Punishment and dignity

The Catechism criticizes capital punishment as against human dignity. They are in one sense correct since punishment as such is contrary to human dignity at least in this sense: When one does something bad they enter a state of deserving a proportionate pain or loss, and this state as such is contrary to dignity, which is nothing but the state of deserving something good.

Of course, as soon as one suffers his proportionate pain or loss the state of punishment ends and the impediment to dignity is removed, meaning punishment also plays a role in restoring dignity. So punishment is medicinal at least when its completion takes someone out of the state of deserving evil. This is a narrower account of the corrective value of punishment than is usually assumed in liberal societies, as our “correctional facilities” or “reformatories” at least verbally seem to be committed not just to the paying of a pain debt but the transformation of the soul from vice to virtue. We are scandalized by repeat offenders and take them as proof that the prison system “isn’t working” – we even take a law’s inability to stop crimes as proof that the law isn’t working. While laws certainly play a role in making people virtuous, one minimal but essential part of this is simply that they inflict pain and loss, irrespective of what additional moral advance that they might contribute to. One who commits evil needs pain and loss to reëstablish his dignity irrespective of what he does with it once reëstablished, or even if the loss he deserves is the loss of his life.

The material and formal infinite

The first infinite we know is infinite only secundum quid. An infinite number line is still finite in its genus and even in its sub-genus as it doesn’t have quantity like shapes, motions, or times do. If I visualize an infinite white sheetrock wall it is still finite in its color, its material, its position. Thomas calls this the material infinite, and it’s based on the intellectual insight into the division of subject and form. What we visualize as infinite numbers are rather pre-numbers, or a subject considered its its difference to the form of a species of number, just as our infinite wall is just a pre-wall consisting in an intellectual judgment that the subject as such need not end here or there. Our imagined infinities are intellectual insights about the nature of matter, whether as the homogeneity of mathematical quantity or the sensible matter of e.g. sheetrock.

Form is understood in opposition to this above infinity. At first blush, however, it seems like form is a negating or restricting factor since, for example, the form imposed on our infinite sheetrock wall is just that it end when it is e.g. eight feet tall. This overlooks that we only bought the sheetrock in the first place to make our eight-foot wall, and so the material spanning to the proper height is not a negation of a possible infinite but a fulfillment of desire and therefore the good of something ordered to a good.

Aren’t there times when we get material infinity, though? Inertial motion seems like one, and it is a component in any motion. Inertial motion is however not a natural body being fulfilled by its order to the infinite but the absence of self-determination and the consequent inability to cease carrying out the activity of another, irrespective of that other being an agent accelerating it from its rest or decelerating its progress by impediment. The absence of self-activity and self-determination is equally stasis and perpetual motion al la the pail set in motion by the sorcerer’s apprentice.

The material infinite is thus an abstraction from the good, or an insight into how matter is imperfect with indefinite possible perfections and therefore can have indefinite privations. Mathematics by its nature abstracts from these goods and privations, except in the sense that the solution to a problem or equation always has the character of a form and the absence or failure of solution of a privation.

So we understand the object of desire or the good in opposition to the material infinite, and as a consequence we understand all other formal perfections in the same way: true, dignified, existent, definite, actual, powerful, one. Since even a form in matter is proportioned to all the ways in which matter is indefinite, however, form also has its own proper infinity in opposition to matter.

Virtual distinction

If the perfections of an essence are finite in some way then the essence must be realized in diverse supposita to which the essence is in potency. E.g if human nature has finite and therefore incompossible perfections like male and female, introvert and extravert, Jew and Gentile, etc this demands the actualization of the potentials of the essence in multiple supposita of human nature.

In God there is no potency.

So the perfections of the divine essence are not finite in any way.

If a divine perfection were really finite in one sense and not in another they would be finite in some way.

So no divine perfection is finite in one sense and not in another, in e.g. the way an infinite blue cinder block wall would still be finite in its color, position, material, etc.

So while all truths or properties of the divine essence might be distinct in thought, the essence is the identity or negation of distinctions in reality.

Natural Law

I was taught, like most everyone, that natural law was the law of natures, with “natural” meaning whatever was ordered to the flourishing of the thing, e.g. flourishing trees have big, lush leaves and no rot. When we turn to Thomas, however, supposedly the supreme authority on natural law, and find him insisting: 

It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.

The rational creature? Weren’t all natures supposed to be the rule of their action? What does reason have to do with anything? 

There are times when it seems Thomas suggests the “law of natures” reading, like when he says 

Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (Article 1); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.

But the quotation is taken out of context and is speaking about providence and not the natural law.  Though Thomas says that natures “participate” in the eternal law and that natural law is a participation, irrational beings participate by having ends impressed on them as opposed to having them as ends. While the end is a principle of all natural agents, it only perfects the agent when it has the end as pre-possessed, which requires the end be known. The plant is perfected by water only as possessed or consumed, the beast has its sensible powers perfected by seeing water but not in such a way to make it a dominus of its acts of drinking, but only a person has his principles of practical action perfected by pre-possessed end putting him in control of his drinking. 

What I was taught as natural law is providence or the eternal law. Natural law is, as Thomas says, is  providence within providence, or an agent knowingly acting for an end within a cosmos of things unknowingly acting for ends in virtue of someone else’s knowledge. 

Natural law is thus a theory of law primarily interested in seeing the person as dominus of his actions within the context of a providential order. Trying to abstract natural law from the providential order by replacing it with a set of brute given basic goods or a scientific insight into a purely natural order where “nature” is understood as not inherently providential is no longer to talk about what Thomas is talking about, and the critique of natural law as “biologism” or “naturalism” or running afoul of the fact-value problem strikes home against a natural law that sees itself as entirely abstracted from providence. Why so? Because if our acting for an end opposes us to nature rather than being the moment when natural beings recognize the teleology and cognition behind the universe then rationality the reason loses its character as participated law and become either the only law or no law at all. 

Nazarius on Trinitarian Aporias

What trips up many is that they think they are talking about the divine essence as it is in itself while they talk about it as it falls under the diverse conceptions of our intellect: for they consider God as he is understood prior to the the relations and they compare it to the relations as sorts of intrinsic modes, and consider it it to be distinctly both communicable and incommunicable, or such and such an incommunicable person.

In Primam Partem q. 28 a. 2 p. p. 69a

Sed quod multos fallit est, quòd existimantes se loqui de diuina essentia prout in se est, de ea disserunt, ut cadit sub diversis conceptibus nostris: nam contemplantur illum ut praeintelligitur relationibus et comparant eam relationibus tanquam modis quibusdam intrinsicis et considerant seorsum esse communicabile et incommunicabile, et tali vel tail persona incommunicabili…

The key division is between the divine essence (a) in itself and (b) as understood prior to the relations. (a) transcends both the relations and (b), or, for Thomism, there is a virtual distinction between any relation and (b) so far as both are in the formal ratio of (a).

What makes this tricky is that (b) suffices as a unity for many divine attributes, but not obviously for the relations, which helps to explain why Thomas easily and often will subsume the attributes into the essence even in sense (b), but he can’t simply make the relations divine attributes simpliciter. They aren’t, of course, since attributes are only virtually distinct from each other and from (b) while the relations are really distinct from each other. This demands a first account of essence as (b) unifying all attributes simpliciter and a second account of essence as (a) unifying both any relation and essence as (b.) In Thomas, this manifests itself as using the same language to speak about the persons as he uses to speak about the attributes while not simply declaring the persons to be just another attribute.

Universalism vs. action movies

There are a lot of versions of the how could a mother be happy in heaven knowing her child was in hell argument. David Bentley Hart gives one based on the ontology of persons, but it’s easy enough to make the case from the nature of charity. The case is often made easier in that those who argue for the eternity of hellfire are perhaps justifiably hesitant to praise the condemnation of the wicked, and it’s impossible to think that this hesitation or indifference could carry over to the blessed. Hart, for one, takes joy in tossing and goring those who speak of God’s perpetual condemnation of the sinner as just a hard saying we need to accept.

I can’t keep up with Hart’s rhetoric and won’t even begin to try, but for all that his argument can’t even do justice to our experience of watching movies. When you’re watching Die Hard you don’t weep over the death of Hans Gruber or wonder why McClane didn’t do more to save him – you feel both joy and relief to watch him fall to is death, and you’re supposed to. This is what Thomas calls rejoicing in the order of justice that characterizes the blessed in their vision of the damned.

But isn’t there something unchristian in this? Aren’t we supposed to seek out the sinner, love our enemies, and pray for their conversion? This is all true, but none of it is incompatible with rejoicing over the destruction of the wicked. This is clearest in the climax of Return of the Jedi, where in one and the same act we rejoice over the conversion of Vader and the destruction of the Emperor.

If I’m not ashamed for the death of the wicked, why be ashamed of God bringing it about? The universe, like any story, is better with antagonists, which was exactly the lesson we learned from Roddenberry wanting no antagonists on the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation and thereby ruining its first two seasons. The evil of antagonists  is necessary for the good of the story, and we love a universe more with freely acting antagonists than one without them.

But again, one can just insist that it makes no sense for a mother to be happy in heaven when her child is in hell. Maybe so, and this might even have eschatological significance. Either the mother loves God more than her child or she doesn’t: if so, she hates anyone who hates what she loves most e.g. A mother hates a stranger who harms her child since she would hate anyone who hated what she loved most; and if the mother didn’t love God more than her child then, don’t worry, she won’t be in heaven.

Perverted faculties and common goods

The Sexual Revolution occurred parallel to the a largely unnamed revolution in drug use that at its most successful continues to justify and legalize the use of marijuana. Catholicism has shifted its approach to sexual ethics in the wake of the sexual revolution in a way that cuts it off from seeing the connection between sexual ethics and the ethics of recreational psychedelics and marijuana, but the older approach to sexuality would have drawn a connection to the way that both the sexual and psychedelic revolutions err in supposing that any and all private individuals can dispose of common goods however they see fit, which degrades and usurps the common good by treating it as a common one.

It’s axiomatic that common goods can’t be treated as private ones: We can’t put up a private residence in a public park or a private tollbooth on a public road. Public or common goods are for the good of all, and to order them to personal use is the paradigmatic act of the tyrant that the Western tradition rightly recognized as both the greatest evil of human life and its perennial attraction. At its best Enlightenment theories of justice preserved this condemnation of tyrants, but they often did so with individualist theories that carried the danger of making one blind to the reality of common goods and so usurping and degrading them – a criticism of tyrants in the name of making every man a tyrant.

The common good is easiest to usurp when its character as common is hardest to see. Though the sexual faculties are for the good of the species as such and the mind is for the supreme common good of truth, treating one’s sexual faculties or orientation to truth as entirely at one’s private disposal is easy enough to imagine, even while to do so violates the same principle as building a private residence on a public beach, the injury is not as apparent to the imagination. When we describe a perverted use of a sexual or mental faculty, or, what is the same thing, when we say that perverted uses are contrary to nature, we are pointing out the tyrannical appropriation that destroys, degrades, or renders harmful the natural orientation of the faculty to a common good. 

All this helps to show the problem in the objection that arguments against perverted use of the sexual or mental faculties prove too much since they rule out chewing gum, eating food with no nutritional value, or wearing antiperspirants. No! The nutritive powers, immune system, and excretory powers of the person are entirely ordered to his private good in a manner as obvious as the order of reproduction to the species or the mind to truth. All the goofy counter examples dreamt up to criticise Catholic sexual ethics – and I’ve heard everything from walking on one’s hands to wearing antiperspirant in a sauna, and I’ve read them in texts stretching from the 13th Century till yesterday – all miss the point by conflating bona fide private goods and the faculties appropriate to them with common goods and their corresponding faculties. I was just as prone to conflate them as anyone else since the teaching on common goods and moral acts is pretty well hidden in contemporary ethics, but it’s time everyone woke up to a clear view of just what makes perverted faculties perverse.

In fact, if anything the sphere of common goods is gradually increasing to include even what were once private goods. The medieval mind had no category of public health and probably would have seen it as contradictory, but in our own time we are prone to see even the ways in which the use of nutritive powers or one’s own immune system fall under the common good, and so, for example, we’ve mandated the use of vaccines for decades, have all but outlawed smoking, and have asserted a vast amount of public control over food production and consumption. All these are made with appeals to the common good, all by appealing to the same axiom that these sorts of goods cannot be degraded by sheerly private use.

Separate Forms, or an approach to the Fourth Way

1.) There is a thing greater and lesser in goodness, truth, dignity, so there is a subject or potency to something good, true, dignified.

2.) Either everything good, true and dignified is a form in a subject or at least one is not.

3.) If not, this is either because (a) there could be such a form but in fact there is not or (b) such a form could not be.

4.) Neither are true, (a) because it requires the contradiction of a real subject for some form with no subject and (b) because if separated forms were contradictory, then any abstracted form (like a species considered by itself or a mathematical object) would be unintelligible when, in fact, they are more intelligibile. 

5.) So some good, true, dignified etc is not a form in a subject but simply subsistent goodness, truth, dignity, etc. As subsistent it can be neither limited nor multiplied but is infinite and undivided.

Source text for the Fourth Way

All composite and participating beings reduce to things that exist by their essence as to their causes, but all corporeal things inasmuch as they are in act participate in some forms, so there necessarily is a separated substance which is form by its essence that is the principle of corporeal substance.

[O]mnia composita et participantia, reducantur in ea, quae sunt per essentiam, sicut in causas. Omnia autem corporalia sunt entia in actu, inquantum participant aliquas formas. Unde necesse est substantiam separatam, quae est forma per suam essentiam, corporalis substantiae principium esse.

Commentary on the Metaphysics II lec. 2 no 8.

Forms in potentials are caused by another

Otherwise the potential would actualize itself, or simply be actual. It would also sometimes actualize contraries and contradictories at once.

Forms in bodies are forms in potentials (self-evident.)

What is other than forms in bodies is a separated substance (definition). 

So forms in bodies are caused by a separated substance. 

(The Fourth Way uses greater and lesser goods, true, and perfect as the forms in a potential.)

Hervé on a trinitarian aporia

Hervé responds to an aporia: 

Father, Son, and Spirit are really distinct relations

Father, Son and Spirit are really the same as the essence. 

The essence of God has no real distinction. 

Objection para. 196 (volume 2 p. 176) Things that are the same as a third are the same as each other. Since the divine relations of paternity, filiation and passive spiration are the same in reality with the divine essence, therefore they are not distinct from one another. 

Resp: the principle of comparative identity only has force when the things that are one and the same thing as the third in reality and in ratio or formal concept, for the ratio is a comparison happening in the intellect and through the intellect or by formal conceptions. Considered under the aspect of the absolute the divine relations are the same thing both in reality and with the essence, but considered under the aspect of relation as such they are not identified simpliciter with the essence but differ from it virtually or according to concept (cf. para 192). So from the real identity of the relations with the essence it does not follow necessarily their identity among themselves. 

You insist: (1) It’s necessary that A and B be distinguished among themselves in the same way that they are distinguished from C. (2) The divine relations are distinguished from the essence only virtually, so they are distinguished from each other only in ratio (or virtually.)

Response (1) is not true always and absolutely, but only under the supposition that the A and B in their proper ratio are not more opposed to each other in themselves than with the C (ac cum tertio.) And the divine relations, taken precisely, have an opposition to each other that they do not have to the essence. So from the fact that the relations oly differ from the essence in ratio, one is not allowed to infer that they are only distinguished from each other in ratio.  

You continue: But then a new and extraordinary difficulty arises, for it seems repugnant that the same thing, namely the essence, can be the same thing in reality with relations that are really opposed to each other. 

Resp: This would be an evident contradiction of the extremes which were opposed to each other were absolute, for it is impossible that two absolute things A and B be the same absolute thing C and still really opposed to each other since both A and B have a per se reality that is necessarily absent from the other. 

But it is not evidently repugnant that if, as in God, the A and B which are opposed are relative relations of origin and the thing to which they are the same is absolute. For relations are opposed to each other relatively or according to the reciprocal being they have as esse ad. But the ad of itself does not bespeak something real, for the whole reality is from what it is in, which, in this case, is the divine essence. So the divine relations are not real in that by which they are distinguished but more in that by which they agree… 

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