Friday, December 26, 2008

Young Man in China

My nephew recently took a job teaching in China and started a blog here. His adventures are already fascinating. I envy his facility with languages!

Greatest Movie Villains

Blogging about It's a Wonderful Life got me to thinking about movie villains, since Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter is one of my favorites. Time Magazine thinks so to, as he appears as #8 on its list of greatest movie villains. The list has also got one of my other favorites, Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man checking in at #18. Unforgivable, however, is the failure to include Bruce Dern as Longhair in The Cowboys, one of the two best villains of all time (the other being Heath Ledger in Dark Knight.) 

Just look at the punk sneer on his face. This guy scared the pants off me when I saw him at 9 years old in the movie theater back in 1972. But it was a good kind of scared. When I bought a copy of The Cowboys a few years ago and watched it with my kids, Longhair had lost none of his punch. My son Ethan described him as "sort of like an evil parent", which gets it just about right. 

One aspect that makes The Cowboys stand up well over time is the intergenerational conflict between Wil Anderson (John Wayne) and Longhair. Wayne was nearing the end of his career, and is the archetype of the classic strong, gruff, but honorable cowboy, a man of the 1940's. Dern was at the start of his career and represents the new generation of snot-nosed punks with no respect for their elders - a kid of the 1970's. You can't help but cheer when Anderson says to Longhair: "I'm thirty years older than you, but I can still beat the hell out of you." And everyone knows he's right.

Also should have been on the list - the hillbillies from Deliverance.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Atheism and Kierkegaard's Way to Religion

I had high hopes for the new Secular Right blog, which promised to defend conservative principles from a purely secular perspective. I think this can be done, and should be done, since our political arrangements are a matter of the natural virtue of prudence. Religious principles may inform political principles, but they are not reducible to them, and it should be possible to arrive at and defend sound political principles from purely natural reason.

Unfortunately, the secular right blog has turned fairly quickly into just another atheist religion-bashing venue. Now I have no problem with atheists bashing religion, or with Christians bashing atheism, for that matter. But there are already plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to that noble purpose. Just when does the atheist leave off telling us how ridiculous religious belief is, or spending all his time fending of the slings and arrows of his religious adversaries, and start telling us how one may find and pursue the path of "human flourishing?"

For this is ultimately what politics is about - organizing our common life for the common good. And the common good is really a collection of individual human goods. This brings me to my real problem with atheism.

I believe the existence of God can be defended as a matter of philosophy. But it is rare that anyone comes to believe in God purely as a matter of intellectual conclusion. God may be the answer to certain metaphysical questions, but those questions only have weight for us if God is also the answer to other questions, questions that bear more on the will than the intellect. What I mean is that God may be the answer to the question: How can I become the man I know I was meant to be, or should be?

When I ask this question in the way (I think) Kierkegaard meant it, I am no longer interested in defending myself or defending my principles. Instead of questioning God and finding Him wanting, I have questioned myself and found myself wanting. I know I can and should be a better man than I am. The skepticism becomes subjectively rather than objectively directed. The locus of danger has shifted; instead of being worried primarily about objective errors (i.e. that my metaphysical beliefs might be in error) I am worried about subjective errors (that I may fail to become the man I should be). I have become a "subjective thinker" rather than an "objective thinker."

The subjective thinker sees God as a possible answer to the subjective questions he asks himself. Yes, he is concerned with the objective question of the existence of God, but the weight of the objective question is not absolute. Is it better to be a bad man but be "right" about the objective question of God, or be a good man but be "wrong" about the objective question of God? Yes, yes, I know that many atheists are good men. In fact, just about every atheist I've met has been a better man than I am. That is the point. Atheism seems to be a club for men who are naturally good. It's not primarily about the question of becoming better men, but about defending the fact that we already are pretty good men. What, then, does it have to say to the man who is convinced that he is not a pretty good man? I ask for bread and they give me a stone.

I don't intend irony in those last points. I hold no brief for those Christians who denounce atheists as necessarily bad or doomed to some kind of evil existence. Atheists are quite right that the run-of-the-mill atheist is probably a better man than the run-of-the-mill Christian. This is because your typical atheist is well-educated and well-brought up, while the vast majority of Christians are poor and poorly educated. But it wasn't atheism per se that made them good, but their education and their upbringing - which, more times than not, has been Christian. 

But all that is by the board. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." One way to interpret this is that Christ is calling those who are thinking subjectively and not objectively. Kierkegaard goes into this in wonderful detail in the Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. For the man approaching Christianity in Kierkegaard's way - subjectively - the very fact that Christianity is speaking to him in a way that atheism won't or can't, is reasonable subjective grounds to believe in it. But don't try to defend this objectively with an atheist!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

George Bailey and the Struggle of the Ethical Man

I love the holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life, a movie typically dismissed by sophisticates as cornball. Yes, it's corny, but cornball and depth are not exclusive. And It's a Wonderful Life has depth.

In fact, the film is almost a primer on Kierkegaard's three stages of existence. I say "almost" because it gets the aesthetic and the ethical stages right, and even gets the border between the ethical and the religious right; but then it finally falters at the transition to the religious stage. This is where the cornball comes in. But up to the final moments, It's a Wonderful Life is pure Kierkegaard.

The film is structured around four critical "moments" in Kierkegaard's sense of the term: Moments when the character of a man and his life are revealed. The first is when George, fresh out of high school, is set to leave Bedford Falls and embark on the adventures of which he has always dreamed. But the recent death of his father Peter has left the Bailey Building and Loan without leadership. The villain Henry F. Potter, wealthy, clever and unscrupulous, is intent on dominating Bedford Falls; the Building and Loan is the main obstacle standing in his path. When George passionately rebukes Potter at a meeting of the Building and Loan, the board of directors agrees to resist Potter's attempts to take it over - on the condition that George himself assume the position of chairman.

The second moment happens four years later when Harry Bailey, George's younger brother, returns from college. The agreement between George and Harry was that George would run the Building and Loan while Harry went to college. When Harry graduated, he would take over for George and release George to pursue his own ambitions. But when Harry gets off the train, he is accompanied by his new bride ("Meet the wife!") who brings with her a great career opportunity for Harry in the plastics industry (and you thought it wasn't all about plastics until The Graduate.)

The third moment happens years later when George finally marries the girl he was always meant for, Mary Hatch. They are about to leave for their honeymoon just as the great crash of 1929 happens, and there is a run on the Building and Loan. George takes the money he and Mary had saved for their honeymoon and uses it to save the Building and Loan. After this last episode, it is clear that George will never leave Bedford Falls.

The final moment happens just after the end of the Second World War, when George's Uncle Billy mistakenly leaves $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money in Henry Potter's office. Naturally Potter sees this as an opportunity to finally rid himself of the Bailey family and he does not return the cash. When Uncle Billy confesses to George that he lost the money, it is clear that one or both of them will be ruined.

The first three moments are moments within the ethical stage of existence. They are moments when George must decide whether he is a man of duty living for others or a man living primarily for himself. The aesthetic man is a man primarily living for himself. George's youthful ambition to leave Bedford Falls and do great things was not ignoble, but it was essentially aesthetic because self-centered. At all three moments, George chooses to sacrifice himself for the good of others and reveals himself to be a truly ethical man.

The irony of the ethical man, however, is that his struggle is lonely and inward, so that his nature as an ethical man is revealed only to himself (if he has the requisite self-awareness) and to God. He must hide his nature from others so that he may sacrifice himself for them; were they to know the true nature of his suffering they would not permit it. So the ethical man cannot be known directly as such. He is always dodging and hiding himself through irony.

It's a Wonderful Life is at its best in showing this inward struggle of the ethical man; the struggle of Kierkegaard's "Knight of Hidden Inwardness." Jimmy Stewart (playing George) must simultaneously reveal to the audience his hidden struggle (so that we know he is genuinely ethical) and hide it from the other characters in the film. Stewart pulls this off masterfully, with some help from Frank Capra's close focus:

George Bailey is an ethical man who lacks self-understanding. Contemporary thought would dismiss him as "inauthentic" because it misunderstands his irony as self-deception. But George does not deceive himself; he understands precisely what he is sacrificing at each of the crucial moments of the film. His lack of self-understanding consists in his belief that his "real life" has been put on hold while he serves the good of others. George's nemesis Henry Potter, while vicious, is also a keen student of human nature. He appreciates George's talents and sees through his irony to the frustration and despair George successfully hides from everyone else. Potter makes a final attempt to seduce George by playing on this despair, ruthlessly exposing it in some of the best lines in the film:
"Forty-five. Now, if you were an ordinary yokel, I'd say you were doing fine. But George Bailey is intelligent... ambitious. He hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. He's been dying to get out of town ever since he was born. But he's trapped. Trapped into frittering his life away to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, George, or do I exaggerate?"
I love that "garlic-eaters." Potter is nearly successful in his seduction, but George finally recognizes what is happening, reject's Potter's offer, and turns Potter into a permanent enemy.

The ethical life is essentially unstable because it involves a paradox. The ethical man recognizes his duty and performs it, but sacrifices himself in the process. George Bailey becomes older, lives in a drafty house, watches as his friend Sam ("Hee-Haw") leaves town and becomes rich; during the war George stays in Bedford Falls as air raid warden while Harry Bailey wins the Medal of Honor in the Pacific. All this time his inner despair grows until his ethical existence collapses in the face of his impending ruin as a result of Uncle Billy's loss of the Building and Loan's funds.

Here again Henry Potter is perspicacious. George comes to Potter for a loan to replace the $8000, which of course Potter will not grant him. Potter takes the opportunity to return some long-remembered insults:
"And you want eight thousand? You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. Well, what are you but a warped, frustrated young man? Crawling on your hands and knees for help. Why don't you go ask that riff-raff you love so well? Ask them for help! I'll tell you why. Because they'd run you out of town on a rail, that's why."
George finally succumbs to despair and contemplates jumping off a bridge into a freezing river. George is saved by Clarence, an angel sent by God in response to George's prayers, as well as the prayers of his wife and children. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence turns the wish into a saving act by showing George what the world would be like without him. George's brother Harry dies in childhood because George was not there to save him from freezing in a river; Mr. Gower the druggist becomes a convict after poisoning a woman by accident; Henry Potter successfully takes over Bedford Falls, renames it Pottersville, and forces everyone to live in his slums. Worst of all, Mary Hatch never marries and becomes... a librarian! Horrors! Clarence sums it all up by telling George that "you really did have a wonderful life."

Clarence's retrospective allows George to perceive the true meaning of the ethical life. He sees the selfishness of his despair and his suicidal inclinations. It also brings him to the threshold of the religious stage of existence, for George abandons all of his worldly ambitions. This is the spiritual movement Kierkegaard calls resignation. By resigning from all his worldly ambitions George experiences a freedom unknown to the aesthetic and ethical stages of existence. He is free because he now lives entirely for others, so that what happens to himself becomes a matter of indifference. He runs home and greets the sheriff in his living room - who has a warrant for his arrest - with "Merry Christmas! I'll bet that's a warrant for my arrest. I'm going to jail, isn't it wonderful?"

Kierkegaard tells us that the border between the aesthetic and the ethical is marked by irony, and the border between the ethical and the religious is marked by humor. The ethical man is ironic because he must present a false front to make his sacrifice effective. Were George still a merely ethical man, and had he not succumbed to despair, his response to the news that he was under arrest would be to downplay its seriousness, to say it isn't so bad and he'll be out soon. He would hide his true appraisal of the situation - that it is very bad for him that he is going to jail. As a religious man, George attempts no such irony. He states straightforwardly and truthfully what he thinks - that it is wonderful that he is going to jail. Of course his joy makes no sense to the ethical and aesthetic stages of existence, and so appears as humorous to everyone but George. The ethical man must hide his nature from others, but the religious man's nature is hidden of its own nature from others and so he makes no attempt to hide it.

The film would have been better if George actually did go to jail. It pulls back from showing the true meaning of the religious stage of existence by giving George a worldly reward: His friends have collected money to pay the debt, the sherriff tears up the arrest warrant, and everyone celebrates Christmas by singing "Auld Lang Syne" together. But George - if he is truly Kierkegaard's religious man, which I think he is - would have been just as happy going to jail. It doesn't matter if the townspeople are the "riff-raff" that Potter says they are, or if they really do run George out of town on a rail. George is invulnerable to Potter because he is invulnerable to worldly consequences. As the film actually plays out, George's victory over Potter is diminished, because it implies that George's victory is based on the falsity of Potter's dim view of human nature - Potter says the "riff-raff" will run George out of town when in fact they don't. But George's joy at the end of the film is not based on a renewed faith in human nature. It's based on a renewed faith in God, because George no longer sees his sacrifice for others as competing with his desires for himself - he has lost all desires for himself.

It's not an accident that an angel is involved in George's final transformation. The transition from the aesthetic to the ethical stage is one the "natural" man can make on his own, but the transition to the religious stage can only be made, as Kierkegaard puts it, if God grants man "the condition." George asks for the condition when the hopelessness of his final predicament overwhelms him:

"Oh God... God... Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, then show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God."

Here the depth of the film is shown when the immediate response to George's prayer is a punch in the face from a man he had insulted earlier. This finally crushes George's ethical existence, for he is attacked by one of the very people he has been attempting to save with the whole trajectory of his life. (George has sacrificed himself to save Bedford Falls from Potter, so everyone in the town is his beneficiary.) When he has lost all hope in human nature, George is in a state to receive the "condition" (that is, grace) from God and not mistake its source. The condition will result in George's renewed (or, rather, new) faith in God, not a renewed faith in men.

So if you love Kierkegaard, Christmas, and classic movies, there is no better holiday film than It's a Wonderful Life.

Clarence - " Oh, no, no. We don't use money in Heaven!"

George - "Oh, that's right, yeah, I keep forgetting. (pause) Comes in pretty handy down here, bub."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part IV

The beginning of this thread can be found here.

Four things are necessary for empirical science to be possible (assuming that we believe that science is about the way the universe really is, and not merely about its appearances to us):

1. There must be scientists.
2. There must be a universe for scientists to understand.
3. The universe must have an intelligibility.
4. The scientists must have intellects capable of grasping the intelligibility of the universe.

These four propositions are assumed in the constitution of science; they are not anything science itself can discover because their truth is already assumed as soon as science happens. This is plainly obvious in assumptions #1 and #2. If a scientist embarked on a research program to discover if there are in fact scientists, or if there is in fact a universe, we would laugh at him, and laugh even more if he published his results in a respected journal confirming that there are, indeed, scientists and a universe. Our humor follows from the utter lack of self-awareness of the scientist in not knowing that his own existence proves all that can or needs to be proven.

The same considerations apply to assumptions #3 and #4, but for some reason many modern scientists (and some philosophers, who should know better) do not see it. They think that the mind is something that can be researched scientifically like anything else, and that conclusions like "the mind is essentially a model-maker" can be taken straightforwardly like any other scientific conclusion. But there is really just as much humor in this scientist as in the scientist who researches the existence of scientists, for science itself is only possible if the mind is something more than a mere model-maker.

The mind is ultimately invisible to pure empirical science because it is behind it as its subjective ground. But science needs an objective as well as a subjective ground. The objective ground of science is God, and like the subjective ground of science, the objective ground is invisible to science itself. As the mind is both behind and beyond science, so is God.

Just as many modern thinkers fail to get the point about the mind, they fail to get the point about God. They want to research God the way they research anything else, and demand "scientific evidence" of the existence of God, which is just as silly as demanding scientific evidence of the existence of scientists, except that it is humorous in the objective direction rather than the subjective. Either the universe itself and its basic intelligibility is sufficient evidence for the existence of God, or nothing is. 

This is why the traditional arguments for the existence of God (neatly summarized in St. Thomas's Five Ways) are irrefutable yet seem insufficient to the modern mind. The Five Ways are arguments all made from the basic existence and intelligibility of the universe; that is, the way the universe must be known to be prior to the conduct of empirical science; the way the universe must be if science is to truly happen at all. We want to put God in the scientific court, when it is God who built and maintains the courthouse.

Immanuel Kant understood the significance of all this, which is why he is still among the greatest of modern philosophers. The basic program of modern philosophy (meaning philosophy since Descartes) is to find a way to undermine the legitimacy of traditional metaphysical philosophy (and its conclusions about God) while retaining the rationality of math and empirical science. Although propositions #1 and #2 are ultimately metaphysical in nature, they are immediately obvious and undeniable, and therefore acceptable to modern philosophy. But propositions #3 and #4 are not so immediately obvious, and in fact have been denied at various times in history. They are truly metaphysical claims. If we are not going to accept metaphysics, Kant saw, then we can't accept propositions #3 and #4, because they imply a metaphysical connection between the mind of man and the true nature of the universe. It may be (Kant thought) that the intelligibility of the universe is only something we read into the universe.  And this fact, of course, is something that can never be verified or refuted by empirical science. If we are going to eliminate metaphysics, then the most we can say about science is that it is about the appearances of things (phenomena) rather than the way things truly are (noumena).

The mind ultimately knows itself in its own act, or it doesn't know itself at all; we know God through the universe in its basic act of existence and intelligibility, or we don't know God at all (excepting through revelation, of course.) Both the mind and God are known philosophically or they are not known at all.

Fr Neuhaus on Religion as a Business

Wonderful article at First Things (via Rimwell.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part III

The start of this thread can be found here.

I have argued that the empirical sciences can never fully fathom the mind of man because because the mind is the creator and judge of science, and therefore the scientific mind does not appear as an object before its own science. The mind of the scientist as scientist is invisible to his science.

If there is a way to know the mind beyond the limits inherent in empirical science, then it must be a way that avoids the distinction between mind-the-knower and mind-as-object-known that is a necessary consequence of the form of empirical science. Such a way can be found in classical philosophy, where the mind "knows itself through itself", in the formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Philosophical reflection of the classical sort is often called "introspection" by modern thinkers, and they don't usually mean it as a compliment. "Introspection" conjures up images of navel-gazing monks spinning fanciful theories in a dream-world entirely severed from empirical reality, as in the legendary angels on the head of a pin. Whatever the views of modern philosophers, the mind will finally know itself through introspection or not at all. Let us go straight to an example of introspection and see if it turns out to be as bad as its current reputation.

An old philosophical chestnut is the following question: How do I know the difference between dreams and reality? When I am dreaming, I don't think I'm dreaming, and as I write this I don't think I'm dreaming, so maybe I am dreaming right now. By what right do I claim that my so-called "waking" state is reality and my "dream" state is fake?

What I notice about my experience of dreaming is that I do not know it as such when I am in it. In fact, the very distinction between "dreaming" and "waking" is foreign to the dream state. The dream state is not self-conscious; it never asks questions concerning its own nature. A sure indication that I am waking up is when the question of whether I am in a dream begins to dawn on me. If the dream is pleasant and I wish it to continue, then I know the only way it will continue is if I shut down the self-reflective part of consciousness, if I can. If I wish to wake up, a sure way to do it is to concentrate on the distinction between dreaming and waking. The dream state distinguishes itself by being unaware of itself; the waking state distinguishes itself by being aware of both itself and a possible dream state.

What I have just written is a matter of introspection. It is the mind knowing itself through itself. The data is entirely subjective in that I can only report my experience as it comes to me; I can't hand you a printout of my consciousness for your perusal, like I could hand you a report of my astronomical observations. It would seem, then, that my introspection can be of no value to you. This is to miss the point of classical philosophy, the essence of which is captured in Socrates' description of himself as a midwife. The philosopher does not impart knowledge; he only offers an opportunity for the listener to perhaps understand better the implications of his own experience.

Does your experience of dreaming and waking accord with my own? Then you may agree with me on the way dreaming and waking may be distinguished. Perhaps your experience is not similar to my own, in which case my observations will be of no value to you. Or perhaps your experiences are similar to my own, but you do not think my conclusions follow from them. In any case, if you actually do come to know something, your knowledge will be founded on your own introspection, not mine, my contribution being at most a "vanishing moment" (Kierkegaard) that only served as an occasion for you to know on your own witness.

Can empirical science help in distinguishing the difference between dreaming and waking? In a mind that is not the mind asking the question, sure. You don't even need science to do it. I can tell you are sleeping just by your snores. The question that concerns us here is the question of dreaming and waking taken self-reflexively. And here science is of no value, because empirical science takes the mind of the scientist for granted. Insofar as that goes, the state of mind of the scientist is more like the dreaming state than the waking state, for the dreaming state is distinguished precisely by the quality that it does not question itself. This is no knock on science, because science does not need self-aware thinkers to succeed; the absent-minded or foolish scientist is almost a stereotype. Our misfortune has been occasioned by the false conclusion that because science does not require introspection, therefore nothing can be known through introspection. This is the essence of "scientism", which is not respect for science, but the warping of science into an ideology.

The parable of the Cave in Plato's Republic, Book VII, can be interpreted as addressing the distinction between dreams and reality. The individuals chained in the cave know only the shadows dancing on the wall; to them the shadows are reality. They are in fact in a Kantian world of appearances. They may construct all the empirical sciences they like concerning the phenomena of the shadows but, as Kant says, the sciences can never be about anything more than the shadows. It is only when one of them is freed and dragged outside, and learns that the cave is but a chamber in a larger world that the true nature of the dream world of the cave becomes apparent to him. The state of reality is distinguished by the fact that it knows both itself and the dream state.

Plato makes a deep point from the parable. An escape from the cave would be worse than useless were the prisoner not already capable of benefiting from it. His nature must be such that it is receptive to the truth beyond the cave; the fact that he profits from his experience beyond the cave is evidence that he has a primordial connection with the truth, a connection that is prior to any experience at all, since it could not have its origin in the cave. Were he by nature a cave dweller, like a sightless lizard, then an escape from the cave could only hurt him. His nature was about more than the cave even when he was chained in the cave, and even if he had been born in the cave and spent his entire life there. The prisoners are not by nature cave dwellers, but are by nature ordered to the truth that transcends the cave. This is the famous Platonic doctrine of reminiscence, or the claim that coming to know the truth is not encountering something entirely novel and foreign, but rather a reacquaintance with an old friend with whom you've lost touch.

This has relevance to the Kantian philosophy. Plato does not go so far as to say that the prisoners in the cave question the reality of their experience. In fact, he says that they are quite content to take the shadows for reality. Yet even then, their natures are not really that of cave dwellers. Kantian man is similar to Plato's prisoners insofar as he is trapped in a world of appearances, but he differs from Plato's cave dwellers not only in that he can question the reality of the shadows, but that he must question their reality (metaphysics, Kant says, is empty but inevitable). In Kant's Cave, if I can call it that, the cave dwellers do not placidly contemplate the shadows (like ancient philosophers), but actively interrogate them to discover their laws (like modern scientists). And the Kantian prisoner, if he is a philosopher as well as a scientist, is perceptive enough to guess that the shadows may not be reality without ever leaving the cave. In fact, the Kantian prisoners are doomed to never leave the cave.

But the fact that the Kantian prisoners question the reality of the cave shows that, even more than Plato's prisoners, they do not have the nature of cave dwellers. Were their nature strictly that of cave dwellers, they would be content to watch the shadows as the natural and right state of affairs, just as the natural response of dogs to reality is to smell it, and the natural response of gerbils to reality is to chew it. The unease, the restlessness, the rebelliousness that man exhibits in the limited empirical world defined for him by modern scientistic philosophy is evidence - empirical evidence - that the real world is actually more than that; and that man has a primordial connection to know that world as it truly is.

Plato and Kant define the only real alternatives for a philosophy of the mind. Either our minds have a connection to reality that is primordial and is the anchor of science in reality, or our minds are doomed to know things only as they appear to us, and not as they truly are. Modern attempts to have the Kantian cake (restrict empirical knowledge to the sciences) and eat it too (hold that the sciences are about reality and not appearances) are common but never work, as Steven Pinker illustrates in the last chapter of The Stuff of Thought, entitled "Escaping the Cave."  

"Any inventory of human nature is bound to cause some apprehension in hopeful people, because it would seem to set limits on the ways we can think, feel, and interact. 'Is that all there is?' one is tempted to ask. 'Are we doomed to picking our thinkable thoughts, our feelable feelings, our possible moves in the game of life, from a short menu of options?'

It is an anxiety that goes back to Plato's famous allegory of the prisoners in the cave... In these pages I have tried to lay out the major kinds of thoughts, feelings, and social relationships that go into the meaning and use of language. Are they shadows on the wall of a cave in which our minds are forever trapped? Many of the book's discussions raise this fear, because they suggest that the machinery of conceptual semantics makes us permanently vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning and to corruption in our institutions...

Though language exposes the walls of our cave, it also shows us how we venture out of it, at least partway. People do, after all, catch glimpses of the sunlit world of reality. Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science."
Pinker avoids the decision between Kant and Plato by ending the story before he reaches them. He has not yet reached Plato, for Plato asked the question how "glimpses of the sunlit world of reality" could have any meaning for someone who lived his whole life in the cave. Plato's answer was the doctrine of reminiscence, and the modern world has long since given up the attempt to provide an alternative. Nor has he reached Kant, who wondered how the "truths of modern science" could pertain to the sunlit world of reality if they are developed entirely in terms of the intellectual forms of the shadows in the cave.

If there is any hope in knowing the mind as it truly is, then that hope is found where the modern mind is least likely to look for it - in the great tradition of classical philosophy from Socrates to Aquinas, with a little help from Kant to understand what the stakes are. It is unfortunate that modern thinkers are running away from Socrates, and the true mind, as fast as they can.

The next post in this thread can be found here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known - Interlude

It was from Soren Kierkegaard that I first learned what it means to truly think; to think as what I am, a man in existence in a certain time and place; and that knowing the truth means primarily understanding myself in existence, and only secondarily means amassing a store of objective knowledge that is worthless without a self-understanding to ground its meaning. He taught me that purely objective science is a myth, for there is no such thing as thought without a thinker, and science is only knowledge insofar as it is thought by someone; and it is only my knowledge if it is thought by me. I must first understand my "private book", and only then may I consult the "public book" with profit.

Kierkegaard was not an enemy of empirical science, but only an enemy of the common, unspoken but truly bizarre modern prejudice that the adoption of certain methods of thought or investigation allows one to escape the human condition; the prejudice that allows one to say "the mind is essentially a model-maker" but never doubt that the statement applies to the mind as it really is; or that believes that writing from the imagined viewpoint of a Martian rather than your own viewpoint somehow makes one's thought more objective. 

The fantastic flight into the objective, now perceived as essential to science, is actually a mortal threat to it. For as scientists lose self-understanding, they lose the ability to distinguish true from false science, and begin to pass off pseudoscience as science, as in the warmed over Kantian philosophy that is the inevitable conclusion of contemporary books on the "science of the mind." There is a real empirical science of the mind, and it is being conducted today with genuine results, but like the craftsmen Socrates interrogated in ancient Athens, the modern scientist often cannot distinguish his scientific knowledge from his philosophical opinions, and dumps an undistinguished mass of the two on his reader. It is up to the reader to sift the wheat from the chaff if he can.

Our culture does not suffer from a shortage of technical knowledge, but from a shortage of self-understanding that might have some inkling of the simple art of living as a man, something the "simple wise man" of Athens might still teach us if we would only listen. But then how can Socrates have anything to teach us, when our science has long since surpassed him?

"If an existing individual were really able to transcend himself, the truth would be for him something final and complete; but where is the point at which he is outside himself? The I-am-I is a mathematical point which does not exist, and in so far there is nothing to prevent everyone from occupying the standpoint; the one will not be in the way of the other. It is only momentarily that the particular individual is able to realize existentially a unity of the infinite and the finite which transcends existence. This unity is realized in the moment of passion. Modern philosophy has tried anything and everything in the effort to help the individual to transcend himself objectively, which is a wholly impossible feat; existence exercises its restraining influence, and if philosophers nowadays had not become mere scribblers in the service of a fantastic thinking and its preoccupation, they would long ago have perceived that suicide was the only tolerable practical interpretation of its striving."
Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Part II, Book II, Ch. 2

The next post in this thread can be found here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part II

Part I of this thread can be found here.

Etienne Gilson tells us that a philosopher can be great even if he is wrong in his fundamental conceptions. What makes such a philosopher great is the depth, consistency and honesty with which he carries through the logic of his basic convictions. Such a great philosopher will find the deepest implications of a certain line of thought, and his legacy will be the monument "if you choose to think this way, it is here where you must eventually end up." Such a philosopher's thought has a timeless quality to it, as is shown when later thinkers presume to have "gone beyond" or corrected the philosopher, but in the process demonstrate that they have actually yet to reach him. Kierkegaard spent a career exposing modern thinkers who thought they had moved decisively beyond Socrates, but were miles behind him.

Immanuel Kant was such a great philosopher, and the line of thinking he explored begins with the conviction that math, the empirical sciences, and "pure reason" (i.e. thought abstracted entirely from empirical data) are the only true ways to know the truth of things. Specifically excluded from legitimate thought is metaphysics as classically conceived. In other words, Kant had fathomed the implications of the prejudices of modern thought almost at their historical origin. 

One of Kant's timeless conclusions is that, if his initial convictions are correct, then a "science of the mind" that might fathom the depths of the human mind is an impossibility. Such a science is restricted to exploring the empirical mind, which is the mind as it appears as an object for scientific investigation. But the a priori mind, the mind that creates, conducts and judges empirical science, and before which the empirical mind appears, is forever beyond it (or, rather, forever behind it.) 

The greatness of Kant as a philosopher is seen in the examples of modern researchers of the mind who think they have understood and corrected Kant, but only prove that they have yet to reach him. I gave a few examples in the last post in this thread; another instructive example is Steven Pinker in his book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker's book is particularly good for these purposes because he apparently shares Kant's initial convictions - that math, the empirical sciences, and pure reason are the only ways to truth - and also specifically calls out Kant on the points where Pinker and others think they have improved on him.

Pinker gives a good summary of Kant on page 157:

"Real observers, Kant concluded, must live in a world of whatness, whereness, and becauseness, imposed by the way that a mind such as ours can grasp reality. Our experiences unfold in a medium of space and time, which isn't abstracted from our sensory experiences (the way a pigeon can abstract the concept of redness when it is trained to peck at a red figure regardless of its size or shape) but rather organizes our sensory experiences in the first place. We are not just a passive audience to these experiences but interpret them as instances of general laws couched in logical and scientific concepts like 'and', 'or', 'not', 'all', 'some', 'necessary', 'possible', 'cause', 'effect, 'substance', and 'attribute'..."

He then goes on to critique Kant this way on page 159:

"This is not to say that Kant himself is a reliable guide to our current understanding of the nature of thought and its relation to the world. Many philosophers today believe that Kant's rejection of the possibility of knowing the world in itself is obscure, and most physicists dispute his blurring of the mind's experience of time and space with our scientific understanding of time and space. Contrary to everyday experience, our best physics holds that space is not a rigid Euclidean framework, but is warped by objects, may be curved and bounded, is riddled with black holes and possibly wormholes, has eleven or more dimensions, and measures out differently depending on one's reference frame... In all these cases our best scientific understanding of time and space is wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations."

Pinker needs to read his first paragraph more carefully. The "space" and "time" that Kant talks about in his transcendental aesthetic are not a matter of experimental verification or falsification; they are the condition of any empirical experience whatever, be it everyday, scientific or otherwise. Physicists may come up with a novel, empirical concept of "space" that is useful in science, but that concept is derivative of Kantian space, not a rival to it. Thus, when Pinker talks about the physicist's space, he must use words like "warped", "curved", "bounded" and "riddled", words which are grounded in friendly old Kantian space, not the physicist's novel space. And physics itself, whatever conclusions about space might be drawn from it, is still conducted in the Kantian space that is the condition of human experience. Similarly, physicists may conclude that reality has eleven, twelve, or a thousand dimensions, but their experience still comes to them in the same three dimensions that it did to Aristotle, Bacon, or Kant. Whatever meaning they might attach to those extra dimensions, is conditioned by and derives its meaning from the permanent three dimensions of Kant's transcendental space. If the physicist's space were "wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations", then no one would be able to make sense of it, including the physicists. (They do use the mind to understand physics, don't they?) There is no "leaping over" or "getting beyond" the transcendental aesthetic, short of a leap beyond the human condition itself. And if Kant's initial premise that "space" and "time" are conditions we impose on experience rather than derive from experience is at all acceptable, then his conclusion follows - that anything we conclude from our empirical investigation of events in space and time applies only to our experience of them (that is, appearances) rather than the things as they truly are in themselves (that is, reality.)

If Kant is wrong, then he is wrong at the start, as I believe. It won't do to accept Kant's account of the human condition - the one that makes traditional metaphysics worthless and grants to empirical sciences the privilege of knowing reality - then think that empirical science can somehow transcend the conditions of its own possibility and do what the old metaphysics was supposed to do: Know reality as it is in itself. This is thinking you have gotten beyond Kant without really reaching him.

But as Gilson wrote, the desire in man to know being and not just the appearances of being is deep, permanent and just as much a part of modern philosophers as it was part of Aristotle. Kant recognized the same thing, calling metaphysics a necessary illusion, a temptation that must continually be fought against. But Steven Pinker doesn't want to write a book called The Appearances of the Stuff of Thought; he wants to write The Stuff of Thought, or what the mind is really like, even if his Kantian start makes such an achievement nothing less than a miracle.

And we get a miracle of a sort in the last chapter. Summing up the book, he writes:

"In this book I have given you the view from language - what we can learn about human nature from the meanings of words and constructions and how they are used... How might the proverbial Martian scientist - in this case a Martian linguist - characterize our species, knowing only the semantics of our language?"

He then goes on to state a number of conclusions in the voice of abstract science:

"Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events... Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: going, changing being, having... Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories... When humans thank about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes and moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts... When humans see the world or visualize it in a mental image, they situate objects and events in a continuous medium of space... Humans see some things as just happening and others as being caused" etc.

The adoption of the viewpoint of a fictional Martian is, of course, a rhetorical effect to trick the reader into granting Pinker a viewpoint that transcends the human condition; as though, by pretending to be a Martian, he can really think like a Martian would think and not a human. But it's still a human thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. Nor would things improve if we speculated a Klingon thinking about Pinker thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. For it would still be a human at the beginning of the chain thinking about the Klingon thinking about the... you get the point. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Unfortunately, Pinker's thinking about humans, or humans through the rhetorical device of a Martian, is limited by all the limitations he lists for humans. His thinking must be packaged into objects and events; it is built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts; he tends to think of things holistically; he must situate objects in a continuous medium of space and time. His book is not written from a standpoint transcending the human condition through science, but from within the constraints of that condition itself, as it must be for every human being, including every scientist. 

And so we finally reach Kant. What is fascinating about Pinker's concluding chapter is that it owes virtually everything to the Critique of Pure Reason and almost nothing to empirical science. This is as it must be. The Critique of Pure Reason is an a priori analysis of human experience from the inside. "Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts" is not a conclusion that can possibly be made from empirical science, for science assumes it in its constitution, being itself a human characterization of reality built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. Similar points hold for all of Pinker's other conclusions.

What made Kant great is that he had the self-discipline to not attempt a miraculous transcendence of the human condition through the impersonation of a Martian or, even worse, think that empirical science might transcend its own conditions. He understood deeply the implications of the premisses of modern thought. Among those conclusions is that the mind must ultimately be opaque to itself; the mind may analyze its own appearances, but those appearances are necessarily conditioned by the structures of human thought. The real mind behind those structures must forever be a mystery to us.

Unless, of course, Kant was not right in his initial convictions...

The next post in this thread can be found here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part I

The mind and God have this in common: They are both things that cannot be known directly through something like scientific investigation. If they are known at all, then they are known through modes that transcend science; they are known philosophically. I wonder if this is why modern atheism, which tends to be driven by a restriction of knowledge to the empirical sciences, tends to end up denying the mind as well as God.

Let us take the mind first. The nature of the mind is to be a knower or comprehender of the world. When the scientist takes the mind as an object for his investigation, he necessarily turns the mind into an object in the world comprehended by his own mind. Therefore, in the very exercise of his science, he manifests a mind that must transcend the nature of whatever mind he concludes from science. The mind he investigates through science - "mind as object in the world of science" - is only a pale replica of the true mind - "mind as comprehender and judge of science." Therefore science can never fully fathom the mind, as science itself testifies in its very exercise.

One of the joys of philosophy is that one can know eternal and immutable truths through it, truths that are more certainly known than scientific truths, not less. The fact that the scientist, in the conduct of his science, manifests a mind that transcends the mind as it appears as an object of science, is one of these eternal and immutable truths. It must happen with iron metaphysical necessity, just as a body, when it moves to there, must depart from here. Yet many scientific and philosophical practitioners of the investigation of the mind fail to understand this point. They think a comprehensive account of the mind is available to science, at least in principle. And when they fail to discover any immaterial, world-knowing mind through science, they dismiss it as a myth concocted by the ignorant past.

The unintentional irony of all such efforts, of course, is that they manifest the world-knowing transcendent mind in the very act of denouncing it. They must do so. The fun in reading such works is finding the moment when the investigator performs an act of the mind denied by his science. Take for example, V.S. Ramachandran in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. This is a fascinating work of popular neuroscience in which we get scientific explanations of everything from phantom limbs to the purple numbers of the book's subtitle. But then Ramachandran sums up his research this way:

"Our brains are essentially model-making machines. We need to construct useful, virtual reality simulations of the world that we can act on."

Now this may be a true statement in the scientific sense, that is, as pertaining to minds as they appear as objects before neuroscience. But it can't be true of Ramachandran's mind as the comprehender of neuroscience. Or, if it is, then the statement means something other than what Ramachandran apparently means by it. For if brains are essentially model-makers, and this includes Ramachandran's scientific brain as well as his subject's, then neuroscience isn't really about the brain at all. It's about the virtual reality simulations scientists make of a reality that is in itself as unknowable to scientists as it is to the rest of us; for scientists have no way of stepping outside their own model-making minds and comparing the models to reality. Not only couldn't we know if our models of brains accurately represent real brains, but we couldn't know whether reality actually had anything in it corresponding to "brains" at all. But, of course,  there is an implicit exemption in Ramachadran's statement, for he obviously intends the statement to be about what brains are really like, not merely about his personal virtual reality simulation. And if the statement is about real brains, then not every brain can be merely a model-maker; in particular, Ramachandran's can't be.

Another example can be found in the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:

"These various images - perceptual, recalled from the real past, and recalled from plans of the future - are constructions of your organism's brain. All that you can know for certain is that they are real to your self, and that other beings make comparable images. We share our image-based concept of the world with other humans, and even with some animals; there is a remarkable consistency in the constructions different individuals make of the essential aspects of environment (textures, sounds, shapes, colors, space). If our organisms were designed differently, the constructions we make of the world around us would be different as well. We do not know, and it is improbable that we will ever know, what "absolute reality" is like."

Well, if we can't know what absolute reality is like, then all that Damasio has just written is not about reality, but only a construction he has made about a reality that is in itself unknowable. And that includes constructions of what our minds can and cannot do. Damasio may write that all you can know for certain is that images are real to yourself, but that statement is but a construction he puts on reality; reality may be that my mind really can go beyond images to the real nature of things. In fact, if Damasio intends his writing to be about what brains and minds are really like, which seems clear, then the human mind must be capable of knowing more than merely its own images.

Immanuel Kant thoroughly explored the logic of this kind of thinking a few centuries ago in the Critique of Pure Reason.  If you wish to understand the meaning of the contemporary investigation of the mind, Kant is the philosopher to read, for he understood the meaning of any possible empirical science of the mind long before they began to be practiced. Like many thinkers today, Kant held that the positive sciences are the only way of knowing empirical reality. But he also understood that the positive sciences are creative products of the mind of man; man creates science in order to force nature to explain itself in categories amenable to his understanding. The science-creating and science-judging mind is therefore invisible to the science it creates, because it is always behind the science as its ground and never in front of it as an object. The scientist who tries to "get behind" the mind through science is like the man who thinks he can get behind his own shadow by stepping over it.

This isn't to say that the empirical investigation of the mind is without value; far from it. But it is to say that the empirically known mind is necessarily less than the full story of the mind. The full story can only be known by a philosophy that acknowledges that the empirical sciences do not exhaust our ways of knowing empirical reality. The realist philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas is such a philosophy.

The Thomist philosopher, in contrast to the scientist, does not attempt to understand the mind as an external object on which he can perform tests and experiments. Instead, he attempts to understand his own act of knowing in the very act of knowing. St. Thomas calls this the "intellect knowing itself through itself." This is not a paradoxical, mind-boggling or anti-scientific concept. It simply means that the philosopher reflects on what happens to himself when he goes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. Since it is the mind reflecting on its own act, this is the mind knowing itself through itself. It is the mind knowing itself as "a knower and comprehender of the world",  not as "an object for science" that implies a transcendent mind lurking in the background.

A consequence of the Thomistic approach is that the philosopher cannot produce a "theory of the mind" so beloved by empirical scientists, one that would permit anyone to know the mind simply by reading a result out of a book. The best the philosopher of mind can do is aid other minds in coming to know the way he as come to know; that is, in coming to know their own minds through themselves. This is, in fact, the rule of Socratic midwifery that holds for philosophy in general.

Part II of this thread can be found here.

Chesterton on Potter?

And as if on cue, up pops a pro-Potter post on the blog at the American Chesterton Society.

I'd say that GKC is rolling over in his grave, except that I hope he is resting in peace and stays that way. I'm not sure a man of Chesterton's size would be able to roll over anyway.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Harry Potter: "pretty good books?"

J. Bottum has an article at First Things praising recent children's literature and, in particular, the Harry Potter series. 

With respect to Harry Potter, I feel like I am in a horror movie (say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) where I discover some terrible thing happening, but everyone else says things are just fine, including people whose judgment I respect (like J. Bottum.)  Am I insane, or is everyone so under the spell of this dreadful series that they cannot see that it is... pure crap?

I am not talking about its religious and moral content, which is objectionable enough. I mean on a purely literary level. This is a series with cliched, superficial, lazy and repetitive writing, and formulaic plots. Does anyone wonder why kids who have shown no interest in reading can suddenly power their way through a 400 page book in a couple of days? Are the Potter books so magical that they can suddenly increase the reading ability of children? Or are the books written at such a superficial level that even the laziest reader can skim through them with no problem?

The books were painful going when I read them. Pages and pages of dialog barely rises to the level of pre-teen text messaging:

"' Unbelievable!' beamed Seamus.
 'Cool,' said Dean.
 'Amazing,' said Neville, awestruck."


"'Cool, sir', said Dean Thomas in amazement." (Dean Thomas says one and only one thing whenever he appears in the series: "Cool." He's one of my favorite characters.)


"'Moody!' he said. 'How cool is he?'
 'Beyond cool,' said George, sitting down opposite Fred.
 'Supercool,' said the twin's best friend, Lee Jordan..."

and on and on it goes. Kids can read these books all day for the same reason they can sit and read Instant Messaging text all day. And it's no problem adding a new book to the series. Change "cool" to "supercool" and you've got a whole new episode.

One of the annoying aspects of the series is Rowling's heavy use of childish adjectives, words you scold your child for using but somehow become fine literature when they appear in Potter books. "Stupid", for example, appears with depressing regularity. As something to occupy my mind while I slogged through The Sorcerer's Stone, I documented all the occurrences of "stupid" in the book. It occurs 22 times, starting with "stupid new fashion" on page 3 followed by "being stupid" on page 4, to "completely stupid" on page 10. I was thrilled on page 31 to see the clever skill with which Rowling manages to find two uses for "stupid" in one sentence:

"... Malcolm, and Gordon were all big and stupid, but as Dudley was the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he was the leader."

Is this what people mean when they call the Potter series "pretty good books?" My favorite use of "stupid" occurs on page 105 in a magical incantation by Ron Weasley:

"Sunshine, daisies, butter, mellow, turn this stupid, fat, rat yellow."

When the spell doesn't work Weasley dismisses it, without irony, as.... "stupid." It's only the unintentional hilarity of Rowling's terrible writing that makes the books bearable at all. And even such a master of "stupid" as Rowling eventually runs out of novel uses for the word and begins repeating herself. The "Don't be stupid" that appears on page 33 reappears on page 275, and the "so stupid" on page 242 rises from the dead on page 291. 

I was told that the series improves as it goes along, so I cracked open The Chamber of Secrets in the hope that perhaps J.K. Rowling had grown as tired of "stupid" as I had. But then why mess with success? If "stupid" sells, then give 'em stupid and more stupid. As if in answer to my question, it says on the first page of Secrets: "Do I look stupid?"

Here is an exercise for the reader: "Stupid" is not the only childish word repeated ad nauseum in the Potter series. "Funny" is another one. Count the number of times "funny" appears as an all purpose adjective ("he had a funny feeling", "funny way to get to wizard's school", etc.) in the Potter book of your choice. This is just lazy writing that allows an author to crank out 500 page books on an annual basis.

Another lazy characteristic of Rowling's writing is her incessant use of superlatives. Harry Potter is always running into the greatest things he's ever seen. If it isn't "the largest pumpkins Harry had ever seen", its the "best house I've ever been in", "the glummest face Harry had ever seen", "the strangest classroom he had ever seen", "Harry had never seen her look so angry", "had never been in a worse fix,"  or "the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life", etc. The length of the Potter books would decrease by 20% if you merely deleted "stupid", "funny" and "had ever seen."

The Potter books feature virtually the same plot in every book. They open with some scenes of Potter's terrible life with the Dursleys before the Hogwarts school term opens. Potter has some adventures on the way to school. At school, strange things (even for Hogwarts) begin to happen and Harry wonders if some evil plot is in the offing. Harry gets in trouble with the school authorities for breaking rules, usually because he is investigating the unusual happenings or because of a misunderstanding. Harry is involved in an ongoing school tournament of some kind (e.g. Quidditch or the Triwizard Tournament) that will climax at roughly the same time as the nefarious plot. The book reaches its climax as a teacher at Hogwarts is unmasked as a secret disciple of Lord Voldemort and Potter faces down Voldemort himself. Potter is as lucky as James Bond in his villains insofar as they never kill him outright but always indulge in an elaborate procedure accompanied by long-winded explanations that gives Potter time to turn the tables. Unlike Bond, who faces new villains every episode, Voldemort is always the villain and makes the same mistake every book. Voldemort is always defeated but never destroyed, to return with a similar plot that fails in a similar way in the next book. The school term ends and Potter returns to the Dursleys. By the fourth book we have seen the plot enough to know that the only new elements in the next book will be the exact details of how Voldemort will use the Goblet of Fire to get at Harry and which of the Hogwart's staff will be exposed as Voldemort's disciple in disguise.

Am I the last one on Earth who recognizes this junk for what it is? Should I just go along with it, having been promised that it will be all right once I go to sleep and wake up?

I must stay awake.... stay awake....

Friday, November 21, 2008

Aristotle on Obama

Here is Aristotle, from Ch. 5 Book V of the Politics, on how democracies fail. Does Obama fit the description of Aristotle's popular leader of unprincipled character? One thing seems sure: Obama's plan of expropriating the wealth of notable citizens and spreading it around has had predictably bad results for at least 2500 years:

"In democracies the most potent cause of revolution is the unprincipled character of popular leaders. Sometimes they bring malicious prosecutions against the property-owners one by one, and so cause them to join forces; common fear makes the bitterest of foes cooperate. At other times they openly egg on the multitude against them. There are many instances of the kind of thing I mean. At Cos the democracy fell when the popular leaders deteriorated, the more notable citizens combining against them. Similarly at Rhodes, when the democratic politicians provided pay for naval ratings and tried to stop refunding to naval commanders the expenses which they had incurred. These, therefore, weary of incessant law-suits, were obliged to form an association and put down the democracy. At Heraclea too the democratic party was brought low just after the foundation of the colony - and all because of their own leaders, whose unjust treatment of the upper-class citizens caused these to leave the city one after another; finally the exiles gathered forces, returned, and put down the democracy.  The democracy at Megara was dissolved in a similar way: here the popular politicians, in order to have money for doling out to the people, banished many of the notable citizens; this went on until the number of those thus exiled became so large that they returned, won a battle against the people, and established an oligarchy. Sometimes, in order to win the favour of the multitude, they oppress the leading citizens and cause them to unite; methods of oppression include forced capital-levy, as well as a levy on income for public services; another method is to bring slanderous accusations against the rich with a view to getting their money transferred to the public purse."

Science and the failure to reach philosophy.

A recurring theme of Kierkegaard is the fact that modern thought, despite its belief that it has moved decisively beyond ancient philosophy, has yet to even reach it. 

A case in point is this article from the Nov. 2 issue of the Boston Sunday Globe, about which I have been meaning to blog but just now have found the time to do so. The article from Science on which it is based is here, but it will cost you ten bucks to read it if you don't already subscribe to the magazine. I plunked down the ten bucks for the purposes of this post, but the original article doesn't add a lot that isn't already in the Boston Globe summary.

The article, like all of its type, is sophistical in the technical sense. It plays on the varying meanings of a word, proving something when the word is taken in one sense, and then applying the conclusion to the word taken in another sense. In this case, the word is politics

Now politics can mean the immediate, perhaps unreflected opinions we have about issues involving our common lives. Are you for or against gun control? How about the torture of political prisoners? Do you think it is too easy for illegal immigrants to enter the country? Any one can have an opinion about these questions whether they have thought about them or not. And those opinions will have some causal origin; if not in considered rational thought, then in our environment or perhaps the peculiarities of our individual natures (e.g., people easily startled and naturally fearful will tend to favor a strong natural defense and gun ownership.) This is common sense. We can conduct scientific studies, of course, and generate numbers and plot graphs that document the correlation between things like a fearful nature and support for strong national defense. This is what the scholars cited in the Boston Globe did, and there is nothing in their results that should surprise anyone of common sense. 

But the scientists think they have found something novel and startling, something that carries significant implications for our political life. They think this because they have applied their results - results that apply to the meaning of politics discussed in the last paragraph - to the other meaning of the word politics. This second meaning is the one used by classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle when they discuss politics.

Aristotle was aware that everyone has opinions about man's communal nature. The cave man who ruled his immediate family with a club had an opinion: He rules because he is the strongest. The barbarian tribesman has an opinion: The chief rules because he has the strongest magic or knows the secrets of the dead or some such thing. The average Greek has opinions: He supports the Spartan military society because it has made Sparta the strongest city, or the Athenian democracy because it made Athens the wealthiest city, or any number of such opinions.

But such opinions are not yet politics in the philosophical sense. They are not political because they make no effort to transcend immediate circumstances and grasp the rational truth about the nature of man's communal life as such. They make no effort to search for the causal origin of the structure of communal life, or to search for a transcendent standard against which to judge cities. Politics is not merely a set of opinions regarding men's life together; it is the quest to ground man's communal life in reason and truth. Politics starts when we refuse to be satisfied with opinion and demand that man's communal life be grounded in an understanding of its causes and end. "We are accustomed to analyse other composite things till they can be subdivided no further; let us in the same way examine the state and its component parts and we shall see better how these differ from each other, and whether we can deduce any working principle about the several parts mentioned." (Aristotle, Politics Book I ch. 1).

Is politics as just defined possible? In other words, can reason transcend immediate circumstances to grasp the truth as such? Or are environment and, perhaps, nature determinative of political opinions? This is an old question, although the Boston Globe seems to think it was just recently taken up: "In the 20th century, scholars began to explore the influence of culture, economic status, and other environmental factors on the development of political opinion." So Karl Marx was unaware that economic status had any effect on political opinion? The French revolutionaries saw no relationship between Catholic culture and the divine right claims of Louis XVI? At least Lenin and the earlier French Jacobins could think more clearly than, say, Prof. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska:

"Simply knowing that our political preferences have physiological sources 'may make us a little more humble, a little less quick to say, 'My opponent is simply stupid, ' ' Hibbing said."

We won't say they are stupid because there is no point in saying anything to them at all, their political views having already been determined by some non-rational cause; whether that cause is genes or environment or space aliens is really of no account. How then shall our political differences be settled, if not by argument, for settled they must be? Robespierre, Lenin and Mao had a ready answer to that question. The Globe writes that "When we debate issues, in other words, we do not so much argue a political position as assert who we are." The Guillotine and the Gulag are very effective ways of asserting yourself.

Either the great questions are susceptible to rational argument or they are not. If they are not, then we should all grab our guns as quickly as possible. If they are, then we may acknowledge that pre-rational political opinions may be decisively influenced by genes, environment, upbringing, or the bad fish you ate the night before. Politics in the true sense starts with the acknowledgment that we all have opinions that have obscure origins in our nature or environment. It moves on from there to examine those opinions in the light of reason, and discard or modify opinions that have no firm rational foundation. This is just what Aristotle does in the Politics. The University of Nebraska scientists have not gone beyond Aristotle in their research; they have finally reached a point where they may profitably read him.

And, finally and as usual, the Globe writer and the Nebraska scientists do not seem to grasp that their way of thinking is just as destructive of their own science as it is of political thought. If  in politics "we may imagine that our choice is based on a thoughtful consideration of the issues" when, really, it is powerfully influenced by genetics, why not in science as well? I am sure I could take 50 random people from the street, ask them the question "Do you think political opinions are determined by genetics?" while they are hooked up to all manner of probes and electrodes, and discover some correlation between physiology and a yes or no answer to the question. Then I could conclude that all scientific opinions are determined by genetics, and that scientists only think they are debating issues, when really they are just asserting who they are. 

This little thought experiment shows the game that is being played. There is a difference, of course, between opinions about science, which anyone can have, and scientific opinions, which are more than mere opinions because they are held by scientists who have an understanding of the causes involved, an understanding that manages to transcend the limitations of nature and environment. It is sophistical to make an argument that confuses the two meanings, just as it is sophistical to conclude that political opinions are determined by genes because opinions about politics show some correlation with genetic constitution.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama as the Incarnation of History

It's been almost a month since I've blogged... but then I try not to blog for the sake of blogging, and only write when I think I have something to contribute that is not already being said by others. My thoughts on the recent election have mostly been stated by others (Peter Hitchens, for example) better than I could have stated them myself. 

One thing about Barack Obama I think people are missing concerns the idea that he thinks of himself as some sort of Messiah. This doesn't really get it. A Messiah, including the Messiah, is a man on a mission under orders from a higher power. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." The Messiah is not an independent operator; his power and authority are defined by the mission on which the Higher Power has sent him. He lives in a world of metaphysical absolutes that define his world.

History (since the birth of Christ) is the record of the response of men to the Messiah. The Messiah grounds the meaning of history, but He is not history itself. The distinction between the Messiah and history creates the space in which the freedom of men can exist, and in which men become free co-creators of history with the Messiah. Christ allows men to crucify Him, if they so chose, so that the distinction between Himself and history will endure; history goes on, its meaning secure, even when the Savior is killed and is buried.

Barack Obama, in contrast to Christ, deliberately collapses the distinction between himself and history. Uniquely among American politicians, he does not really sell ideas or policies. His ideas are stale socialist drivel from the 1930's, ideas that would get a politician laughed off the platform were they stated by anyone other than Obama. But no one cares about the ideas, because what Obama is really selling is himself as the incarnation of history. To support Obama is to be swimming with the tide of history; to oppose him is to be worse than wrong, it is to be ahistorical. Christ heralded the advent of the Kingdom of God; Obama heralds the advent of the City of Man

What defines the City of Man is that history replaces metaphysics as the foundation of the world. It doesn't matter that Obama can't explain his abortion absolutism, his terrorist friends, or his crazy pastor, or even offer a coherent account of what he would do as President. Things will be different once he is elected, are different now that he is the President-elect. Philosophical debates about the beginning of life or the morality of revolutionary terrorism belong to the old world, the world of metaphysical absolutes like God and human nature. Obama never claimed to transcend these debates; what he claimed to do is "move beyond them," and the temporal nature of his assertion is exactly right. 

John McCain was the perfect representative of an old world of absolutes - of honor, duty, and country - too weak to defend itself against the magic spell of Obama's historicism. The election post-mortem revealed that McCain himself sensed the "historic destiny" of the Obama campaign and wondered if it was right for him to stand in the way. His doubt caused him to pull his punches and leave the obvious arguments against Obama (e.g., that his politics are reheated garbage from 1933) off the table. If McCain really understood the old world, then he would have understood that metaphysical absolutes judge history, not the other way around. Something is truly "historic" only to the extent that it has a foundation in the true, the good and the beautiful; that is, ultimately in God. The true and the good do not stand aside as history marches on.

What will become of our freedom in the new historical epoch allegedly opened by Obama? There is no space for freedom in our new world, since Obama's destiny and history are one and the same. This is the reason that Obama so casually tosses aside old friends and even family members ("typical white person") and no one seems to care. To be in Obama's way is to be in history's way, and no one has standing before history, not even John McCain. 

The Constitution, once revered as the law of the land, has served its purpose in bringing us to this historical moment, the advent of Obama. It is now a relic of a bygone age, one that will retain some hold over the current generation but little over the succeeding ones. Certainly Obama will not feel constrained by it.

We religious folk will be tolerated, but only so long as we do not stand in the way of history by proclaiming our metaphysical absolutes. Obama-world does not have space for philosophical or religious arguments. These arguments will not be answered because they won't be seen to even rise to the dignity of being wrong; they will be denounced as unfortunate efforts to take us back to the "old debates of the past", efforts that must be resisted rather than answered.

I don't think it will go well for us.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More on nature/nurture

In this post I discussed John Derbyshire and the state of the nature/nurture debate.

There are two points about the nature/nurture debate that have always struck me. The first is the manner in which, and this is typical of modern philosophy, the most important points are simply assumed and all the energy is spent debating points of secondary significance. The "human sciences", for example, take it for granted that man can be explained entirely in terms of nature or nurture or some combination of the two, as though these two alternatives self-evidently exhaust the possibilities. Barack Obama, for example, is explained by John Derbyshire entirely in terms of nurture (his mind was "set that way" by cultural Marxism, says Derbyshire.) My point in the prior post was that Derbyshire's explanation of Obama contradicts his own thesis, which is that genetics explains at least half of personal differences.

But why must Obama's political views necessarily be a product of either his genes or his environment? Might not his political views be a product of rational thought, a process that transcends both genes and environment? What is self-evident, surely, is that man cannot be explained entirely in terms of nature and/or nurture. Why does Barack Obama believe in the Pythagorean Theorem? Not even John Derbyshire, I think, would say that it is due to his genes or his environment, as though Obama were raised in "cultural geometry" the way he was allegedly raised in "cultural Marxism." We recognize that geometry transcends culture, and genes, and that the rational process by which we understand geometry is not reducible to either genes or environment. Is it not at least possible that political thought can also transcend genes and environment?

This brings me to my second point, which is that if we accept that man is entirely a causal product of his genes and/or his environment, then the nature/nurture argument is pointless in any event. For then man is a slave one way or the other; a slave to his genes or a slave to his environment. And it's not only Barack Obama's political thought that is enslaved, but also John Derbyshire's thought about Barack Obama's thought, and my thought about both Obama and Derbyshire. There is no escape from this slavery, and in the end the identity of the master, whether it be nature or nurture or Descartes' Evil Demon or a space alien or something else, must be a matter of impenetrable mystery to us. For our thought about the identity of the master is itself enslaved to the master, and therefore subject to his (its?) manipulation. My genes may determine my thinking, but there is no a priori guarantee that my genes will let me in on the fact.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Derb on Obama and human sciences

It's amazing the manner in which atheist/skeptic types routinely fail to appreciate the logic of their own positions. Case in point: John Derbyshire, the village atheist at National Review, and his article on Obama and the human sciences.

According to Derb, the old nature/nurture argument has been settled by science, and nature is the winner.
Most people still think of human-science controversies in terms of nature/nurture. As a matter of real scientific dispute, that is all long gone. Nature/nurture arguments were at the heart of the sociobiology wars that roiled the human sciences through the last third of the 20th century. (The 2000 book Defenders of Truth, by the Finnish sociologist of science Ullica SegerstrÃ¥le gives a full — and so far as I can judge, very fair — account.) The dust of battle has pretty much settled now, in science departments if not in the popular press, and nature is the clear victor. Name any universal characteristic of human nature, including cognitive and personality characteristics. Of all the observed variation in that characteristic, about half is caused by genetic differences.

That's bad for left-wingers, says Derb, because central to their politics is the notion that inequality is entirely due to environmental and social factors. But if the human sciences show that the most signficant factor in determining the course of an individual's life is his genes, then the rug is pulled out from under all those grand liberal plans to produce universal equality through government intervention.

Derb thinks that if Obama is elected, he may make moves to squelch research in the human sciences, since those sciences are producing results unfavorable to his politics. Why does Obama favor such leftwing politics? Given the arguments he just made, we would expect Derb to answer this question in terms of genetics. After all, genetics allegedly explains at least half of personal differences. But Derb attributes nothing of Obama's politics to genetics; the causal origin of Obama's politics, Derb says, is entirely a matter of nurture:
Barack Obama was raised in an atmosphere of “cultural Marxism.” His mind was set that way, and he retained the essential precepts of the creed into adult life, as his close association with somewhat-more-than-cultural Marxist Bill Ayers illustrates (as of course do Obama’s remarks quoted above).

Those all-powerful genes are apparently utterly helpless in the face of an "atmosphere" of cultural Marxism. Derb's argument is typical of determinists. They start by claiming human life is determined by some non-rational cause (genes, the clockwork Newtonian universe, the Fates, the stars - it doesn't really matter), and make their argument entirely in the abstract. Then when they come to some specific matter of actual importance, the causal framework they just constructed is completely abandoned and they explain things in terms of the rational causes they just denied.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Christian Imagination and Harry Potter

I just wrote a post responding to an article in the Boston Globe about fairy tales and Harry Potter. That gives me a chance to publish on this blog an essay I wrote about the relationship of the Harry Potter stories to the Christian imagination (previously published on my old website):

The Christian Imagination and Harry Potter


The following shorthand will be used for reference in text citations:

SS – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic 1998.

CS – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Scholastic 1999.

AZ – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic 1999.

GF – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic 2000.

O – Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.  Doubleday Image Books, 1959.

CC – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.  Puffin Books 1973.

FOTR – The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ballantine Books 1973.

SCG – Summa Contra Gentiles by St. Thomas Aquinas, Notre Dame 1975.

IF – The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi, Mentor Books, 1982.

All Biblical references are from the Revised Standard Version, Collins Clear Type Press, 1952






“What! You don’t let your kids read Harry Potter! Why not?”


There is no good way for me to answer this question in a couple of sentences.  But I have been asked it enough times that my lack of a satisfactory answer has become a source of frustration.  My solution is to write this paper, which sets out at length my misgivings.  It addresses the first four books in the series (SS, CS, AZ and GF listed above). I have not read the remaining books in the series nor seen any of the movies.  My initial reading of The Sorcerer’s Stone occurred by way of pre-reading it for my children.  That reading convinced me is was not appropriate for anyone attempting to raise Christian children.  Some Potter supporters suggested that the series gets better in the later books, so I tried the next three in the series and found no improvement.  If a series can’t demonstrate in four books and 1600 pages that it is worth reading, then it isn’t worth reading.


This paper is not intended as a general criticism of the books but an explanation why I, as a parent, have censored them.  In particular, it explains why I think the books will impede rather than foster the kind of education which I wish my children to receive.


After reading the Potter books myself, I read some of its critics.  The critics give the general impression of focusing on the trees while missing the forest.  They object to this or that aspect of the series – Potter’s disobedience, for example – but do not address the structure and meaning of the series as a whole.  My own rejection of the series does not so much rest on specific objections, although I have them as well, but on general impressions.  The series strikes me as imaginatively wrong.   My specific objections are symptoms of what I see as the fundamentally flawed nature of the books.  Potter’s disobedience, for example, I do not see as an isolated problem but as flowing from the sort of world J.K. Rowling has constructed.  My criticism, therefore, will focus on delineating the imaginative structure of the books and explaining why that structure is problematic.  I will begin by turning to G.K. Chesterton, the great English essayist from the last century.


The Baptism of the Imagination


In his wonderful book Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes the development of his personal philosophy, a philosophy he thought idiosyncratic but later discovered to be nothing other than orthodox Christianity as it has been taught in the West for centuries.  In Chesterton's image, he was like an explorer planting his flag on a new, uncharted continent, only to discover that he had mistakenly landed on the coast of England.  Far from a grand disappointment, Chesterton thought this circumstance the best of both worlds:  It combined the thrill of adventurous discovery with the joy of returning home.


Chesterton did not think his accidental, personal redevelopment of Christian philosophy was, well, an accident.  He attributed it to the fact that he was animaginative Christian long before he was a believing one.  Although he never attended the English equivalent of Sunday school, he received an unintentionally Christian education simply by being educated in an England informed by over a thousand years of Christianity (Chesterton was born in 1874).  Christianity had seeped into all aspects of the culture, including its music, art and especially literature.  One could not help being formed, at least to some degree, in Christian terms.  In Chesterton's case, it was the most humble form of literature, the fairy tale, that had the most influence on his imaginative development:


            "My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery." (O, 49) 


Chesterton understood that his early education in fairy tales provided the framework within which he came to interpret the world:


            "Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised earth.  I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon." (O, 49)


What did Chesterton learn from fairy tales?  "Many noble and healthy principles", he writes, among them


            ".. the chivalrous lesson of 'Jack the Giant Killer'; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic.  It is a manly mutiny against pride as such.  For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite.  There is the lesson of 'Cinderella', which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles.  There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.  There is the terrible allegory of 'Sleeping Beauty,' which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep." (O, 50)


We can learn from Chesterton's experience the critical significance that imaginative development has on the development of the person.  The imagination forms the terms in which an individual sees himself and the world.  In Chesterton's case, because he drank deeply of classical Western literature, especially fairy tales, his imagination was cast in the Christian categories of faith, hope, charity, hospitality, patience, justice, mercy, humility and fidelity.  As he matured, he mentally processed the world in these terms.  And when he finally came to undertake a mature appraisal of Christianity, he came to the task with an imagination prepared to see the depth and truth of the Christian story.


Chesterton teaches us that while knowing the formal Christian doctrines is important, it is even more important to have imaginatively experienced the incarnationof those doctrines.  A child raised in a secular home may have never heard of the Virgin Mary, but if he has read Cinderella, then he has imaginatively experienced the virtues of humility, charity and patience in the figure of Cinderella.  His imagination has become tuned to the Christian story and will resonate to it when he finally hears it.  A child who has not heard imaginatively Christian stories, or has been raised on stories that are anti-Christian in imaginative content, is less likely to respond to the Gospel.  His imagination will be tuned to reject the Gospel.  There are many Biblical metaphors that apply:  He will have ears that do not hear, he will be the rocky path on which the seed is cast but cannot grow.


Chesterton explains that fairy tales do more than simply incarnate Christian virtue.  They provide an imaginative structure in which Christian virtue makes sense. A Christian is someone who finds salvation in that which is outside or above himself.   The important thing about his story is what he encounters – grace – and not so much what he finds out about himself.   Thus Jack of beanstalk fame is brave and resourceful, but those virtues only manifest themselves in the context of the grace he receives from a mysterious stranger.  It is the magic beans Jack receives in trade that allow him to climb to the sky and win back a golden egg laying hen and a singing harp.  This story obviously retains the imaginative arc of the Christian story.  Through grace, the Christian is able to win back what was lost through sin and make his way back to heaven. 


The Christian virtues of faith, hope, love, patience, hospitality and humility only make sense because the Christian is looking to receive something wonderful from outside.  These virtues make the person open to the experience of grace when it is offered.  Cinderella suffers the insults and oppression of her stepmother with patience and humility and therefore is open to the grace she receives from the fairy Godmother.  Snow White and Rose Red show hospitality to a wandering bear and patience with an abusive dwarf.  Later, their virtue is rewarded when the bear reveals himself to be a prince who was put under a curse.  The miller’s son in Puss in Boots, inheriting nothing but a cat from his father, finds that his faith in the cat is rewarded when the cat makes his fortune.  Like Jack and the Beanstalk, these stories follow the Christian imaginative structure in which humble individuals, through the Christian virtues, experience the grace that saves them.


Suppose there was no fairy Godmother in Cinderella, no cursed prince in Snow White and Rose Red, and no clever cat in Puss in Boots.  Suppose the magic beans are duds like Jack’s mother thought they were. What would become of the virtues of faith, hope, patience and hospitality?   Absent grace, these virtues simply leave the person open to abuse.  In fact, without grace they are not virtues at all.  Without a fairy Godmother, Cinderella’s patience is pointless and she becomes merely a doormat for her stepmother and stepsisters.  Snow White and Rose Red, absent the hidden prince, are merely foolish for showing hospitality to a bear and patience with the dwarf.  And Jack would be the fool his mother said he is.  These stories cannot be told without the element of grace and the virtues they incarnate do not make sense without grace. 


Without a fairy Godmother, what is Cinderella to do?  Clearly, since she can’t hope for grace, she must rely on herself.  The story would become the story of Cinderella discovering the resources within her to affect her liberation from her oppressive stepmother.  If she marries the Prince at all, it will only be as a strong woman who has established her own destiny.  We are left with a story that, imaginatively, has the structure of self-fulfillment and liberation rather than salvation through grace.  Instead of humility, patience, faith and obedience, the virtues that would be significant for Cinderella are strength, courage and resourcefulness. 


Our first clue that something is imaginatively wrong with the Harry Potter books is that these latter virtues are the ones most often cited in defense of Harry Potter.   The Potter books may not be perfect, the defenders say, but they provide good examples of courage, resourcefulness and determination for children. The defenders are right that Potter shows these virtues, but they do not see that these are Potter’s most prominent virtues because they are the ones necessary in a world without grace.  And a world without grace is an imaginatively unchristian world. 


Instead of grace, Potter relies on magic.  Cinderella, Jack and Snow White are not magical, but fairy Godmothers and beans are.  Standing the fairy tale tradition on its head, the Harry Potter books make Potter more magical than anything he encounters.  The dramatic arc of every Potter book involves Potter defeating cosmic evil by finding ever deeper magical resources within him, along with the virtues to use them – like courage and resourcefulness.  Thus the theme of the Potter books is how Potter finds salvation within, rather than without through grace. 


Potter is encouraged on his interior voyage by constant reminders of how special and wonderful he is.  These start with Hagrid in The Sorcerer’s Stone, who first reveals to Harry that he is a wizard, “an a thumpin’ good’un.” (SS 51)  Hagrid also teaches Harry the meaning of some mysterious events in his life:


            " ' Not a wizard, eh?  Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?'

            Harry looked into the fire.  Now he came to think about it... every odd thing that had ever made his aunt and uncle furious with him had happened when he, Harry, had been upset or angry... chased by Dudley's gang, he had somehow found himself out of their reach... dreading going to school with that ridiculous haircut, he'd managed to make it grow back... and the very last time Dudley had hit him, hadn't he got his revenge, without even realizing it?  Hadn't he set a boa constrictor on him?

            Harry looked back at Hagrid, smiling, and saw that Hagrid was positively beaming at him." (SS 58)


We see that Potter’s first experience of true wonder is wonder at himself and his truly magical nature.  We also learn something of the meaning magic will have for Potter:  Magic will be the means by which he overcomes obstacles and defeats enemies.  No need for grace here.  Note also the curious lack of concern over Potter’s ability to unconsciously exact revenge on enemies.  One might think that Potter and Hagrid would at least be worried that Potter sometimes unleashes violence without knowing it, but Hagrid views it with all the pride of a father seeing his son ride a bicycle for the first time.  What is important for Potter is that he has begun to know himself, not that he might have unknowingly caused another boy to be swallowed by a snake.


Potter’s famous (or infamous) disobedience is related to the fact that his salvation lies within rather than without.  Obedience is the virtue by which we relate ourselves to that which is greater and more wonderful than us.  But anytime we might start thinking that there might be more wonderful things in the world than Harry Potter,  we are reminded just how special he is (SS 69, SS 95, CS 3, GF 72 among many others).  What point is there in obedience for “the Harry Potter”? Potter is the most wonderful thing there is, so there is nothing greater than himself to which he could relate.


It is useful to compare Harry Potter with another famous fictional boy, Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Charlie’s story bears some resemblance to Harry Potter’s.  Both are taken out of difficult family circumstances into a wonderful new world where only a select few gain entry.  Both, in the end, stand out from others by having a unique vocation in that world. But the differences are significant.  Charlie is entirely non-magical while Potter is the most gifted of wizards.  Potter gains entry to Hogwarts by right of his magical nature.  Charlie wins a tour of the magical Chocolate Factory by finding a golden ticket in a chocolate bar (we recognize the classic fairy tale moment of grace – it even happens in a chapter entitled The Miracle).  By the end of Chocolate Factory, we have learned that the tour was really an opportunity for Willy Wonka to select an heir.  Charlie becomes that heir, and he is selected because of his obedience:


            “Someone’s got to keep it going – if only for the sake of the Oompa-Loompas.  Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person.  I don’t want a grown-up person at all.  A grownup won’t listen to me; he won’t learn.  He will try to do things his own way and not mine.  So I have to have a child.  I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets – while I am still alive.” (CC 157)


Wonka has the insight to understand that obedience is a fruit of love:


            “ ‘How I love my chocolate factory,’ said Mr. Wonka, gazing down.  Then he paused, and he turned around and looked at Charlie with a most serious expression on his face. ‘Do you love it too, Charlie?’ he asked.

            ‘Oh, yes,’ cried Charlie, ‘I think it is the most wonderful place in the whole world!’ (CC 156)


Of course Wonka already knows the answer to his question.  Charlie’s humble submission to the rules of the Chocolate Factory has revealed his wonder at the factory and his love for it.  Charlie obeys the rules because he recognizes that the factory is something greater and more wonderful than he is.  He knows that the factory has a structure and life beyond his understanding, and therefore his experience of the factory will involve following rules the purpose of which he does not yet see.  Charlie has no problem with this.  The Chocolate Factory is more wonderful than anything he could imagine - who could complain of a couple of rules?  Chesterton captures this attitude wonderfully in Orthodoxy:


“Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable.  Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.  Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; that happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.  Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust.  If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, ‘Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply, ‘Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.’  If Cinderella says, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’  If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift… I did not feel disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.” (O 57)


The other children on the tour, lacking Charlie’s wonder, see the factory as merely an opportunity to satisfy their appetites.  The rules for them are mere obstacles in the path of self-gratification.  So they disobey the rules and suffer the just punishment of all those who try to exploit that which is greater than themselves:  Not only do they not get what they want but they are ejected from the factory altogether.  Charlie perseveres in his obedience and is rewarded in the end with the Chocolate Factory itself   “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  (Luke 18:17)


Harry Potter disobeys the rules of Hogwarts but, unlike Veruca Salt and Mike TeeVee, he is not ejected from the fairy palace.  This is because the real fairy palace is Potter himself, not Hogwarts.  Wonder calls for obedience, and since Potter himself is the focus of wonder, it follows that Potter must obey his own nature rather than others.  In today’s parlance, he must be “true to himself.”    Hogwarts is merely the occasion for Potter to discover himself, not the thing to be discovered as the Chocolate Factory is for Charlie Bucket. 


No one understands this better than Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts and a figure often compared to Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings.  Gandalf, however, is a semi-angelic figure sent by a higher power to provide assistance to Middle Earth. His assistance sometimes takes the form of wise counsel, occasionally includes magical intervention, and other times comes as authoritative commands that demand obedience.  Gandalf is not interested in assisting individuals in exploring their inner selves but in saving Middle Earth from domination by evil.  Dumbledore, however, understands that the most wonderful thing in his world is Harry Potter and that the important thing going on at Hogwarts is Potter’s discovery of himself.  Therefore obedience to the school rules, and even obedience to Dumbledore himself, is secondary to Potter doing what he needs to do to discover his destiny:


“ ‘I seem to remember telling you both that I would have to expel you if you broke any more school rules,’ said Dumbledore.

Ron opened his mouth in horror.

            ‘ Which goes to show that the best of us must sometimes eat our words,’ Dumbledore went on, smiling. ‘ You will both receive Special Awards for Services to the School…’” (CS 331)


Dumbledore patiently ratifies Harry’s disobedience at the end of every book, but the obtuse Hogwarts teachers never seem to get the point and they continue to harass Harry about minor rules violations in the next book, even after Harry repeatedly saves Hogwarts from domination by the evil Lord Voldemort. 


Lord Voldemort is the Sauron character in the Potter series, but as Dumbledore isn’t really Gandalf, Voldemort isn’t really Sauron.  Sauron’s objective is domination of Middle Earth through recovery of the One Ring into which he has cast his power.  Sauron normally ignores the non-magical Hobbits as creatures unworthy of his attention. He becomes interested in them only because he has learned that the Hobbits might possess the Ring.  The thematic irony of The Lord of the Rings is that the great and powerful Sauron is brought low by the humble Hobbits, and by the very virtue of their humility.  It is the same irony found inJack and the BeanstalkPuss in Boots and the Gospel of Luke, but it is not found in Sorcerer’s Stone or the other Potter books.  Voldemort’s primary objective is always Harry Potter himself because Potter is the most extraordinary of wizards.  The Jacks, Charlie Buckets, Frodos and miller’s sons of traditional stories are undistinguished in their ordinariness, but Potter has a lightning scar on his forehead that marks him as unique even among wizards.  He is “the Harry Potter.” No one ever said this about Charlie Bucket.  It is Potter’s superlative magical power that Voldemort wants, and the plot of each book is a variation on Voldemort’s attempts to tap into it, literally in the case of The Goblet of Fire.


“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.  When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matt. 13:45-46)   Charlie Bucket understands the meaning of this passage, as he spends his last pennies on the chocolate bar in which he finds the golden ticket. Children who have read Chocolate Factory will have an imaginative understanding of it as well.  But in the Potter books, it is Harry himself who is the “pearl of great price.”  It is important not to underestimate the depth of this imaginative revolution.  Harry’s disobedience is not a quirk of character.  Harry is disobedient because he lives in the kind of world where obedience makes no sense, especially for him.  What could Harry hope to obtain through obedience that he doesn’t have already?   More to the point, how will a child respond to Matt. 13:45-46 when his imagination has been shaped by the Potter books?


The imaginative revolution at the heart of the Potter books affects the meaning of everything in his world.  Magic, for instance, has a very different meaning in the Potter books than it has in the classic tales.  “Good magic” in the classic tales is really a metaphor for grace.  Jack is graced by the mysterious stranger with magic beans, Cinderella is graced by the fairy Godmother with a chance to go to the ball.  The reader’s first encounter with magic in The Lord of the Ringsestablishes that it too will follow the classical imaginative structure.  This happens at Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party.  Gandalf the wizard is in attendance and graces the hobbits with some magical fireworks:


            “The fireworks were by Gandalf:  they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him.  But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps.  They were all superb.  The art of Gandalf improved with age.” (FOTR 51)


Gandalf’s fireworks are an excellent example of the imaginative similarity between classical tales and the Gospel.  Bilbo’s party bears a striking resemblance to the Wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11.  In both, “magic” (grace) occurs in the context of a feast and for the purpose of facilitating joy.  It is performed by supernatural (or semi-supernatural) beings in service to the humble (or non-magical).  The magic complements rather than dominates or destroys the natural aspects of the feast -  in the traditional phrase, “grace fulfills nature.”  Magic unites wizards and Hobbits, man and the Son of Man.  And in both cases, magic has a deeper meaning than most of those in attendance realize, but one in harmony with the surface meaning.  In Gandalf’s case, he has traveled to Hobbiton not merely to enliven the party, but to use his power, including magic power, to assist the Hobbits in defending the Shire and Middle Earth from the threat of Sauron.  In the case of Christ, He has become incarnate on Earth not merely to restore conviviality to a party, but to save man from sin and the Devil (or, we might say, restore conviviality between man and God).  In both cases, magic reveals that the wizard has come to serve, not to be served, and to defend the humble from evils they cannot begin to understand.


While “good magic” in classical tales is a metaphor for grace, “bad magic” is an instrument of self-will and domination.  The evil Queen attempts to destroy Snow White with magic combs and poisoned apples in service to her vanity.  In Snow White and Rose Red, a dwarf puts a curse on a Prince that changes him into a bear so that he can steal the Prince’s gold.  In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron controls the will of others through crystal balls.  He and Saruman create orcs and Uruk-hai by magically twisting and torturing the nature of elves.


From a classical perspective, all magic in the Potter series is “bad magic.”   This is true whether the wizards who use it are putatively “good” or “bad”.  Potter magic is always fundamentally violent in its nature and an expression of domination rather than service.  The difference between the good and the bad wizards is that the good wizards use magical violence for allegedly “good” ends, while the bad wizards use it for “bad” ends.  But the means are the same in either case.  In the case noted earlier, the good wizards Harry Potter and Hagrid are proud and happy that Harry was able to unconsciously unleash a boa constrictor on Harry’s childhood enemy Dudley Dursley.  This is OK because Dudley is a bad guy.  One can’t imagine a fairy Godmother, Gandalf (or Christ!) being filled with joy about such an event.  That same scene continues with Hagrid, cast as the jolly, gentle giant in the series, assaulting 11-year old Dudley in a fit of rage:



            But he had finally gone too far.  Hagrid seized his umbrella and whirled it over his head.  "NEVER --" he thundered, "-- INSULT --- ALBUS -- DUMBLEDORE -- IN -- FRONT -- OF -- ME!"

            He brought the umbrella swishing down through the air to point at Dudley -- there was a flash of violet light, a sound like a firecracker, a sharp squeal, and the next second, Dudley was dancing on the spot with his hands clasped over his fat bottom, howling in pain.  When he turned his back on them, Harry saw a curly pig's tail poking through a hole in his trousers.

            Uncle Vernon roared.  Pulling Aunt Petunia and Dudley into the other room, he cast one last terrified look at Hagrid and slammed the door behind them.

            Hagrid looked down at his umbrella and stroked his beard.

            "Shouldn'ta lost me temper," he said ruefully, "but it didn't work anyway.  Meant ter turn him into a pig, but I suppose he was so much like a pig anyway there wasn't much left ter do." (SS 59).


And this is how the good guys use magic!  Magically maiming a boy is something only evil characters like witches and Saruman might do in classical tales. Forget imaginative content, what Hagrid has done is an assault on a minor that should put him in the state penitentiary for years.  But it is an indication of the degree to which our imaginations have fallen that many Potter defenders do not see the horror of this scene.  I have heard them defend Hagrid’s assault on the basis that Dudley is a bad kid and deserves what he gets.  This is the same rationalization Mafiosi use for murdering other wiseguys.  And like a wiseguy, Harry takes joy in the humiliation of his enemies.  The Sorcerer’s Stone ends with Harry relishing the terror he will inflict on Dudley with magic:


“ ‘Oh , I will, said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. ‘They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer….’”


In case the reader thinks that magical violence in the Potter series isn’t real violence (“cartoon violence”), the text makes clear that magical attacks hurt just as much as conventional ones.  Three years and three books later, Dudley is still traumatized by Hagrid’s attack. The author points this out while inviting us to chuckle at his misfortune:


"Dudley had emerged from his last encounter with a fully-grown wizard with a curly pig's tail poking out of the seat of his trousers, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had had to pay for its removal at a private hospital in London.  It wasn't altogether surprising, therefore, that Dudley kept running his hand nervously over his backside, and walking sideways from room to room, so as not to present the same target to the enemy." (GF 40).


The violent nature of magic in the Potter series provides a case study in how bad literature shapes, or rather, warps, the imaginative understanding of good and evil.  The great danger for the Christian is not that evil will come to dominate the world.  Although still able to create havoc, the Devil cannot defeat God and God’s victory has already been assured through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The danger for the Christian is that he might separate himself from God and His Victory through sin. The Devil cannot win, but he can drag men down with him in his defeat by tempting them to sin.  Therefore, although the Christian has a duty to battle the objective forces of evil in the world, his primary battle is with the sin in his own heart.  Someone once wrote that “the line between heaven and hell runs through the heart of every man.”   Attempting to defeat external evil with evil means is self-defeating, since even if he wins, man will discover that his sin has turned him into the very evil he was fighting.  As usual, Tolkien has imagined this truth in an enlightening way in The Lord of the Rings.  Sauron is the external enemy, and the One Ring is his primary weapon.  The good peoples of Middle Earth, including Hobbits, Dwarves, Men and Elves, gain possession of the Ring and are sorely tempted to use it against Sauron. Gandalf warns them that any such use will be self-defeating as it will corrupt their wills. The Ring is, in a word, sin.  Gandalf himself refuses to touch the Ring for fear that he will be unable to resist the temptation to become his own Sauron (“lead us not into temptation.”)  Hobbits, because of their humility, are the only ones who can be safely trusted with the Ring.  Only when the subjective struggle with sin has been won can the external battle be joined with hope of victory.  This is the reason that, for Christians, the end can never justify the means.


In the Potter series there is no subjective side to evil.  There is no sin.  How could there be when the premise of the series is that Potter’s salvation lies within him?  Potter is in no danger of separating himself from God since there is no God or God-figure from which he might be separated.  The danger for Potter is entirely external in the form of Voldemort and his followers. It follows that, for Potter, the end justifies the means in defeating Voldemort.  This is another reason that Dumbledore always justifies Potter’s actions in retrospect.  Potter is never in any danger of corrupting his own nature through sin, but is always in danger of being destroyed by Voldemort.  The defeat of Voldemort is therefore itself sufficient justification for whatever Potter has to do to achieve it. 


Thus follows the violent and ruthless use of magic by the “good” wizards.  In their struggle against Voldemort, Potter and his friends do things like magically light a teacher’s robes on fire (SS 191) and paralyze their own friend (SS 273).  Borrowing a tactic from the evil Queen of Snow White, they feed other students poisoned treats to render them unconscious (CS 213).  Even Dumbledore has no qualms about using magic in Gestapo-like fashion.  In The Goblet of Fire, he forces a confession from a suspect with the use of truth serum (GF 683), a technique that would have warmed the heart of Heinrich Himmler. The imaginative lie told by the series is that good people can resort to such tactics while maintaining the purity of their hearts. Tolkien knew better.


The reality of sin is also what makes the pleasure of revenge dangerous for Christians.  “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt 8:14-15)  To enter heaven we must become like God, and God is merciful.  If we are merciless we make our natures contrary to God’s nature and we will not be able to stand His presence.  But Potter doesn’t need God because he has magic.  Therefore revenge isn’t a danger for him and he indulges in it with relish.  The prospect of revenge on which Sorcerer’s Stone ends has already been noted.  The Goblet of Fire ends with Potter and friends enjoying revenge on some minor enemies.  In this instance, they literally kick their opponents when they are down:


            “Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were all lying unconscious in the doorway…

            ‘Thought we’d see what those three were up to,’ said Fred matter-of-factly, stepping onto Goyle into the apartment. He had his wand out, and so did George, who was careful to tread on Malfoy as he followed Fred inside….

            Ron, Harry, and George kicked, rolled, and pushed the unconscious Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle … out into the corridor.” (GF 730)


Like Sorcerer’s StonePrisoner of Azkaban ends with Potter looking forward to some “fun” with the Dursleys:


            “ ‘ Godfather?’ sputtered Uncle Vernon.  ‘ You haven’t got a godfather!’

            ‘ Yes, I have,’ said Harry brightly.  ‘He was my mum and dad’s best friend. He’s a convicted murderer, but he’s broken out of wizard prison and he’s on the run. He likes to keep in touch with me, though… keep up with my news… check if I’m happy….’

            And, grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry set off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much brighter summer than last.’”


Note also the twisting of the traditional Catholic figure of the godfather.  Harry’s “godfather” is in the corrupt tradition of Vito Corleone, someone you call on to intimidate enemies rather than guide your development in the faith.  I will not go into depth on this topic here, but Christian elements occur regularly throughout the series – Christmas and Easter are prominent holidays, for example – but are always either distorted or evacuated of meaning.


The Created World


“Created things are made like unto God by the fact that they attain to divine goodness. If then, all things tend toward God as an ultimate end, so that they may attain His goodness, it follows that the ultimate end of things is to become like God.” (SCG III ch. 19, p. 1)


If the world is as the Catholic Church says it is, then it was created by a good and intelligent God for the purpose of reflecting His Glory.  St. Thomas tells us that everything seeks God as an ultimate end and seeks to become like God.  Things accomplish this in a variety of ways and with varying levels of perfection. Brute matter imitates God by simply existing, since God is existence itself.  Living things imitate God more perfectly since they are not only acted on like brute matter, but are a source of their own actions as well, as God is the ultimate source of all action.  And among living things, intelligent creatures like men and angels imitate God in a special way because they have a rational intellect and will, just as God is the supreme Intellect and Will.


This is the sacramental understanding of nature.  Nature is not merely a thing in its own right, but a sign indicating the nature of God Himself.  We can know something about God through nature the way an artist can be known through his work.  St. Thomas tells us that among the things we can learn about God through nature is His Wisdom:


“…meditation on His works enables us in some measure to admire and reflect upon His wisdom. For things made by art are representative of that art itself, being made in likeness to the art. Now, God brought things into being by His wisdom; wherefore the Psalm (103:24) declares ‘Thou hast made all things in wisdom.’ Hence, from refection upon God’s works we are able to infer His wisdom, since, by a certain communication of His likeness, it is spread abroad in the things He has made.” (SCG II Ch. 2 p. 2).


We not only learn something of God’s wisdom through creation, but also his power:


“Secondly, this consideration [of God’s works] leads to admiration of God’s sublime power, and consequently inspires in men’s hearts reverence for God. For the power of the worker is necessarily understood to transcend the things made. And so it is said: ‘If they,’ namely the philosophers, ‘admired their power and effects,’ namely of the heavens, stars, and elements of the world, ‘let them understand that He that made them is mightier than they’ (Wisd. 13:4)” (SCG II Ch. 2, p. 3)


Finally, and most importantly for my purposes, creation fires the heart of man to love God:


“Thirdly, this consideration incites the souls of men to the love of God’s goodness. For whatever goodness and perfection is distributed to the various creatures, in partial or particular measure, is united together in Him universally, as in the source of all goodness… If therefore, the goodness, beauty, and delightfulness of creatures are so alluring to the minds of men, the fountainhead of God’s own goodness, compared with the rivulets of goodness found in creatures, will draw the enkindled minds wholly to itself.” (SCG II, ch. 2, para 4)


If we are to have truly Catholic minds, we must not only assent intellectually to the sacramental character of nature, but we must see it sacramentally as well. This is what it means to be an imaginative Catholic and not merely an intellectual one.  Have you noticed that some people like to collect items signed by famous celebrities?  A jersey signed by a famous athlete or anything signed by a Hollywood star are popular.  What does a signature do to a jersey that makes people willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for one?  The signature makes the jersey a link to the fabulous life of the athlete, as though we share in or have a stake in the athlete’s life because of it.  Yet everything in creation has been signed by God as its author.  They are all links to His Life. If we start to see ordinary things the way a collector sees a signed jersey, then our imaginations are becoming sacramental.


Traditional fantasy stories develop such imaginations by infusing ordinary items with extraordinary meaning.  Jack’s beans are junk to his mother but turn into a ladder that leads him to fabulous fortune.  A wardrobe becomes a door to the magical world of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Charlie’s Chocolate bar becomes a ticket to the wonderful Chocolate Factory.  Will we ever look at beans and chocolate bars the same way again?  No more than we will look at wine the same way after Cana.  Something of the magic of the “signed jersey” has passed into all of them through the stories.


Superficially, the Harry Potter series may seem to be written with a sacramental imagination. But the Potter stories are really anti-sacramental in character. Magical items in Potter’s world are not ordinary things manifesting extraordinary power, but purely magical things that replace ordinary things entirely.  Magical items are routinely contrasted with their “feeble” Muggle (non-magical) alternatives.  Most wizards have become so unfamiliar with ordinary items and so dependent on magic that they no longer know how to work even simple mechanical devices like televisions.  Nearly all are utterly uninterested in mundane Muggle reality.  One of the few exceptions, Arthur Weasley, is considered an eccentric for his interest in learning about things like Muggle  “eckeltricity” (GF 46). 


The point of magic beans and golden tickets is that they might lead anyone to discover a fabulous magical world.  We are all in danger of stepping into Narnia simply by stepping into our closets.  The next handful of beans we pick up might be magic beans. But the Muggles in Harry’s world need not worry about discovering Hogwarts because the only way to get there is by a secret train carefully concealed by the wizards.  Even if they do accidentally become aware of magic, the Ministry of Magic is ready to swoop in and involuntarily erase the memories of any inconvenient Muggles.  The Potter books put the magical world in stark opposition to the ordinary world.  They not only do not infuse ordinary things with extraordinary meaning, they drain ordinary things of any dignity at all.  


Although wizards uniformly prefer magical to ordinary reality, the magical world of Hogwarts has a curious nature that is consistently ugly, distorted and violent. In a typical classroom exercise in Prof. Sprout’s Herbology class, for instance, the students repot Mandrake plants.  The plants themselves are “tufty little plants, purplish green in color.” (CS 92)  But when pulled out of the pots, the magical nature of the plants reveals itself:


“Instead of roots, a small, muddy, and extremely ugly baby popped out of the earth.  The leaves were growing right out of his head. He had pale green, mottled skin, and was clearly bawling at the top of his longs.” (CS 93)


It turns out that the cry of these babies is not only loud but somehow dangerous, even fatal to one who hears it.  The students wear hearing protection and the Professor quickly stuffs the baby into the earth of another pot.  Mandrake plants are a “powerful restorative”, says Hermione, so presumably these plants will be ground up one day and turned into potions.  Babies, traditionally icons of innocence and hope, become in the Potter stories repulsive, dangerous things that must be stuffed into the earth and later ground into powder.  I wonder how anyone reading this passage could want their children to read The Chamber of Secrets.  And the disgusting babies are only one item in an endless procession of repulsive magical creatures.  Prof. Lupin’s class uses a water demon, “a sickly green creature with sharp little horns” that spends its time “pulling faces and flexing its long spindly fingers.” (AZ 154)  As if the ugly babies weren’t bad enough, Prof. Sprout’s class gets worse two years later in The Goblet of Fire.  Potter and friends must work with bobotubers,


“… the ugliest plants Harry had ever seen. Indeed, they looked less like plants than thick, black, giant slugs, protruding vertically out of the soil. Each was squirming slightly and had a number of large, shiny swellings upon it, which appeared to be full of liquid.” (GF 194)


Like contestants on the television show Fear Factor, the students are required to squeeze the bobotubers:


“Squeezing the bobotubers was disgusting, but oddly satisfying. As each swelling was popped, a large amount of thick yellowish-green liquid burst forth, which smelled strongly of petrol.” (GF 195)


We are a long way from Wonka’s factory with its chocolate waterfalls and candy grass.  We are even further from Tolkien’s elvish realms of Rivendell and Lorien, lands of surpassing beauty:


“The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely,

but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.” (FOTR 454)


Why is Potter’s world so thoroughly ugly? The anti-sacramental character of magic in Potter’s world explains its ugliness.  Beauty is sacramental.  It is a manifestation of order, and order always has an author.  The chocolate waterfalls and candy grass of Wonka’s factory are not only wonderful in themselves but say something about the character of Wonka himself.  Ugliness points to nothing but itself.  Ugliness is a sign of disorder and disorder has no author.  What sort of creator would create bobotubers?  It might be objected that there are things just as ugly in the real created world.  But from the Catholic perspective, whatever ugliness and disorder is in creation is a defect that results from the original sin of Man, a “stain” on the Earth in Tolkien’s words.  The ugliness of Hogwarts is not a stain on an otherwise beautiful world, but the world itself.  There is nothing beautiful at Hogwarts – even the name itself is ugly.  Hogwart’s ugliness is a sign that it has no creator.


Besides being beautiful, a created world is one that has been made in terms of an intelligible order according to a transcendent wisdom.  Such a world is governed by providence, even down to the most apparently trivial of chance events.  St. Thomas Aquinas explains:


“Furthermore, created things are subject to divine providence inasmuch as they are ordered by it to their ultimate end, which is divine goodness.  Therefore, the participation of the divine goodness by created things is accomplished by divine providence. But even contingent singulars participate in divine goodness.  So, divine providence must extend even to them.


“Hence it is said: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will’ (Matt. 10:29).”  (SCG III, Ch. 75, para. 14-15)


The existence of the Creator makes the world a far different place for a Christian than it was, say, for an ancient Greek.  The Greek did not think that there was a fundamental order to the world. The powers of the world, personified in the gods, were not in harmony with each other and were often willful and capricious.  They normally took no notice of the mortal Greek, and when they did, it was usually because the mortal found himself unwittingly involved in their disputes.  The tragedy for the Greek was that his destiny often hung on the outcome of petty divine disputes over which he had no control and may not have even understood.


For the Christian, there are no divine disputes, only a wise Creator and his creation, ordered according to a profound wisdom which nothing can escape.  The Christian’s destiny hangs on how he comes to terms with God and his order.  Dante shows that even in Hell there is no escaping the order God has imposed. Hell is not a chaos but every element is strictly ordered by the wisdom and justice of God. This order gives Hell what dignity it has. Dante’s gate to Hell reads:














Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a created world that is, if it may be put this way, Dantesque in its imaginative structure.  But instead of a tour of Hell, Wonka gives a tour of his chocolate Eden.  Willy Wonka is clearly the creator of the factory and the agent of its providence.  Nothing, not the chocolate river, the candy buttercups, or a single blade of sugary grass escapes his purview.  Like Eden, there are delights to be seen and eaten that the children never imagined, more than they could ever want.  But woe to those who would defy its established order.  Like Adam and Eve when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the children on Wonka’s tour are each ejected in turn from the chocolate Eden when they eat what has not been given to them.


Now let us examine an apparently innocuous, typical classroom exercise at Hogwarts, found in Ch. 8 of The Sorcerer's Stone.  Potter is sitting in his first “transfigurations” class, taught by Prof. McGonagall (SS 134).  (The class is really about transformations, not transfigurations.  Transfiguration is the visible shining forth of the inner nature of a thing.  What Potter learns in this class is how to change one thing into another.) After stating that transformations are complex and dangerous, she demonstrates a transformation by magically changing her desk into a pig and back again.  The students then practice magically changing matches into pins.  This seems like a technical exercise in magic of no great significance. But on reflection a series of questions come to mind:  Why did McGonagall change the desk into a pig and not something else?  Is there any wisdom underlying her action? Is there some reason wizards like to turn things into pigs? (Remember that Hagrid earlier attempted to turn Dudley into a pig.) What about that unfortunate pig that briefly flames into existence, in utter bewilderment, then abruptly flashes out of existence?  The natural creation of a pig occurs in the context of a pig family and maybe a pig farm.  The new pig has its proper place in the scheme of things, a place that anticipates the pig's coming into existence and accounts for its departure.  I mean nothing especially deep by this point.  Just that a normal pig's life is an organic development in its world and is an expression of that world's history and its future.  The pig is part and parcel of the created order into which it is born.  McGonagall’s pig, on the other hand, gives a new and terrible meaning to the word orphan.  Her pig springs from nowhere, belongs nowhere, and vanishes into nowhere. It is unnatural in the deepest sense, a product of artifice alien to all others of its kind, created in a manner indifferent to any transcendent creative order. If this pig is like a sparrow that does not “fall to the ground without your Father’s will”, McGonagall shows no indication she has any concern about what that will might be.


Is this what she meant by saying that transformations are dangerous - because they introduce novel, radical and alien elements into the fabric of creation? Clearly it is not.  Her meaning is the obvious and trivial one that a transformation may overtly backfire on a wizard, say if he intended to transform something into a pig but instead turned it into a fire-breathing dragon.  The fact that the arbitrary creation, destruction and transformation of things, including living beings, is perfectly licit in Potter’s world is an indication that it is a world without a created order (or, at least, without a created order that need be respected.)


The most important lesson taught by McGonagall in that first class is unspoken and unintentional.  It has nothing to do with the mechanics of transformations.  It pertains to the meaning of magic in Potter’s world.  There seems to be no particular reason why McGonagall changed a desk into a pig and not something else. We might go so far as to say that McGonagall changed a desk into a pig because they have nothing to do with each other.  McGonagall’s magic is unconstrained by the nature of the objects on which it acts or any order of which they might be a part.  It is a pure expression of her will.  The meaning of magic in Potter’s world is this:  Magic is a supernatural power of the will to effect itself; in other words, it is a pure power of domination.  The glory of the wizard is his supernatural ability to impose his will on the world.


Compare Hogwarts magic with the magic of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings.  Elves are truly supernatural creatures, meaning that they are more than natural, not less than it.  They mirror the goodness, truth, beauty and wisdom of the Creator more than do ordinary creatures.  This gives them a depth of “naturalness” that seems magical to Hobbits and Men. They harmonize with the created order in ways that astonish the Hobbits. The forest homes of the Elves are such a seamless part of the woods that they are almost indistinguishable from it.  They can communicate with nature and sense the mood of the environment.  Their deep creative wisdom allows them to make things with a power that seems supernatural to Hobbits. It does not appear so to the Elves:


            “’ Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

            ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.’” (FOTR 479)


Elvish magic follows the principle that grace fulfills nature.  Where the primary focus of Hogwarts magic is on the will of the wizard, the focus of Elvish magic is on finding a deep harmony with its object.  Its effect is to bring things to a supernatural fruitfulness.  Lembas bread is a cousin to ordinary bread but is extraordinarily nourishing.  The light of Earendil  will “be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”   We may be reminded of the New Testament, where Christ similarly acts to bring things to supernatural fruitfulness:  A few loaves and fish feed five thousand, water becomes wine and fishing nets empty all night suddenly become full to overflowing.  It might be put it this way:  Christ and the Elves go the same way nature is going, but they rev nature up to ninety miles per hour instead of its normal thirty miles per hour.


I am sure the Elves of Middle Earth would find the idea of arbitrarily changing a desk into a pig repellant, even downright unholy It violates nature rather than fulfills it. Magic as the expression of a dominating will is the corrupt form it takes in villains like Saruman and Sauron.  In fact, this is the very thing that makes them evil. I am sure Prof. McGonagall would be shocked to find herself classed with the likes of Saruman.  But Saruman himself was once a good wizard who corrupted himself by using magic, not in fulfillment of the created order, but to do what he thought was “good” according to his own lights.   He would have done fine at Hogwarts.  It was his misfortune to have been born instead into the imaginative world of Middle Earth.




The stories we tell reveal the kind of world we think we live in.  The ancient Greeks thought the world contained power, beauty, goodness and wisdom but also evil and viciousness.  They did not see any fundamental order among these powers.  Life seemed to them to contain just enough joy and beauty to get their hopes up, only to have it crushed by capricious fate. The stories they told were therefore about beautiful and powerful Gods whom men might admire, but who also squabble amongst themselves with unfortunate consequences for man.


The Christian knows he lives in a world created and ordered by a wise and powerful God.  He also knows this God loves him a peculiarly profound way, so much so that he intervened in creation, became Incarnate, and died for man’s sake.  His stories imaginatively illustrate this relationship between God and Man.  Fairy Godmothers and mysterious strangers intervene in man’s most desperate hour of need.  Common boys “luckily” find tickets that grant them a tour of magical chocolate factories, then discover themselves to be heirs to the factory.  Prosaic Hobbits, with the help of wizards and elves, become the heroes of Middle Earth.


Chesterton’s insight is that the imaginative street goes both ways.  Our stories are not only an expression of our understanding of the world, but form that understanding as well.  Born into a secular family, Chesterton was put on the road to the Catholic faith because of the imaginative character of his youthful reading. What road are the readers of Harry Potter going down?


It is easy to see some imaginative resemblance between Hogwarts and the Olympian stories of ancient Greece.  There seems to be no fundamental order to either world.  No one is really in charge.  The hero is an individual of some considerable virtue (Harry Potter or Odysseus) who is confounded by mischievous spirits.  But the Potter books finally reflect the post-Christian sensibility of contemporary culture, not the pre-Christian imagination of ancient Greece.


Culturally speaking, the beautiful, powerful but fickle Olympian gods were dethroned by the One Almighty God of Christianity.  The Christian God was dethroned in the last century by Friedrich Nietzsche – “God is dead”.  Man himself replaced God as the greatest thing in the universe. As God, he is wiser, more powerful and more wonderful than anything he encounters.  We recognize “the Harry Potter” in this description.  Man no longer bows to Olympian gods or even God Himself.  Certainly Potter does not bow to any spirits at Hogwarts, who are not Olympian gods but ugly, spiteful, foolish beings not as powerful as himself.  Nor does he bow to the icon of wisdom in the series, Headmaster Dumbledore.  Potter’s task is the one described by Nietzsche for man living in a world without God. In the old theistic world, it was man’s task to recognize the created order and find his place within it. In the new atheistic world, there is no order until mancreates it himself, which is his task. This includes not only physical order, but moral order as well since it was God who gave meaning to good and evil. 


This task is the plot of every Potter book.  Hogwarts, and the wizard world in general, is a chaos of competing powers, good, bad and indifferent.  There is no order. The evil Voldemort hatches a plot to impose order – his order - on wizards.  The plot involves obtaining a decisive advantage in magic power through the likes of the Sorcerer’s Stone or perhaps by capturing Potter’s own magic power itself.  Potter becomes aware of the plot and also recognizes that the good forces are themselves disordered, both physically and morally.  The crucial break the Potter stories make with tradition is that there is no transcendent order within which Potter’s task occurs.  It is up to Potter himself to create his own order in opposition to Voldemort’s. Therefore Potter obeys no authority but himself and his own vision of good and evil.  Potter eventually prevails.  Dumbledore “salutes” Potter after the fact and recognizes that Potter’s victory has revealed his virtuous nature.  Or, more deeply, Potter’s victory has shown that he is the creator of the moral order and therefore Potter’s nature defines what it means to be virtuous. Dumbledore has enough Nietzschean insight to recognize this and he therefore ratifies in retrospect all of Potter’s actions, including his disobedience to Dumbledore himself.


My point, of course, is not that kids who read J.K. Rowling will soon be spouting Nietzsche’s atheistic philosophy.  It is that reading books like Harry Potter educates children into the post-Christian imagination of contemporary culture.  In the terms of that culture the Catholic faith is not only foolish but oppressive and counter-productive. The Potter books are just “another brick in the wall” that must be overcome if children are to be taught to respond imaginatively to the Christian faith.


A friend once relayed to me how thrilled she was that her daughter was passionately reading the Harry Potter books.  Recently I learned that the daughter, now a teenager, had just finished The Da Vinci Code.  More recently still, my friend said that her daughter refused to take the Sacrament of Confirmation.


And that is why my kids don’t read Harry Potter.