We can see the elimination of gladiatorial combat from a very high perch – we perhaps even daydream about how it might have been inevitable. But one wonders what Christians with contemporary temperaments would have thought about it if they were set in, say, 390 AD, when the games are still going on across the Empire, and have no sign of stopping even within sight of the centennial of Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire (and having very large numbers for a long time before this). Would it have been reasonable to see them as necessary for good social order? How could we know that we could live without being able to watch other men murder each other (though we would never use the impolite word “murder”). And you don’t actually murder anyone by just watching someone else do it… Maybe we’ll all just be Arians and Donatists and Manicheans living next to Colosseums forever…

Confessions 7:10

St. Augustine claims to discover something within himself:

I entered, and with the eye of my soul (such as it was) saw above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Unchangeable Light. Not this common light, which all flesh may look upon, nor, as it were, a greater one of the same kind, as though the brightness of this should be much more resplendent, and with its greatness fill up all things. Not like this was that light, but different, yea, very different from all these. Nor was it above my mind as oil is above water, nor as heaven above earth; but above it was, because it made me, and I below it, because I was made by it. He who knows the Truth knows that Light; and he that knows it knows eternity. Love knows it. O Eternal Truth, and true Love, and loved Eternity!

You are my God

We could approach this is as a doctrine, but it would be tiresome. Why not approach it as an empirical claim about what one finds by an interior search? This calls for a different sort of response, a different kind of analysis.


Virgil’s last words to Dante occur in Canto XXVII of the Purgatory:

“Await no more a word or sign from me.

Your will is straightened, free, and whole — and not

To act upon its promptings would be wrong:

‘I crown and miter you lord of your self.”

I know of no more perfect account of human happiness and the goal of moral action.

One small aspect of city life

Boulevard trees, planted lawns, planned parks and gardens and other such things aren’t nature, which is to say the closest that the city dweller gets to nature isn’t very close at all. He need not view a flower as anything much different from a vase or mirror or a fountain – it’s just another piece of decor. Nature is simply something to be looked at – it doesn’t provide or threaten or manifest to us any life of its own. Vegetables have no dirt on them, meat has no blood. And no one can see the stars. It’s hard to forget just how completely we can isolate ourselves from every experiencing nature and live within a world of our own art: nature’s lights don’t rule our lives, the portions it provides for us aren’t a limit on what we can eat, its vastness and spontaneity don’t terrify us or delight us or keep us on guard, etc.

None of this tells us much of anything about the absolute value of cities or city life, but it’s something we city dwellers should be aware of. Why does it matter? One reason is because, even if he experiences nothing but artifacts in his environment, man himself is not an artifact but a natural being. The utter tone-deafness we contemporary people can show about natural law – what could nature tell us about how to live, and why would we listen to anything it could tell us? – arises simply from our never experiencing nature first hand.

Ontological account of the physical

Succession is understood through parts (not divided parts, just exteriority) and it is the nature of succession that one part cease and another arise. Though the parts of the extended do not have the same ceasing, the one must still be a negation of the other, and the duration - that is, the existence – of the extended is certainly characterized by such continual ceasing of its parts. The existence of extended being is understood to involve non-being essentially- not because pure nothingness enters into its being, but because a.) its existence (as duration) involves continual ceasing to be and b.) its very extended or physical existence requires one part not being the other, and no part of the extension or the extension itself being identical to the very being of the extended.

While non-being does not enter into the composition of the extended or physical, the physical itself is essentially changeable and so requires some internal, essential part that is undetermined. So we divide the undetermined from sheer non-being, as we  do in experience.

Though the physical is self-evident to us – and we are incapable of having a thought without some unbreakable relation to the physical, we can nevertheless know it as it is, and therefore know it as impossible to separate from a train of non-being, and as requiring within its essence something that can only be called a being like a grape can be called wine. In what is higher, beings require this in the order of their activity; in the lower they require it not only in their activity, but in their very essence.

Immanence as opposed to physical existence

Physical existence is understood with its parts, such that each part is other than another and the whole. No part is the complete whole. The same is true of the parts of the action and duration and duration of the action of the physical thing. If we see this about physical existence, then life, sensation and knowledge are all in diverse ways divided from it, for the action of living, sensing, and knowing is complete in each of its parts.

Division from the physical does not require subsistence apart from it, but neither does it require being an effect of the physical. Some things are prior in causality but impossible without their effects, like an action to a reaction. Sensation and biological life, at least, seem to be such.

In thought, the opposition of part and part and part to whole is overcome in a definitive way. The usual mode of existence in thought is such that any one part  has what is common to all without ceasing to wholly belong to each part. Any multitude contained in a concept has this sort of existence – which is only odd, indeed only contradictory – if we measure it by the mode of existence of physical things. The problems of universality and objectivity are in a large part a failure to understand thought in opposition to the mode of existence that belongs to the parts of a continuum.


Chance is responsible for things and so is a cause; but it is that which arranges per accidens up to the first moment of determination to a result, and not from this moment. From the moment of determination (the moment the lightning must strike the transformer and knock out the power grid, and so from the moment the effect becomes intelligible and foreseeable) one has the effect of chance, not chance, which is the cause of the determination.

Another way of considering the impossibility of infinite regress

If there is no first cause of X, then nothing is responsible for X, even in the very broad use of the word “responsible” which includes even accidental causes, as when we say “lightning was responsible for knocking out the power grid”. Even in this accidental sense of being responsible, we do not say that instruments or things moved by another are responsible for things, as though an investigation into the cause of something could stop when it attained to an instrument.

This is the sort of truth that should be made clearer by grammar- instruments should never be spoken of as principle agents. If someone tied me up and shot me out of a catapult so that I crushed a clown, no one would say I killed a clown. I was wholly moved by another. But we attribute the same sort of agency to instruments when we say, for example, that Deep Blue beat Kasporov.

What if all proposed solutions to the problem of evil were implausible?

Chris Hallquist takes this as a paradigm story for the argument from evil:

IN THE EARLY HOURS of New Year’s Day, 1986, a little girl was brutally beaten, raped, and then strangled in Flint, Michigan. The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, and her three children including a nine-month-old infant fathered by her boyfriend. On New Year’s Eve, all three adults went drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend, who had been taking drugs and drinking heavily, was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally left for good at about 9:30 P.M. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 A.M. at which time the woman went home and the man went to a party at a neighbor’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she entered the house. Her brother intervened, hitting the boyfriend and leaving him passed out and slumped over a table. The brother left. Later, the boyfriend attacked the woman again and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking on the children, she went to bed. Later, the woman’s five-year-old daughter went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man testified that when he returned from the party at 3:45 A.M. he found the five-year-old dead. At his trial, the boyfriend was acquitted of the crime because his lawyer cast doubt on the innocence of the unemployed man. But the little girl was raped, severely beaten over most of her body, and strangled by one of those men that night.

His first comment on the story is:

When I thought about cases like that, the solutions to the problem of evil that had initially sounded so good to me stopped sounding remotely plausible. In fact, I’ve done a lot of reading about the problem of evil since then, and none of the responses I’ve discovered sound remotely plausible to me, not as responses to cases like the one above.

And so he chose atheism and stuck with it.

So why couldn’t I, a convinced natural theologian and Catholic, agree with Hallquist that all the proposed solutions are implausible? Implausible doesn’t seem like a fatal obstacle to a Christian, and many theologians were content with far less. For example, when St. Thomas treated of the highest mysteries,  he was content to show absence of formal contradiction, which is a much lower bar than “plausible”. So does a Christian have to find the Trinity or other mysteries of the faith plausible?  In some sense I suppose they must, but this certainty doesn’t seem so in the most familiar sense of plausible which is what we find likely or what we would expect given what we know-  because no one would ever expect the Incarnation or the Trinity to be likely from an analysis of the things we know about the world. In fact, isn’t the failure to have a plausible answer to a profound problem a very familiar predicament, even in natural knowledge?

So let’s say I agree with Hallquist. All solutions to the argument from evil are implausible, especially in the face of unspeakable crime against a five-year old girl. What then? At the very least, we can still talk about what Hallquist and I are doing when we read the story as an evil for which there is no plausible response.

First, note that both of us are seeing it as an essentially luminous story. One can imagine Hallquist poring over various evil stories, rejecting one after another, until he found this one and thought “Yes, this is exactly what I’m talking about!” The news story is forceful and manifestive – so much so that it spontaneously throws everyone towards what is absolute and universal viz. “no solution can exist for this” or “All responses to the argument from evil are implausible in the face of this” etc.  Who could miss the clarity, force and therefore the essential luminosity of the account?  Hallquist is seeking to justify and structure his entire life as a response to it! It’s not just any old story that could do that. Both Hallquist and I, therefore, are drawing good out of evil. We are trying to draw a very profound and formative truth out of a disgusting and unspeakable crime. Can’t we say even more than this? Aren’t we seeing the crime itself as illuminating some profound and absolute truth?

There is a second point in what Hallquist and I are doing that raises a deeper question. I might wonder whether we have any right to determine that this girl’s suffering means one thing or another. Assume, per impossibile, that she could respond to what we are saying about her story. Suppose that Hallquist then explained himself to the girl in terms that a five-year old could understand, for example: “I heard about what that bad man did to you. That’s why I stopped going to church.” So what if the girl answered back, with great insistence: “You’re being naughty! You should go back to church right now!” Wouldn’t this utterly destroy the luminous clarity that the story seems to have? Wouldn’t the victim have the authority to destroy the interpretation that was given to her story? Citing her story would be like trying to cite the story of Christ’s crucifixion as a perfect example of the argument from evil. In fact, would it be any better if, after Hallquist explained himself, the girl agreed with his interpretation? Just because she sees her own suffering that way doesn’t mean that I have to see my own suffering in the same way, or that Maria Goretti would have to see the sexual assault and murder of a young girl in the same way. To be blunt, it’s not clear that the evils inflicted on human beings can have their ultimate meaning apart from the response that victim makes to them. What might this do to the absolute character of the stories of human suffering?

On lords as opposed to animals

-In the first question that he asks about human morality in the Summa, St. Thomas divides human beings from the animals saying that man is a dominus of his own action. Man is lord, and from his being lord it follows that he should be rational and volitional.

-St. Thomas can admit a very broad intelligence to animals – an intelligence that is often difficult to distinguish from human intelligence (and he admits intentions even to sparrows). He distinguishes the animals by saying none is a dominus- a lord.

-No one holds animals responsible. If an animal mauls someone, we either shoot him (if it won’t cost too much to replace him) or we just shrug and try to do a better job keeping the people away from him. All this is compatible with admitting a tremendous amount of animal cunning and intelligence.

-Responsibility is the first sense of cause or aitia. It is the keeper or lord who is responsible for his own actions and those under him. Other senses of cause in the animal or physical world fall away from this one by lower orders of transcendence. Causality is clearest in a lord.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers