Infinite regress

The Hellenic-Medieval rejection of infinite regress is axiomatic when we get a clear view of what is being rejected. We get a typical example of the claim in Nic. Eth. I. c. 2:

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

The infinite series in question is of things desired for the sake of something else, and an infinite regress of such final causes is impossibleWhy?

Imagine going to a bar, ordering a Long Island Ice Tea, and getting a series of things that are useful for the drink: hi ball glass, ice cubes, swizzle stick, drink napkin, etc. after this goes on for a while, you ask when the drink is coming and the bartender tells you that at this bar you only get things that can be used for drinks, but not drinks themselves. Such a bar would be pointless, or – to use Aristotle’s 19th Century English – “empty and vain”. It has the whiff of a Twilight Zone episode.


More common forms of pride

Luciferian pride might be the paradigm for pride but it is a relatively rare instance of it. Pride in this sense is the conviction that one is the source of his own existence, but outside of atheist existentialism and a few contemporary movements that speak for a small percentage of the population, few think that their identity is whatever they will it to be. In general, pride is any disorder in our natural love of self or desire for approval, and three far more common occurrences are:

1. ) The belief that the approval of others will make one happy. It’s relatively difficult to believe that pleasure will make one happy, but it is much easier to think that being loved, esteemed, and respected by ones peers could make us happy. This is a typical American sense of success in life, and it’s what we mean (within broad parameters of what counts as acceptable) by someone who’s made it. What is left to accomplish after others love and value what we do and who we are? Isn’t that enough?

2.) Playing up one’s excellences and downplaying or ignoring one’s faults. This is a fantastically stupid life strategy since to have such a carnival-mirror image of oneself is almost guaranteed to lead to failures in whatever we try to do, and any self-improvement requires that we at least acknowledge what needs to be improved, but the short-term benefits of self-distortion are clear enough.

3.) Using different criteria to evaluate our own actions and those of others. You’re late because you’re lazy and self-centered, I’m late because I have a good reason; your tics are infuriating and mine are endearing, etc.  This is another carnival-mirror distortion of the world that makes it very difficult to discern what is real and what the true significance of things is.


The scariness of moral history

Tacitus saw history as fundamentally moral: the goal was to record the actions of good and evil men so that neither would be forgotten. This moral stance is basically unavoidable – it’s not as if any textbook presentation of the civil rights movement or WWII will give a sympathetic presentation of Germans or Southerners, even in straining to simply lay out the facts of the conflict.

That said, the blind spot in our moral presentation is usually that we can only identify with the bad guy though guilt or condescension. If the bad guy is us, we’re supposed to feel guilt; if he’s the other guy we congratulate ourselves on an unearned moral superiority. I’m an American, and we beat the Nazis! I’m a German, forgive me my crimes!

But neither cheap grace nor kowtowing is morally useful and both injure self-understanding. Given that mass movements, by definition, are things adopted by most of those who were close to it, we can’t understand mass movements until we understand them as something we would have believed in or at least sympathized with. This does not mean that we have to stop seeing it as evil – in fact this is exactly what it takes to understand good and evil. One of our deepest moral mistakes is to think that to understand evil is the same as forgiving it and/ or to think that understanding goodness is the same as having the moral strength to do it.

The goal of education is to see two sides of an argument without collapsing into relativism or skepticism but rather maintaining a clear sense of the right and good. History plays an important role in this sort of education, but only after we drop the moral obtuseness of thinking that evil is either easy to see or easy to avoid. Doing this requires a scary degree of sympathy with the bad guys, and the danger that, though our presentation,  we might even convince the uninitiated and those with less moral development to sympathize with the devil.

The fulness of the contemplative life

The Ethics proposes the life of contemplation (θεωρητικός) as the ideal life. The word suggests theorizing, abstraction, and the stillness of one cut off from interaction. An Aristotelian mind, however, is not limited to simply abstractions but is a faculty of being as such, and being is broader than the abstract. θεωρητικός in fact describes any insight, and Aristotle did more than anyone to extend the sense of the term beyond theorizing to experimentation, insight from experience, learning by doing, and even the deepened appreciation of the whole range of possible experiences and objects  One kind of contemplation requires stillness and distance, another the intensity of an immediate experience or of long-repeated activity;* one kind requires abstracting from particulars and leaving details aside, another the exhaustive appreciation of the totality of details.

STA raises the happiness of contemplation to the beatific vision, and in doing so he sees happiness as consisting in the subsistent plenitude of all perfections. So sure, all our theories of the world are complete in the vision of God, but there is also the fulfillment of whatever reality there is to learning by experience, or the experience of sensuality, or the knowledge acquired by practice and physical training, along with the attainment of all the diverse sorts of insight that arise from the diverse genders, personalities, historical circumstances, intellectual abilities, stages of life, vocations in the kingdom, etc.

In fact, those enjoying beatitude must be dilated to a point which, in fulfilling the self,  obliterates all that is familiar to us in it. The unique limitations of sexuality, personality, language, historical circumstance, personal experience… and all such things ad infinitum need to be transcended in beatitude, which is at least part of the reason why Paul, in reporting his vision of beatitude, could not even relate it as though it were a moment in his own life.

*There is a crucial distinction between the active life and the knowledge one acquires by the active life. The first is opposed to the life of contemplation, but the second is, considered in itself, itself a sort of contemplation.

Free will and final causality

Sam Harris’s argument against free will starts with the interior observation that thoughts just come to us from we-know-not-where or fail to come to us for we-know-not-why. What could it mean to choose something deliberately or be responsible when the parameters of choice are not given to us, nor the various possible motives we might act from?

As mentioned in the past, all contemporary neuroscience-informed arguments against free choice confuse Buridan’s Ass Decisions with rational-moral ones, the former which need to be made by humans, animals, and even computers while we treat the latter as made by only humans. There is, however, another element that neuroscience is noticing but which it might not have the tools to recognize: the universal determination to arete or the striving in all agents to be the best of their kind.

In the ancient-medieval scheme, free choice was only a deliberation over means. The end was given, and any end that wasn’t could only be a means to a necessarily willed end about which neither man nor God had any say whatsoever. Since means are ontologically posterior to an end (even if they exist first in time) free choice is ontologically posterior to something that is not an object of choice.

The problem is that when we lose sight of the universal determination to arete then the end is still seen as determined, but lost sight of as good. But then, in good logic, all the means to it cease to be good as well and one is left only with a structure that comes out of nowhere and in which we make meaningless determinations on the basis of arbitrary criteria. The structure of decision is no longer an order to goodness, but then deliberation loses any possible object or even reason to exist.

The modern sense of determinism is therefore immediately implicit in the denial of final causality in nature.


The lost anathemas of Vatican II

Vatican II was a pastoral council, and the chief structural difference this gives it to previous councils is that it declared no anathemas. This is, however, simply a matter of style: Vatican II declares all sorts of things true, and this commits it to the condemnation of all that is contrary to the claims.

Sure, that last claim was a little quick: among other reasons, one need not issue a formal condemnation of every falsehood. Nevertheless, it’s fun to rewrite the claims of the council as anathemas, and it helps to draw out a dimension of the documents that is easy to overlook in their familiar dialectical-optimism. If nothing else, it would make for an interesting twitter feed.

Where to start? I happen to be teaching social theories now, so after teaching Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Marx I moved on to Catholic Social theory as presented in the catechism of Vatican II. So I’ll start with this:

1878 All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God.

1879 The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.

What cheery, welcoming, upbeat stuff!

Now rewrite the lost anathemas:

Whoever says that the love of neighbor is separable from the love of God, let him be anathema. 

Whoever says that the likeness of the person to God is only in his individual powers or traits and not in his communion with other persons, let him be anathema. 

Whoever says that society is an extraneous addition to the human person and comes into existence wholly by contract, let him be anathema.


The Ancien Régime and its secular democratic replacement

(Every year around January 21 – the date of the execution of Louis XVI – I try to write an account of the difference between the Ancien Régime and the modern secular democratic world. I missed the anniversary this year and started writing this as a follow-up to yesterday’s discussion about common life and liberty in the modern world, but it ended up being about the difference between the Ancien Régime and the post-Revolutionary world, and so I’ll consider my duty discharged for this year.)

Again, the common life proposed by the Left has two elements: (1) an advance of secular democracy and (2) the collective, rational, planned provision for basic needs.

At first blush the two seem to have a practical contradiction, since secular democracy obliterates hierarchy while collective rational planning requires the rule of experts. Both the early progressives and communists insisted that they were both the majority and the elite vanguard, notwithstanding the apparent contradiction in being both the chosen few and the humble masses. The Leftist account, therefore, needs a [myth/ theory] of the mystical unity of elites and the masses.

This account came from Marx’s theory of alienation, i.e. the theory that a class or an individual could be alienated from himself and therefore be his own enemy. The proletariat – i.e. any member of an oppressed class – just is his interests, and so whoever failed to advance these interests was not a proletariat, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Contrariwise, to advance the interests of these groups is not a matter of how one looks but of what he does.

In one sense the theory of alienation is as old as the hills, and is even self-evident. If a person infallibly acted in his own best interest then we would not need parents or civil authority, and so we have to distinguish the true interests, and therefore true identity of group X from what any particular X might happen to want. What’s interesting about Marxist alienation is that those who speak in the interest of the group claim to do so not on the basis of familial relations or claims to divine right but scientific findings, and the crucial difference between parents and priests on the one hand and scientists on the other is the necessity of love. Parents and priests are fathers and mothers, and even if some father doesn’t love his children, he is alienated from himself when he fails to do so. But scientists seem to take a certain pride in their indifference to the object of study (i.e. “being objective”). Skinner wasn’t a father to his rats, and being so would have arguably gotten in the way of what he was trying to do.

There is no contradiction in the Leftist vision, only a reformulation of republicanism or the mixed regime. Democracy and Aristocracy are brought together by a powerful myth-truth of alienation, whereby one gets both the energy and justification of the demos and the cleverness of the scientific elite. That said, any sense of fatherhood is not only cast out but viewed as degrading. Secular egalitarianism can’t be squared with divine paternity as secular or with any paternal authority as egalitarian, and this has been a feature of secular democracy from the beginning.


Liberty and the common life

One of the dominant Enlightenment notions of liberty is whatever the law leaves undetermined, which is why Hobbes takes it as axiomatic that the greatest liberty of the citizen is the silence of the law.  This was in accord with the older sense of the term liberty which was what we now call free time, i.e. we were “at liberty” in that domain where nothing was scheduled or required for persons to do together.

This division of life into law and liberty was thus the same sort of division that schools or monasteries make into [class time/ structured time] vs. [recreation/ free periods]. The crucial point is that the free period is always contextualized: it’s not as if the monks can use recreation time to open strip clubs or recruit for Scientology, and students are continually trying to negotiate and expand just how much they are allowed to do during free periods or open gym.

Again, Liberty presupposes a common life just as free time does. Liberty is in fact one aspect of a shared life. To the extent that we have no agreement about this shared life, therefore, our notion of liberty unavoidably consists in little more than an arbitrary antagonism between those who exercise authority and those who fall under it.

The Left has had a clear sense of the shared life for well over a century as the advance of social justice, which had a Gospel variant but is now safely secular. “Social justice” has two main components: (1) the increase of democracy, i.e. the maximizing of equality by the elimination of hierarchy and (2) the prioritization of meeting basic needs by collective action. Like any notion of shared life it is a critique of the extent of liberty, which, from the perspective of the Left, can only be that part of the secular life of social justice that persons can determine for themselves.

The Right is the numerically larger but more diffuse and unprincipled group that resists the Left’s account of a shared life. At one of its fringes the Right goes so far as to claim that liberty is the common life, arguing that collective action is simply violence and needs to be maximally contained or even eliminated altogether, and at another fringe it sees the collective life as blood and nation, but neither fringe has marshaled enough support to mount a lasting or serious challenge to the Left. The only power of the Right is its numbers, and its numbers arise only from the vast multitude of incompatible ways that people can be against secular egalitarian internationalist collectivism. This is why, say,  Americans might have twice as many professed conservatives as liberals, but the conservatives include everyone from Monarchists to Anarchists, Evangelical Christians to Objectivist Atheists, Natural law moralists to Cutthroat pro-corporation shills.

Both the Right and Left make appeals to liberty and to rights, but even if the appeals have real effects it is hard to take them seriously as moral claims. The Left allows liberty only in a context that is so overdetermined that anyone not of the Left will take it as a joke – my liberty is only what I can do in my free time in support of secular egalitarianism. The Right tries to pick away at the Left’s vision of the common life by appealing to various liberties like free speech or free exercise of religion (and, once upon a time, free association) but, again, liberties are only intelligible in the context of a vision of the common life and the Right has none to offer outside of its various small incompatible fringes.


Freedom and evil

To insist that freedom requires the ability to do evil is either to deny freedom to God and the blessed or to say that the will is just as fulfilled by evil as by good. Both options have their horrors: The first seems to make the blessed into zombies or even to deny any reason to praise them (As Paul Draper put it, why praise a God who must do the good he does? Isn’t this like praising stones for falling?) the second is nihilism, and it ends up teaching that greatness of will is only greatness in willing, no matter what one chooses.

Most Christians are as caught in this problem as everyone else, given that the typical response to the existence of evil is some appeal to freedom, usually devotionalized as “the ability to love God” or “God making creatures who could love him freely”.

Action is structured by necessity since any peculiar ability to do something needs a peculiar object, and so for it to act at all requires the tendency to that object. In this context, “good” simply means hitting the object and evil is every other possibility, but the tendency to the good is ineradicable and not an object of free choice. This explains several otherwise bizarre and seemingly outmoded claims of pre-modern thought like:

1.) Every action, even of the inanimate, is for a good. This claim followed simply from the action arising from a definite power, and that we can make sense of the power either being exercised or impeded. Inertial accounts of motion did not changed this but changed our sense of what bodies could be said to be up to. The exercise of a power now seems to mean something other than a single body in isolation acting or resting in itself, and so lost a good in itself as a single body. Individual physical actions as physical lost an absolute description and so an absolute good. The only absolute good left for the physical as such was the universe universing.

2.) A cognitive power is infallible with regard to its proper object. The claim strikes many readers of the Aristotelian tradition as so bizarre that it is passed over in silence. But the basic claim is only that any action necessarily attains its proper object, and so in the case of a cognitive power it will attain a necessary truth.

3.) The privation account of evil. Students imagine this requires that those who do evil are trying to reach a destination called “nothing”. All it means in fact is that they pick means that can’t get them to the good they seek necessarily.

Evil and objects of free choice both arise because some of the means to the good-we-necessarily-will do not necessarily attain it. Some means can attain it and others can’t, and the first can be freely chosen, while the second cannot be objects of choice except accidentally. We can be responsible for picking a means that cannot attain a good but there is an incoherence in saying we choose it since we can only choose a means to some goal and so what cannot attain a goal cannot count as a means either.

So how can we choose a “means” that cannot be a means? For human beings in via ignorance does much of the work, whether it is the ignorance of not knowing something or of not thinking about what we happen to know. For angels or separated souls outside of the beatific vision the problem is much more difficult and it is not clear that we have any satisfactory answer. For Eastern Christians, the consensus seems to be that repentance is possible for anything south of heaven, and, though the fires of Hell might be eternal the presence of any persons in them need not be. Western christians are more conflicted (especially of late) but seem to allow for a fixity of the will to means that cannot attain supernatural goods, though perhaps all this means is that such means are no longer offered.


1.) Perception and judgment: A speck inside the eye is perceived as an object outside the eye while needing to be judged as a symptom of something in the eye. All of the objects of metaphysics and theology are like this: we might perceive actions as interactions, God and the world as forming two parts of a pyramid of being, self action as opposed to being a secondary cause, one substance as one numerical unit, individuals as necessarily different from their types and types from their existence… but to judge that these perceptions (which are really the detritus of thinking with images) are the objects of thought would be to chase an illusion – a frantic attempt at muffling the room to stop the ringing in our ears.

2.) Knowers are not subjective as knowers: Describing cognition as subjective is fundamentally cartesian, and it presupposes the fear that, in fact, we might not have any objects at all. In speaking of a human subject we are implicitly saying “Even if I assume there is no world outside myself, at least I am a subject”. Well, sure, but all this means, as Descartes said flat out, is that even if we did not think of an exterior world we would still exist. 

But what happens when, like Descartes, we become convinced that we know an exterior world? Then it is no longer adequate to describe knowledge as belonging to a subject, except in the vacuous sense of saying “whatever knows, also exists”. What we now need is something that makes the knower more than a subject. It is precisely breaking out of subjectivity that constitutes knowers as such.

In other words, once we become convinced of an exterior world (i.e. that we know stuff) we are not constituted by subjectivity or consciousness but objectivity as such. It is only by our being another beyond our subjective selves that we are knowers.

It is not our subjectivity that constitutes us as knowers, but the exterior world itself giving rise to an objective existence in addition to subjective existence. One and the same form that makes cats exist (and which is more or less perfectly realized in its substrate) is the same form that gives rise to knowledge in those who know it (though it is, again, more and less perfectly realized in the diverse intelligences).

In human beings, this form is known by sense, and so is not entirely objective. Sensation can, in the end, only report its own alterations, and it is unable to tease out how much of the alteration is due to the object from how much is due to itself. In this sense, forms that we know are never purely objective but involve both taking form from the world and putting form back into it. Human knowledge is only purely objective so far as it is speaking by negation or so far as it says that something is. It must call upon sense to say what the world is, which always consists in reports the organ gives on its own alteration.

In angels, the single form is not taken from sense but from the angels own essence. The angel is thus infinitely closer to the sense world than human beings and is much more involved with its tending and care. Nevertheless, this world is drawn forth from the angel as given (whether to theoretical or practical knowledge) and so its existence is already a fait accompli. In this sense the knowledge of the angel can only come to a world that is already there and cannot give rise to its existence. This requires something analogous to subjectivity




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