The Common Good with Condiments

Thursday, 04-08-2021


Some weeks ago I mentioned my then-upcoming Conversation , “Flavors of the Common Good,” with the Common Good Project, an initiative of the Law School, University of Oxford, England.  When we did the talk early in March, the sound was terrible, but we’ve fixed the audio problem and re-recorded.

So if you tried to catch the original version but couldn’t make out my words, try the re-do, which not only sounds much more clear but is also, I think, more fun and more interesting.  Natch, it’s also listed on my Talks page.  Happy listening!


I Think, Therefore It’s So

Tuesday, 04-06-2021


If you can identify as a woman in a man's body, or a black person in a white person’s body, then why stop at sex and race?  Some persons say they identify as cats.  Some have even asked to have their limbs amputated because they identify as paraplegics.

Fitting slogans for the identity movement may at first present a little difficulty.  “Power to the People” is no longer acceptable, because not all beings identify as people.  “Everything to the Entities” might do for now; let’s work on it.

It has rightly been said that we must stop discriminating against women who don’t have vaginas and men who don’t have penises, but let’s not forget fish who don’t have gills, like my neighbor Ed, a proud 68-inch trans trout who stands on two legs and fights prejudice every day.

And from now on, all dictionaries must be written as fill-in-the-blank.

What have we come to?  We used to rebel against injustice; now we rebel against the order of the created universe.  As human beings before our day understood, “an opinion is true or false according as it answers to the reality.”  Things aren’t true when they correspond to our thoughts; our thoughts are true when they correspond to things. 


“Truth and Correspondence (Part 1 of 2:)

“Truth and Correspondence (Part 2 of 2)”

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law


He Has Destroyed Death

Sunday, 04-04-2021


Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.

First and last, receive alike your reward.

Rich and poor, dance together.

You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.

The table is fully laden:  Let all enjoy it.

The calf is fatted:  Let none go away hungry.

Let none lament his poverty;

for the universal Kingdom is revealed.

Let none bewail his transgressions;

for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb.

Let none fear death;

for death of the Saviour has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death.

He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.

He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.

-- St. John Chrystostom, Paschal Homily


Are Women More Emotional than Men?

Sunday, 03-28-2021


Women are commonly held to be more emotional than men.  I think this statement is grossly misleading, but as with all plausible mistakes, at the bottom of it lie a few misunderstood truths.  Like what?

1.  Obliviousness.  To feel something is not the same as to know that one is feeling it.  Even when a man has the same emotions as a woman, he is likely to be less aware that he is having them.

2.  Selectivity.  Though men are not less prone to emotions in general, they are usually less prone than women are to feeling certain emotions at certain times – although more prone to feeling certain others.

3.  Pride.  Men also tend to be more disgraced than women are by feeling certain emotions at certain times -- although prouder of feeling certain others.

4.  Shame.  Finally, men tend to consider it more shameful than women do to display certain emotions at certain times -- although more honorable to display others.

The other emotional differences between men and women are equally important but more subtle.  For both sexes, good deliberation requires help from well-trained feelings:  We need to feel the right things, toward the right people, in the right ways, on the right occasions, to the right degrees, and because of the right considerations.  This being the case, it cannot simply be the case that to be rational is to be unemotional.  But although, for both sexes, reasoning and emotion are connected, the deliberation of men tends to be connected with emotion somewhat differently than the deliberation of women is connected with it, and this is entirely fitting.

Why?  Because a man is a rational being who is in potentiality for fatherhood, but a woman is a rational being who is in potentiality for motherhood.  So, for example, a woman may be just as courageous as a man, but ideally, her courage is differently inflected, because she is rightly more fearful of harm to her body than he is.  After all, hers carries the future of the human race in a way that his does not.  She must be willing to protect her body for future generations; for the same reason, he must be willing to risk his.


Burning Minds, Thoughtful Feelings


Artificial Things

Monday, 03-22-2021



I have a question for you about artificial things and their dependence on the human intellect.  Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae (First Part, Question 17, Article 1) that "natural things depend on the divine intellect, as artificial things on the human."

How would someone like St. Thomas understand a dam that a beaver builds or a nest that a bird builds?  Can some artificial things depend on things without intellect?



Glad to respond.  St. Thomas recognizes, of course, that a beaver makes a dam.  However, to call the dam “artificial” is a little ambiguous, because by “artificial things” St. Thomas means things that are the result of a finite being's rational planning and deliberation, and the beaver’s work isn’t that.  Rather it is a natural product of activity that the beaver does not understand, just as the apple is the natural product of an activity that the tree does not understand.

Of course the beaver, unlike the tree, has a mind, and in that respect it is much more like us than the tree is.  However, it doesn’t have a rational mind.  Plants seek their ends automatically, without even knowing what these ends are.  Animals “know” their ends in a sense, but not in the reflective sense; they do not grasp the concept of an end.  We know them, pursue them, and know that they are ends – we know them not just as felt impulses, but as meanings, as rational purposes, as reasons for doing what we do.

The beaver doesn’t ask itself “Why am I doing this?”  It isn’t intelligently participating in God’s providential care for it, as we are when we take thought for our lives and for those persons and matters that are entrusted to us.  Deliberately directing ourselves to purposes is a property of man, for though subrational things also act for purposes, only man does so under his own agency and direction.

For this reason, St. Thomas says that although, in a sense, all creatures participate in the Wisdom by which God created and governs the universe, man participates in it “in a more excellent way.”


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose


The Docile and the Non-Docile

Thursday, 03-18-2021


The coronavirus epidemic has laid bare a number of fissures in the commonwealth, but one of the most prominent is the cleavage between the docile and the non-docile.  Although it correlates to a degree with other fissures, such as the one between Left and Right, it doesn’t line up with them perfectly, and may even have produced some conversions -- in both directions.

The meek will inherit the earth, but we must not confuse the meek, who suffer in patience, with the gullible and compliant.  For the docile are true believers, of a sort.  They accept every shifting, contradictory thing they are told by authorities, or by the media, or by people in their social networks, and they obey even the most extreme edicts of politicians and politicized experts who have something to gain from the prolongation of public hysteria -- such as abandoning the lonely, the vulnerable, and the dying, and making children wear masks even while bicycling in the fresh air, or not allowing them outside at all.

The non-docile are cautiously skeptical.  They examine the evidence for themselves, consider how things are going, and take common sense precautions, but they refuse to neglect their dear ones, and they weigh the social costs of extreme restrictions -- such as the well-documented rise of drug and alcohol abuse and of suicide among isolated, despondent people.

There is a limit to the docility of the former group, but it does not lie where one would think.  Many of the docile lay down their docility and become positively aggressive in condemning the non-docile as anti-health and anti-science.  Imagine an angry sheep.

Yet I am not writing to condemn the sheep, even the angry ones.  Or, for that matter, to praise the non-sheep, some of whom have their own problems with anger.  I am trying to understand.

Encouraging such a fissure in the body politic isn’t a good way to run a republic, which depends on both a shared sense of the common good and a healthy independence on the part of the citizens -- not, by the way, the easiest combination.  It's a very good way to rule if you don't care about that sort of thing.


Why It’s Becoming Harder to Teach

Monday, 03-15-2021


I have been reading about the plans of the University of Leicester, England, to drop medieval literature and English from the curriculum in favor of “a range of modules which are excitingly innovative,” such as courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity.  The University is calling this a “decolonized curriculum.”

Dr. Shazia Jagot, a Leicester alumnus of South Asian and working class background, asks “"What happens when you remove the opportunity for students, particularly black and ethnic minority students, to read Beowulf, Chaucer and Milton?”

Such developments shouldn’t astonish anyone.  They merely continue trends well advanced on both sides of the Atlantic, replacing a broadening education with a narrowing indoctrination.

In some ways, more educated people are better informed, even today.  In an era of ideological education like ours, though, in other ways they are less so.  Unsurprisingly, the honors students in my classes are much more eager to please their teachers than my other students are.  So, by and large, they are more susceptible to indoctrination – and by this time in their lives, more thoroughly indoctrinated -- than students of middling ability.  They believe what they’re told, if told by the right sorts of persons, but they may not talk at all to the other sorts of persons.  One would think they would always be better at critical thinking, but they are often more naïve and closed-minded.  They may have more numerous sources of information, but their sources are often less intellectually diverse. 

Being young, they have too little self-knowledge to recognize themselves in such a description, and tend to believe exactly the opposite of themselves on all counts.  As one told me when I asked what she was learning, “We can do everything.”

Providing promising students with the opportunity to become liberally educated without merely puffing up their egos and setting them up to be brainwashed is hard and getting harder.  Finding ways to teach the liberal arts outside of colleges and universities is of the first importance to civilization.


Which Diversity Matters (If Any)