Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why We Fail to Understand Islamists

I found a Moslem service called dirty or disgusting because it involved the idea of blood. A few hundred years ago we should have realized that our own religion involved the idea of blood. But we have got further away from understanding their religion by ceasing to understand our own.

- G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, 1908-1910: 28, May 9, 1908.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chesterton on Thriving Religion

One of my favorite pastimes is reading at random through Chesterton's old Illustrated London News columns, which have been collected by Ignatius Press. They are always worth reading for the style, and every so often you come across a gem... like his column for January 11, 1908, "The Survival of Christmas."

Just like today, the skeptics back in 1908 were predicting the imminent demise of Christianity, including the celebration of Christmas.

I have been reminded of all this by the inevitable discussions in the current papers about whether the keeping of Christmas is destined to die out, whether Christmas itself will disappear.

GKC immediately answers with one of his trademark paradoxes:

Of course, Christmas will not disappear. Christmas is one of those very strong things that can afford to boast of its own approaching disappearance.

Chesterton never writes like this merely to be clever. He uses the startling paradox as a way to shake the reader out of his common (and probably modernist) preconceptions, and open him to a deeper point. The point in this column is, I think, the supernatural life that animates the Christian religion.

How is this supernatural life made manifest? One way might be the way of direct supernatural glory, as in the voice of God emanating from a burning bush or the Lord transfigured in a supernatural light. But there is another way, a via negativa, that reveals supernatural life paradoxically in that which should die, but doesn't. The supreme example is, of course, Christ, who should be dead and buried forever in His tomb, but nonetheless appears alive in the Resurrection. Christ sets the pattern for everything Christian. The Christian can boast of the impending demise of Christmas because, by all natural reason, it should disappear, as all natural traditions inevitably disappear; yet the Christian knows through faith that Christmas will never disappear because its life is not really that of a natural tradition, despite appearances. In general, Chesterton tells us in a wonderful turn of phrase, Christianity "could thrive as a continual failure." (Chesterton speaks here in terms of Christianity rather than the Catholic Church because this was written prior to his conversion.) It is this thriving in failure that paradoxically reveals the hidden supernatural life in the Church.

What is the consequence of this supernatural life? The philosopher seeks happiness, but Christianity, Chesterton says, asks a man not if he is happy, but if he is alive.

Philosophers are happy; saints have a jolly time. The important thing in life is not to keep a steady system of pleasure and composure (which can be done quite well by hardening one's heart or thickening one's head), but to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter, and a kind of young reverence. This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them. Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled. That is the best of Christmas, that it is a startling and disturbing happiness; it is an uncomfortable comfort. The Christian customs destroy the human habits. And while customs are generally unselfish, habits are nearly always selfish. The object of the religious festival is, as I have said, to find out if a happy man is still alive. A man can smile when he is dead.

That last image of the smiling dead man is one of the elements that makes Chesterton so worth reading. Chesterton is sometimes accused of being glib or superficially clever, or dismissed for not brooding on the darker side of life as is the modern fashion. But the image of the smiling dead man is as horrifying as anything in M.R. James, and all the more effective for coming on the reader all of a sudden; at least in James, we expect and are indeed hoping for the disturbing specter. This dark undercurrent is a subtle but pervasive presence in GKC's writing, and is worth more than thousands of pages of existential angst from someone like Sartre.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Only the Holy Spirit Can Save the Church

Peggy Noonan has an article today in the Wall Street Journal, entitled How to Save the Catholic Church.

There is only one Person Who can save the Church - the Holy Spirit. If the Church is not guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, then she won't and shouldn't survive, for she is a fraud. If she is guided by the Holy Spirit, then why doesn't Ms. Noonan mention Him? Her article bears no reference at all to the transcendent. The sort of worldly thinking it embodies is nothing but a temptation.

It is naive to think that shuffling personnel and bringing in "new blood" will "fix" the problem in the Church that led to the scandals. Is the younger generation somehow protected from sin in a way that the older generation was not? The only thing bringing in new blood will do is bring in new sins. Ironically, it's worldly thinking that got the Church in trouble in the first place. Bishops treated grievous sins against nature as matters for therapy or, as Noonan mentions, "quirks." The answer isn't to work better to get the worldly thinking right, as though the problem is purely one of organization, but to recognize once again the truly horrible power and reach of sin, and that only through the power of the Spirit can we ever face it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Singularity of the Cartesian Ego

A peculiar property of the Cartesian ego is that there can be only one of them.

I think, therefore I am. The Cartesian Ego springs into existence. My own thinking is the one indubitable fact; it is the fact in terms of which all other facts are conditioned.

What about your thinking? Unfortunately for you, while I cannot doubt the reality of my own thought, it is quite possible for me to doubt the reality of your thought. Your being, and whatever thought it might involve, is just another item in my world, a world in which all being has existence only in light of the certainty and existence of my own ego; my own I think.

Even if I condescend to grant that you go through a similar process of radical doubt and discovery of the certainty of the thinking subject, and give you the name "Cartesian Ego", I am only using the title equivocally, the way a King might grant the title "King" to a visiting potentate. You may be a King in your kingdom, but in my kingdom, you are just another person subject to my rule. And the difference between an earthly kingdom and the Cartesian Kingdom is that the Cartesian Kingdom is, by definition, co-extensive with the world. So I can't help but think of you as a king without a kingdom; my kingdom must stretch from one end of the world to the other. "This town isn't big enough for the two of us."

So when philosophers and scientists go hunting for the Cartesian ego in brain studies, Cartesian Theaters, or philosophical zombies, the situation is comical. The only place you might encounter the Cartesian Ego is in the mirror - the one place the Cartesian Ego hunters always fail to look.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

DeFanging the Dragons

Good article from Jonah Goldberg on one of my favorite topics, the subversion of traditional children's literature. Jonah doesn't mention them, but the Shrek films are high on my list of cultural subversives. Like the modern Grinch, Shrek is merely misunderstood rather than an example of the uncompromising evil of the traditional ogre. As soon as Shrek used pages from a book of traditional fairy tales for toilet paper, I knew I was going to hate him.

Another modern theme that parallels the subversion of traditional icons of evil is the too easily defeated paragon of evil. In Harry Potter, for example, Lord Voldemort is an example of dedicated, mature, adult evil. Traditionally - and in truth - such deep evil can only be defeated by a similarly mature and deep good. Thus Pippin, when he gazes into the magic orb of Sauron, is captured by it and must be rescued by the intervention of Gandalf. Frodo Baggins himself is finally unable to overcome the evil of the One Ring on his own. Yet Lord Voldemort is repeatedly defeated by the schoolboy Harry Potter. This undermines the moral seriousness of the series and, despite all its pretensions, puts it on the level of Home Alone rather than Lord of the Rings.

But pretending that monsters aren't really evil, or that evil is never so serious that it can't be defeated by a child, does not do a child any favors. It only educates him into a dangerous naivete. Traditional literature used to introduce the child to the mystery of evil, not necessarily by scaring the bejeebers out of him, but by revealing to him that there is indeed deep and implacable evil in the world; evil that he cannot defeat on his own but against which he has good and powerful allies - fairy godmothers, handsome Princes and maybe, even God.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Leaky Ship

A man sits along a wharf watching the ships come in. He sees an old sailing ship limp into port, a ship clearly hundreds of years old and in poor condition, so poor that the man wonders about its seaworthiness. It ties up to the pier and the crew disembarks; there appears to have been no passengers.

A crewman walks by. The man asks him, "What is this ship, and why do you have no passengers?"

"This ship is the Richard Charles," the crewman answers. "We never carry passengers into this port," he continues. "Only out."

"And to where do you sail?" the man asks.

"Across the sea," comes the enigmatic answer.

"I am not sure I would chance the sea in such a ship."

"Oh, we have made the voyage hundreds of times, and have always arrived safely. Perhaps you might wish to inspect the ship more closely?"

The man has no desire to go on a voyage, but is curious about the ship. He accepts the crewman's invitation. As he comes closer, he notices that the ship is in even worse shape than he thought. There are holes in the sails, the rigging is ragged, the paint chipped and there are obvious cracks in the hull. The crewman leads him belowdecks, and the man sees holes through which water is pouring into the ship. Several crewman are at work patching them, but with a leisure that belies the seriousness of the situation.

"Hadn't we better help them, before the ship goes down?", the man asks. "Where is the rest of the crew?"

"We need not worry; the ship may leak, but it will never sink," answers the crewman. "Let us continue our tour."

The man finishes his tour, and on his way out, takes a closer look at one of the holes. It is not recent; in fact it is so worn that there is no doubt that it has been there many years. Has water been pouring into the ship for all that time?

Back on the pier, the man notices that the ship has not settled at all in the water since he boarded it. The crewman again asks him, "Would you like to travel across the sea with us?"

"The ship will not sink?"

"No; the ship may leak and the voyage may be rough, but I can promise you that the ship will never sink and that we will succeed in the voyage."

The man believed him.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Secular Mind Discovering the Obvious, Part 432

Here is yet another case of the secular mind discovering the obvious, and thinking they've made a novel breakthrough.

Messing with the brain affects moral judgement? You don't need expensive electromagnetic equipment to run this experiment. Just pound a twelve-pack of Miller High Life, or the brew of your choice, and see what happens to your moral judgement. It's been known for centuries, nay millennia, that disturbances to the body affect mental states and processes. But, until recently, intelligent people did not commit the non sequitur of thinking that, because bodily changes can affect thinking, therefore thinking is nothing but an act of the body.

Superstition can find a home in science, as it can anywhere else.

In Defense of the Intelligibility of Thomistic Metaphysics

In this post I referred to a post by the Maverick Philosopher in which he questions the intelligibility of Thomistic metaphysics. The critical passage in the Mav's post is the following:

The idea is that one and the same item — humanity in our example — can exist in two ways. It can exist in particular concrete things outside the mind, and it can exist in an abstract and universal form in minds. But in and of itself it is neutral as between these two modes of existence. Taken by itself, therefore, it does not exist, and is neither particular nor universal. In itself, it is neither many in the way human beings are many, nor is it one, in the way in which the universal humanity in the mind is one.

So this Thomist essence is an item that is some definite item, though in itself it does not exist, is neither one nor many, and is neither universal nor particular. I hope I will be forgiven for finding this unintelligible.

The best way I have found to think about essence in the Thomistic sense is as a way of being. I see the street sign in front of me that says Porter St.; I notice that it is in the form of a rectangle, and therefore has four right angles. To that extent, at least, the street sign has being in the way of four. It is also a physical being located at a certain place in time and space, and is subject to material division, and so it has being in the way of body. I could keep going along these lines, describing the many different ways in which the street sign manifests being. But, no matter how far I go along these lines, I am not bringing anything into existence in describing the variety of ways of being. In other words, a way of being is not itself a being, at least in the sense that the street sign is a being. A way of being is just that, a way of being. It is the difference between the plans for Fenway Park and Fenway Park itself. The plans for Fenway Park describe one way of being a baseball stadium; Fenway Park itself is a being that is being in the way of its plans. Similarly, four is a way of being or a plan of being; the Porter St. sign is an actual being that is being in the way of four.

We describe the Porter St. sign according to a variety of ways of being, but what of that sign in itself? In itself, it is not an amalgamation of ways of being; it is what it is simply. The analysis of being in terms of ways of being is a peculiarity of the way of knowing of a rational animal (our way), a way St. Thomas calls "composing and dividing." Our nature is not such that we can know being simply and directly; we can't immediately know the way of being the Porter St. sign. Our initial impression of being is confused and opaque ("Something is there, but I don't know what it is...") and, over time, as we analyze being in terms of its ways, it unfolds its nature to us. But it would be a mistake to confuse the multiplicity in our way of understanding being with a multiplicity in being itself.

That can happen if we confuse the two meanings of the word is. As St. Thomas discusses in his On Being and Essence, we use is (being) in two ways: In one way, as a fundamental existential predicate, and in another way, as indicating truth through a relationship of ideas. In my terms, the first way of using is is when it is used to say that something is actually fulfilling a particular way of being, and the second way is when it is used to express relationships among ways of being. For example, if I say the Porter St. sign is four in the second way, what I mean is that the way of being the Porter St. sign includes the way of being four. If I mean it in the first sense, I mean the actual Porter St. sign is actually fulfilling the way of being four. Similarly, If I say Hamlet is a man in the second way, I mean that Hamlet's way of being, if he is, is that of a man. I can say the same thing in the same way, with the same meaning with respect to Socrates: Socrates is a man. But in the first way, the statements are not equivalent, because Socrates actually fulfills the way of being man in a manner that Hamlet does not, since Socrates is an actual man and Hamlet only a fictional character.

Much of philosophical history can be traced to not getting this right, as Etienne Gilson demonstrates in his Unity of Philosophical Experience and Being and Some Philosophers. It is tempting, on seeing that Socrates is a man and Plato is a man share the idea man, that the beings of both Plato and Socrates "participate" in the idea of man, which is itself some third thing above and beyond the beings of either Socrates or Plato. The temptation results from the failure to take account of the multiple meanings of the word is.

Returning to the Maverick Philosopher, he wonders about the nature of the existence of the "item" called "humanity." But humanity is not an item, as though it has substantial being in its own right. It is only a way of being, and has existence either in its fulfillment in actual men, or in abstraction as a plan for being. To wonder about some third way it might exist is to misunderstand the nature of essence. Similarly, the plans for Fenway Park exist in the actual Fenway Park by way of fulfillment, or in blueprints in the builder's office. There doesn't need to be any third way beyond these ways to make sense of things.

Essences are universal in the sense that blueprints universally apply to whatever actual things are built according to their plans. But blueprints are only useful as a means to an end, and essences in the universal sense in which they exist in the mind are only useful as a way for the human mind to know being. An intellect, like that of an angel, that knows being simply and directly has no need of universals.