Note on poverty of spirit

The sense of “there are no atheists in foxholes” is not that men are scared out of their wits and are willing to try anything, but that when one finds himself in a situation that he is unable to endure and yet finds himself enduring it anyway, he becomes aware that his endurance has always been sustained by a power above himself; that he is of himself powerless and has always been living on borrowed strength. The experience of labor and birth can teach something similar; not just because of the intense pain that the wife and husband are powerless in the face of , but also because everything depends on life coming forth, and yet at the crucial moment we find it coming forth in spite of us, just as knows to nurse in spite of never being taught or of even having seen what is involved in this.

-Cosmological arguments give us a better idea of what we mean by existence, hence the analogous use of the term.

-Materialism: existence is to be given to an ideal nerve ending; an ideal fingertip.

Materialism and the hands: the organ both of the most precise sense of touch and of manipulation and control.

Particles: They’ve gone from things that fly into your eye or float in sunbeams to a reading on a meter, a bump on a probability curve, etc. What sort of analogy is this? Have we moved from a tactile account of nature to an intelligible one?


Analogy as different from metaphor

We explain analogues by their similarity, but it is important to note that it is similarity of meaning. A metaphor involves similarity too, but it is not a similarity that makes us impose a new meaning on a term. Macbeth calls life a “poor player” (i.e. a bad actor) and a “brief candle”, but this doesn’t make us want to impose a new meaning on the term “actor” or “candle”. There is more to becoming an analogue then just being a metaphor that is constantly repeated, because even cliched metaphors remain metaphors: e.g. “15 minutes” is a metaphor for brief fame, but it remains a metaphor even through frequent use. No one thinks that one of the meanings of “15 minutes” is “brief fame”, just as no one thinks that one of the meanings of “time” is “money”, in spite of the metaphor that equates them.

Analogy thus adds to metaphor the idea that the very meaning of the word needs to be extended. To explain why an analogue gets formed, we have to explain why a term deserves to take on a new meaning. In the case of analogies to God, the reason we extend the meaning is because we see that certain words, when said of God, more verify what we mean by the term. Some examples: any predicate most of all means what is said of per se and primo, and “exists” is only said of God in this way; likewise a thing is alive when it acts by itself as opposed to being determined by its nature, but this is most of all said of God. IOW, we are not just saying that there is a likeness, or even a proportional likeness, between existence, life, etc. when said of God and creatures, but that, when they are said of God, these terms more indicate and verify what we meant to signify.

Another possible account of the difference between the living and non-living

Even if we dropped the ancient/medieval idea that the living was self-active and the non-living was purely passive, we might be able to retool the the distinction between the living and the non-living to make the non-living the possessor of a form that makes its action purely interactive whereas the living has a hierarchical, one way action from form to matter. All physical actions are interactions, and so, considered at the very nexus of action, can be described as A—>B just as easily as B—->A. But the action of the soul making the body responsible for an action, or even of a self assimilating food by digestion, is not reversible or capable of being described just as well in either direction.  Physical movers are in every way moved per accidens; living movers are not.

On this definition, the physical is the interactive whereas the living is characterized by an action that rises above the merely interactive. The interaction problem is thus a failure to understand the difference between the living and the non-living, one which insists that the living be just a sort of non-living thing.

Lecture on soul III – Aquinas on Immortality

”After considering Plato and Aristotle on the separability of the soul, we move on to St. Thomas, who argues for psychic immortality under the most difficult circumstances. We will not here consider the many arguments that he gives for the separability and immortality of the human soul, but will consider two arguments that make St. Thomas’s position particularly problematic. Consider that St. Thomas shows up to his discussion of whether the soul is separable already believing two arguments:

1.) A human person is a composite of soul and body

A separated soul is not a composite of soul and body

2.) All human thought requires brain activity (i.e. interior sense activity or “phantasms”)

A dead person has no brain activity.

”The arguments seem to amount to a one-two knockout:  a separated soul is not a person; and even if it has some sort of existence, it cannot have any human thought. Again, persons by definition cannot survive death; and even if they could, they would have no awareness of it.

”We should note first that there is a dispute among Thomists over how to understand how the separated soul is somehow personal. There seem to be two approaches: some say that the separated soul is a human individual, but not a member of the human species. There are pretty good proof texts for this (the best being Questiones de anima a. 1). Other Thomists, while agreeing with this account broadly, say that the separated soul is a human being in a state of privation – that lacking a body is comparable to lacking a leg or an arm. However we take this, the upshot is that a separated soul is not how nature intended a human being to live. Death is unmistakably a tragedy for St. Thomas and not a Platonic elevation to the ideal world. That said, there are really no good Thomistic texts for the privation view. This seems to leave us with the claim that a separated soul is a rational individual, but not a member of the human species.

”A closer appreciation this claim, however, seems to make the second argument ineffective in arguing against a continued psychic existence. True, all human thought requires brain activity, but the very thing St. Thomas is denying is that the separated soul is a human being.  The two arguments that appear to make a knockout punch end up making the objection to the separability of soul into a non-sequitur: if the separated soul is not a person, it makes no sense to say it cannot think because it lacks something that persons need to think.

”And so rather than seeing the two arguments above as mere problems for St. Thomas, or as contrary data that we need to weigh against the value of his arguments for separability, it might be better to see the arguments as in harmony with St. Thomas’s account of the separability of soul.

Christianity as a synthesis of two sorts of happiness

As the first book of the Ethics makes clear, Plato thought happiness was the possession of a non-composite, supreme reality (“goodness itself” or the form of the Good) whereas Aristotle thought that happiness was a composite reality made of virtuous habits, a reasonable amount of money, good luck, a few friends, etc. Plato thus thought that happiness involved getting one thing that endowed us with a happiness that could not be added to by anything else whereas Aristotle argued that happiness was essentially a collection of goods, no one of which could assure us everything we would want.

The Christian account of happiness can be seen as a synthesis of both. On the one hand, beatitude consists in the possession of an infinite good, which, being infinite, is such that it is superfluous to add any good to it. Considered from this angle, it is ridiculous to say (as some do) that pets will be present in heaven so far as they are necessary to the happiness of the blessed. Divine goodness cannot be added to. On the other hand, through the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, Christianity locates this ultimate beatitude in the context of the finite goods of the material world (glorified finite goods are still finite) and therefore incorporates an Aristotelian composite happiness into the fullness of the beatific vision.

And so we can recast the “two ends” or “two sorts of happiness” doctrine into an account of happiness as either non-composite (since it consists in the possession of a single infinite good) or composite of a multitude of finite goods; and then see Christianity as a synthesis of both.

Augustine’s account of the immobility of God

Augustine understood the immutability or unchangeability of God to follow from God’s perfect truth. Book IV of De trinitate gives a good number of proof texts:

[T]he essence of God, whereby He is, has altogether nothing changeable, neither in eternity, nor in truth, nor in will; since there truth is eternal, love eternal; and there love is true, eternity true; and there eternity is loved, and truth is loved.

The truth shall make you free.  he says, but from what, except from death, from corruptions, from changeableness? Since truth remains immortal, incorrupt, unchangeable. But true immortality, true incorruptibility, true unchangeableness, is eternity itself.

[T]he Word of God is One, by which all things were made, which is the unchangeable truth, all things are simultaneously therein, potentially and unchangeably; not only those things which are now in this whole creation, but also those which have been and those which shall be.

While in the Aristotelian tradition one tends to base the immutability or immobility of God on his being pure act, Augustine based it on  God’s being truth.

Augustine’s claims are clear enough, but it is easy to visualize them or give examples for them that distort what he is saying. Discussions of unchangeable truths tend to call up mathematical examples, like the unchangeable truth of all triangles having two sides together longer than the remaining one, or the unchangeable truth of 2+3=5. But to use these examples threatens to confuse unchangeable truths with unchangeable objects. Geometrical and arithmetical examples appeal to objects that are not generated or corrupted but seem to exist in some sort of immutable aether – when did “two” come to be? What would it mean for “circle” to corrupt? But the immutability of the objects is utterly unnecessary to what Augustine is saying. The truth of a historical event is just reality of the event, even though the event itself is contingent, unrepeatable, and completely unique. A mobile, changeable  and contingent event is of itself mobile, but the truth of the event – its “being what it is” – is unchangeable. This is one way in which the principle of identity is not a tautology. In saying that being is being or a thing is what it is, we can mean that all reality is true; that, in addition to the contingency or necessity of any given reality, there is also the immutability of the truth that it is contingent or necessary.

In this sense, the divine immutability is a consequence of the plenitude and clarity of his knowledge: that he does not know by learning (that is, in a way that presupposes ignorance). God is mind simply knowing, and not potential to any new truth. Thus, the immobility of God is defined in relation to knowledge, and therefore to an activity of life. One upside to defining the divine immobility through truth is that immobility (or being the “unmoved mover”) is understood as a sort of activity or doing. The immobility of God is not to be understood as freezing him in some sort of lifeless Platonic museum but as being a consequence of his being more alive and active than anything else.

Intellect in reverse

It’s helpful to see the will as intellect-in-reverse. Intellect draws being out of the domain of the real and into the domain of the intentional; the will pushes the intentional into the domain of the real. Generally, we divide them based on which way the arrow of causality is pointing across the division between the intentional and the real.

And on this account it would make just as much sense to call intellect a will-in-reverse.

Lecture on the basis of the Church (pt. II)

In the last lecture we saw that a church is the assembly of worshipers of a divinity, and that there were consequently as many churches as divinities to be worshiped. But to say this takes the church as already given, it does not tell us what thing or experience first causes the unity. We are here interested in what causes and gives unity to the Christian church.

We will give broadly Scriptural reasons for this, though the Scriptures are not the cause of the church (since it existed before them and caused them); we will appeal to some things in sacred tradition, though sacred tradition is not and cannot be the cause of the church. Our interest is not in lobbing volleys of proof texts, but in basing our ideas on a broad and general sense of the Christian movement.

Christ taught. Even bracketing for a moment what he taught, the effect it had was striking. People left behind what they were doing to follow Christ; they did not just listen to him but would seek to live a new life with him. The apostles left their careers to live their lives with Christ, and the desire to be with Christ was strong enough to overcome, say, the aversion and animus between Zealots (Simon) and ex-Tax Collectors (Matthew).  He was followed by the sort of persons who most of all want a new life – prostitutes and the gangster-class of “tax collectors”, and it appears that so long as they kept close to Christ they were able to really live new lives. Considered in this sense, the principle of the Church is the vision of a new life in Christ, with the power to accomplish it. There are three elements to the definition:

1.) Christ gives the power to accomplish a new life. Everyone at some point wants to have a new life: we make new year’s resolutions, we daydream about escaping bad habits, we fantasize about getting a new skill or figuring out what our life is for. The difference with Christ is that his presence brings with it the psychodynamic power and focus that allow us to accomplish a new life. Christ is not merely someone who dispenses an intellectual doctrine or a moral code – which is easy enough to do –  but in addition to this his presence is therapeutic and empowering. Christ brings with him a spirit that can be compared to the energy and relief that Alcoholics get from attending AA meetings. AA certainly has a definite teaching, but this definite teaching is not what is most desirable in it, but rather the power to stop drinking.

2.) This new life is with Christ or in Christ. We cannot sever Christ from the doctrine and have one without the other. Christ is both the teacher of his ideas and the idea which is taught. Christ did not come to teach us Gnostic passwords that could have just as easily been taught from some other teacher, or by a voice from heaven.

3.) The life Christ offers is new. This presupposes another life that is like a default setting. Christ calls this other life “the world”. But what is it?

We might compare it to the modern idiom of “the real world”. When adults scare uppity teens with the specter of “the real world”, what is it that they are talking about? They seem to be speaking of a world where one is on their own, where one is not protected by a Father, where ones life is held in no special esteem. Beyond this, it is a world of pragmatic rule-bending, if not cruelty. It’s all well and good to have high principles and to want peace and love on earth, but they have no place in “the real world”. It is precisely this sort of life Christians are speaking of when they say that they are in the world but not of it. They might suffer under the values of the real world but they do not take their values from it. The Christian cannot believe that he is on his own, in a heartless world, and without the protection of a loving father; he cannot believe that high principles must now and again give way to the heard realities of pragmatic relativism. All this is life in “the world” in opposition to the life of the Christian, which is a life lived with Christ, by the power of the Spirit, in union with the Father.

What do modern sexual ethics look like?

What popular beliefs could we start from if we wanted to prove that some sex act was good or evil?

I leave aside the presence or absence of consent, since this seems to belong to a more general consideration of actions and doesn’t tell us anything peculiar to sex (we would also object to taking someone’s property or baptizing his children without his consent). So where does that leave us?

Adultery still seems to be immoral, so long as we don’t ask anyone to give a reason for this. Perhaps we would only want to call it immoral so far as it was a breach of contract. But this would leave us, again, saying nothing peculiar about sex. So is there just nothing to say? This would be odd – it’s an activity that is at least as significant as money making, but there still seems to be a broad class of immoral ways to make money (e.g. Goldman-Sachs’s stock pumping, Ponzi Schemes, insider trading, etc.)

But what about love? Who could forget about that? Maybe we could get widespread acceptance that sexual activity must be a part of a loving relationship. But “loving” can’t mean just a relationship both parties are at some moment pleased with – we all know disastrous couplings between people who are pleased with each other. But then aren’t we stuck saying that the loving relationship must be objectively good? There seems to be a good deal here – we’ve subordinated the good of sexual activity to the good of human relationships, which links it up to the idea of justice and the common good. There might be enough solid ground here to put a real lever on.  

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