Making Good Laws, Then and Now

Monday, 02-18-2019

 

To make and evaluate laws, one must always consider the circumstances.  Viewing former ages from the perspective of our own narrow slice of time, it is easy to overlook this fact.  Consider, for example, the legal rule in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that if a man seizes an unmarried woman to have sexual intercourse with her, then he must marry her:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days.”

Today we think “How brutal is this so-called Law of God!  The poor young woman is forced to marry her rapist for life!”

Such a complaint misses the point very badly.  It was the times that were brutal, not the law; the nation was only one step removed from paganism.  In the only way reasonably possible, the law was gradually humanizing it.  Women had low status, and marriage was protection.  An unmarried young woman who had been violated or seduced would have been held in shame.  Had it not been for the rule, no one would have been willing to marry her, and even if her father felt sorry for her, he would have resented having to provide for her because there would be no one to pay him a bridal gift.

The right way to think of the rule, then, is not that it forces the young woman to marry the man, but that it spares her the shame of having been his unmarried sexual plaything.  It is he who is forced, not her, because to compensate for what he has done to her he must shelter her for the rest of his days, treating her not as a concubine but as a true wife, never being able to divorce her or cast her off.

The image is The Big Picture by Tom Roberts.

Greetings to my readers Down Under.

 

Just a Message (but important)

Thursday, 02-14-2019

 

Gentle Readers,

As some of you know, the website has a few glitches, which are undergoing repair.  In the meantime, here are some things you need to know to make your time at the site more pleasant.

1.  Don’t use the URL https://undergroundthomist.com.

2.  Update your bookmark to https://undergroundthomist.org.  (An “s” after “http,” no “www,” and ending in “.org.”)

3.  If you have any difficulties – for example, if a page doesn’t load, or if part of a page doesn’t load – you could do me an enormous favor by taking a screenshot (for example with the Microsoft Snipping tool), copying the URL of the page you were trying to read, and sending me both the screenshot and the URL.  If you aren’t able to do that, just a sentence describing the problem would be most helpful.

Thank you!

 

No World, Just Word Games?

Monday, 02-11-2019

Please see the message at the bottom of this post!

 

Query:

I have been studying natural law for my master’s thesis, but so far I haven’t been able to see how to answer the following objection which has been thrown at me.  It runs like this.  Given the implications of deconstructionism and the “linguistic turn,” what one person or culture means by “life,” “nature,” or “human flourishing” is not the same thing that another person (or culture) means when he uses those terms.  They both play by independent rules, given their respective language games, and so they are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, natural law is rendered linguistically effete.

 

Reply:

What would you think if your dog had eaten some garbage, was throwing up, and just as you were about to take him to the vet, someone spoke like this? –

 

Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “dog,” “garbage,” and “throwing up” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, veterinary medicine is rendered linguistically meaningless.

 

Or if you had decided to overcome your fear of flying and take an airplane to a different location, and just as you were about to book the flight, someone spoke like this? –

 

Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “fear,” “flying,” “location,” and “not falling” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, the practice of air travel is rendered linguistically meaningless.

 

Reality is the way it is, and we all live in the same one.  If we are using words differently, then we should investigate which way of using them corresponds better to how things really are.  Yes, of course there are social conventions, but there must be some shared world even for there to be social conventions; there has to be some bedrock reality even for us to behave differently in it, or disagree about it.

Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass before the deconstructionists of whom you speak came onto the scene, but a little parable of his had them pegged.  What they want isn’t to live in the truth of reality with other people, but to manipulate them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Related: What’s Wrong with Universities?

IMPORTANT MESSAGE

Gentle Readers,

As some of you know, the website has a few glitches, which are undergoing repair.  In the meantime, here are some things you need to know to make your time at the site more pleasant.

1.  Don’t use the URL https://undergroundthomist.com site.  (Ending in “.com.”)

2.  Update your bookmark to https://undergroundthomist.org.  (An “s” after “http,” no “www,” and ending in “.org.”)

3.  If you have any difficulties – for example, if a page doesn’t load, or if part of a page doesn’t load – you could do me an enormous favor by taking a screenshot (for example with the Microsoft Snipping tool), copying the URL of the page you were on, and sending me both the screenshot and the URL.  If you aren’t able to do that, just a sentence of description would be very helpful.

Thank you!

 

New Talk: Faith, Natural Law, and the Common Good

Thursday, 02-07-2019

 

In October, a conference on “Christianity and the Common Good” was held at Harvard Law School.  My own talk at the conference, “Faith, Natural Law, and the Common Good,” is now available for viewing, and has been added to the Underground Thomist Talks Page.  If you prefer, just listen to the audio.  I hope you enjoy it! 

The conference was sponsored by Harvard’s chapter of an excellent organization called the Thomistic Institute, with the help of Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule.  The Thomistic Institute is an initiative of the Dominican House of Studies.  Students, why not establish a chapter of the Thomistic Institute at your own university?

If you should chance to be near Oxford University on Saturday, March 2, I'll be giving one of the talks at the Annual Aquinas Colloquium, which is about “Aquinas on the Development of Law” this year.  The other speakers are Ryan Meade (Loyola University, Chicago), Jonathan Price (Oxford University), and Richard Conrad, OP (Aquinas Institute).

 

 

All That Weirdness

Monday, 02-04-2019

 

In studying Old Testament law, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that often what seems weird and obsolescent is not only realistic but very up to date.  Deuteronomy commands the Hebrew people as follows:

“When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations.  There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.  For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practices the Lord your God is driving them out before you.”

It would be unwise to consider ourselves above all that weirdness.  Although we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters by fire to the gods of fertility, we sacrifice them by knives to the gods of sterility.  As to the rest of the practices mentioned, it is immaterial to the validity of the precept whether people can really tell the future, speak to the dead, or cast evil spells.  Those who think they can – both practitioners and clients – do a great deal of harm even in the present life.  Moreover, they are ruining not only their own souls but also those of others, by promulgating false beliefs such as the omnipotence of fate and the associated denial of personal responsibility.  Their purpose is to gain favors, or attain mastery, by placating false gods, conniving with evil powers, and perverting the course of nature.

Do you think I exaggerate?  Curiously, the high-tech forms which charms and wizardry sometimes take today are not usually recognized for what they are.  A person who ingests hallucinogens because they make him feel divine, more than human, or in touch with another world, is really practicing what used to be called mediumistic sorcery.  Similarly, a man who uses the “date rape” drug Rohypnol to induce a woman’s sexual compliance is employing what used to be called a love philtre.  The authentic means of contacting divinity are to pray and practice charity, and of cultivating love, to be kind and chaste.

 

New Talk: What Makes Men Men?

Friday, 02-01-2019

 

Gentle Readers:  I’m glad to say that you can now watch the video of my talk, “What Makes Men Men?”, as well as the videos of the other speakers’ talks at the October 2018 conference “Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture.”  I enjoyed listening to them all.

If you’d like to see what else is new, you can mosey on over to the Underground Thomist Talks page.

 

Beauty and – Other Things

Monday, 01-28-2019

 

In the generation of Burke and Kant, people who thought about art were fascinated by the fact that beauty does not exhaust the range of aesthetic values.  Something is beautiful, they said, if it evokes admiration because of its grace of form and color, but it is sublime if it excites awe because of the vastness or mystery of its object.  An object can be beautiful without being sublime, and sublime without being beautiful.  In fact, an object which is sublime may even include elements of the jarring or grotesque, which are opposed to beauty in themselves.  A painting of the crucifixion in which Jesus does not seem to suffer does not awe.

Already things are becoming complicated, but even beauty and sublimity together are far from exhausting the qualities that people look for in a work of art.  I am not here thinking of attractions which are separable from the work, such as how much its great expense will delight my friends or how well its color scheme blends in with the rest of my decor.  Rather I am speaking of attractions which are intrinsic to the work itself, those it would possess even if it I had picked it up cheap at a garage sale and it looked out of place in my house.

It might be neither beautiful nor sublime, but intriguing.  It might be none of these things, but faithful to its object.  It might call my attention to something I had not thought of before.  It might catch or fool the eye.  It might suggest an episode in a story, or convey a lesson.  It might symbolize a concept.  It might excite admiration because of the labor which went into its composition.  It might evoke a mood, such as boredom, a philosophy, such as nihilism, or a psychological state, such as obsession.  It might call up a whisper of memory.  It might challenge, comfort, or irritate.  It might build up, or it might inflict damage and harm.  It might signal that the maker holds one of the currently fashionable views (or, more rarely, that he doesn’t).  It might do nothing more than express his attitude toward himself, other people, God, or the viewer, in the manner of a joke, a prayer, a sob, a sin, or a curse.

Such qualities have always been present in art.  The difference is that now they are at the center of the enterprise.  Mind you, though I could do without some of them, I am not at the moment passing judgment on all of them, but only pointing them out.  I am not one of those who hate all modernist art, though much of it leaves me cold.  It is often interesting -- even though it is not often what I would call beautiful.

I used to be puzzled by those who protested, “No, it is beautiful.”  But people who speak that way are not usually speaking of beauty per se.  They are merely using the term “beauty” as a lazy label for all of the things some people look for in art.  Where I might say that a given painting is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene, but not beautiful, they would call it beautiful because it is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene.

So, I think much of the appeal of modernist art for those who do fancy it arises not from the fact that they see something beautiful (or sublime) that other ages would have missed, but that, for better or for worse, some other quality than beauty or sublimity appeals to them much, much more.