to suggest that Supreme Court Justices have been averse to fictitious claims.  Courts in many of the states are still up to much the same shenanigans.

A fictitious history has been employed to conclude that the First Amendment requires neutrality between religion and irreligion;[4]

A fictitious psychology has been employed to maintain that the only possible motive for opposing special preferences for homosexuals is “animus” or irrational hatred;[5]

A fictitious embryology has been employed to insinuate that a child growing and developing in the womb does not enjoy actual life but only "potential life";[6]

A fictitious classification has been employed to characterize behavior which is lethal to babies as reproductive behavior;[7]

A fictitious teleology has been employed to suggest that the natural reason for the institution of marriage is not the protection and nurture of children but the sexual convenience of grown-ups;[8]

A fictitious semantics has been employed to interpret the Constitutional guarantee of "free exercise of religion" as having no necessary reference to religious acts;[9]

A fictitious grammar has been employed to treat categorical prohibitions as implying qualified permissions;[10]

A fictitious logic has been employed to suggest that if the Constitution protects certain highly specific and enumerated kinds of privacy, then it must also protect all kinds of privacy;[11]

And a fictious vocabulary has been employed to suggest that if the Constitution protects privacy in the usual sense of freedom from unwanted attention and intrusion, then it also protects “privacy” in the novel sense of freedom from judgment on one’s actions.[12]

For three generations, the use of fictitious suppositions has been so pervasive a feature of American Constitutional interpretion that we should no longer speak of actual jurisprudence, but of virtual jurisprudence.

How the support of such high-handedness concerning the Constitution “protects democracy” is impossible to understand.


How a Constitution May Undermine Constitutionalism


1.  Letters of Brutus, numbers 11 and 12.

2.  Rattlesdene v. Gruneston, Y.B. Pasch. 10 Edw. II pl. 37, p. 140-41 (1317) (Selden Soc.).  For discussion, see Eben Moglen, "Legal Fictions and Common Law Legal Theory: Some Historical Reflections," 10 Tel-Aviv University Studies in Law 35 (1991.

3.  Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), at 742.

4.  "The wholesome "neutrality" of which this Court's cases speak thus stems from a recognition of the teachings of history that powerful sects or groups might bring about a fusion of governmental and religious functions or a concert or dependency of one upon the other to the end that official support of the State or Federal Government would be placed behind the tenets of one or of all orthodoxies. This the Establishment Clause prohibits.  And a further reason for neutrality is found in the Free Exercise Clause, which recognizes the value of religious training, teaching and observance and, more particularly, the right of every person to freely choose his own course with reference thereto, free of any compulsion from the state. This the Free Exercise Clause guarantees."  Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), at 221.  Notice that the Constitution is inconsistently said to require neutrality between religion and irreligion because it recognizes the value of religion.

5.  "[T]he amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects"; later in the same case, "laws of the kind now before us raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons affected."  Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), at 631, 633.

 6.  "With respect to the State's important and legitimate interest in potential life, the 'compelling' point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb."  Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), at 163.

7.  "[F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.  The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."  Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), at 856.

8.  Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015.

9.  "Our cases do not at their farthest reach support the proposition that a stance of conscientious opposition relieves an objector from any colliding duty fixed by a democratic government."  Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971), at 461 (emphasis added).  Notice that the statement of the Court goes far beyond the mere assertion of a tacit condition that religious conduct be within the bounds of good order.

10.  "The essence of all that has been said and written on the subject is that only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion."  Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), at 215.  According to this alleged interpretation of the First Amendment, even "legitimate" claims to the free exercise of religion can be “overbalanced” by "interests" which judges consider sufficiently important, even though nothing is said about them in the Constitution.  Yet the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise of religion" (emphasis added).  Again notice that the statement of the Court goes far beyond the mere assertion of a tacit condition that religious conduct be within the bounds of good order.

11.  “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.”  Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 US 479 (1965).

12.  Ibid.


Oppenheimer: Knowledge, Power, and Obsession

Monday, 08-21-2023


Now that the movie Oppenheimer is making the rounds, it seems opportune to repost a reflection I posted about the man back in 2020, when we were in a whirl not about bombs, but about viruses.  Read on.


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I have been reading a famous speech of Robert A. Oppenheimer, given in 1945 to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists.  Oppenheimer had played a central role in the development of nuclear weapons.  His speech is one of the most tortuously reasoned documents of its kind that I have read.  However, it is revealing.

According to Oppenheimer, to understand the “real impact” of the invention of the atomic bomb, “one has to look further back, look, I think, to the times when physical science was growing in the days of the renaissance, and when the threat that science offered was felt so deeply throughout the Christian world.”

There is some bad history here.  Were it not for the vision of a universe ordered by Mind, a Mind that does not work capriciously but makes use of secondary causes, and that made human minds in its image so that they can inquire into its handiwork, it is doubtful whether science could have got started.  Please don’t tell me about Galileo.  The Church’s complaint against the poor man wasn’t that he contradicted the descriptions of the cosmos in Holy Scripture, which the Church knew to be figurative, but that he was doing what we now call “science by press release.”  His theory turned out to be true, but the Church protested that he claimed it was proven before it really was.  I don’t think the Church should have poked its nose into the matter at all, but even so, its complaint was scientific, not theological.

But never mind.  I understand why Oppenheimer speaks as he does, because although Christianity doesn’t regard science per se as a threat, it does regard Oppenheimer’s notion of science as a threat.

What vision is that?  Speaking of the development of the Bomb, Oppenheimer writes, “But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity.  If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing.  If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”

Read carelessly, the passage thrills.   Read carefully, it appalls.  There are two contradictions:  Between the desire for knowledge and the will to power, and between freedom and blind fatality.  What thrills are the parts about freedom and desire for knowledge.  What appalls are the parts about fatality and will to power.

As to the first contradiction, he starts with the idea of wanting to understand the world.  But the reason for understanding it turns out to be merely controlling it, and controlling it not according to transcendent lights and values, but according to “its own” lights and values.  That means “what we want.”

So.  Science is finding out how to do as we desire.

As to the second contradiction, he speaks of the continual growth of the power to control the world as though it were a kind of liberation.  And yet he insists that it is something the scientist cannot stop wanting, cannot stop gaining, and over which he has no control.

So.  Science is the ungovernable obsession with finding out how to do as we desire.

By contrast, the vision of science that Oppenheimer opposes – the vision of the Church -- is seeking knowledge because it glorifies God and adorns the rational mind, with the chastening reminder that not everything is to be done and not everything is to be controlled.

Put this way, the two visions do threaten each other.  I get that.


Was the American Founding All Wrong?

Monday, 08-14-2023



I’m not sure exactly what my question is, but I have long heard from more traditionalist-minded Catholics that our Constitution and the liberal presuppositions on which it rests cannot be reconciled with the faith vis-a-vis the Church’s understanding of a proper political order.  For the sake of clarity perhaps we should start there.  Do you think there is merit to that argument?



I think you’re asking about the Founders’ thought, not the political institutions they gave us.  Separation of powers, limited government, checks and balances – these are all good, though whether the versions build into the Constitution were well thought out and whether they work well is another question.  We can talk about that another time.

Although the critics you have in mind get some things right about the Founders’ thought, I think they are mistaken in at least four ways.

First, the American Founding wasn’t monolithic.  The Founders disagreed about many important matters – for example, though a few admired Thomas Hobbes, most detested him.  Lumping together thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is also extremely misleading.  They admired each other – some of them -- but were quite different.

Second, most of the Founders considered themselves Christians, and most of those were of the Calvinist persuasion.  A politically influential minority were Deists, but outright atheism was extremely rare among them.  As to “establishments” of religion – official government churches – although the majority opposed them, they did so not because they were doubt about Christian faith, but because they accepted it, believing that God Himself disapproved of official government churches.

Third, the contrast between the classical and the modern thinkers, which we consider stark and obvious today, was contrary to their harmonizing temperament.  Rather than siding with thinkers like John Locke against thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, they saw all these thinkers as more or less on the same page.  They didn’t read Thomas Aquinas, but they did read Richard Hooker, who was influenced by St. Thomas and who in turn influenced Locke.

Fourth, they didn’t believe in harmonizing everything. But rather than setting the ancients against the moderns, they cut across that distinction, setting writers of any age whom they viewed as sympathetic to republican self-government against writers of any age whom they believed hostile to it.

You see illustrations of several of these tendencies in the following two passages.  The first is from a letter of Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee on May 8, 1825:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.  The historical documents which you mention in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.

The second is from John Adams, Novanglus, No. 1:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.

One of the greatest reasons why thinkers of our own day misunderstand the thinking of the Founders is that too often we read into their works skeptical assumptions which they didn’t hold.  Chief among these skeptical assumptions is that reason and revelation, natural law and divine law, are at best on uneasy terms with each other.  Americans like James Wilson just didn’t see it that way.  They held the classical Christian view that reason and revelation cooperate rather than warring with each other, and that natural and divine law are two different reflections of the selfsame Divine Mind -- one discoverable by reason alone, the other discoverable in the content of Scripture, which is not provable, but reasonable to accept.

To be sure, the Founders paid a price for their attempt to harmonize ancient natural law theories with modern ones.  In order to blend the classical with the modern thinkers, they tended to read the moderns in the light of the classical thinkers, blurring the differences.  Perhaps some of them were engaged in propaganda for the moderns, playing down the radical implications of modern theories.  I think that on the whole, though, this wasn’t the case.  It was simply that not being so radical themselves, they simply didn’t think that the implications of these theories were so radical in the first place.  Christian republicans and moderate admirers of the Enlightenment made common cause.  For a while it seemed to work.

But there was no real synthesis, only a colloidal suspension.  You can shake classical and modern natural law theories in jar, but eventually they settle out, like oil and water.  I mentioned Calvinism, and Calvinism itself, I think, is itself in colloidal suspension.  It is pretty hard to maintain Calvin’s belief in natural law and natural reason alongside some of his other ideas, and many of his followers gave up, adopting a much more radical version of the doctrine of total depravity than he ever did.  Although American proponents of natural rights were the heirs of a rich and ancient tradition, they were ungrateful heirs, adopting “made simple” versions of natural law theory that ultimately came to seem unbelievable.  Consider too that from its first centuries, the Church united faith and reason, and the Founders tried to do so too.  But a lot of people, then and now, think faith and reason are natural enemies.  Fundamentalists are suspicious of reason; the most radical heirs of the Enlightenment are suspicious of faith.  Now faith and reason aren’t oil and water -- but people who believe in a partnership of faith and reason and people who reject the possibility of that partnership really are like oil and water.  If you make a colloidal suspension of those two beliefs, those layers will eventually separate too.

In fact, coming down to the present, those who formerly styled themselves defenders of reason against faith can no longer bring themselves to believe in reason either.  Abandoning God, they have even lost man.  For this reason, I think the European crisis of culture is our crisis too.  “American exceptionalism” means simply that here it has taken longer to come to a head than in, say, France, whose revolutionaries had no interest in harmonizing.

Could there have been a real synthesis of the ancient and modern influences rather than merely a colloidal suspension?  Yes -- and there still could be.  Faith and reason really are allies; not everything in the modern thinkers is irreconcilable with our classical inheritance; and our past mistakes are not an irresistible fate.  Here too, I think that I and the critics you mention are far apart.

But can such a synthesis be achieved in the way we have previously gone about it?  I think that road is closed.

This may not be what your question had in mind, but perhaps it will be a little help.



What is the way forward then?



I would say that we shouldn’t cast about for a new ideology for making over the world, but rather follow our vocations, submit all ideologies to Christian critique, try to practice virtue and political prudence, protect our children, and make the best of what good we have inherited, including sound intellectual traditions.

The world is so far into lunacy today that this answer may seem feeble, but I see no other place to start.