The principle of Plato’s cycle of regimes

1.) Plato calls the perfect regime aristocracy, and he gives four regimes that fall away from it: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.

2.) The regime reflects the character of the persons composing it. The five regimes are really just five relations to the perfect good: one which attains it and four that fall away from it by degrees.

3.) Character is determine by behavior and there are three sources of human behavior:

a.) Reason,

b.) spirit,

c.) appetite.

4.) In Aristocracy, (a) rules over (b) and (c). In living according to reason its actions are chosen as things good in themselves and in accordance with reality.

5.) In timocracy, (b) rules over (a) and (c). The highest goods are the goods of the spirit, sc. honors, glory, the respect and esteem of others, etc. The paradigm was elf this is military glory, though it is more familiar to students through grades and other academic honors. Goods of the spirit are higher than goods of appetite (one can’t buy grades or glory, for example) and spirit keeps strict control over appetite (Achilles is very disciplined and in shape, after all) but for all that the ultimate goal is glory and reputation in the eyes of others, not the value of things in themselves.

6.) In oligarchy, (c) rules over (a) and (b). The highest goods in oligarchy are those that can be bought with money, and so are lower than the goods of timocracy, but the oligarch still makes essential use of reason and spirit. He lives an ordered and disciplined life: getting up every morning to work, saving his money, budgeting, etc. He has a strong moral code that condemns wastefulness, laziness, dependence, leeching off of others…

7.) In democracy, (c) rules over (b) and makes essential use of it, but (a) no longer influences behavior. In democracy things are no longer right or wrong, acceptable or condemned, but everyone is free to do what he wants and define the good as seems right to him. This leads to a profusion of creativity, softheartedness, and praise for the acceptance of others. The rational principle is no longer active, promoting some ways of life as good and others as evil, but nevertheless one value remains beyond appetite, sc. the praise of freedom and equality. The only activities that are condemned are those that restrict freedom or attempt to set up higher and lower ways of life.

8.) In Tyranny, only (c) remains and (b) and (a) no longer contribute anything to life and choice. Even the spirited good of freedom falls away and the tyrant is left only with the fact of his desire. In alienation from reason he can’t do what he wants, and all of his actions are the least free. Release from this way of life is no longer possible by moving up to the middle ways of life. He has to see that any life apart from reason, as such, is miserable. In this sense one can only go from Tyranny to Aristocracy, even if one obviously can’t just leap up to the perfect command of reason.


Plenitude of Christ

As divine person: He is wholly relative and in no way absolute. If one tries to think about just this person in abstraction from the relation to the others, he thinks of absolutely nothing.

As divine nature. He is wholly absolute and in no way relative. If one tries to make him co-exist with anything else – as, say, the highest part of being or the crown of the universe – then he is thinking of nothing at all.

As human nature: He is relative in some ways and absolute in others. Like every instance of human nature he is a relation to his parent and his first ancestor, but he can be considered absolutely as this being.

Subjective theistic morality

Let a theistic theory of morality be objective if it tries to identify some feature of moral law that requires the existence of God. Warburton argues something like this:

Universal obligations come only from God.

The moral law requires universal obligations.

WLC argues something like this:

Life is meaningless without some eschatological fulfillment.

Morality requires that life not be meaningless.

But a theistic theory could also be based on the needs of the subject, i.e. because the subject needs to believe that morality has divine sanction in order for him to act on it. In other words, we can concede that divine revelation or approval makes no difference in the truth of the morality while still insisting that such revelation is necessary on the side of the subject.

Any more or less complete moral theory commits itself to the heroic and/or something extreme and counterintuitive, since any morality that never presents challenges to life as we now live it must have something seriously wrong with it. In keeping with this, Christianity has its call to renunciation and the life of the saints; Singer’s Utilitarianism demands that we give everything beyond what is necessary for existence to third-world nations and treat the action as nothing special or supererogatory; other Utilitarianisms demand that we allow for the in-principle goodness of any species of action (like rape or genocide); Kant’s theory has an absolute prohibition on lying and a demand that the sovereign always use a punishment proportionate to the crime, etc. My claim is that these sorts of strong, counterintuitive and highly costly demands have to find some place in any fully developed morality, if not, then the morality is committed to the even more counterintuitive claim that everyone is, for whatever reason, equally close to the moral ideal.

But there is a big difference between believing that reason for Peter Singer demands some strong counterintuitive conclusion and believing that God demands it. It’s not just that God has access to a far sweeter and more horrible palate of rewards and punishments (although this matters) but there is also the sense that God has a way of ending the debate and confronting us with the need to either choose or reject whatever we think he revealed. After Singer has spoken I am quite confident that the moral debate goes on, but after I’m convinced that God has spoken the moral debate is much more decisively brought to a close, even when I’m convinced that both God and Peter Singer are speaking the truth. After Singer convinces me he’s spoken the truth I can still hold out for some new distinction he missed, some subtle flaw in his theory that neither of us was clever enough to see, or perhaps I can just laugh over losing the argument and play a game of Backgammon. After I’m convinced God has spoken, all these alternatives are closed off to me.

So if morality demands that at some point we stop reasoning and start acting, and if it demands also the costly and counterintuitive that we can easily put off whenever we are convinced on non-divine authority, then morality is dependent on theism on the side of the subject.





Two puzzles of violence

Catholic critics of Pinker’s Better Angels have pointed out that he doesn’t include abortion as an example of violence, and a fortiori he doesn’t include pill-induced abortifacients that prohibit implantation of fertilized eggs. There are other modern innovations that deserve mention: COFA lots for cattle, scientific animal testing, animal extinction caused by human expansion, factory farming (especially of chickens), lifelong prison terms, etc. My point isn’t to criticize Pinker’s thesis but to articulate a puzzle about recognizing violence. Violence is against one’s will, but (a) it is not clear how far willing extends and (b) even if we can figure this out, still, nothing is necessarily good because humans or animals want it, and so nothing is necessarily evil for contradicting desire.

(a) The first problematizes any sort of violence not inflicted on full-grown humans. I can make sense of causing animals pain, but is this acting against their will? One supposes that abortifacient pills don’t count as violence for the same reason: what sense is there to contradicting the will or desire of a single-celled organism? If this is violence, then antibiotics is genocide, right? I know intellectually that when I spray Raid in a room the mosquitoes and flies are dying a slow and painful death, but I honestly feel nothing about this. I know others who are bothered by killing mice with glue traps, but this causes (at most) a faint and momentary twitch on whatever meter measures my moral concern. So I know that I can tolerate some degree of slow and painful animal death, the question is simply a matter of drawing a line past which something deserves to be called “violence”. True, there are some easy calls, but this still allows for billions of instances of torture and death to fall into disputed territory, which is exactly the sort of thing that might problematize the thesis that violence is declining.

(b) The main difficulty is that violence is always condemned within a theory of justice. Sometimes cruelty is an easy call, but figuring out whether killing animals or non-sentient fetal humans is cruel and violent is much more dependent on our theory of justice. We are horrified when Pinker narrates the tale of a cat-burning, which apparently was a popular theater event a few centuries ago, but if we view the matter in cold logic we can sympathize with our ancestors who didn’t share our moral horror. If I can butcher a cow because I enjoy the steaks, why can’t I burn a cat because I’m amused by its screams? A cat, after all, is self-evidently a non-person, and everyone is familiar with arguments that take it as axiomatic that non-persons have no rights that a man is bound to respect.


Losing the war

For Plato, the rule of money arises from disillusion with the belief that war gives glory. Battle ceases to be seen as the supreme proof of manhood and comes to be seen with horror and contempt. Put in pop-art terms, we go from a John Wayne depiction of war to the depiction of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or Apocalypse Now. Told from the later point of view, we’ve shed naive rah-rah nationalism and awoken to the horror of war. We’ve finally seen the reality behind the scenes, and now know that war is just a cynical power-grab that is inflated with propaganda until the poor are willing to kill and die for the benefit of those who have much to gain and little to lose.

The older world of heroism and battle glory deserves a right to respond to what replaced it, and their best response is probably this: any account of the life worth living will take willingness to sacrifice for good as a measure of virtue, but the common goods of the regime are the highest goods and life the highest sacrifice. A cynical view of war as such is impossible, and it in fact misses what would be so wrong with war if it really were like what its critics say it is. A war that is for the private good of the few deprives it of exactly the sort of good that is worth both dying and killing for. The dissolution with war is from a betrayal, but one can only be betrayed by things meant to be good.

This account, however, leaves out that our contemporary dissolution with war arises from the sense that war itself has changed to the point where heroism is no longer possible, or at least that any example of heroism is dwarfed and eclipsed by the horrors of mechanization and technology. Battle heroism threatens to be as quaint and absurd as Don Quixote (and Quixote himself seems to both recognize and repeatedly make this point in his own way). So sure, assume that Pinker is right that the An Lushan Revolt was statistically more bloody than both the World Wars, and a fortiori more bloody than Verdun or Hiroshima – it will still makes a difference if you get to meet your death face to face with another  and with a sword in your hand than if everyone is unsuspectingly and randomly vaporized from miles away. It’s not the numbers or proportions of killing that tell the story, but horror that technology might have severely alienated the ancient connection between battle and honor. It’s this depersonalizing of war that we find horrible, not the per capita body counts.

This alienation leaves us with two options. Having lost the middle-ground of honor and the goods of the spirited man, we either have to ascend to logos or descend to the rule of appetite, which latter begins with the worship of wealth before collapsing into the love of unprincipled freedom and, finally, to the tyrant who promises to save us from it. The love of honor, chivalry, battle glory, etc. were never the highest life, but they played a crucial role in elevating the lower passions. Obviously the fulfillment of spirit is still to some extent possible, but it has (arguably) lost its paradigm fulfillment in war-heroism. This is a different but perhaps more vexing and irremediable way in which the contemporary world makes “men without chests”. There is no transformation of violence but only a universal condemnation of it, and since violence just is what is contrary to the will we are left only able to persuade others to goodness. The persuasion of Socrates, however, is not the persuasion of the sophists.

Active participation in the liturgy

You are trapped behind enemy lines and can communicate with the resistance only by picking up the radio broadcasts they make from far on the other side of the line. In such a state, the best way to actively take part in the resistance building a radio.

But christianity sees this as the basic state of life in the world, i.e. the state of the Ecclesia militans. The greatest active participation one can make with the cause of heaven is to build what detects and broadcasts its signals. This is above all change of heart supplemented by all the familiar disciplines of the church.

My point is not to critique the idea that active participation involves the laity speaking during the liturgy (I’m pretty sure such a critique can’t be made, and I don’t see any way to read Sacrosanctum Consilium except as insisting on greater verbal and visible liturgical activity by the laity) but to contextualize any verbal or gestural involvement in the liturgy within the change of heart that both laity and clergy are called to make in order to fulfill the command of active participation.

Reduction to the intelligible


1a.) Lassie is a dog

1b.) Fido is a dog.

1c.) McGruff is a dog.


2a.) Light moves at 300,000 km/ sec

2b.) Magnetism moves at 300,ooo km/ sec

2c.) Radio waves move at 300,000 km/ sec.

Both historically and by experience, the response to the (2’s) is to believe that there is no difference between the things but they are simply modes (or perhaps mere arbitrary verbal distinctions) between one and the same concrete reality, sc. the EM-spectrum. There is, so we think, no difference between light and magnetism. The two have been unified. I suppose we could think the same thing about Lassie and Fido (if we were extreme Platonists) and we might even think this if we did generic-evolutionary work on dogs that, say, unified them with wolves or rat-sized-proto-dogs or whatever. Surprising genera are replacements for their subsets in a way that familiar ones are not.

The point here is not critique but to illustrate an ambivalence we have about the reality of the general to its subset (whether a species or individual). The fight between Plato and Aristotle is happening here, and trinitarian their gives the reason why: the only way to allow for the reality of both the concrete and abstract is to ascend to the divine.


Trinitarian aporetic syllogisms

While teaching class, I was halfway through giving an objection to the trinity…

The Father is God

The Son is not the Father

therefore, the Son is not God.

but before I could write the conclusion I saw it was invalid. It would be like arguing

Lincoln was president

Clinton was not Lincoln,

Therefore Clinton was not president.

In the case of the trinity, one can attempt to save the objection by asserting a numerical identity between a person of the trinity and God, where x and y are numerically identical whenever it’s true to say both x is y and y is x. But then we commit ourselves to

God is the Father

The Son is not the Father

The Son is not God.

The syllogism is valid, but the problem, of course, is that no trinitarian has ever asserted the major premise. God is not the Father precisely because God is triune.

But this seems to give us another problem, based on laying out the two great mysteries of the faith:

God is triune/ the trinity

Jesus is God

Therefore, Jesus is the trinity

So why can we accept each premise but not the conclusion? Probably for the same reason we do it here:

Whoever calls you an animal speaks the truth

Whoever calls you a jackass calls you an animal.

Therefore, whoever calls you a jackass speaks the truth.

In fact, any two things that share a property can be proved the same by a formally valid syllogism:

Whoever calls (thing 1) a (name the property) speaks the truth

Whoever calls (thing 1) a (thing 2) calls it (name the property)

So I am president, a woman, blessed, damned and even Unitarian! Hey, they’re all human, right?

The point is that it’s not enough to have the same term be both subject and predicate, the mode of predication has to be the same. So “God is triune/ the trinity” is said in the mode of identity (if all one means by this is that the terms are convertible) but “Jesus is God” is not said according to the mode of identity.

Notes from 11-29

-Spacetime = The state where things cannot have all their goods. I can either have the comforts of home or the beauty of Paris, the energy of youth or the experience of age. The properly eternal leaves this behind.

-I can make sense of “the cake is done now” but one needs pretty peculiar circumstances to say “2+2=4 right now”. A clock is simply not a useful measuring tool for whatever exists as an equation. Even if we imagine some things as true at all times, what this means is that differences in time make no difference in the thing.

-Evil involves taking one good so as to be unable to take the one we wanted. Evil therefore exists only in time. At the limit case (hell) all the goods we reach for make us unable to get the one we wanted.


Punishment and proportionality

A: So you’re saying if I allow for any punishment, I have to allow for every punishment?

B: Exactly, though you left off my insistence that I was speaking in principle.

A: So if I allow any punishment in principle, then I have to allow every punishment in principle.

B: Now that’s exactly right.

A: But that sounds as ridiculous and morally repugnant as what I said before. If I allow you to give parking tickets I have to allow you to flay people alive?

B: In principle?

A: Yes, fine, I have to allow in principle that you can flay them alive?

B: Right.

A: That’s nonsense.

B: Isn’t punishment just giving someone what’s deserved?

A: I guess.

B: And by “deserved” you mean greater punishments for greater crimes and lesser for lesser?

A: Yes.

B: But the only limit you could put on this would require saying that there is a limit to how great a crime could get. Is there any such limit?

A: No, crimes can get worse without limit. But there has got to be some other limit that kicks in.

B: Like what?

A: At some point trying to proportion the punishment to the crime will require us to be cruel and inhuman.

B: Based on what you’ve agreed to, this is the same thing as saying “At some point justice no longer becomes possible”.

A: Right.

B: And it becomes impossible because it is no longer a virtue, but is cruel and inhuman?

A: Right. Giving the worst offenders what they deserve would mean breaking them at the wheel or flaying them alive, and asking someone to do that isn’t just.

B: But what you’re saying is that at some point justice is not a virtue, and this is nonsense. I can understand some amount of drinking that is no longer a virtue, but not some amount of temperance that fails to be.

A: Why can’t there simply be limits on justice? Why assume that human justice is infinite, or that it has an answer to every problem? Why doesn’t this place in principle limits on what we can do?

B: You can’t just assume that limits like that are in place.

A: Fine, I’ll argue for them. Any principle pushed to extremes distorts the very virtue it once gave rise to, and the principle of proportionate punishment is just such a principle. QED.

B: Is that true of a principle like “don’t kill the innocent” too?

A: No, that seems less like a principle and more like a tautology. “Innocent” just means “those who should not be harmed”

B: That’s its etymology, sure, but there’s probably the same thing between just or fair and proportionate.  What you call “tautology” I just call insight.

A: That might all be right, but I can’t get past the idea of proportionality only working within limits, even if I don’t know what the argument looks like for it. Crimes that are too unusually cruel simply can’t be met with the cruelty they deserve. There is some in-principle limit on how far one can push cruelty. The line won’t be drawn everywhere equally, but it has to be somewhere.

B: So the limits of proportionality would be historically variable?

A: Right. So maybe when the murder rate was astronomically higher in the Middle Ages (didn’t Steven Pinker prove this somewhere?) then racking and burning wasn’t beyond the limits. Who knows, maybe the limits were all but unreachable. But now it’s at least arguable that deliberate killing is so rare that even state killing is beyond the in-principle limits of how far punishments can go.

B: You want to argue that certain punishments were once right in principle but now no longer are, based on limits to proportionality that are somehow measured by what is cruel and unusual by variable social standards?

A: Yes. Proportionality has an in-principle limit by what is cruel or unusual, but what falls under this description will be variable.


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