Christianity and Holiness

Christ founded a Church. There is a well known dispute about what he founded the Church on, but this shouldn’t obscure the fact that everyone agrees to: he founded a certain institution.

Institutions are understood through their goals. In the case of Christ’s institution, the goal is to make people holy. Everything else is explained in relation to this goal or end, and whatever can’t be explained in relation to this, can be jettisoned from the Church as unnecessary, or even harmful.

The reality of holiness is clearly seen by example: the life of Mother Teresa is well known, as was was the life of the previous Pope. In ones everyday life, clear examples of holiness are harder to find, but are easily found with a little effort; just as in ones everyday life, professional athletes are hard to come by, but they can be easily known with little effort. This reality of holiness demands to be honestly faced even by those who sincerely believe that the Christianity is evil or wrong, because one cannot be a truly mature anti-christian until he realizes that he is rejecting a way to holiness. Any unreflective fool can hate Christians for what they have done wrong, but unless such a person comes to see the reality of holiness, his critique is seriously if not fatally misinformed.


Without God all is lawful

The general principle (though not the full quotation) is from Dostoevsky’s Ivan. The way in which the principle is expressed is significant: it is said by a character in a novel- not as an axiom of moral philosophy. The principle only makes sense in the context of considering the inner life of human beings, which is why Dostoevsky was uniquely qualified to speak of it. The contrary opinion is based on another evaluation of our inner life:

   ‘Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov. Do we really need policing – whether by God or each other – in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner? I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance – and nor, dear reader, do you.

While quotation is verbally hesitant, Dawkins is certainly not hesitant enough to admit the possibility of the need for divine precepts in the moral life. A similar sentiment is expressed by many others, and is commonly heard in modern debates.

Ivan’s principle is generally understood as saying that if there is no divine law giving precepts, offering rewards and threatening punishments, then human life and human society will fall apart. There are a number of Christians who argue exactly this, and any number of atheists who disagree with them. It is rather easy, for example, to find some version of Ivan’s principle in the American Founders.

There is a sense in which the fear of the divine law, or the desire for heaven is necessary for the Christian life. There is also some sense in which a piety towards divine things is necessary for civil society- it ties people together and gives them a sense of transcendent purpose. But for the one who has actually tried to follow Chirst, Ivan’s principle admits of a darker and more sinister reading than the first, more apparent reading: without God, all is lawful, which is to say, without the activity of God within us, all we have is the law. We have moral commands that we find ourselves powerless to fulfil. St. Paul speaks for every christian trying to be holy when he says:

11: For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. 12: Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

13: Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.

Paul is not being dramatic here. He knows the rules, but he breaks them. This is precisely what sin consists in. It’s not as though we don’t know that the things we are doing all day, or on weekends, or when were angry, or when “we can’t help it” are wrong. Conscience tells us no and we do it anyway. The very holiness of the law serves only to condemn us. 

Paul is careful to say that there is more to the story of humanity than mere corruption. He immediately follows the passage above with 

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

15: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16: If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  17:Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  18:For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

19: For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do

There are two principles of action in us- we are not simply rotten (which would at least be consistent) but rather divided and conflicted. When Dawkins speaks of his needing no “survailance” he seems to have in mind this better half of us, this side of us that is most truly ourselves which we remember more easily. That other half is the side we are always not noticing, making excuses for, or downplaying, or justifying… whatever. Without God, all is law- and our failure to keep it. In this sense, our need is not for survailance and punishments, but for grace.

All the divine precepts, punishments, and rewards- without grace- only serve to condemn us. This is exactly what we were supposed to learn from the old law. Our primary need is not for doctrines or philosophies or Law, but for something more radical and fundamental: rebirth. We need new hearts, and it is only to the extent that we see this that we see any need for Christ. This is exactly why Christ calls sinners- they are the only ones who can see the reason for him to exist. A sinner alone knows that his separation from God is occasioned by the holiness of law, and in his separation he is left only with law.

(This law, as a measure of our carnaity, becomes the principle or a kind of slavery, as Paul will develop. Perhaps Ivan understood this part too. The Grand Inquisior, for example, perverts Christianity by depriving it of this note of freedom that can come only from grace; and he seeks to replace this with a kind of legalistic slavery.)

Some differences between Aristotle’s logic and modern logics

1.) Their definitions. St. Thomas would explain logic as the mind’s direction of its own act. Modern logics tend to limit logic to the formal validity of arguments. For St. Thomas, argument belongs only to logic at its most complete and perfect, when it directs what he called the third act of the mind.

2.) Their elements. The element of most modern logics is the proposition. From their point of view, Aristotle’s logic is “term logic” for it begins with a term- the element of a proposition. Aristotle, however, understands his elements not as terms but as universals– and the various relationships of universality generate both propositions and arguments. The Categories, for example, is ordered toward manifesting those things which are most universal and therefore the measure of logical universality. Again, anyone who reads the Prior Analytics tends to get annoyed by Aristotle always speaking of “A containing all B” (why not just say “All B is A”?) or “Some C being contained by A” (why not say “Some C is A”?). His point is not to be obscure, but to point out that it is the relationships of universality that are generating the necessity of the argument.

3.) Their consideration of the first act of the mind. For Aristotle, the act of the mind which forms the proposition happens after the first act of the mind, which begins in various universals (both univocal and analogous) and is perfected by definition. I’ve looked at nine different kinds of modern logic, but I haven’t yet found one yet that even mentions definition.

4.) The conception of wholeness or a total system. All Logics tend toward trying to give a complete account of all arguments, but for Aristotle, this requires a multitude of essentially distinct, analogically related systems. This analogy consists in a hierarchy of logics: demonstration, dialectic, rhetoric, and mimetic arts (among which poetry is chief, but I think it would include everything from high literature to advertising). Logic even involves the formal study of sophistry (which may involve studying advertising too). In this analogy, the science of demonstration is chief and governing- and serves as an exemplar of the most complete act of the mind. In modern logics, there is much more of a tendency to try to account for all arguments with a single set of rules.  This is not the whole story, of course, and some of what Aristotle would probably put in rhetoric (a study of belief, for example) is seen as analogically related to logic.


Interiority as a ground of science, part II

One can never reduce interior experience to that which is revealed in the scientific experience. What do we mean by this?

 Reduction involves explaining by fewer principles. A good example of this is in the natural motions of things. In Aristotle’s cosmology, for example, it was understood that some things naturally moved up (helium balloons, say), others moved down (rocks, elephants), and others moved in circles (planets). Through the work of Pascal and Newton, all of these motions were explained by a single natural motion, the one called “the downward one” or gravity. Things only moved “up” because the weight of the air moved them out of the way, things moved in eliptical orbits because they were attracted to each other by the inverse square law of heaviness. So we dumped the hypothesis that things naturally moved upward or in circles, and explained it all through heaviness (gravity).

The reduction of interior experience to the things revealed in scientific analysis, then, would involve discarding the hypothesis of interiority for the simpler explanation of an interaction of observable parts. But this is an impossibility: first because interiority is not a hypothesis, but the very thing experienced; second because it is precisely this interior experience which we presuppose as a ground for the scientific explanation we give.

This interiority, which we first experience in our acts of sensation, choice, understanding and life, is our first awareness of nature understood as an interior source and cause existing within various material parts, but never reducible to them. The modern sciences are constantly presupposing this nature as what is to be explained, and yet due to their own principles, they must never explain the thing as a nature. There are two reasons for this: first, nature is an interior principle, but the first principle of the modern sciences is metrical units of meters, grams and seconds which are all applied extrinsically; and second, every hypothesis is formally an artifact, and nature as such is distinguished from art (note that there is also an artifical aspect to scientific units- we have to impose them and agree on them).

Kantianism, or philosophy if nature were unintelligible

Kant’s well-known “Copernican turn” consists in assuming that objects must conform to our thought. There is nothing inherently vicious in this, because it is exactly what art consists in- right knowledge in art consists in knowing the artifact as conformed to a human idea. The form of the made thing is from our mind, and so a fortiori our knowledge of it is also. The same thing happens in all the modern sciences. The hypothesis is a certain artistic form that we, as it were, throw upon nature to see if it sticks- or in Kant’s terms, we see if it can be confirmed by possible experience.

When one universalizes this knowledge through artistic form, however, one immediately makes nature, as nature, completely unintelligible. Art always presupposes some property as inherent to something, and this inherent principle was exactly what Aristotle called nature: “a source and cause in that of which it is, first, as such, and not per accidens“. All the meanings of nature relate to this interiority, and this interiority completely vanishes in all Kantian thought. One could subtitle the Critique as “philosophy if nature were unintelligible”. 

Commentaries on St. Thomas as Disputations

The first commentaries on St. Thomas were all disputations. The most important thing to keep in mind about disputations is that they tend to extreme distinction- it is evident even in our own debates that by the time any two scholarly disputants go back and forth a few times the status of the question becomes very subtle and precise. This precision is certainly a good- but unless one follows the debate from the beginning, the precision makes everything obscure, unintelligible, and annoying. Dispute-based commentaries also have an unavoidable historical aspect to them- certain things that are hotly contested in one era are givens another, and our lack of interest in a topic that was of extreme dispute in another time will make their dispute seem to us like so much talk about nothing.  Conversely, when Cajetan or Banez or John of St. Thomas lightly pass over some dispute of extreme importance to us, it can seem as if their reading of the text is simply superficial.  

On the one hand, some amount of disputation is unavoidable for a commentary. Part of commenting on a text includes pointing out what others have said about it, and sifting out good readings from bad ones. he odd thing about dispute-based commentaries on St. Thomas, however, is that St. Thomas did not, for the most part, structure his commentaries around disputes. When one reads any random page of the most well-known kinds of thomistic commentary, he simply expectsthe commentator to mention the disagreements leveled by Scotus or Suarez or Durandus or Henry of Ghent, etc. St. Thomas’s commentaries, however, generally avoid disputes. St. Thomas did not view commentary as quasi-apologetics for Aristotle, Scripture, or Neo-Platonic texts. One can find passages where there is clear dispute, to be sure, but St. Thomas always tended to keep his disputative writings separate from his commentaries. There seems to be a very good reason to keep them separate- because nothing fatigues the mind as quickly as an academic dispute, especially watching or trying to follow an academic dispute. To write an entire commentary of continuous dispute quickly grinds the mind into powder, and makes the whole work seem unintelligible and annoying- which is the exact contrary of what one is trying to do with a commentary. 

Note on Natural Theology

Human beings always, or as a rule, have some word for God or the gods. The word indicates some kind of intelligence exalted above human beings, and to which man therefore owes devotion, or at least duty. We first understand the exalted nature of God in sensible terms: and when I say “first” I mean it both according to history, and our own personal understanding. God is first understood, for example, as the sun, or as a person living in the sky or on a high mountain, or as the one who makes the harvest come in.  There are very profound elements of truth in this understanding, most of all it makes the existence of God as directly sensible and even obvious. Who can deny that the sun exists, or even that it made the corn grow? Who has any problem believing that there’s a big man up in the sky somewhere, or on some sacred mountain?

Man can next understand God according to what is revealed by his intelligence, and by doing so he quickly excels his first understanding. If we worship the river because it gives us life, and the sun because it gives the corn life, why not worship a single entity as the cause of life as such? The mind quickly lights on ideas of goodness or beauty which transcend all that is found in sensible things, and reveal to it perfections that far surpass sensible things, and in this sense the mind shows us things that are more truly divine. The difficulty is that such perfections do not obviously exist. We can think about  goodness apart from any good thing, or even imagine a limit of all possible goodness, but our thinking about it does not make it so. 

(One response, of course, says that something absolute must exist simply because we can think about it, because if it did not exist, we could always understand something greater. Regardless of whether one accepts this argument or not, it does clearly show that the mind must understand the greatest being as something existent, i.e. as separate from our own thought, which is certainly to understand something important. It follows from this immediately that the mind cannot be wholly satisfied with itself, and that it immediately know to look or the highest good outside of itself.)

The Lesson of Greek Philosophy as Regards the Things Above Reason

The Presocratics are usually understood as primarily rejecting mythical accounts and turning to rational ones. This is true, but it needs to be taken strictly. It is a very different thing to reject (or downplay) myth and prefer reason than it is to say (as it often is) that philosophy must concern the things of reason alone. These things are so different that one might even go so far as to claim that one rejects myth because they recognize that there is a reason to be followed above human reason (this seems to be Plato’s argument in the Republic– we reject the poets when they lie about the gods, and tell only human stories).

The Presocratics (or even the whole of Greek Philosophy from Thales to Plotinus) does not tell us what to do with revelation, nor does it establish human reason, as human, as the supreme authority in philosophical discourse. In fact, the whole of Greek philosophy seems adamantly opposed to both the idea that human reason is the highest reason, and that man can live well apart from the divine aid.

In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought… this relation is possible in two different ways Either the predicate to the subject A, as something which is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or outside the concept A, although it does indeed stand in connection with it. In the one case I entitle the judgment analytic, in the other synthetic (CPR sec. IV)

I haven’t checked the German yet, but that parenthetical “covertly” tells the whole story. Kant is Anaxagoras- nothing is potential, only hidden.

 “Stands in connection with it”. Indeed- if we conjoin this with the failure to grasp potential containment, he’s just collapsed the distinction between the per se and the per accidens. Sophistry becomes wisdom.

Analytic propositions indicate, at best, tautologies we are too stupid to see; synthetic ones hide sophistries we will never be able to discover. Kant says a great number of interesting things, but this whole retrograde blunder needs to go.

The Kantian Project

Kant fought against metaphysics because he saw it as a primary source of unbelief and immorality. Really.

I have therefore
found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room
for faith. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the precon-
ception that it is possible to make headway in metaphysics with-
out a previous criticism of pure reason, is the source of all that
unbelief, always very dogmatic, which wars against morality.

This is no chance remark, but a certain summary of the whole Kantian project. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see this is as purely accidental. Metaphysics was never the real enemy. In truth, immorality alone, or the perverse will of an immoral man- is the primary enemy of morality, and it will justify itself and beat on morality with the any stick at hand. If people respect science, immoral people will use science against morality; if people respect literature, the immoral will fight against morality with literature; if politics, politics; if tribal gods…. whatever. Examples of this abound.  Honestly, Kant’s hang up with metaphysics strikes me a hilarious. Has the empirical science that Kant so loved proved itself any more of a friend to morality? Of course not.

A similar silly opinion to Kant’s is sometimes found in postmodern thought. The idea is that it was the belief in ones own certitude that led to all the atrocities of the twentieth-century, as opposed to this being properly and primarily due to perversity and obstinance in wickedness. Stalin killed millions because he was so sure of his system. Hilarious. Postmodern thought can kill as many out of its skepticism as Hitler killed with his certitude. This is the dark side of the axiom “where there’s a will there’s a way”

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