Knowledge, Power, and Obsession

Monday, 03-09-2020


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.


Free Stuff and Aspirational Rights

Monday, 03-02-2020


Section 11 of John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris declares “We must speak of man's rights.   Man has the right to live.  He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.  In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.”

I agree.  While reading the encyclical, though, I reflected on the tendency of some Catholic intellectuals to indulge in sloppy thinking about such things.  In particular, most of the rights John XXIII mentions are not claim rights; you may demand that I not murder you, but you may not demand that I buy you a pair of Nikes.  Rather, most of them are aspirational rights.  They mean that we should labor to establish conditions under which every person can best enjoy the sorts of goods that John XXIII mentions.

Yes.  That is right.  That is a moral requirement.  But in thinking of what these conditions might be, it is crucial not to confuse the ends we seek with the means by which we seek them.

Careless thinkers take the idea of a right to food, clothing, shelter, and so on as though it meant a right for the government to give us all these things.  That would be a bad idea.  There are some goods that only the state can provide, such as defending the country and enforcing just laws.  However, the state tends to be a wasteful and shoddy provider of most goods – even the ones that it does have to provide -- and in general, the longer the government has been at something, the more wasteful and shoddy it becomes.  Other goods are generally better provided by other means.

Worse, for the state to supply everything human beings need would require the absorption of the entire economy and every basic social institution into the administration of government.  The price of enforcing a claim right to every human need would be abject tyranny – and we would pay that price for nothing, because the destruction of freedom does not uphold human good but destroys it.  One would think we had learned that by now.

I think John XXIII did understand it.  At the end of the passage he mentioned necessary social services, but you will notice that he did not say that they must all be supplied by the government.

So what are the conditions under which each person can best enjoy the necessary human goods?  I don’t have many answers, and I am short on details.  But though doubtless the state has a role, I am sure that we should think of it last and not first -- and I am sure that before attempting to make things better we should try not to make them worse.

Thinking of the state last rather than first, and trying not to make things worse, probably items like the following would be high on our list.

  • Honoring the customs by which, from time immemorial, neighbors have given mutual assistance.
  • Safeguarding the safety of neighborhoods.  All neighborhoods, not just those of the wealthy.
  • Safeguarding their geographical integrity too.  For example, not breaking them in pieces with badly placed roads just for the convenience of persons who don’t live there.
  • Encouraging voluntary charity, which is demonstrably more effective in achieving its ends than any government.
  • Avoiding “helping” voluntary charitable associations out of existence by taking over their functions.  Trying not to get in their way.
  • Upholding the integrity and stability of marriages and families.
  • Aiding and encouraging those separated from their families to reconnect with them.
  • Promoting the dignity and availability of remunerative work for individuals and heads of households.
  • Punishing fraud and cheating, especially the exploitation of the most vulnerable.
  • Last but not least, respecting the moral law.  Not all poverty is due to vice and sin – far from it.  But vice and sin do impoverish, and the Decalogue, along with its corollaries, is the most powerful antipoverty program known to man.


Beauty and Prose Style

Monday, 02-24-2020


Some of the boldest and most entertaining writers are also some of the most dangerously careless, misleading, or even wicked:  Bacon, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche, for example.  Perhaps this is why St. Paul resolves to forgo the use of “lofty words” or rhetorical tricks and flourishes, depending on God alone to persuade. 

Yet this very saint is eloquent when he is explaining the emptiness of loveless eloquence, as in that famous passage which begins, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

Though of course we should write with all the grace and energy we can muster, careful reasoning and the making of necessary distinctions do not in themselves help in writing strong, lovely prose, and there is an art to presenting a complex argument clearly, beautifully, and without boring the reader or listener.

I suspect that the insipidity and even brutality of prose in our day is due in large part to the meagerness of our awe for the beauty of truth itself.  The awe of our forebears was more ample.  Thomas Aquinas implores God to instruct his tongue and pour upon his lips the grace of His benediction.  Dante calls upon the Muses.  St. Paul urges the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When I suggest to my students that some things really are more beautiful than others, some always hold out for the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- a view that reduces St. Paul’s counsel to “whatever you want to think about, think about.”  In that way of thinking, loveliness hasn’t a chance.

Perhaps, then, before trying to write with beauty, we should simply learn to admire it.


Beauty and ... Other Things

The Sign of Jonah

Augustine on the Natural Knowledge of God

Obediential Joy


Whither Populism?

Monday, 02-17-2020


Although we speak of rule by the people, the people cannot rule by themselves.  At most, rule by the people means rule by that faction of the elite that enjoys the support of the majority of the people.

True, elites cannot rule without some compliance on the part of the people.  On the other hand, popular compliance can be manipulated.

True, elites are not always able to replace themselves with persons who see things just as they do.  On the other hand, they may be able to keep that up for quite a while.

True, elites are limited by the customs of the people.  On the other hand, although some elites respect the customs of the people instead of trying to change or destroy them, others don’t.

We should hope that ours do. 

Let’s return to the beginning.  The people cannot rule by themselves.

Just because they cannot rule by themselves, the people cannot peacefully dislodge a hostile elite unless they have allies within the elite.  They might – though in our age I doubt it -- dislodge them by rioting and assassination instead, but it is hard to imagine even rioters who don’t also need allies.  Besides, that sort of revolt would only put in place an elite of ex-rioters and assassins.  It hardly seems a good trade.

William F. Buckley famously said “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”  He explained that he did not hold lightly the brainpower, knowledge, generosity, or even affability of the Harvard faculty, but that he feared intellectual arrogance, a characteristic that distinguishes any university that “refuses to accept any common premise.”

I sympathize.  Whatever their good qualities, most of our present elites have nothing but disdain for the lives, hopes, and common premises of ordinary people – the “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and religion,” as a pair of recent despisers have described them.  But Mr. Buckley was using hyperbole to make a point.  If the first two thousand people in the telephone directory really could govern all by themselves, that might be good.  They can't.  Not in any society.

Whither populism?  Our goal should not be that the first two thousand in the telephone directory would rule, but that our elites would respect and honor the aspirations of that two thousand rather than despising them as yokels.

In times like these, respect of the elites for the aspirations of the people may seem even more utopian than literal rule by the people.  But the times were not always like this.  They will not always be like this.


What Obergefell Isn’t

Monday, 02-10-2020


Whether you think the Supreme Court's decision in the so-called gay marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges was right or wrong, it could not be what it is said to be.

Marriage concerns the association in which children are conceived in the stable, loving union of their parents.  This is a unique relationship, crucial for the continuance of society, and we need a name for it so we know what we are talking about.

Consider then the notion that Obergefell gave homosexuals the right to marriage.  It did no such thing, for they already had the right to marriage.  A man attracted to men could always marry a woman.  A woman attracted to women could always marry a man.  Some have always done so.

Or consider the notion that Obergefell gave persons the right to homosexual marriage.  It couldn’t do that either, because a procreative association requires both sexes.  Whether you think the sexual pairing of two women or two men is a good thing, a bad one, or indifferent, by nature it is incapable of producing new life.

Or consider the notion that Obergefell redefined marriage as merely an association between two persons who want to cohabit sexually.  If you have the power, you can use words any way you want to, but you cannot change the realities that words are intended to name.  Redefining the word “obtuse” so that it refers to both obtuse and acute angles does not make acute angles the same thing as obtuse ones.  Redefining the word “dog” so that it refers to both dogs and rabbits does not make rabbits the same thing as dogs.

Suppose then that we do scramble our words.  Henceforth, let us say, the word “marriage” is to be used with no procreative connotations whatsoever.

In that case, it is hard to see why the Supreme Court should have taken any interest whatsoever in “marriage.”

For the law has excellent reasons to define and protect the union that turns the wheel of the generations, so that each child has the strongest possible chance of being raised by his natural mom and dad.  But it has no parallel interest in blurring the difference between that kind of association and other kinds.

And notice:  This conclusion has no logical dependence on how favorably or unfavorably we look upon the other kinds.  You can’t blame it on hostility or animus.


The New Marriage and Its Consequences


Happiness and Blue Cups

Monday, 02-03-2020


I am glad to announce the publication of my new book by Cambridge University Press:  Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate PurposeThe details of the book on the Books page of this website tell a little about the book, quote the endorsements, and provide links to the Table of Contents, the Introduction, and two different samples.

Let me say a word about the lovely picture that graces the cover of the book.  Many readers will find the choice self-explanatory.  Others may find it a little puzzling.  What does Joseph DeCamp’s The Blue Cup – a painting of a housewife, face and eyes glowing, admiring a cherished piece of crockery which we can hardly make out -- have to do with happiness?

My original thought had been to use a quite different image, some suitable illustration of the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  All I can say is that the available paintings of the Pearl of Great Price all seemed to leave something to be desired.  Of course I may have overlooked or misjudged some great work of art.  But for me, the homely Blue Cup evokes the Pearl of Great Price with truer pitch than any image which is known to me of the parable itself.


Rule of Law

Monday, 01-27-2020


According to one theory, the best way for small and unpopular groups to bring down a government is to commit acts of such atrocity against the citizens that in order to protect them, the government becomes severe and arbitrary – so much so that at last the citizens themselves turn against it.  That is one of the reasons why it is so important to stay within the rule of law even when acting against terrorists.

Supposing that the terrorists themselves hold this theory, no one would be more delighted than they that elements in our justice and intelligence services have violated the rule of law to persecute, frame, and bring down their political opponents.