Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Jerome's Virgin

Besides being a memorial for St. Robert Southwell, Martyr, it is also a memorial for St. Pietro Damiani, Doctor of the Church, and perhaps the most important theologian associated with the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century. He is most famous today for his De divina omnipotentia, in which he considers what was historically called Jerome's Virgin and comes up with a controversial answer.

Jerome in one of his letters (Ad Eustochiam) advises a young woman to guard her virginity because it cannot be restored if lost, and he goes so far as to say that even God cannot restore a virgin. This letter came up in a discussion St. Peter Damian had with Benedictine monks at the monastery of Monte Cassino, and the abbot proposed a line of reasoning for saying that it was true, which required saying that God cannot do it because He does not will to do it. St. Peter wants to disagree with this. Obviously we do not want to go around saying that God can't do anything He doesn't will; that would mean, for instance, that God cannot make it rain today because He did not make it rain. This guts omnipotence of all force, and God ends up not being able to do anything that He does not actually do.

If we accept this, though, it introduces a complication in understanding Jerome's claim. St. Peter notes that obviously the claim cannot mean that God cannot undo any physical changes associated with loss of virginity; and likewise it cannot mean that God cannot by forgiveness and grace restored any purity associated with virginity. So the only thing the claim can mean is that God cannot make a non-virgin a virgin. Or on a more general level, since the asymmetry between virginity and nonvirginity is due to change through time: God cannot make the past not be the past. St. Peter denies that this is obviously true: God can, perhaps, make the past not be the past. Our assumption that God cannot (if we have that assumption) is like the abbot's idea that God cannot do something He does not.

Obviously it's the case that we must maintain the principle of noncontradiction. Damiani has occasionally been accused of throwing over noncontradiction, but this is quite clearly a misreading of his claims. But omnipotence requires that God omnia possit, can do all, in some sense of the term. We can make sense of saying that God can do all without also committing ourselves to the claim that God can do contradictions -- contradictions don't usually fall under 'all'. But what is the contradiction in claiming that God can make the past not to be the past? We can't do that, since we only have power over the future. But why can't divine omnipotence have power over the past as well as the future? We often talk about the necessity of the past -- but what is the actual necessity? We often say the past cannot be changed -- but by that we mean that our limited natural powers cannot do it, and what makes it so that unlimited divine power cannot?

Damiani's primary point in all of this is that when you are talking about omnipotence, you should never say "can't" lightly. If you cannot identify an actual contradiction, you don't have grounds for saying God can't do it. Going around saying that God can't do this, or that God can't do that, is a form of recklessness. As it happens, though, he thinks that in the case of Jerome's Virgin (and, more broadly, undoing the past) we can, in fact, identify a contradiction: it involves claiming that what God wills God also does not will. It's not the case that God can't do it because He does not will to do it; it's that it can't be done because it requires both willing and not willing it. (This is analogous to, but not quite the same as, what will be St. Anselm's slightly later and more widely popular response to the same problem, which argued for a distinction between antecedent and consequent necessity.)

You can read St. Peter Damian's De divina omnipotentia online in Spade's translation (PDF)

[ADDED LATER: Fixed a very confusing sentence that seemed to contradict everything else because it was originally in a different context.]

Man's Soul of Endless Beauty Image Is

Today is the feast of St. Robert Southwell, Martyr and poet. Under Queen Elizabeth I, he was tortured and then executed at Tyburn on 21 February 1595, and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Two of his poems:

Scorn Not the Least
by St. Robert Southwell

Where wards are weak and foes encount'ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race:
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman's pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe;
The lazar pined while Dives' feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

Look Home
by St. Robert Southwell

Retirëd thoughts enjoy their own delights,
As beauty doth in self-beholding eye ;
Man's mind a mirror is of heavenly sights,
A brief wherein all marvels summëd lie,
Of fairest forms and sweetest shapes the store,
Most graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.

The mind a creature is, yet can create,
To nature's patterns adding higher skill ;
Of finest works with better could the state
If force of wit had equal power of will.
Device of man in working hath no end,
What thought can think, another thought can mend.

Man's soul of endless beauty image is,
Drawn by the work of endless skill and might ;
This skillful might gave many sparks of bliss
And, to discern this bliss, a native light ;
To frame God's image as his worths required
His might, his skill, his word and will conspired.

All that he had his image should present,
All that it should present it could afford,
To that he could afford his will was bent,
His will was followed with performing word.
Let this suffice, by this conceive the rest,—
He should, he could, he would, he did, the best.

Experience and Evaluation

...a person destitute of taste for music will consider any attempt to explain, in methodical language, the toto-coelo difference in kind between the effect caused on the mind respectively by Beethoven’s and Rossini’s music, as over-subtlety, or over-imaginativeness, or the two united. Just so, any one who has not lived in the habit of hourly regulating his conduct by a regard to the rule of right, will be blind to the most essential distinctions of morality, and will consider the attempt to explain them sophistry, and the habit of acting on them dishonestly. And thus it will happen, that the wisest and most sagacious Saint would be considered by the world at large, if they have not deep faith in Catholic Christianity, to unite no small degree of littleness of spirit, nay, of positive moral obliquity, with his undeniable genius, greatness, and power of mind. Nor would it be difficult, were it worth while, to draw a similar picture, in the case where his sphere is that of abstract speculation, not of practical action.

W. G. Ward, The Ideal of a Christian Church, p. 272.

Monday, February 20, 2017

And Love, and Man's Unconquerable Mind

To Toussaint L'Ouverture
by William Wordsworth

Toussaint, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

The first line is an allusion to a passage from L'Ouverture's Memoir, written while he was in prison:

If I were to record the various services which I have rendered the Government, I should need many volumes, and even then should not finish them; and, as a reward for all these services, I have been arbitrarily arrested at St. Domingo, bound, and put on board ship like a criminal, without regard for my rank, without the least consideration. Is this the recompense due my labors? Should my conduct lead me to expect such treatment?

I was once rich. At the time of the revolution, I was worth six hundred and forty-eight thousand francs. I spent it in the service of my country. I purchased but one small estate upon which to establish my wife and family. To-day, notwithstanding my disinterestedness, they seek to cover me with opprobrium and infamy; I am made the most unhappy of men; my liberty is taken from me; I am separated from all that I hold dearest in the world,--from a venerable father, a hundred and five years old, who needs my assistance, from a dearly-loved wife, who, I fear, separated from me, cannot endure the afflictions which overwhelm her, and from a cherished family, who made the happiness of my life.

Cyberpunk Dystopia

(If you can't see the image, click through to it.)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Time, Even Before the Flowers

In February
by Alice Meynell

Rich meanings of the prophet-Spring adorn,
Unseen, this colourless sky of folded showers,
And folded winds; no blossom in the bowers;
A poet’s face asleep in this grey morn.

Now in the midst of the old world forlorn
A mystic child is set in these still hours.
I keep this time, even before the flowers,
Sacred to all the young and the unborn:

To all the miles and miles of unsprung wheat,
And to the Spring waiting beyond the portal,
And to the future of my own young art,

And, among all these things, to you, my sweet,
My friend, to your calm face and the immortal
Child tarrying all your life-time in your heart.

Jottings on Relics

I decided to head off to the Maronite Catholic church here last night for the vigil Mass because, due to meeting with other people and the quirks of their schedule, it would have been difficult to attend Mass on Sunday on the day. It's one of the Commemoration Sundays, Sunday of the Faithful Departed, on the Maronite calendar. It was rather different from usual because, unbeknownst to me, yesterday the parish was hosting the relics of St. Anthony of Padua. Anthony, one of the most popular Franciscan saints, was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon in about 1195, and died in Padua in 1231; he was canonized within a year of his death and named Doctor of the Church by Pius XII in 1946. The relics in question were a bit of cheek and a rib, obtained, I believe when his tomb was opened in 1983.

The modern West is very squeamish about death. We don't generally sit wake on bodies, and we don't generally bury our own dead; we handle it all in as sanitized a manner as we can, but our sanitizing is not purely hygienic but also an emotional sanitizing as well. It is all tucked away so that, unless you are a mortician or in some other field that works in corpses, you rarely have to come face-to-face with it, and even then only under very limited, highly ritualized conditions. It would all be set aside completely were it not for the human needs for closure and for a last goodbye. But this is not the normal state of things for human beings; it takes an elaborate artificial apparatus to manage it, one built up over a long period of time.

(It's perhaps worth noting that in some places the current customs are a receding of delicacy on the matter. Jane Austen never went to a funeral in her life. Only men went to funerals in much of Regency England. It's not uncommon for people today on being told this to deplore the fact that Jane did not get to 'see her sister one last time', but to Regency ears this would have been a grotesque and gruesome notion, and our practice of doing it rather ghoulish. Even men did not go to funerals to see people 'one last time'; they went because someone had to make sure the corpse was properly buried.)

A corpse is a sign of a person; and when the person lost their way, it is a sign of lost potential, and when they excelled, it is a sign of excellence. And, given Christian doctrine, it may also be a sign of victory.

The early Christians often met in cemeteries, near the graves of those who were killed for the faith. The prayers naturally tended toward commemoration of the martyrs. The shrines that grew up were associated with their graves. The altar might literally be the marker for the tomb. Thus grew up the practice of giving churches titular saints: the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, for instance, was literally the meeting-place associated with the catacombs of St. Agnes outside the city walls, and later versions of the church always situated it so that the remains of St. Agnes would be under the altar. As Christianity grew, churches often began to be situated far from where any martyrs died; relics would be placed in their altars, and the church get the name from them -- the churches, after all, were built to house the altars. And the altars were the victory-monuments of the martyrs, whose very deaths were prayers, and whose very bodies are part of the prayer of the Church.

At the same time, there were always people who lived lives showing the same faith as the martyrs who were technically not matyred; they began to be integrated in the same way. To say that, say, Anthony of Padua, who was not a martyr, is not just a saint (which anyone may be) but canonized as a saint, is to say that the Church in its prayer recognizes that, despite not being a martyr, his faith was the same faith and his devotion to it analogous to theirs. It is as much as to say: He, too, in a public way participated to some degree in the victory of the martyrs; he too marks an altar as suitable to be the throne of God in the liturgy.

It is an old principle: who does not have the faith of the martyrs, does not have the faith. But this requires looking squarely at the fact of death, so gruesomely all-victorious, and recognizing that, if the Christian faith is right, we may be the ones victorious over it, as the martyrs and saints have shown. O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Music on My Mind

Weird Al Yankovic, "Skipper Dan". Came to mind reading Geoff Edgers's WaPo article on Weird Al. While Weird Al usually does parodies, you should not go into this one expecting a parody.

Rosmini on Integrity and Corruption in Society (Re-Post)

I recently came again across this post, from a little less than three years ago, and it seems worth remembering.


War, servitude and barbarity are, therefore, characteristics and effects which follow the corruption of society through excessive desire of power, wealth and sensual pleasure. Three kinds of integrity correspond to the three kinds of corruption in peoples.

1. The sign of integrity relative to pleasure consists, as we said, in valuing a healthy, robust, general well-being of person rather than actual pleasure as a constant perfection in nature.

2. The sign of integrity relative to wealth consists in a greater esteem of one’s own freedom and independence than in devotion to wealth.

3. The sign of integrity relative to power consists more in love of justice, equity and beneficence towards all than in love of power and glory.

These signs and characteristics of integrity are found in all societies when we examine the most ancient, primitive stage of their foundation. Greece and Rome are our proof.

Bl. Antonio Rosmini, The Philosophy of Politics, Volume 2, Book 3, Chapter 3, section 322. Each sign of integrity, of course, has a corresponding sign of corruption.

Two points might be worth noting, as comment going beyond Rosmini.

(1) Each of the three signs signifies a different way of resisting the idea that might makes right; you can easily find all of these recognized in one form or another in Plato's assault against the sophists. One can also find them in Aristotle, in Cicero, and in a number of modern political philosophers like Montesquieu, but going back to Plato (and especially the Republic and the Gorgias) brings out very clearly, I think, exactly why these are things associated with the health of a society. The lack of these signs indicates that a society is doing little to resist the fundamental corruption involved in the idea that, in the memorable Platonic formulation, "might makes right and justice is the will of the stronger."

(2) It is very easy to argue that modern Western societies do very, very badly on all three points. While it hasn't vanished entirely, discourse about excellence in life has shifted from the idea of an objective well-being of person to that of accomplishing goals and satisfying preferences, to such an extent that it is difficult to get people to understand that it can be seen in any other way: weak on the first sign of integrity. Our political discourse is dominated by economic concerns, our social representations of success dominated by wealth, and we are more likely to think of people as consumers than as citizens: weak on the second sign. And our discourse about justice, equity, and beneficence is strangely mingled with discussion of glory and power (glory in the rather surprising importance of signaling to others that you are just, fair, and compassionate, to such an extent that it increasingly takes up more of the discussion than serious planning on how to improve people's lives in substantive ways, and power in the sense that discussion of these matters shifts so easily into talk of sanctions, whether informal or formal): weak on the third sign. (Rosmini would say that this is a fairly solid proof that we are in the final stage of social collapse, although this collapse may go on slowly or quickly depending on our pace of activity and the prior history of the society, and may be accelerated or retarded through external factors like wars and invasions.)

The second point is tied to the first point. I've taught the Gorgias to undergraduates for several years now, and it is very noticeable how attracted they are to the idea that might makes right, as portrayed by Callicles, for exactly these reasons. This doesn't mean that they agree with it -- that varies considerably (without having done any formal study, I would estimate that the three reasons most likely to be given by students for rejecting the idea out of hand are growing up poor or working class, being in a racial or ethnic minority, and having been raised in a religious household) -- but they are in the main actively tempted by it and have difficulty articulating any political or social vision that does not look like it. They have very minimal defenses against it, even when they resist it. And they are, of course, not at all atypical; these are things you have to be raised up into or trained to think through by people who practice what Socrates calls the true politics.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bonald and the Traditionary Argument

Off and on, I have been looking into various ways of understanding the traditionary argument, such as that used by Brownson, a bit more clearly. The traditionary argument, considered generally, has something of the following structure:

A) Deficiency of empiricism: The senses cannot convey necessities, infinities, or whatever (the exact focus varies); and yet we can know things about these despite having no sensory basis for them.
B) Necessity of language: (A) is essentially an argument for rationalism, broadly speaking: there are truths we know independently of the senses. But the traditionalist opts for a weaker rather than a stronger version of rationalism: the human mind being what it is, our ability to think about necessary truths depends not on pure thought but on our ability to use and understand language.
C) Requirement of teaching: Language is not something that automatically comes to human beings; we must learn it from those who already have it.
D) Impossibility of infinite regress: This sets up a series of teachers: we learn language from our teachers, who learned it from their teachers, who learned it from their teachers, and so forth. But it is absurd to suggest that the series of teachers goes back infinitely.
E) Conclusion: Therefore there must be a first teacher, who did not need to be taught; and this all call God.

Arguments of this kind had a brief but widespread popularity in the nineteenth century; but one often only gets a gesture at the argument. To understand the argument, one needs to look at its most forceful and influential exposition, which is that of Bonald in the Preliminary Discourse to his Législation Primitive. Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald (1754-1840) was a French statesman and is also considered one of the major figures in the early days of the field of sociology; the Législation Primitive was published around 1802. I've gathered below a few passages relevant to the traditionary argument. The translation is my own; as the passages were gathered from a first reading of the Preliminary Discourse and translated somewhat on the fly, I do not as yet vouch for strict accuracy on every point of detail.

Philosophy, which according to the pagans signifies the love of wisdom, and which signfies for us nothing other than the search for truth, began for man with speech, and for the world with writing.


The doctrine of the Hebrews revealed the cause; the philosophy of the pagans was stopped at the effects; Christianity came to reveal to the world the knowledge[connoissance] of the universal mean, medius, or mediator, of the being that unites the universal case to the universality of the effects, to the universe, and that forms the relation between the Creator and the creature.


These truths must be learned from men, if one wishes them to know them; and to speak to them the speech of God in order that they may have the thought of God...


This rational proposition: "Thought cannot be known save by its expression in speech" contains in itself all human knowledge [science], as the Christian maxim, "God is not known save by His Word" contains all the knowledge [science] of God, and for the same reason.


Speech is the natural expression of thought; necessary, not only in order to communicate knowledge [connoissance] to others, but in order to have the knowledge [connoissance] itself, intimate, that one calls having consciousness [conscience] of one's thoughts.


The solution of the problem of understanding can therefore be presented under this formula: "It is necessary that man thinks his speech before speaking his thought."


So the proof of the existence of a being superior to man, and of a law anterior to reason, is always equally strong; if one demonstrates that, given the operations of the human intelligence, and the necessary concurrence of his organs, it is impossible that man should discover speech and make a language, and that, far from having invented speech, man was not able, without speech, to have even the very thought of the invention.


It seems that one believes it more worthy of the grandeur of God to suppose that we receive thoughts immediately, and without the intermediation of a mean or milieu that realizes them and renders them sensible. Without doubt, absolutely incorporeal understanding could have ideas of this sort; but the organized understanding is but a mind in charge of helping a body: so that if it is thought, it, it must have been expressed; and God submitting himself, and more than that man, to the general laws that He has established, gave thought on condition of speech, as He has given vision on condition of sight, and hearing on condition of ear.


If the human race primitively received speech, as we have said above, it is wholly necessary that it has received, with speech, knowledge [connoissance] of moral truth. There is therefore a primitive, fundamental, sovereign law, a chief law, lex-princeps, as Cicero calls it, a law that man did not make and he cannot abrogate. There is therefore a necessary society, a necessary order of truths and of duties.


If language is of human institution, like the printing press and the compass, speech is not necessary to man in society; for nothing that man invents is necessary to society, because society existed before the invention. Domestic society itself is not more necessary to man, because the free agreement of father and mother for conservation of the child, presupposes will, thought, consequently expression, and if man invented speech, man invented, I do not say marriage, but family. Ad when I say speech, one must understand expression of thought, even by gestures, speech of those who do not have any other, of the deaf and the mute, but speech transmitted, like the other, by the interaction of men; for beasts have nothing of gestures, even though they have movements, and the blind do not have gestures, even though they have speech. Abandoned children, outsidof all communication with speaking men, do not make imitative gestures, even though they have animal movements, and given involuntary signs of pleasure, of sadness, and of desire. But in order to make imitative gestures, one must have seen actions to imitate, one must have observed that this gesture corresponds to this action, and consequently one must have lived in society with beings that think and that express themselves.


If speech is of human invention, there are no necessary truths, because all necessary or general truths are not known by us save by speech, and our sensations only transmit to us relative and particular truths. There are no geometrical truths; for how do I know, other than by speech and reasoning, that there are absolutely and necessarily straight lines, absolutely round circles, absolutely right-angled triangles, when my senses do not ever convey anything save relatively straight lines, and relatively round circles, etc., etc.? There are no arithmetical truths; for my senses see nothing save one, one one, and it is my speech that counts three, four, a hundred, a thousand, etc., etc., and which adds values that do not fall and have never fallen under my senses. There are no moral truths: for all these truths are not known to us save by forms of language that the inventor, free in his inventions, was able not only to invent, but to invent wholly different from those that exist today, and even different inventors in different people, for why is there but one inventor? There are no historical truths, and men do not know anything save what they see and what they touch, and, again, even if he knows the beings, he is not able to combine their relations, because he cannot combine them save by the aid of thought expressed by speech.


The uniformity of languages, in the sense that they are intertranslatable, and the same thought is understood by diverse people, inclines against the attributed invention by man. There is a general institutor who has given a general tongue, which was modified according to place, time, and person; as one and the same teacher of writing has given to a hundred students a different writing, according to the structure of their members and the liveliness of their minds, and as one hundred different figures of speech render one and the same thought, one hundred different writings render one and the same speech.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Three Poem Drafts


In Septimontium ancient days
still whisper down the lanes and ways,
still hint a gleam to eager eye,
the vestige of forgotten years
light-freshened by the tender tears
of passing clouds in rain-washed sky --
but just a touch; tears soon will dry.

On seven mountains vestal flame
once burned, the heart of life and peace,
but even holy flames may cease;
now all is gone save trace and name.

In Septimontium olives grow
by marble pillars long laid low
on which the seagulls stand and cry.
The world is passing; it has passed;
all things must fade and cannot last;
and soon is nothing left but sigh --
and even that trace, too, must die.

Misting Rain

The misting rain is coating sidewalks,
beading hair and dewing faces,
and all through the empty streetways
one gust another swiftly chases.
Down an alley-lane it races!
Fleet of foot, the breezes play.

Perhaps the moon is early-risen,
but none would know; her face is hidden.
Across the dome, the sky is darkness,
and breeze on breeze is tempest-ridden,
like an army hasty-bidden,
turned out in threatening marching dress.

Slough and Storm

With a sloughing of the wind
and a shishing of the rain,
my heart is tumbling over;
shall I see my love again?

As weather when it wuthers,
as wind in gusting bluster,
my heart is pounding thunder;
shall I see my love again?


Theaetetus 151e-152a:
And, indeed, if I may venture to say so, it is not a bad description of knowledge that you have given, but one which Protagoras also used to give. Only, he has said the same thing in a different way. For he says somewhere that man is “the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.” You have read that, I suppose?

Theatetus 179a-179b:
Then it will be a fair answer if we say to your master that he is obliged to agree that one man is wiser than another, and that such a wise man is a measure, but that I, who am without knowledge, am not in the least obliged to become a measure, as the argument in his behalf just now tried to oblige me to be, whether I would or no.

Laws 716b-716c:
...Looking at these things, thus ordained, what ought the prudent man to do, or to devise, or to refrain from doing?”

The answer is plain: Every man ought so to devise as to be of the number of those who follow in the steps of the God.

What conduct, then, is dear to God and in his steps? One kind of conduct, expressed in one ancient phrase, namely, that “like is dear to like” when it is moderate, whereas immoderate things are dear neither to one another nor to things moderate. In our eyes God will be “the measure of all things” in the highest degree—a degree much higher than is any “man” they talk of.