The Student's Contract

Thursday, 01-23-2020



Adapted, with appreciation, from a version by Professor James Pesta,
Department of English, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

In this course, we study literatures and systems of thought from cultures not only of our own time, but of ages before you were born.  Their world is not ours.  Their beliefs may not be yours.  No one asks you to believe or endorse any premise, attitude, precept, theology, philosophy, ideology, or political system contained in these books or expressed in class.  Nor will you ever lose points or be docked grades because of an opinion you express courteously by giving reasons for what you think.

We will not malign or trivialize these texts or views because they do not always parrot the beliefs common in our own day.  We will not assume that these books are bigoted because of the views they express, the period in which they were written, or the race, class, sex, or religion of the authors.

Persons who approach alien cultures with such preconceived notions are bigots masquerading as critical sophisticates, often in the name of “toleration” or “social justice.”  By diminishing the past in this way, they are neither tolerant nor just, especially when they compel others to adopt their biases.  In this course we will be free to disagree with each other, but always with courtesy, and always giving reasons for what we say.

If you are “triggered” by free speech, the free exchange of ideas, or people who courteously express and defend ideas or opinions that differ from your own, please drop the class immediately.

If you are “triggered” by open, direct, adult discussion of issues including but not limited to faith, war, race, sexuality, moral law, or moral character, please drop the class immediately.

If you are “triggered” by recurring encounters with heterosexuality, traditional attitudes toward marriage, sympathetic representations of Christianity, Judaism, or belief in God in general, positive views of property ownership or free markets, or unapologetic defenses of patriotism, chastity, hierarchies, or merit-based institutions or attitudes, please drop the class immediately.

If you are “triggered” by traditional pronouns such as “he” and “she,” or by traditional nouns such as “man” and “mankind,” please drop the class immediately.

Finally, please drop the class immediately if you consider yourself entitled to censor the thoughts or the courteously expressed words of others, or to insist they tailor their language or attitudes to your preferences.

Please sign your name to certify that you have read this contract and accept the norms by which the class will be conducted – or, that if you don’t accept them, you will drop the course immediately.


The Teacher’s Pledge

Monday, 01-20-2020



I will teach you the best that I can.  When I hold the majority view about the subject that I teach, I will often play devil’s advocate for the opposite view.  When I hold the minority view, I will do so less often, because I may be the only advocate to whom you have access.  I will not pretend to a false neutrality in order to indoctrinate you in my views while appearing not to do so.

Reasoning is making judgments; refusing to make judgments is refusing to reason.  Therefore, I will never consider you disrespectful, or criticize you as “judgmental,” for disagreeing with me or with a classmate, provided that you courteously give reasons for what you think.  I will expect you to treat me and your classmates in the same way.  Disrespect is shown not by differing from the other party, but by failing to take the other party seriously enough as a rational being to give a reason for differing.  The standard of argument is not whether you have convinced the other party, but whether you have presented your reasoning clearly and cogently.

Feelings, such as pleasure, sorrow, pride, shame, anger, delight, or disgust, are data, and, like any data, should be taken seriously.  Among other things, they may call our attention to things that would otherwise be overlooked.  However, feelings are only data, and no data are self-interpreting.  What we feel about a claim or theory does not by itself tell us whether the claim or theory is true or false, for we may feel bad about something that is true, or feel good about something that is false.  I will try never to forget this, and I will try to help you remember it too.

As I teach, I will bear in mind that although knowledge can advance, the mere fact that some view of things has persisted since ancient times does not make it false or obsolete.  On the contrary, it is a point in its favor.  The conclusion that we ought to draw from the fact that fashions in thought change is that the last 15 minutes are not the judgment of history.

I will also bear in mind that although majorities can be wrong, the fact that almost all people not just in one time but in almost all times and places have held some opinion is also a point in its favor, provided that the opinion concerns matters about which they have personal experience.  Thus, it would mean nothing if most people had always thought the moon were made of cheese, but it means a great deal that most people have always thought life is a thing to be grateful for.

The purpose of study and reflection is to discover, to contemplate, and to live according to what is true.  Though I cannot promise that I will always know the truth, I pledge allegiance to it.  Therefore, I forswear that false humility that pretends that truth is unattainable, as well as that false sophistication that tells lies in its name.  I will discourage the sort of skepticism that seeks to avoid coming to conclusions, but I will encourage the sort of self-examination that seeks to avoid reaching them by fallacious routes.  I will encourage you to discover whatever may be amiss in your reasoning, and I will try to teach well enough for you to have a fighting chance of discovering whatever may be amiss in my own.



Monday, 01-13-2020


Mr. Trump's notorious character flaws have had the unfortunate side effect of predisposing many people to believe not only what can honestly be said against him, but any sort of smear whatsoever.

I am not disturbed that citizens would be concerned about his character; what sane person wouldn’t be?  I do find it strange to hear it criticized by persons who, when the vices of their political favorites come into view, insist that vice is no impediment whatsoever to being a good statesman -- or who, as a matter of ideology, say that morality is all relative.

Oh, Mr. Underground Thomist.  Don’t you know consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds?


Who Is Like Whom?

Monday, 01-06-2020


Intercourse among persons of the same sex tends to be impulsive and promiscuous, often impersonal, and even anonymous.  Homosexual pairings, in turn, tend to be unstable and nonexclusive.

These days, however, a good deal of intercourse among persons of opposite sex also tends to be impulsive, promiscuous, impersonal, and even anonymous, and a great many heterosexual pairings are also unstable and nonexclusive.

Some activists say the reason for the trend is that people are “learning” from persons with same-sex desires.  The popular media bombard us with articles with titles like “what gay men can teach us about sex outside of marriage.”  Though the influence of propaganda on young, confused, or impressionable persons should never be discounted, I don’t think this is the main reason.

What then?  My guess is this.  Just as same-sex intercourse is incapable of being procreative, among many persons today opposite-sex intercourse is not intended to be procreative either.  This matters, for knowing that the way we come together sexually is the same way we make children has a way of concentrating the mind.  But knowing that it isn’t – or that it is, but that we are denying its procreative meaning and purpose -- has a way of dissipating it.

I don’t want to exaggerate, because behavioral trends are complex, and most people have not become wildly promiscuous.  In fact, statisticians say that among men who are attracted to women, and women who are attracted to men, the modal number of sexual partners over a lifetime hasn’t changed too much lately.  But they also say that the extreme is becoming more extreme.

And it is obviously losing its disgrace.

One cannot help asking how this change will affect the mainstream.  It is hard to remember now, but only a decade ago writers opined that if only homosexual behavior lost its social stigma, it would become more like heterosexual behavior.

The actuality of the matter is that at least among some population groups, heterosexual behavior is becoming more like homosexual behavior.


The Argument to a First Principle of Order

Monday, 12-30-2019


The same fallacy keeps coming up, so let’s try this again.

Darwin is supposed to have shown that order can arise spontaneously from what is not ordered.  The story is that random variations take place, and some of the variations are more successful than others in being passed on to the next generation; therefore new things develop.

Slow down.  Natural selection can certainly explain the origin of some new things.  In that sense I have no quarrel with evolutionary biologists.  But natural selection can explain new things only if the new things have adaptive value.  The problem is that over the geological ages, a lot of new things without adaptive value have appeared – things that should not have persisted, but did.

For example:

●  Natural selection can’t explain preadaptation – the development and persistence of things millions of years before they have any adaptive value -- like brightly colored blossoms before there are pollinators to attract.

●  It can’t explain certain human attributes such as the almost universal belief in God, the perception of beauty in music, or the search for the purpose of human life, because these things have no adaptive value whatsoever.

●  And it can’t explain irreducible ensembles of features – things that must all be present before something works but which could not have developed one at a time, because none of them has any adaptive value until they are all present, each in its right place, all working together.

Notice that I haven’t yet said anything about God.  An intelligent person should acknowledge that even if there were no God and the causes of things were entirely material, as he thinks, even so natural selection couldn’t be the only cause of new species.

But suppose it were.  Would the naturalist then have demonstrated that order can arise spontaneously from disorder?

No, not even then.  Why not?  Because the contingent emergence of order at one level presupposes prior order at another level.  Just to forestall misunderstanding, I should add that I am referring to priority in the sequence of causes, not necessarily priority in time.

For example:

●  If I shake a box of puzzle pieces long enough, the pieces might fall into place to make a picture, but not if their shapes are random.  The orderly way things fall into place presupposes the prior order of how the different shapes fit together.

●  An ant hill behaves as though someone were directing it, but not if the ants emit and respond to pheromones at random.  The orderly behavior of the anthill presupposes the prior order of how pheromones are used to send signals.

●  What programmers call an evolutionary algorithm may produce interesting and novel phenomena, but someone has to write the algorithm, because random code accomplishes nothing.  The orderly result of executing the algorithm presupposes the prior order of the algorithm itself.

About the last example, someone might protest, “Couldn’t an evolutionary algorithm be used to write an evolutionary algorithm?”  Maybe, but even so, the code-writing algorithm couldn’t write its own code; that would have to be there beforehand.  So we still don’t escape from the principle that order presupposes prior order.

Besides, there would have to be a highly organized device on which the algorithm could be executed, and that device would need its own code – so it would need still more prior order.  Call that a computer with an operating system.

Or a universe.

After all, why are the natural laws the way they are, so that natural selection can occur?  Where does the genetic information on which natural selection operates come from in the first place?  Why are there just those laws of chemistry and physics instead of others?  In fact, why are there any chemical and physical phenomena?  Why not rather none?

The argument we have been developing works very much like what have traditionally been called the arguments to a First Mover and to a First Cause.  For contingent order presupposes prior order; if the prior order is contingent, then it too presupposes prior order; if that prior order is contingent, then so does it.  On and on it goes.  But since we cannot allow an infinite regress, there must be something that starts all this order going – a First Principle of Order -- an absolute starting point that is not contingent – something that exists necessarily.

And that – as Thomas Aquinas would say -- is what we call God.


What Mind Can Grasp It?

Wednesday, 12-25-2019


And so our Lord Jesus Christ, being at birth true man though He never ceased to be true God, made in Himself the beginning of a new creation, and in the form of His birth started the spiritual life of mankind afresh ....

What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can express this gracious act?  Sinfulness returns to guiltlessness and the old nature becomes new; strangers receive adoption and outsiders enter upon an inheritance.  The ungodly begin to be righteous, the miserly benevolent, the incontinent chaste, the earthly heavenly.  And whence comes this change, save by the right hand of the Most High?  For the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil, and has so united Himself with us and us with Him that the descent of God to man's estate became the exaltation of man to God's.

-- St. Leo the Great, Nativity Sermon VII

Herds of Supermen

Monday, 12-16-2019


A strange irony is curled up in Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of what was to come.

Nietzsche thought that the belief in objectively true values – a real good and evil, a real right and wrong – was finally petering out.  Not much was left in the tank.  Soon it would be empty.  The age of nihilism would begin.

One result of this emptiness would be would be the rise of the herd creatures he called the “last men,” people who no longer believed in anything or aspired to anything (and who therefore might believe carelessly in anything), but who would know, more or less, what they wanted.  Above all, they would want their lives to be comfortable, safe, easy, and just like everyone else’s.

The other result would be the rise of a few who were in some sense more than human, men who, instead of receiving values from supposedly transcendent sources such as God, would create their own values, imposing them on those weaker than themselves.  Creating their own values would be tantamount to creating their own reality, because, if values are not objective, then facts are not either.  In some unimaginable sense, the various supermen would war over whose values, whose “facts,” would prevail.  As soon as some of them were able to impose a new order of reality, the specter of the abyss would retreat.

The strange irony I mentioned is that the sort of people who prattle about “creating their own values” has turned out to be exactly the sort of people whom Nietzsche despised as last men.  Free at last, free at last!  Let each person have his own reality, right along with his new car and entertainment center.  If God is dead, everything is hey, whatever.

So the would-be supermen turn out to live in herds.

As it happens, we do from time to time encounter genuinely superior persons.  This is nothing new; some of them have always been among us.  But they are not supermen.  They are what the Tradition has called saints.  What uplifts them is not arrogance, but grace.

So the age of nihilism that Nietzsche prophesied has come upon us, but it is not, as he thought, a story of last men and supermen.  It is but the latest chapter in the story of the lost and the found.  May we be among the found.