We have names for things considered as concrete and as abstract. Plato famously thought that there was an abstract thing with a concrete existence, but he also knew that we did not have a third class of words to speak about it. Accepting Plato’s position as thinkable (not true, just thinkable) puts one in an interesting predicament: we might know that something is both abstract and concrete, but we nevertheless cannot name this thing with only one concept. To know “the form of ___”, or even to explain what we know about it, we have to consider it as being the union of two concepts that our mind cannot unify into a single concept. Now we can of course call it one name, but this simply gives it a unity in name that it does not have in thought. We give it a concrete name, like “the form of___”, but knowing this precisely means first about it as concrete, then turning this thought off and then think about it as abstract, then shutting off that thought and considering it as concrete again, etc. Platonic forms unite to two ideas- the abstract and concrete- but we have no thought or class of words for this.
January 29, 2010 at 10:17 pm (Uncategorized)
One of the most wonderful, essential, and intellectually purgative doctrines of natural theology is St. Thomas’s teaching on the divine names. St. Thomas considers the possibility that we cannot name God at all- and since we can name whatever we know, our inability to name would imply an inability to know. St. Thomas answers that we can name God inadequately. One fundamental way in which this inadequacy manifests itself is in our inability to give a single kind of name to God. The simplest and most natural way to speak to God is as to someone that exists. We can speak to him as “God” or “you” or “Lord” or “Father”. This is all true and necessary, but we also have to speak to him as an abstract being “justice”, “mercy”, “truth”. To pray to “sacred truth” or “pure justice” seems extremely wacky or even heretical, but it’s just good Thomism (and Scriptural fidelity). Now everyone knows the shortcoming is in praying to mercy or goodness: We feel as if we are praying to an ideal, and not to something that exists. The orthodox mind wants to switch back to speaking to someone who exists. As soon as it does so, however, we switch to something finite and more limited. Running away from praying to mercy to praying to the merciful one feels like a move in the right direction, but we lose something in doing so- every now and again we must turn away from the Father to turn towards the fatherhood. Note that when we call God “goodness” we do not mean this as a superlative: e.g. “God is goodness itself” as meaning “God is the greatest possible good”. No- we have to see “goodness” in its complete abstraction. We have to see it in its aetherial not-here-or-thereness. When we pray to justice or goodness the concrete individual- God- must vanish.
Gilles Emery calls this (in a different context) redoublement. We cannot see God in one look- we need at least two. Understanding the divine mercy, for example, requires at one time seeing as the merciful one and at another time as mercy (abstract mercy). We must leap back and forth.
January 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm (Uncategorized)
Blessed is the man that shall continue in wisdom,
and that shall meditate in his justice,
and in his mind shall think of the all seeing eye of God.
He that considers her ways in his heart, and has understanding in her secrets,
who goes after her as one that traces, and stays in her ways.
He shall set his children under her shelter, and shall lodge under her branches:
He shall be protected under her covering from the heat,
and shall rest in her glory.
Ecclesiasticus 14: 22-27
January 29, 2010 at 9:15 am (Uncategorized)
Ballet is as close as we can come by art to overturning that curse of our nature and they saw that they were naked, etc. Any discussion of modesty would benefit by incorporating a reference to ballet.
Tangentially, this rendition of Les Paladins shows what could be done with contemporary dance (the lower-stage dancers, it seems to me, are imitating clouds. Lovely and tasteful.)
January 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm (Uncategorized)
I’m starting to wonder whether the reason St. Thomas never wrote a separate question on analogy is because he saw it as much more simple and unobjectionable than we do, and that our confusions are based on a convoluted and over-dramatic notion of what analogy is. Why not say that analogy is a second imposition, and that’s it? As second, it is known only in relation to a first. So taken, when we say “being is said analogously of God and creatures” what we mean is “The meaning of the word ‘being’, when it includes God, can only be a secondary imposition of the word, and the first imposition of the word is not said of him” or “when we consider what the word being first means, it cannot include God, though a second meaning can”. St. Thomas gives various reasons why this is so (God is a cause while we first know effects, etc, see ScG I 32-34) We might even, for all I know, have a meaning of the word being that can be said of God and creatures- but all St. Thomas insists on is that the first meaning can’t include God.
Why this order in impositions or meanings? Because there is an order in our knowing. That is all. Contemporary English speakers figure that a word can mean whatever we want it to, whenever we want it to, and so we find it odd when St. Thomas insists there must be an order in meanings. In fact, our tone-deafness about order in meaning is probably founded on our general tone-deafness about any order of knowing- or maybe even of hierarchies altogether.
January 27, 2010 at 7:10 pm (Uncategorized)
Aristotle’s definition of humor (or comedy, I forget which) was that it was a species of the ugly. I mentioned this to a poet once, and he said “That’s what you think when you take your idea of comedy from Aristophanes. That’s not what you think when you take your idea of comedy from As You Like It.” The poet and Aristotle were speaking at cross purposes, but that’s not important. The poet’s general claim- that there is a universe of difference between the comedy of Lysistrada and Much Ado About Nothing- is dead right. Both get laughs, but Shakespeare manages to ignite something that is softer and more profound: joy. Joyous comedy (“gay” was once a better adjective, but it no longer means “light and joyous”) is tremendously difficult to write, and it is remarkably different and higher than mere wit or absurdism.
My three-year-old son likes watching opera, and I’ve listened to operatic comedy a lot (three year olds are fine with infinite repetition). One trick of operatic comedy is to have a Baritone sing with flute, piccolo, and upper-register instrument highlights in the accompaniment. The result is an absurd and playful contrast, which a genius can weave into a light but exhilarating joy. Mozart hits this perfectly in this drinking song from The Magic Flute:
And it was also done perfectly in Largo al Factotum: a comedic song that deserves all its fame:
There is a heavy dose of the absurd in both these songs, but Mozart and Rossini force absurdism somehow into the service of producing joy. The absurd is not low, but is somehow made ennobling.
Cosi Fan Tutte is the operatic equivalent of the kind of Joyous comedy one finds in As You Like it. There are any number of fantastic scenes, but the absurdism placed in the service of joy is clearest in the finale to act 1. The men who are lying on the chair have pretended to poison themselves to make the women pity them. The “doctor” who enters (Despina) is the handmaiden of the women and is in on the ruse:
January 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm (Uncategorized)
Those who argue against the recognition or existence of homosexual marriage often claim that the problem with it is that the marriage cannot be fruitful. Homosexuals, it is said, cannot marry because they cannot procreate with each other. A better argument would be to say that homosexuals cannot marry because they cannot consummate their marriage. Consummation is a kind of union, and union requires more than person X to have some part of himself in person Y. At any rate, there’s no dispute that sexual activity is not the same thing as sexual union- though much of our talk about sex fails to clearly distinguish the one from the other.
January 25, 2010 at 12:16 pm (Uncategorized)
Christianity is compatible with (and even demands) some rational theist doctrines and is incompatible with others. Philosophical theism has been used as a perfectly fine club to beat Christianity with- and it makes a better club than atheism or naturalism.
There are three steps in the hierarchy of natural doctrines opposed to Christianity 1.) A naturalism that doesn’t even bother to take what Christianity is about seriously, but insists its object is in every way a pure illusion of ignorance and/ or stupidity 2.) A naturalism that takes the object seriously, though it denies such an object exists, and tries to explain the desire for this object as a misplaced desire for something else (Feuerbach, Marx) 3.) A robust philosophical theism (or natural pluralist religion) that sets itself against Christianity or “religion” while still admitting the reality of some of the objects the Christian holds to exist (an absolute, an afterlife, mystical experience, etc.)
Christianity can present wildly different (though very compatible) visions of itself depending on which of the above three is dominant in a given culture. We are all quite familiar with #1, and so we tend towards defenses that would be particularly vulnerable to #3; other times (say, 1750-1870- think of Kant- or the time of John Damascene vs. the Arians) were more familiar with #3, and so they tended to stress the mysterious character of Christianity.
January 25, 2010 at 9:01 am (Uncategorized)
“I grasp a concept” or “Can we form a concept of…”
It would be better to say the concept is the grasp. The concept is the fish hook so far as it has something on the end of it; or the hog pen so far as it holding things in. The fishhooks or the hog pens by themselves are not metaphors for concepts, but for mind.
January 24, 2010 at 9:59 am (Uncategorized)
The atheism of Feuerbach and Marx is the only kind I know that seriously confronts that religious and theist thoughts and sentiments are about something. Feuerbach simply claims that they are about human beings- and it’s hard to see what other option there is (the natural world?) The explanation, it seems to me, has immense and even fatal difficulties when it seeks to explain religious art. There is simply no human being, secular historical/ natural event, or human accomplishment that could be reasonably solemnized by Chartres cathedral or Gregorian or Arabic chant (on the link, skip to 3:48); or reasonably praised by Handel’s Messiah; or reasonably sung to in love and devotion by Mozart’s Ave Verum. Note I am not speaking of the words in any of these things. It is the very structure of the building, music or melodic line that would be unreasonable.
If Feuerbach or Marx are right, all this art is absurd or unfitting. Modus tollens.