[Lecture notes]

1.) Usury – like moral philosophy in general – is not my field, but its just near enough my orbit that I find myself tempted to say things about it. Needless to say, this is a situation tailor-made to maximize error.

2.) Usury is controversial both in itself and in a special way for Catholics. Usury is usually exhibit A for someone arguing that the Church has changed its teaching. They have some cause to say this: it’s impossible to miss the fact that usury was hotly debated for many centuries while the most recent Catechism has no entry for usury. It does not even use the word (it uses the word “usurious” once, though it doesn’t seem to mean much more than “exploitative”.)

3.) The definition of usury given by the Lateran council is the most definitive. It has three parts, sc. usury is:

a.) Seeking profit

b.) from the use of a thing not fruitful in itself

c.) without labor, expense, or risk to the lender.

Let the meaning of (a) count as obvious. (b.) One element in being “fruitful” seems to be what we now call “returnable”, i.e. if I let you have my chainsaw or my car it’s “returnable”, and so you can use it and bring it back. The opposite of this is, of course, the non-returnable – if my wife borrows a cup of sugar from the neighbor it’s understood that it would be irrational to ask for her to bring it back. The crucial first move in the morality of usury happens when we recognize that it’s irrational to talk about loaning the non-returnable. You can’t loan you neighbor sugar, nor can he properly borrow it from you. We use the word “borrow” only to sound less forward, i.e. because it sounds demanding to using the verb “give” or “take”. Neertheless, this is a purely metaphorical sense of loaning or borrowing. There is something irrational in loaning the non-returnable in the proper sense of the term. And so the usury of money is irrational since money is a non-returnable good. You can no more return the twenty dollars I might “loan” you than you can return the sugar I “loan” you. To use the word loan as anything other than a pleasant sounding metaphor for give is to do something irrational. But it certainly seems that much of what we call “loaning money” goes beyond a pleasant sounding metaphor. This a prima facie case for the irrationality of usury, but it’s clear that it can’t take us all the way, if for no other reason than we haven’t yet gotten to (c) in the above definition.

Take a simpler case of “loaning” non-returnable goods, like the sugar example. It’s conceivable that this might become at least quasi-formalized, and your neighbor might ask you to give her back sugar at some point in the future. You can’t give the same sugar back, but you might give something back equivalent to it. But it would make no sense for her to say “because I’m giving you this now, by right I can demand even more later”. The claim is just batty – there’s no law of sugar or its exchange that makes it intrinsically capable of demanding a greater return than output. But this doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be various extrinsic factors that make it reasonable to ask for more in return than one gave out. Still, these are extrinsic factors – (c.) list circumstances that change something intrinsically irrational (asking for a greater return on something given) into something permissible.

4.) So let’s take a close  look at the circumstances. Assume that, by loaning you sugar, it made it necessary for me to make another trip to a very distant store. It might be understandable for us to agree that you’d not only give me some sugar back but also chip in for gas. In this case my loan would involve labor costs on my part, and you would chip in to cover these labor costs. This is the equivalent of what Medieval theologians called damnum emergens, which was the one circumstance that all theologians agreed gave one a claim to a greater return than what one gave. The Franciscans, for example, loaned money to people chiefly to save them from usurers but they still did it in a quasi-formal fashion that led them to incur various costs. The “interest” on the loan was simply a way to cover these costs.

But (c.) clearly indicates circumstances other than labor. We can punt on expense since it can be folded into labor. The more interesting circumstance is risk. Interpreted most conservatively, risk might be rolled into labor or expense. It’s unreasonable to expect if you have loans out to many people, that not all will be able to repay. Thus in order simply to break even you might agree to have each person return slightly more than they were given, to cover the expense of defaults. And so the minimal interpretation of the circumstances in (c) is that they are various ways of accounting for reasonable expenses that might be connected to the act of loaning. But it’s possible to have a broader interpretation of these circumstances, and Brandon gives the perfect account of them here.


Lucretius speaks of a worm in all pleasures that sits at the ovule of the blossom and poisons the whole flower.

The worm at the heart of things is their finitude. We can love finite goods but not as finite, i.e. we can love that they are perfected but not that they end, we can love what they can do but not what they are incapable of, we can love their existence but not their looming inexistence. Part of loving the finite is hating this limitation – loving life and hating death are simply two aspects of the same thing. In the finite, however, these two aspects are integral to the very good you’re attracted to. Every love of the finite for its own sake is a deeper commitment to the pain that comes in losing them.

One response is to love nothing for its own sake but to use things for what we can make of them or the pleasure they afford us. This makes one good just as good as another, and so after using up any one of them we can move on to a fresh one. Hedonism or libertinism or do-what-thou-wilt is, most profoundly, our first rational response in the face of death. This response is both shallow and impossible: shallow since it would deprive us of friendship or the love of anyone in themselves; and impossible since even use and pleasure rest upon our loving ourselves for our own sake, and we have the worm just as much as anything else. We can flee from this fact too by fantasizing that we will kill ourselves when we can no longer enjoy life, but this too is an illusion of a solution which pushes the self back behind bodily life. We flee from love of the finite for its own sake, but find no coherent place to stand.

Lucretius might meet this all with a shrug. There is a worm in things, you flee from it by nature, and that’s all there is to it. There is no point to retreat back to: you just flee to nowhere, from a disgust that cannot be escaped. If this is right, it seems we have two options:

1.) It is absurd to love finite goods.

2.) The love of finite goods is made possible by a non-finite good.


A student came to me with a shotgun blast of eschatological questions that he picked up arguing with an atheist at a funeral. As usually happens, the questions reflected both a desire for a response and a desire to have one’s unease with all possible responses understood. Though this approach to questioning guarantees that one will always be able to win the argument, it isn’t just sophistry: It’s fine to use questioning as a tool to get someone to share in our bafflement (What else could we use? Isn’t this what Socrates did?) But it’s difficult to give answers when they are seen as rejections of solidarity with someone’s pain, or a failure to understand something important about our confrontation with things like death, judgment, the divine will, the possibility of nothingness, etc. But if someone wants me to share in their bafflement, I’ll see their bet and raise them. I think the resolution to naive eschatological questions opens up even deeper bafflement at the responses.

One theme that continually kept arising in the discussion was just how little we know about eschatology, since even the things that, say, Christians are sure of tend to lack crucial details that, if we change them slightly, radically change our overall picture of eschatology. Some details:

1.) Punishment metaphors are seen as more literal than reward metaphors. The idea of the Father reigning or judging from a throne with Jesus sitting in a leather armchair to his right, or people in heaven playing harps are paradigm cases of metaphorical language, where “metaphor” is understood to connote something like “it’s not really like that”. God the Father doesn’t actually have a right hand, heaven is not really some distant region of space-time, etc. But for whatever reason hellfire is taken as really like that. Theologians freely speak of a poena sensus in Hell, though the heavenly analogue of this seems just silly and perhaps even perverse – it suggests the degraded, pop-Islam idea of heaven as a cathouse.

2.) Judgment at death is ambiguous. All Christians agree that there is a personal judgment at death, and that all of life is a preparation for judgment whether one knows it or not, but it is unclear whether this judgment concerns the last state of one’s soul in this life, or the first state of one’s soul in the next life. Death is simply a limit that takes part in both. To use another metaphor: assume that the moment of death is a meeting with God. Does the judgment include the information we get from that meeting? If it does, our judgments about culpability and invincible ignorance change dramatically.

Cajetan defended the idea that judgment is made on the first chosen state after death. Gerrigou argued against this stridently in his Everlasting Life, but the opinion remains open. Related to this problem is…

3.) We have no good account of post-mortem impenitence. Most agree that contrition is impossible after death, but it is not clear why this is the case. Angels and separated souls are impassible with respect to existence, but not with respect to intellectual or voluntary acts. There is a garbled-scholastic argument that change is only possible in time, and so after death one loses the temporal nexus that allows for change, but this seems to muddle impassibility of existence with impassibility of intellectual action. But even if we could answer this problem…

4.) The debates over apokatastasis, Universalism, the Empty-Hell, and the “Hope for all to be saved” aren’t yet resolved. We lack a definite and categorical rejection of any of these doctrines, and they are defended by too many Church Fathers, hard-headed theologians, and earnest biblical scholars to simply brush off.

Updated Monadology (1)

1.) There is a manifold, therefore something is one.

2.) Thus, something is atomic.

3.) Whether there is some physical atom is an empirical (and therefore contingent) matter, but whether something is atomic is not. Therefore, there is some non-physical atom.

4.) Whatever has quantifiable parts in space or time – whether in magnitude, time, or force – is physical, so the non-physical atom is not spatio-temporal, though it can enter into composition with it.

5.) This composition cannot be as another part, but as a source of unity. We cannot understand this except as the one overseeing the multiple, but with an oversight making the spatio-temporal parts really one. Our oversight makes twelve stones in a bag a single flock of sheep, a row of beads the powers of 10 on an abacus, and a series of holes in a card a cannon trajectory on an artillery computer from 1940. This accidental unity is the paradigm for substantial unity.

6.) There is no self-consciousness in the oversight characterizing the source of unity, not even when this oversight gives rise to self-consciousness, as it does in us. Mind is aware of mind, but mind is not the source upstream that gives rise to it.

7.) The atomic source of things cannot arise from the material of the spatio-temporal world, nor from the indefinite and infinite backdrop of quantity that gives us the mathematicals.  Considering the whole of the universe, if the atomic source does not exist, it is impossible; if it does exist, it is necessary.

8.) We call creation that action that can account for how something at time T can be impossible, and at T + 1 can be necessary. The thing is viewed as impossible in relation to causes that the creator is not limited to. Nevertheless, what we call “causes” are not considered as incomplete apart from the creator. Failure to account for the author is not a plot hole in the novel.

Social teaching

In the midst of a unit on justice and property rights I had to teach Catholic social teaching. The Catechism made my jaw drop with:

The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership

sec III, 2421

The Nineteenth Century?!? You mean the Church basically built Europe and vast tracts of the Americas without developing a social policy?

For everyone who didn’t get the hint about the “new structures” that the passage is speaking of, the text later gets explicit:

The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.

In other words, it rejects both Adam Smith and Karl Marx; both individualism and collectivism. In explaining this to the class, it became clear that this was, in effect, to reject the ideals of the left, right and center. The class ended with no one in the room having any idea what the Church thought a just regime would look like.


Grace is God so far as he is the believer’s own possession.



-Person is a substance. The Porphyrian tree thus has substance at both ends.

-Among real things, the order of logic is the inverse of the order of being. Descent down the Porphyrian tree is an approach toward the light of existence, ascent is toward the shadow.

-The tree leading down to the person is the shadow cast by the person.

-The person generates the nature, i.e. its intelligible aspect.

-Among created things, the nature is not the perfect image of the individual substance that generates it. This is why individual substances are unknowable to us by their natures.

-Hypothesis: the Hellenic-Medieval attempts to make nature or the communicable primary failed. They could never quite keep the story straight. Aristotle’s system never came to terms with the contradiction of making both form and the individual primary.

-Substance : nature :: The One : Mind

-Nature in created things is the primary duality; in the creator it is, in different ways, The Second Person and divinity.


-Substance is nature in its absolute consideration.

-Substance is not the logical atom, but that which generates both the atom and the most general category. Substance is no more particular than it is universal. The sense of “is” I just used is logical.

-The particular can be used as a placeholder for a substance we cannot know, but so can the universal. Used the second way, we speak of the individual so far as it is intelligible to us, spoken of in the first way, so far as it is the unapproachable limit of understanding.

-Particular : Universal :: Substance as unreachable limit of intelligibility : substance as approachable limit of intelligibility. Note that the same limit is approachable and unreachable.

-Reality limits logic at two extremes. The limits are not homogeneous with the limited. Our logic cannot think reality into existence.

-We cannot think reality into existence, but we can approach it infinitely. In this sense our thought does give rise to the real. So far as thus us the case the Copernican turn is justified, and nature just is dialectical.


-Dreams teach us that we must separate the substance of things from any analyzable element in them. This is that familiar dream experience of any thing being anything else.

-We can distinguish substance from appearance, but appearance must be understood as both the revealing and veiling of substance.

-One of the most common critiques of Kant is that he could not decide whether the phenomena revealed substance or veiled it. But it’s obvious that the only reason to call it an appearance is because it does both.

-Substance : appearance :: the wedding cake we’ll make : everything one can observe happening in the bakery.

– Note carefully the “we’ll make”. Future tense said of something just as much in a present tense. Substance acts on bakers, ingredients, delivery trucks, farmers growing wheat and sugar cane, etc. From an entire world, it manages to congeal into that single drop that is itself, ready to be shipped to the wedding.

-Science rejects teleology because it wants the analyzable order. This rejection is an unattainable ideal.

-Substance writes itself backwards into the present and the past. It causes mixing ingredients, delivering them, growing them, tilling land for them, clearing forests for them, giving us the idea of agriculture for them, generating humans for them…

-The whole world is being backwritten from the substance of the eschaton. So far as this is true, Leibniz was right

-But the further one falls back from any one substance, the more that substance must combine with others to cause itself. A wedding cake might suffice to explain the baker’s actions, but we need more than this to explain deliveries, more than that to explain the clearing of land, more than that to explain the idea of agriculture. No one result, no one substance, is of itself necessary in the sweep of things. Contingency – both negatively in indeterminism and positively in freedom – are both elements of this retrodiction of substance.

-We call this “an idea” of the wedding cake only as a metaphor. Ideas depend on us to exist. Here we are gesturing at what our ideas depend on. The recipe does not depend on us the way our child’s name depended on us. My child’s name is “an idea” simpliciter, the recipe is a discerning something latent in the world of possibility.

Spiritual body

Robert George claimed that the whole basis of his sexual theory is that we are not personal spirits dwelling within and using impersonal bodies. Thomists agree with this, though it is admittedly a point where STA admits of difficulties of interpretation and perhaps a small number of competing commitments.

George’s claim allows one to explain what was traditionally called sexual deviancy as a desire for a fuller life, i.e. as the life of an angel or god. If the body is simply a tool or a resource that I use as I see fit, then my “I” is a pure spirit.

I have to confess being extremely attracted to the doctrine of the I as pure spirit. I’m saddened by the thought that George’s theory is true, and I would much prefer to live in a world where it wasn’t. I’d prefer this world to be a pure object set in front of me as opposed to entering into my very subjectivity. I’m scandalized by a world that lives in the face of death. I don’t belong in this place where nothing else – dogs, trees, meadow grass, the sun, whatever –  is bothered by death or the reality of its non-existence. Let the body live there, have no business with things that exist like that.

I can get so worked up about this as to suspect George is a nihilist – what is the insistence on the bodily nature of the human person if not an insistence on the annihilation of persons? Give me sodomy! Contraception is our only hope of life!

But when you hit the point of arguing that the good of masturbation grounds your hope of eternity, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. But to look back at your other option shows it with all the downsides and disgust that it ever had. So what now?

Christianity seeks to transcend both options with a doctrine of spiritual bodies, though one suspects we no more have a category for “spiritual body” than we have for category for a noun with a single meaning that is both abstract and concrete. The gospels seem to testify to such a thing being out of joint with experience – hence we find John saying of the resurrected Christ that “no one asked if it was him, for they knew that it was he”. Imagine having any experience of recognition for which this would be the appropriate description! Again, Christians have puzzled over the chronology of the Easter story for a very long time, and it is usually exhibit A for any critical scholar seeking to show the incoherence of the Gospel. My own sense is that it reflects the actual confusion of where Christ was and what he was doing. Existing among his disciples seems like an option for Christ, as though space-time was just something he checked-in on, whenever, wherever, and in as many places as he felt like.

Analogous to the Vestigial

Edward Feser has a fantastic defense of the perverted faculty argument. He intentionally leaves off a defense of his underlying metaphysics, so here’s my attempt to frame what I take as the central objection to that underlying metaphysics.

Consider vestigial organs. For us moderns, these organs are relatively easy to account for: maybe they were made as a genetic fluke, maybe they went along as free riders on a reproductive advantage, but more likely they were once useful adaptations to an environment now gone. Aristotle had no sense of vestigial organs, or if he did it didn’t make much of an impression on his thought, but had he recognized their existence, he would have had no problem impeding their function or removing them altogether.

Thus a partial objection to the perverted faculty argument is to claim that our reproductive system is relevantly analogous to a vestigial organ. I say “relevantly analogous” since it is nonsense to claim that the organs themselves are vestigial. The analogy seems to be that they were adapted to conditions that no longer exist, that is, to a world where human middle age started at about 20 and the replacement fertility rate was around six children per woman. Note we’re assuming (as Feser does also) that our sexual function is more than just the power to reproduce but also the intensity and continuance of the desire and our age on its first onset. Outside the context in which we lived for almost all of our evolutionary history, human sexual functions lose their orientation to the good of survival and can even become contrary to it. Therefore (and this is the point on which the whole objection stands or falls) sexual function can lose its orientation to the practical good of the animal and so cease to be “natural” in the relevant sense in which functions count as natural in the perverted faculty argument.

Another way to put the argument is as a variant of the principle of totality. Just as we would impede the natural function of any organ which would threaten to destroy an individual if we did not impede it, so too we can impede and frustrate natural functions of organs so far as they threaten to destroy us as a species. This seems to be exactly the sort of argument that Paul Ehrlich was making for contraception back in the late 70’s. That said, the irony of arguing that we have to frustrate the very thing that allows for our continuance as a species in order to ensure it is not lost on anyone.

The heart of the objection is the claim that nature does all sorts of things in vain, i.e. we can have all sorts of natural functions (things with an intrinsic teleology) that are nevertheless unconnected to the practical good of the animal. Evolutionary psychology insists on thousands of them, contemporary psychologists have a voluminous literature on them (Stuart Sutherland did a lit review of them in his book Irrationality) and the possibility that functions can be maladaptive follows a priori out of the basic principles of evolutionary thought.


Agnosticism is inadequately defined as being uncertain whether God exists. Unless one is uncertain whether God is really possible, he can’t be uncertain whether God exists.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 177 other followers