Vice as a contradiction

Vices are based off the desire for some good, but they could not be vices if they attained this good in a complete manner. But to desire any good is to desire it as a whole, and so vices are characterized by implicit contradiction between what is sought and what will be attained. What are the unique contradictions of the various vices?

Pride: in seeking ones own excellence, we end up in the dark “humility” of embarrassment over our past failures, unhappiness over what we can achieve, self-loathing over our own inability to follow things through, and the perpetual dissatisfaction feeling of being cheated out of all the things we feel are due to us.

Envy: In seeking that we should be a source of good things for others, we come to hate that others have any good of themselves.

Gluttony: The desire to preserve existence destroys the very existence that we sought to preserve.

Lust: The desire for the pleasure of sexual union leads to dissatisfaction with and alienation from others.

Wrath: The desire for justice – which requires harmonious life with others – turns into a desire to crush others and lord it over them.

Greed: The desire for self sufficiency becomes an imprisonment to the things we think can grant it.

Sloth: By seeking the smooth activity of life, we lose the very activity that constitutes life.


A: I’m really concerned about intrusions on religious liberty. We need a law or a new President.
B: But a new law won’t be enough. It could just get overturned by the courts, held up by lawsuits, whittled away at by executive decrees, etc.
A: Right. So the ideal would be a constitutional amendment.
B: But those are really hard to pass. We’d never be able to convince enough Americans that there should be a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the free expression of religion...

Puzzling about form

The very idea of form or act – irrespective of whether we take it in Plato’s sense or Aristotle’s – is difficult since we come to it by two different sets of data, sc. a.) from what makes things intelligible and b.) what makes things exist. Concretely, form is both a.) that which is alike among some multitude and b.) my own soul. But my own soul is very clearly not common to many persons; and what is common to many can’t account for why any self calls itself “I”.

Plato even manages to combine (muddle?) both approaches in a single dialogue (Phaedo) when he both gives an argument that a form, since it is the principle by which we judge sensible things, is prior to the sensible things and that the form is the source of life for a particular man, and so will cause that particular man to live on as the particular individual he is. In fact, Plato even sees the arguments as a piece: after figuring out that form is of many we conclude to the perpetual existence of a form that is peculiar to one. 

So why not say simply this: form is of one as giving being, and of many as giving knowledge. Form is of many in the noetic order, and peculiar to one in the real order.  Does this even touch upon the answer? It seems that we understand form by two relative designations, which, taken together exhaust all of reality. This leaves us with the question of how to consider form simply, or in itself which is the very question that was first raised. What would it mean to set up a third order of reality, neither noetic nor real, in which we can locate form? Is this third order a limit or point of contact between these two orders, that form mediates the noetic and the real? Even on this metaphor, we have a hard time coming to terms with what form is: how can some X stand to both the noetic and real as a point to a line? What would it mean to ask the questions “is it real?” or “is it knowable?” This is not merely some abstract question, as though it were being asked about something other than the one asking: the soul itself, that is, soul as mine is tied up in this question of form.

The god of space

Newton, following on Descartes, defines motion as the transference of a body from one region of absolute space to another. Aristotelians point out that the definition is straightforwardly circular since transference is clearly a sort of motion. So it seems all that Newton, Descartes, and the mechanical tradition are saying is that motion is a sort of motion, which hardly does much to give one confidence in the philosophical value of mechanism. Some attempts have been made to justify definitions like this by claiming that it is impossible to define fundamental realities. But that line of argumentation is of no value in this case since to give a definition of motion is incompatible with believing it is undefinable.

A better account of what Newton is doing here is that he is attempting to give a definition in the sense articulating what one must know per se and primo in order to derive all the properties of the thing one wants to understand. Motion is to be seen as first of all taking place in the theater of absolute space, that is, the fundamental thing that one must know about motion is that it plays itself out against a homogeneous, immobile, quantitative backdrop. We come to understand this backdrop, as we understand all things,  by distinguishing it, and to distinguish the homogeneous and quantitative gives rise to number. Absolute space is what is most formal to the definition, which is why Newton was led to make absolute space play the role of the specific difference in the definition.

That the definition was an attempt to make space the fundamental reality from which nature is to be explained also seems to follow from the controversies over space in Newton’s own day. Newton had to explicitly separate space from God himself in response to Berkeley’s critique that he identified the two. There is something divine about space, to be sure, as that within which all things live and move and have their being. It’s this vision of what is most divine and fundamental that serves as the basis of mathematical/mechanist philosophy, even to this day.

What does the mind look at in raising the question of causality?

Hume’s critique of causality takes for granted that the question of causality is asked in the context of the mind staring at billiard balls colliding. It’s not, of course, that billiards are essential – marbles would be an instance of the same thing, as would two ships bumping into each other -But this “location” in which we raise the question of causality deserves analysis and critique. Why do we situate the question of causality in this context, and what benefits and shortcomings arise from seeing causality as a limited to this domain of data?

Aristotle did not locate the question of causality in this domain, but more on the level of what was said of all of something, per se, and universally. Cause, though it was a real feature of the world, needed to be distinguished from what was accidental, free riding, and not perfectly proportioned to the effect. Any image of billiard balls before ones mind was mediated by propositions, of which there was an indefinite amount, all of which could describe the appearance. The question of “cause” arose in respect to which one satisfied the conditions of said of all, per se and primo.

Note on The Accuser

Contemporary accounts and depictions of Satan emphasize his glamor/ seductiveness or his bestial-demonic character, but neither of these tell us what Satan is up to. Seduction is a means and being bestial is a character or habit, but neither is a motive. The motive of his actions is explained in Job, where Satan is not just a proper name but a description of his work: the accuser. Satan’s accusation is that human beings are fundamentally and irredeemably corrupt, and that any virtue one finds in them is hypocrisy, pretense, or at best purely dependent upon receiving lucky breaks. Virtue is occasionally attainable when life is comfortable enough, or in short bursts when life is difficult, but difficult circumstances or bad luck will eventually prove Satan’s accusation. Seen from this angle, Satan’s seductiveness and bestial destructiveness are both means in a single argument: both are means by which he tries to elicit evidence from human beings for a continual courtroom accusation against human beings.

Satan makes an accusation against the human heart to God, which makes the human heart a central focus in a dispute between various heavenly powers. But what is in dispute? Is it not that hard to find God himself condemning human beings en masse. Why all this accumulation of evidence in a prosecution when both sides agree about the verdict?



Marriage and mortal sin

Brandon digs out a fantastic text from STA’s commentary on Corinthians:

…that the conjugal act is sometimes meritorious and without any mortal or venial sin, as when it is directed to the good of procreation and education of a child for the worship of God; for then it is an act of religion; or when it is performed for the sake of rendering the debt, it is an act of justice. But every virtuous act is meritorious, if it is performed with charity. But sometimes it is accompanied with venial sin, namely, when one is excited to the matrimonial act by concupiscence, which nevertheless stays within the limits of the marriage, namely, that he is content with his wife only. But sometimes it is performed with mortal sin, as when…

So guess: what is he going to say? Is sexual activity a mortal sin when “it is not open to procreation” (an answer that is at hand from what he says at the head of the quotation) or when “it is performed in an unnatural way”? Don’t we expect St. Thomas to mention some obvious perversion? Yet, in the casual way that he says all his revolutionary things, he says that sexual activity is a mortal sin when…

…the husband approaches the wife with the idea that he would just as gladly or more gladly approach another woman.

Kingdom of God

It’s fitting to call it a Kingdom of God because the only change of rule, that is, the only transition in history, happens when the Father hands over all things to his son or, generally, to the one who inherits.

The more and the less of sophistry

Aristotle and Plato – who were in a position to know what they were saying – defined sophistry as the desire to appear wise. But the desire to appear wise requires attracting attention to oneself, and we attract attention to ourselves by various sorts of novelty: shocking statements, dramatic denials of the commonplace and traditional, originality, provocative statements, acts of violence, obscure vocabulary, sharp irony, affected indifference in the face of the shocking, seriousness about trifles, jokes about serious things, etc.. Part of an Intellectual’s examination of conscience, at least for me, is facing the very difficult question of how much of a sophist one is in light of these indicators.

Machines and Mechanism

– a saddle or obstacle course for nature.

-I measure the torque an axle produces. What did I measure? On the one hand, the output of the engine; on the other hand, the force of an exploding vapor or expanding cloud of steam, and the first is the instrument of the second.

-I point to Newton’s cradle and say “that is a desk toy” or “that is the conservation of momentum”. I point to a pendulum and say “that is harmonic motion” or “that is the clock’s engine”. That is water pressure, that’s my sink – put your town’s water tower under your shower, and your shower won’t work.

-Mechanism identifies agent and instrument; it takes the unity of an action for a unity of actors.

-Newton: mechanics is prior to mathematics and causes it. But the machine is nature expressing itself.

-The mechanism is a phenomenon of nature, and so in one sense nature is known through it (the appearance is of what appears) and in another sense not (appearance is opposed to reality).

-Mechanisms mediate nature and need.

-Nature is given in a machine, and givens are in one sense understood in another sense not.

-Givens stand under.

-Nature is under a mechanism, and so to understand it through a mechanism requires distinguishing nature as a phenomenon from the reality of nature.

-Mechanistic natural science is necessarily hypothetical: the conclusion (science) testifies to a principle (nature) through what is essentially a means or middle (machines).

-In hypotheses the ends justify the means. And the origins.

-“What is the mechanism by which nature…” that is, how do I get a saddle on this or make an obstacle course for it?

– The given: we understand nature/ the natural through art/ artificial things. This is an unbroken axiom from Aristotle till today. Aristotle used the way of eminence and negation of the negation (nature moves itself, it is not intrinsically inert like art) and analogy (prime matter is to nature what materials are to arts.) Mechanism uses the way of causality.

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