Things I Had to Learn

Monday, 05-08-2023


There are so many things I took much longer to learn than I should have.  Here is an incomplete list.

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There is nothing wrong with old ideas, so long as they are true.  And there is nothing admirable about new ones, if they aren’t. 

There are some truths which do not have to be proven, but are needed for working out all the other truths.

Even the most obvious things can be doubted.  The test of a truth is not whether I doubt it, or whether I am able to doubt it, but whether the reasons for thinking it is true are better than the reasons not to.

There are a great many truths that we can’t help knowing at some level.  Even so, we may not be aware of knowing them, we can deny knowing them, and we can pretend to ourselves that we don’t know them,

The fact that I suppress what I know and pretend not to know it, even though I do know it, does not keep my buried knowledge from influencing my actions – but, since I suppress it, it distorts my thinking and influences my actions in a perverse way.

We like to ask “If there is a God, why is there any evil?”  Here is a better question:  If there isn’t a God, why is there any good?

Wisdom is a virtue, not a talent, and so it is not the same as mere intelligence.

Intelligence is a talent, not a virtue.  Even so it is less about sheer ability than about the organization of personality.

There is more than one kind of intelligence, and I am a fool if I dismiss the kinds I don’t have as unintelligent.

The only remedy to the abuse of truth is more truth.  Suppressing truths because they seem likely to be abused is futile, because they are all likely to be abused.  For the more truth a falsehood contains, the more persuasive it becomes, and so the more useful it is in making excuses for evil.  If an error or deception did not contain at least a grain of truth, no one would fall for it.

The only remedy to injustice is to do justice.  So called reverse discrimination is not the reverse of discrimination.  It is only injustice with a new set of perpetrators.  Reparations are not due from the innocent.

Some natural selection buffs claim that the human mind is just a meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have us in mind.  Hold on a moment.  If it were, then there would be no reason for confidence in any conclusion of reasoning whatsoever – including the conclusion that our minds are a meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have us in mind.

No one can invent new values or a new morality.  What appear to be new ones are merely the results of cherry-picking elements of the “old” morality, exaggerating them, and ignoring all of its other elements.  This was Lewis’s great insight.

The greatest blessings we receive in life are undeserved.  For example, I didn’t do anything to deserve good parents.  On the other hand, it is not unjust for a person to have such a blessing, and it is not an act of justice to try to erase it.  What justice requires is gratitude for blessings received.  What charity requires is trying to act in a way that blessings of the same kind may be more widely enjoyed.

The two great natural goods of marriage -- the turning of the great wheel of the generations, and the union of a man and woman who cooperate in turning it -- cannot be separated without damage to each of them.  To suppress either one for the sake of happiness is to poison the very roots of joy.

The reason we have sexual harassment is that we do not believe in chastity.  In the end, the only way to discourage unwanted advances is to condemn immoral ones.  To discredit sexual harassment, one must discredit sexual sin.

Sins are not "mistakes."  Mistakes are things we didn't mean to do.

To give the appearance of doing wrong, when it could have been avoided, is to do wrong.   This used to be called the sin of scandal, but we have misappropriated that useful word and put it to different purposes.

Refusing to repent is equivalent to refusing to be forgiven.

We say we must “forgive ourselves” -- but no one can really forgive himself, because he is not the one who is principally concerned by his wrongdoing.  Instead one should confess wrong and seek forgiveness from that person – and from God.

One who has been unable to trust his father has a much more difficult time learning to trust the One from whom all fathers take their name.

A feeling cannot be promised.  When we promise love, therefore, we are not promising to have a feeling.  What we are promising is an enduring commitment of the will to the true good of the beloved – even when feelings change.

Love without truth is an illusion.  To spare someone the truth is not worth the name of love.  If he is hurting himself, telling him so is not judgment but compassion; not telling him is not compassion but indifference.

This list is about things I was slow to learn, and that last one wasn’t really hard for me.  But to tell such things in just the right way and in just the right season – and to listen to what I need to hear in turn -- that was.



Is Pride Really Graver Than Murder?

Monday, 05-01-2023



In considering the relative gravity of sins, Aquinas considers pride in itself as graver than murder, since pride, in its proper meaning, is by its very nature a turning away from God.  Murder in its nature constitutes an unjust taking of life, and turning away from God is its consequence, not its essence.

I get that.  However, we don’t usually say that blasphemy or unbelief is worse than murder, even though that too is a turning away from God.  I think the reason we say it about murder but not about blasphemy or unbelief is that a concrete act of murder involves not only the unjust taking of like but also a turning away from God.

If I’m right, this would make murder graver than blasphemy.  Do you think this makes sense?



I take it that you’re reflecting on Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 162, Art. 6.  You make a good point, but there is more to be said.  Perhaps St. Thomas would offer considerations something like the following.

First, remember that he is not speaking of particular acts of pride and murder, or of murder as a result of pride, but of pride in itself and murder in itself.  When we are making comparisons, he says, “that which belongs to a thing by its nature is always of greater weight than that which belongs to it through something else.”  So we need to consider the matter from more than one perspective.

Pride -- understood not as, say, satisfaction in having done a job well, but as turning away from God and treating ourselves as gods -- is the father of all sin, because it radically disorders us.  If our minds refuse God’s governance, then they are no longer capable of governing the passions, the appetites, or for that matter themselves.  Moreover, tearing our minds from His keeps us from understanding the proper relationship among proximate goods, because we no longer see them in their true relation to our ultimate good, which is nothing but Himself.

If turning away from God is worse than murder, why doesn’t human law treat it as worse than murder?  Mainly because human law is in charge of the temporal common good, not the spiritual common good of union with God.  A secondary reason is that unbelief is an invisible movement of the heart, which human beings cannot see; human law can address itself only to outward acts, which it can see.  Still another is that faith cannot be coerced; if unbelief were made illegal, the consequence would not be a nation of unbelievers, but a nation of hypocrites.  The state is not is neither commissioned to look into hearts, nor capable of doing so.

On the other hand, human law does consider treason and betrayal the worst of the sins it does have authority over – and there is an analogy here with divine law, because contempt for God is the worst of all possible treason and betrayal.  By it, we destroy not just our bodies, but our souls, which are infinitely more important.  Moreover, by expressing our contempt for Him outwardly, through deliberate blasphemy, we endanger our neighbors’ souls too.  Murder only destroys their bodies.

But if we think of the intrinsic gravity of sins rather than whether it is fitting to punish them by human law, I think St. Thomas would say that things look different.  As he says, “aversion from God and His commandments, which is a consequence as it were in other sins, belongs to pride by its very nature.”  Let’s think about this.

When my children were small, whenever they disobeyed the parental precepts -- for example by snatching each other’s toys instead of sharing them -- they certainly put themselves at odds with us.  One could say that in that sense they were also withdrawing themselves from the order of honor to parents, and so committing not one wrong but two.  True.  Even so, they didn’t snatch the toys because they had contempt for us; they snatched them merely because they wanted them.  If they had acted directly from contempt for us, the wrong would have been much, much worse.  I suspect that when the children did these things, they were not thinking of us at all -- or that if they were, they were thinking only of how to keep from getting caught.  So even though disobeying them had the effect of withdrawing them from the order of honor to parents, it was not the same as the sin the very root of which was to dishonor us.

Could it be the same with the case you mention?  Murder has the effect of withdrawing us from right relationship with God and destroying charity, but it is not the same as the sin the very root of which is contempt for God and rejection of charity, and that is far graver. 

To have contempt for my neighbor, who is made in God’s image, is one thing, but to have contempt for the God in whose image my neighbor is made -- the very Being from Whom my neighbor draws his life and because of Whom that life has such enormous value -- is quite another.  God is the reason why we and our neighbors are sacred; it is He alone who makes us persons, He alone who lifts us above being whats to the dignity of being whos.

For all these reasons, we might even say that a murder is just a murder, but that the sin of pride virtually contains all murders.



Are Christians “Idealists?”

Monday, 04-24-2023



Are Christians idealists, in the sense in which a Marxist would use the term?  You know I am at university in a Marxist country.



I think you may be asking any of four different things.

Possibility one:  Is a human being at bottom just a body (a material substance), or is he at bottom just a soul (an intellectual substance)?  We believe that human beings are not bodies alone, or souls alone, but souls united with bodies.  Many analytical philosophers call this view “dualism,” although I dislike the term because it can have more than one meaning.  The more traditional name for the doctrine of body-soul unity is “hylomorphism.”

Possibility two:  Do nonmaterial forms really exist, or is matter all that exists?  Certainly forms exist.  Matter exists in time, but time is not matter.  We have thoughts, but thought is not matter.  A sentence has a meaning, but even though the meaning may be represented by ink marks on paper, the meaning is not the same thing as the ink marks on paper; in fact, the meaning is the same even if the matter changes – for example, if the sentence is represented by configurations of pixels on a computer screen.

Possibility three:  Granted that these forms exist, do they exist in themselves, as Plato thought?  The traditional Christian view is that they don’t, so if that is what is meant by idealism, we are not idealists.  Rather forms are found in three other places -- in things, in minds, and in the mind of God – though they are not found in these three places in the same sense, but in analogical senses.  The form of the body “informs” the body; my grasp of this form is in my mind; and all forms of created things preexist in the mind of the Creator.  This view is usually called moderate realism – realist, because it affirms the reality of forms, and moderate, because it does not suppose that they have independent existence.

Possibility four:  A Marxist would probably be thinking not just of Platonic idealism but of Hegelian idealism.  I am no Hegel scholar, but subject to correction, I understand him to have thought that the world cannot be distinguished from how the world is understood, and that God or “Spirit” becomes conscious of itself in human minds.  Orthodox Christianity rejects these views.  God, who brought our minds and the world into existence, is distinct from our minds and the world.  Simultaneously whole in every moment, He has no need to evolve.  Knowing all things, He has no need of us to be conscious of Himself.  Our minds are true when they correspond to how things are; things are as they are because they correspond to the mind of the Creator.




Monday, 04-17-2023


Rather than an extended reflection on a single theme, this is a series of short thoughts that have been knocking around in my mind.

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In many ways, we are starting all over again in the abortion battle.  The notion that support for abortion has increased since Roe was overturned is not altogether an illusion – partisan lying really has panicked some people into more extreme positions.  But I think the shift in poll numbers is due more to the fact that people’s true views are coming to the surface.  Previously, even opposition to abortion was squishy.  Some young women thought “I believe in abortion,” others thought “I am uncomfortable with the idea of abortion,” but both groups thought “it’s not a real issue for me because the option of abortion is there in case it’s needed.”  Now it has become a real issue for them -- and now we have to really change their minds.

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It's curious that both left and right seem to think that things are falling apart -- but what each side views as remedy, the other views as decline.  People often say they wish left and right would “come together to solve the country's problems," but they define the problems in opposite ways.  For example, one side thinks that racism is on the increase and reverse racism is necessary to fight it; the other side thinks that racism was on the decline but that reverse racism is bringing it back in force.  Again, one side thinks that crime is an innocent response to deprivation, and that the problem lies in the police; the other side thinks crime is wrong and dangerous, and that although we should help disturbed people, the problem lies in punishing the police and encouraging the criminals.

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The attribute view of personhood – the view that you don’t count as a person, with moral dignity and rights, unless you have such attributes as the ability to make plans and carry them out – is widely deployed in the debates over abortion.  But it also carries over into everyday relationships.  “You must have the attributes we value,” whatever these may be, for example holding the same opinions, “or we treat you like dirt.”

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Previous civilizations have degenerated.  Previous ages have marched into the dark not knowing that they were marching into the dark.  But in any previous time, were artists, scholars, and thinkers so eager to explain that degeneration was really progress?

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I’ve written in this blog numerous times about the “revenge of conscience.  Conscience wreaks this revenge in a particularly spectacular way in the domain of sex.  We aren’t really shameless; rather, because of our shame, we make excuses.  People on the left make excuses for their shameful practices by saying that now all perversions are okay (in fact, they aren’t perversions).  People on the right implausibly say “No, only my shameful practice is okay.  Yours isn’t.”  Is it any wonder that the liberal dog is winning this fight?

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The observation that it is difficult to portray a really good person in fiction is nothing new.  But why do our contemporary novelists find it so difficult even to portray a person we wouldn’t mind meeting?  Even when they try?  There are exceptions.  Not many.  The appalling thought occurs to me that maybe they like their characters.

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It’s easy to understand the temptation to idolatry, in which limited things are treated as transcendent.  For in a sense, they are transcendent, though not in the sense that God is.  Objects in a sense transcend our perceptions of them.  Realities in a sense transcend descriptions of them.  The forms of things in a sense transcend the objects whose forms they are.  The past in a sense transcends our memory of it.  But all these things are finite.  Only God is infinitely transcendent.

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As the classical writers knew – Aristotle knew it, Cicero knew it, Thomas Aquinas wrote of it with great insight -- the virtues are interconnected.  People are confused about this fact because a person who is full of vices might have some admirable qualities.  As a man I knew who was sentenced to prison for embezzling put it, “You meet some of the nicest people in prison.”  But the interconnection of virtues doesn’t imply that we can’t possess even a particle of virtue unless we possess complete virtue.  What it does imply is that there is no such thing as a person who fails in just one virtue.  Anything wrong in one moral dimension does damage in the other ones too. 

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The proponents of the so called “new natural law theory,” or “basic goods theory,” say that we shouldn’t speak of the natural purposes of things.  For example, we shouldn’t say that the natural purpose that anchors the sexual powers is procreation, because this “instrumentalizes” and “depersonalizes” us – it makes us tools for making babies.  This is absurd.  One might as well say that it depersonalizes us to say that the natural purpose of the intellectual powers is deliberating and knowing the truth.

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Human beings are neither souls alone, nor bodies alone, but embodied souls.  Since the laws of our bodies are constitutive elements of our being, we don’t diminish ourselves by honoring them -- we would alienate ourselves by not honoring them.  They aren’t shackles, but real aspects of our embodied personhood -- inheritances, not encumbrances; enrichments, not impoverishments; not things to be struggled against, but things to be cherished as gifts.

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I wish someone would explain to me why it isn’t necessary to show probable cause of fraud and get a warrant in order to audit a taxpayer.

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How odd it is that the things we do spontaneously are usually bad for us.  Doesn’t that suggest that something has gone wrong with our nature?  I think so.  Please notice that I am asking whether the condition of man’s nature has changed.  I am not asking whether our nature itself has changed, for if that had happened, then either the being before the change wasn’t man -- or it was, but we aren’t.

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Everyone has a grievance.  These days soliciters are offended if you merely politely decline to talk with them.  Person at the door:  Are you J. Budziszewski?  Me:  Who are you?  Person:  Are you J. Budziszewski?  Me:  Who are you?  Person:  Do you have such-and-such in your house?  Me:  Are you selling something?  Person:  Do you have such-and-such in your house?  Me:  Are you selling something?  Person:  [Long pause.]  Not necessarily.  Me:  Thank you.  I’m not interested.  [I quietly close the door.]  --  I can understand why the soliciter was frustrated.  It's harder to make a sale when you are forced to begin by saying that you want to.  What I don’t understand is why she was offended.  This is my house.

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One reason why we don't learn as much from history as we might is that historians divide up in much the same way that factions did during the historical periods they are studying.




Monday, 04-10-2023


The thesis of “American exceptionalism” seems to have two meanings.  To some of those who speak of it, it means that for generations, something different in our cultural DNA made the country a beacon of liberty and opportunity.  With several large qualifications, this seems to be true.  But there is also a governmental meaning:  That our rulers will never do the sorts of evil deeds we have seen done in totalitarian lands.

I don’t see why not.  Our rulers are not so much different from rulers in other places, and they are becoming more venal by the day.

Official, planned destruction of the economies of coal mining areas, and the slow and careless official response to the destruction of the air and water of East Palestine, Ohio, suggest that many of those who make our policies may not be particularly reluctant for the disfavored parts of the country to become unlivable.  They aren’t Green enough, or Blue enough, or there is something else wrong with their color.

Perhaps East Palestine can be cleansed.  Or perhaps it will come to resemble Chernobyl.  But when I think of the totalitarian countries, I think not so much of careless disasters, like nuclear reactor accidents and train derailments, as of deliberate, man-made miseries and coerced movements of population, including the planned ruin of entire classes and regions.

Is our government exceptional?  Less and less, it seems.  If you want to keep such things from happening here, never assume that they can’t.  Never even assume that they aren’t.



Thomas Aquinas on Why Easter Had to Happen

Sunday, 04-09-2023


Since this blog has acquired quite a few new readers recently, I should mention that although it isn’t a Holy Day blog – I write mostly about other things -- I always offer a reflection on Easter and another on Christmas, drawn mostly from the Fathers of the Church.  This one, though, is from Thomas Aquinas, who asks in his Summa theologiae, “Was it necessary for Christ to rise again?”  Here is how he answers.  On Monday, I’ll be back to the old stand.

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It behooved Christ to rise again, for five reasons.

First of all; for the commendation of Divine Justice, to which it belongs to exalt them who humble themselves for God's sake.  "He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble."  Consequently, because Christ humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross, from love and obedience to God, it behooved Him to be uplifted by God to a glorious resurrection ….

Secondly, for our instruction in the faith, since our belief in Christ's Godhead is confirmed by His rising again, because "although He was crucified through weakness, yet He lives by the power of God."  And therefore it is written "If Christ is not risen again, then our preaching is vain, and our faith is also vain": and "What profit is there in my blood?" … as though He were to answer: "None.  For if I do not at once rise again but My body be corrupted, … I shall gain no one” ….

Thirdly, for the raising of our hope, since through seeing Christ, who is our head, rise again, we hope that we likewise shall rise again.  Hence it is written "Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how do some among you say, that there is no resurrection of the dead?" And "I know" (that is, with certainty of faith) "that my Redeemer" (that is, Christ) "lives" (having risen from the dead), "and" (therefore) "in the last day I shall rise out of the earth... this my hope is laid up in my bosom."

Fourthly, to set in order the lives of the faithful: "As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life": and further on; "Christ rising from the dead dies now no more; so do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive to God."

Fifthly, in order to complete the work of our salvation: because, just as for this reason did He endure evil things in dying that He might deliver us from evil, so was He glorified in rising again in order to advance us towards good things:  "He was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification."

-- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologia, III, Question 53, Article 1.  The full text of the passage is here.



More Charitable Than You

Monday, 04-03-2023



Is Christian charity compatible with competition, so that someone could say “I want to love God for His own sake more than anyone else”?



Good question.  Sometimes people think all forms of competition are prohibited by charity, and this is not true.  For example, by competing in games, all children have more fun, and they explore and develop their skills more fully because the competition spurs them on.  Naturally children try to win, but we teach them to take pleasure in good play by their opponents too.

On the other hand, we cannot genuinely compete in charity itself.  Someone may desire to be a saint, but the more he advances in holiness the more he will want the same thing for everyone.

Charity is a common good.  Some goods are common only in a very weak sense; for example, we all need a certain amount of wealth – I need food, I need clothing, I need shelter – but the fact that we all need these things doesn’t necessarily mean that we have communion in them, for I may get more of them by keeping you from having them.  By contrast, the virtues are common in a strong sense.  If you have more courage than I do, I too benefit from your courage, and it would be absurd for me to say “No fair!  You only got all that courage by taking it from me!”  Supernatural charity is a common good in an even stronger sense than the other virtues are, because everyone who possesses charity desires its overflow into others.  This should be no surprise, for that’s how we get it from God.  It's an “infused” virtue.  He gives it away.

One of the paradoxes of charity is the greatness of being small.  Consider St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose gift was to perform even the smallest of everyday acts with heroic humility and hiddenness.  Her case is paradoxical, because in her afflictions and low station she did not have the conventional opportunities for great deeds; the opportunity she seized for greatness was the very fact of her afflictions and low station.  This sort of “opportunity” cannot even be recognized as such, except by grace, and would have been invisible to someone like Aristotle.

That is why she was able to write the startling words that God “made me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint!  This desire could certainly appear daring if one were to consider how weak and imperfect I was, and how, after seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect.  I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great saint because I don’t count on my merits since I have none, but I trust in Him who is Virtue and Holiness.”