Porn is not free expression

The documentary Adult Entertainment: Disrobing an American Idol did a reasonably good job of poking holes in every pro-porn argument except one based on fact that free expression is a public good. But I think such an argument fails too, since porn simply is not the act of someone expressing himself.

If I hear someone who watches a lot of movies say “wow, that was a great movie” I assume the thing he is talking about had a features like an engaging plot, characters with a good arc, and that it hung together as an interesting whole. To hear someone who watches a lot of porn say “wow, that was a great porno” doesn’t suggest any of these features. Plot, character, and even cohering as a whole are necessarily irrelevant to porn – one could spool out the film and sell it by the pound without changing the product one is selling, and it’s certainly strange to say that one is expressing himself or communicating a message when one can dispense the message like this. There are media other than pornography that have this sell-by-the-pound quality, for example, those relaxation recordings of ocean waves or creek-waters running over rocks- but the comparison only sharpens the point, since we don’t make those recordings as acts of self-expression or artistry (what kind of artistic skill does it take to mic the ocean?) but only to induce a state in another. Recording the ocean is not analogous to the arts but to pharmacology: it is a relaxant. The same goes for porn. Forget being art, it’s not even best compared to art but to stimulants: amphetamines, drag-racing, bungee-jumping, etc. At this point, one could argue that it is a harmless stimulant – just don’t call it expression, except in the vacuous sense that anything one does can be an act of self-expression.

The Light of Christ

Truths that touch on how we should live are experienced in two ways. Sometimes, they affirm what we believe and how we are living. We might read an article or listen to a speech that articulates exactly what we think and affirms how we are living, or develops some acceptable truth latent in what we already believe. These sorts of truths are pleasant, stirring, and make us want to rush out and share them. On the other hand, we can also be hit by truths that affirm what we believe but critique how we are living. These sorts of truths are unpleasant, constricting, and crush us in on ourselves. We cast about in anger or sullenness, or looking for some rationalization, or seeking out  some opportunity to forget what we’ve heard, whether through sleep, the cares of everyday life, depressants, self-medicating, distractions, etc.

Truths that affirm how we are living give us an energy to act while the other truths dampen and constrict action. The constriction of action paralyses us under a burden and so is a restriction of the most fundamental kind of freedom. But even though some truths give us the energy to act, they only do so because they presuppose freedom as already given. And so one sort of truth presupposes freedom, another restricts it, but in neither case does the truth make one free. It is this third sort of truth – particularly in its power to transform a community – that is the most distinctive note of the truth of Christ. The truth of Christ can also, of course, affirm and critique how we live, but it shares this characteristic with any truth we can know that touches upon how we live (although the truth of Scripture or the lives of the saints have a particular power to critique our life, which is why we tend to alternately kill the saints or – what might be worse – to admire them in such a way as to leave the holiness to them.)

The light that the Scriptures speak of is distinctive in in that it not only manifests truth but that it also imparts the psychodynamic energy to accomplish the goods it makes known. This energy is not always, and not even typically, released in the high-energy burst of a Hollywood conversion story; and even dramatic conversions (Augustine in the Garden, Saul on the road to Damascus) would be in vain if they weren’t followed by the quiet, continuous, and much more efficacious  energy of long-term daily reform. The truths of art and philosophy, whatever else one might say about them, all lack the totality of this light and energy. When people complain about philosophy or reason being unable to change life or persuade people, the only truth I can see in what they are saying is that philosophy is not the light of Christ (it should be pointed out that art, tradition, or culture also are not the light of Christ – it’s not as if there is any sense to singling out rationality.)

No Consent Marriage

Spare a moment to consider the idea of No Consent Marriage. There are a lot of precedents for it: Herodotus, Livy, and Plutarch all begin a history with tales of abducted brides; and depending how you want to tell the story of the Iliad you either have to begin with Helen or Briseis, both of whom were abducted brides.  As far as I can tell, all such marriages were presumed valid, though it’s hard to see any basis for this other than the obvious one: those who took the women were strong enough to get away with it. By “strong enough” I don’t mean that the men were strong enough to pick them up and forcibly perform a marriage ceremony – any man now is strong enough in that sense, at least to some girl or another. The “strength” in question came from the widespread agreement among everyone (or the majority, or the powerful-enough elite) that marriage just is the enactment of the will of the conquering  individual. 

So say I woke up this morning in the midst of a vigorous debate about No Consent Marriage. I would have religious objections to it – Christianity is clear and emphatic about the necessity of mutual consent. I might have a historical case against it too – except this would be weaker, give the historical prevalence of marriage by abduction. I suppose I could make a case against it from the definition of marriage – marriage just is the union of two mutually consenting parties. Given the historical record, it might be easier to condemn the practice as sexist since it has disproportionately affected women, but given the relevant notion of strength there is no reason why women could not be strong enough to be initiators of No Consent Marriage.

The only argument I can imagine being effective in public is a self-interest one: if we allow No Consent Marriage, then anyone could abduct me or my wife, sister, daughter, son, etc. Now that was an argument I could give in public, one that could stop No Consent Marriage in its tracks. Everyone would immediately see the axiomatic power of my own self-interest, and the force it should have in shaping the law. In the equality of self-interest of all citizens we strike on a good that is sacred and inviolable.

To be honest, the conclusion of all of this was that it was beautiful to find something sacred. Whatever restrictions or qualifications that should be placed on love of ones self and ones own, there is still something deservedly sacred about it. It’s nice to see an axiom over which there is a perfect agreement between the public mind and the public will: consent is valued as a good, but it is seen as a speculative truth as well, i.e. as simply written into the nature of things.

Do I want a Christian culture? (pt. II)

On the one hand, being Christian can’t be separated from working towards a Christian culture. Christians are called to save all, and there is no reality to culture above and beyond all persons.

On the other hand, if I all there was to getting a Christian culture was pulling a switch, what would I do? Leave the benefits to the side for the moment and consider everything else. The taboos by which culture protects its ideals suddenly make atheists, skeptics, and Jews something analogous to racists and homophobes (though I’m conflicted over who gets the worse deal: racists in our culture or atheists in Christian culture.) The churches would be packed with massive amounts of people who were there out of social pressure. If “Christian culture” is to have any statutory power then civil authorities would have to start making laws and issuing rulings over what was Christian and what wasn’t (even if only at the edges). Civil and Ecclesiastical authority would thus start mingling together, such that there would be a tendency for those seeking power in one to seek power in the other.

One problem, of course, is that “Christian culture” can mean any number of things, from the Franks under Clovis to the French under the Capetians, and from Rhode Island under Rodger Williams to Geneva under John Calvin. Is there one that is possible or one that I want? If working for one is simply part of being Christian, which one should I be working for?

Do I want a Christian culture?

The most pointed way to put the question is this: do I want anti-christian expressions and thoughts to be ruled out by the same taboos and groupthink that presently rule out racism and homophobia?

On the one hand, this seems horrible, or at least no improvement. Something seems forced and fake about pro-Christian taboos, and it’s an open question whether it would make more persons more devout. The Gospel – or the work of grace in general – demands a unique sort of personal or Father-child freedom. Taboos, arguably, belong more to the world’s way of doing things.

On the other hand, we have to have taboos about something, and presumably their purpose is to lead us towards the best things. Taboos are the human law at its most powerful – they are the most perfect and powerful tool for what St. Thomas calls the power of law to lead to virtue. Mere statutory laws bridle behavior; taboos actually restructure thought and form the will. But if this is so, is a taboo a fitting tool for evangelization, or is it too extreme and too extrinsic to faith?

Paper fragment

…Avicenna argued for the eternity of the world from the claim that the possibility of the world could not be grounded on the pre-existence of the ideas of things in the divine mind. The Averroists, following a very probable reading of Aristotle, argued that God could not know anything other than himself – and certainly could not know individual things. Both arguments appeal to the idea that because God is the most excellent object of thought, he would only think of himself, and so would not have the diversity of rationes of created things in his mind.  St. Thomas, on the other hand, not only argued for a multiplicity of ideas of created intelligible natures in the divine mind, he claimed that these divine ideas reached even to the very concretion of the particular things.

God is the cause of a thing not only with respect to its form, but even of its matter, which is the principle of individuation  and so the idea in the divine mind is the similitude of both matter and form, and so things are known through it not only universally, but even in the particular.[1]

Thus the ideas or intelligible natures of things, which are similitudes of things in the mind of God, are most perfectly the similitudes of things not only because the the knowledge of God is unable to err or be ignorant, but also because the divine mode of knowing, in a way that infinitely transcends the human intellectual power, can attain to a positive, intellectual apprehension of the concrete particular. The idea of a self within the divine mind is not an abstraction, a generalization, or an inadequate, subordinate representation of the concrete reality. It would not be going to far to say that, in a way that is comparable to how God can be said to be more present to the creature than the creature is to itself, so too the self – the I that is me in the concrete existential situation of my life – more exists in the divine mind than it does in itself.


[1] Super libri Sententiarum, lib. 2 d. 3 q. 3 a. 3 co sed Deus est causa rei, non solum quantum ad formam, sed etiam quantum ad materiam, quae est principium individuationis; unde idea in mente divina est similitudo rei quantum ad utrumque, scilicet materiam et formam; et ideo per eam cognoscuntur res non tantum in universali, sed etiam in particulari.

Third person accounts

Why is a description third person? What is “third” about it? Only this- that it is outside interpersonal dialogue. The interpersonal is immediate, of itself, first. But the very intelligibility of the third requires that it be outside of this.


Translating the condition for divorce in Matthew 19:9

I recently read an exchange on Matthew 19:9 over the permissibly of divorce, though it made no mention of an oddity in the translation of the text. Consider the text with one word left untranslated:

 Whosoever shall put away his wife, except  for πορνείᾳ, (ed. porneia, pronounced “pore – NAY – uh”) and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

So what’s porneia

The King James and various older translations render the word as “fornication” which, given what we mean by the term, renders the passage ridiculous. Married persons simply can’t fornicate, i.e. engage in intercourse between two unmarried persons. In view of this, some modern translations render the term as “sexual immorality” or just “immorality” (understood in the sexual sense). The translation is in some sense faithful: porneia is a general term that covers any illicit sexual act. But the translation does little to make the sense less ridiculous: if sexual immorality could dissolve a marriage then marriages could be dissolved for a thousand reasons, many of which (like a fleeting sexual fantasy) simply are not things that any reasonable person could see as able to dissolve a marriage. In light of this, some translations render the passage by whatever illicit sexual activity they think could dissolve a marriage, say, adultery. But to do so nullifies the authority of the text, because to translate it in this way means we cannot appeal to 19:9 as justification that adultery could dissolve a marriage. To do so would be question-begging, i.e. we know Christ says that adultery can dissolve a marriage because we translated porneia as “adultery”, because adultery can dissolve marriage.

To preserve the general sense of porneia, we could render it as “sexually illicit”, so that we take Christ as saying “Whosoever shall put his wife away, unless sex [between such persons] is illicit… commits adultery”. The interpretation of the text then becomes a matter of determining what conditions render two persons unable to licitly have sex. A few such conditions are widely agreed upon sc. consanguinity and lack of consent; other are more controversial, like immaturity (which is related to consent) or refusal to procreate.  In other words, Christ is speaking about the conditions of nullity.

An example of an abandoned idea

Self motion was a fundamental question for pre-classical physics. It divided any number of schools (Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Scotus) and the problem was disputed at great length. But the question of self-motion is simply untranslatable into modern physical or biological categories. How would Newtonian self-motion be different from Relativistic or quantum self motion? What would the difference between Darwinian and Lamarckian theories look like? Both questions are absurd – you might just as well try to distinguish the theories by their color.

But for all that, self-motion is still a live question. It certainly seems like it happens, i.e. that it is a physical fact, but what sort of theoretical edifice would allow for its truth? For that matter, what sort of edifice could prove that it does not happen, or even that speaking about it is meaningless?

This question about self-motion spills over into other considerations: responsibility requires self-motion, which ties the idea to freedom; again, self-activity is the activity of a self, which ties the question to the definition of a self or, in the case of human beings, the account of a person, etc. Again, self-motion is exactly what the ancients used to define life as opposed to nature, and so in losing any meaningful account of self-motion we will lose any meaningful sense of the difference the ancients saw between the living and the non-living (or merely physical). This in turn affects the sort of reductions to physics we think are possible…

You get the idea. But self-motion is just one example of many. We abandoned the idea after becoming interested in other things.

The final theory

The idea that one science might explain everything, or even explain all that we think is significant, alternately fascinates and horrifies us. One school after another sets itself up as the global theory of the physical and/or cognitive world: Pythagoreanism, The Academy, Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, The Vienna schools of Psychoanalysis, gene mapping, cognitive science, or “science” taken as a single method (though it is not clear that there is any such thing). Each one began with a few brilliant pioneers, choked off the competition with a combination of rhetoric and real success, and enjoyed a sunny period of mythological inflation where, intoxicated by the infinite extrapolation of real successes, everyone collectively (though soberly) fantasizes about the day when it will explain everything. The encomium can last centuries.

But theories are all abandoned, if not for falsehoods then at least because we become interested in something else.  The infinity into which we previously extrapolated the theory at some point intoxicates a new generation with the possibility of a new foundation or the possibility of an inquiry into something new. It’s illuminating to compare this desire to the desire to explore or travel around the earth, since the basic fact of exploration is we do it simply because there’s something there to see. But cognitive space is infinite; the ways of abstracting and simplifying experience are infinite; and the possible tools and methods for exploring new possibilities in cognitive space are infinite. It’s therefore pointless to object that we should stop exploring because we’ll never get to the end of things – we aren’t exploring to get to the end but simply because something is there. Even if the inhabited surface of the earth was infinite, we would keep traveling to the next village, city, or uninhabited region. The love of novelty is built into the reward organs of our brain, or, to see it another way, the human soul could not be what it is without a tendency to give rise to the sort of brain that is intoxicated by novelty.  Though we are continually fantasizing about the final theory that exhausts all cognitive space, and though this is a real desire that seeks its satisfaction in something, we are also fundamentally disgusted and horrified by the idea of a final theory. If there were such a thing – and it is impossible, but if there were – the consequence of finding it would be brain atrophy.

And so the desire for a final theory has to be understood by way of negation of the way in which final theories are superfluous (since we explore simply because things are there) repugnant (since we seek novelty as such) and impossible (since the rationes or logoi of even a single thing are infinite).

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