Sunday, November 27, 2011

St. Thomas, the Irrational Man and Kierkegaard.

I've finally gotten around to reading a book that has been on my list for several years, Irrational Man by William Barrett. Barrett has long been a favorite of mine; he is one of those philosophers who combines deep insight with plain writing and is always worth reading.

Irrational Man is an introduction to existentialism written in 1958. In Ch. 5, Barrett discusses the Christian sources of existentialism, including the relationship of St. Thomas Aquinas to existentialism. Certain Thomists, Etienne Gilson for example, had claimed to find existentialist themes in the Angelic Doctor. Barrett does not find much merit in this position:

A good deal of the Thomistic existentialism current nowadays looks indeed like a case of special pleading after the fact. A book like Gilson's, for example, shows so strongly the influence of Kierkegaard (albeit at work on a mind that is granitically Thomist) that it is safe to say the book could not have been written if Kierkegaard had not lived. Without Kierkegaard, indeed, Gilson would not have found in St. Thomas what he does manage to dig out, and the fact is that a good many other Thomists found quite different things before the influence of Kierkegaard made itself felt. And, to go one step further, what Gilson finds is not enough. The historicity of truth is inescapable, however perennial the problems of philosophy may be, and we should be suspicious in advance of any claim that the answer to modern problems is to be found in the thirteenth century. Granting St. Thomas' thesis of the primacy of existence and of the real distinction between existence and essence, we are still very far from an answer to those questions which have led modern thinkers like Heidegger and Sartre to a reopening of the whole subject of Being.

This passage is worth reading, by the way, for the use of the neologism "granitically" alone.  But I think Barrett misses the value of reading St. Thomas with respect to existentialism. It is true that the existentialist question as we know it today is a modern problem that was not really known to St. Thomas; this is somewhat like noting that the modern problem of sin was not known to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Even if true, it doesn't follow that the primordial state has nothing to teach us now.

The philosophical "state of innocence" analogous to the Edenic primordial state is the philosophical state prior to the modern disruption between thought and existence. Prior to the modern era, thought and existence were united in the being of the philosopher. All this means is that the philosopher lived his thought and lived in his thought; or, rather, the unity of life and thought was something taken for granted.

The difference can be seen in the lives of Socrates and St. Thomas vs. the modern academic professor of philosophy. The biography of St. Thomas is inseparable from the philosophy of St. Thomas; if you knew nothing about St. Thomas's philosophy but knew the story of his life, you would be able to guess a good deal of the philosophy. Compare that with the modern professor of philosophy. If you knew the biographical facts of a particular professor, would you necessarily know whether the professor was even an atheist or a theist? Kant was perhaps the first and greatest example of the modern academic philosopher. His thought was revolutionary in the deepest senses of the word; he was deliberately embarked on a "Copernican revolution" in thought that was intended to change man forever. Yet his day to day life was the epitome of conventional respectability and regularity. It was said that he was so predictable in his habits that the housewives of Konigsberg could set their clocks by the time of his daily walks. The "form" of Kant's life did not reflect the revolutionary content of his thought. St. Thomas was something of an intellectual revolutionary in his own day, given that his philosophical master Aristotle was, at the time, viewed as a dangerous innovation (having recently been rediscovered) in a world dominated by Platonism. And St. Thomas was no tidily respectable university professor; he scandalized his noble family by committing himself to joining an order of mendicant friars - the Dominicans - who at the time were at least as disreputable among polite society as hippies or Jesus freaks are now. As Chesterton so pithily puts it - "St. Thomas would not rest until he was duly and regularly appointed a beggar." (I paraphrase from memory from his biography of St. Thomas). The "form" of St. Thomas's life followed its revolutionary content.

This isn't to say that every modern philosophy professor lives abstracted from his thought. It is only to say that we no longer take such integration for granted, and this is a real difference. Humpty Dumpty can be put back together, but our default philosophical state is that of Humpty Dumpty in pieces on the ground. Surely a thorough appreciation of the integrated existence that philosophers once possessed is worthy of study, just as Humpty Dumpty might gaze on his fellows who never fell off the wall. Suppose Humpty Dumpty wakes up from his fall and forgets what it was like to be on the wall or, worse, thinks that his broken state is his natural condition? This is the state of modern man and it was the genius of Kierkegaard to recognize the condition; and his further genius to find a way to communicate that the modern and existentially fragmented philosophical condition is not natural, but a self-inflicted fall induced by modern philosophy; and to point us back and reveal to us the true nature of the philosophers who were classical and whole.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Occupy Movement, Sin and the Monastery

This article from The Nation about the Occupy movement got me to thinking. Why do attempts at creating progressive utopias always fail? I don't mean merely the grand disasters like Bolshevism, but also the micro attempts like hippie communes and, recently, the Occupy encampments. It occurs to me that the utopian communities of the progressive dream do actually exist and have survived for centuries: They are the monasteries; communities where everyone is equal, goods are shared in common, and there is no "income inequality".

Why does the monastery work but the progressive commune fail? Because the monks have self-consciously embraced the cross. That is, rather than grasping after justice, they have embraced injustice. Not injustice for others, but injustice for themselves. Every monk understands that life in the monastery will not be "fair." Rather than fairness, the monastery demands obedience, piety, chastity and humility. The modern world, of course, sees in this nothing but the purest form of oppression. It pursues fairness through the assertion of rights and demands, the louder and more uncompromising the better. The active embrace of meekness and submission can only be understood by it as an invitation to slavery.

And yet the monastery produces in fact the ideal society the progressive movement has repeatedly tried and failed to create. At least, it produces a society as close to ideal as we are likely to get in this broken world. The irony of the monastic movement is that it has produced just communities through the embrace of injustice, when the progressive movement has only produced tyrannies through the pursuit of justice.

The reason is that monasteries are based on a true understanding of the reality of sin, and progressive movements aren't. One of the manifestations of sin is that we overestimate the injustice done to ourselves, and underestimate the injustice we do to others. The monastery corrects for this by demanding that justice for oneself be forgotten, and only justice for others pursued. It is the practical application of the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, which performs a jiu-jitsu move on sin: it demands that we apply to others the justice that we, in our sinful state, demand for ourselves.

Life in the monastery is not perfect, of course, because sin always remains despite the discipline of the Rule of St. Benedict. But the monasteries have survived for millennia, when utopian communes unfailingly collapse after a few years, because the monastery is founded on the only true basis such a community could have.

The sin that the progressive movement recognizes is not located in the human heart, but in external forces and systems - "sinful structures." Every falsehood is based on some truth, a truth that leads to error when it eclipses other truths. In the case of progressivism, it is true that there are systems and structures that are inherently oppressive and cruel; but it is also true that any system may become oppressive and cruel because people, of any station and at any time and under any system, may become oppressive and cruel. This is the reason for the monastic emphasis on a routine of prayer and confession. Only by keeping the specter of sin - one's own sin - ever present before our eyes, and petitioning God for the grace to avoid it, does such a community have any hope of survival.

The progressive conceit is that by getting the processes right, and without any concomitant change in the human heart (for it is the system that is sinful, not human nature, thinks progressivism), the ideal world can be brought  into being. Or if not the ideal world, then one far more just and equitable than the one we experience now. Thus the fascination with, and near fetishization of, process in the Nation article. They are sincerely and logically consistent: Since it is process that makes the world, creating a novel process should bring a new world into being. The Nation writers approach the Occupy movement like shepherds approaching the Manger, looking for the signs and portents of the new world aborning in the various Working Groups and General Assemblies. Alas, the Occupy movement, built as it must be from the "crooked timber" of humanity, is already accelerating to it's predictable end. The Oakland chapter has turned violent, rapes and various sexual assaults are occurring at many chapters (even as the organizers try to hide them from police), the garbage starts to pile up as the Trash Pickup Squad proves to be, not surprisingly, less popular than the film-making crew or the drum group. It's the speed with which the camps have degenerated that is surprising, as it is the persistence of monasteries that is amazing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Evil God Challenge

Edward Feser recently took on the "evil God challenge" from atheist philosopher Steven Law. Law wrote a paper on the evil god challenge here. This is the abstract:

This paper develops a challenge to theism. The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good - there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn't the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? I develop this evil-god challenge in detail, anticipate several replies, and correct errors made in earlier discussions of the problem of good.

So the idea is that there is an "evil God" that parallels the "good God", and that if we don't think arguments for the evil God work, then we shouldn't think the arguments for the good God work either, since the arguments for one can be paralleled in the other. Now Feser's point is that this argument, whether or not it works for a God understood along personalist lines, is not applicable to the God of classical theology, since the God of classical theology is by nature good. Hypothesizing an "evil God" is like hypothesizing a "triangle with four sides"; it is just nonsense.

My purpose here is not to rehash the arguments that followed on Feser's blog, but to explore Law's idea of an "omnipotent, omniscient, and all-evil god" that parallels the good God. Does such a being really make sense? I don't think it does, and I will explain why here.

In Law's paper, he references Charles Daniels, who comes close to making the argument that I will make. According to Law, Daniels argument is that "we always do what we judge to be good. Even when I smoke, despite judging smoking to be bad, I do it because I judge that it would be good to smoke this cigarette here and now. If follows, says Daniels, that no-one does bad knowingly. But then it follows that if a being is omniscient, he will not do bad. There cannot exist an omniscient yet evil being." Law's answer is that "I believe Daniels's argument trades on an ambiguity in his use of the word 'good.' True, whenever I do something deliberately, I judge, in a sense, that what I do is 'good.' But 'good' here need mean no more than, 'that which I aim to achieve.' We have not yet been given any reason to suppose I cannot judge to be 'good', in this sense, what I also deem to be evil, because I desire evil. Yes, an evil god will judge doing evil to be 'good', but only in the trivial sense that evil is what he desires."

The problem with Daniels's argument is that the Platonic understanding of evil is false. It is true insofar as we cannot choose an evil except under the aspect of good; I don't smoke the cigarette because I judge it to be absolutely good for me, but because I desire pleasure, and pleasure is a good, even if I know that cigarettes are bad for me in the long run. So I choose the evil that is cigarettes, knowing they are evil, but under the aspect of a good (in this case, pleasure). Why do I choose the lesser good of pleasure rather than the absolutely better good of health? Because, as Aristotle wrote, our reason does not rule our nature as a tyrant; sometimes our lower nature overpowers reason and leads us to choose a lesser good rather than a greater one. This is why moral education is necessary. Moral education not only trains us to know what is right and good, but disciplines us to develop a nature that chooses the greater good rather than the lesser one. This is the difference between being a virtuous man and a vicious one.

But to really answer Law we must put some meaning to "good" and "evil." In the exchanges over at Feser's blog, Law strenuously resists doing this, and insists he need only use the everyday, "pre-theoretical" understanding of the terms to make his argument work. Yet the words must be defined, pre-theoretically or otherwise, and Law resolutely resists any attempt to define them at any level. I think this is because, as soon as good and evil are defined, even on a pre-theoretical level, it becomes clear that good and evil are not symmetrical, and the argument from symmetrical gods collapses. And he certainly wouldn't create a universe.

Let me show this by providing definitions of good and evil, definitions that are true to our pre-theoretical understanding of the terms and, without engaging in extensive dialects over the meaning of good and evil, show that the parallel between good and evil gods collapses. I think our pre-theoretical understanding of good is that which enhances nature, and evil that which frustrates it. We think smoking is bad, for example, because it damages our health; in other words, it frustrates our body's natural ability to maintain itself. A disease that kills a small child is evil because it, obviously, frustrates the child's natural inclination to survive. Of course we might launch the argument that we have competing natural fulfillments here, since the disease fulfills its nature only by destroying the child's. But since we are staying at the pre-theoretic level and avoiding dialectics, it is sufficient to remark that we commonly understand a child to be more valuable than a disease, and so avoiding the frustration of the child's nature takes precedence.

With this pre-theoretic understanding of good and evil, let us consider the God of classical theology, the all-good God. This God does good everywhere and whenever it can; to the universe and to its creatures. What about itself? Naturally, it does good to itself as well, and so avoids frustrating its own nature. It's in the business of avoiding the frustration of nature. The classical argument from evil arises; how is it then, that so much evil exists in the universe? How is it that creatures so often find their natures frustrated? The classical answer to this question is that "God permits evil only insofar as good may come of it." The key term there is "permits"; God never frustrates the nature of any creature directly, but does permit creatures to frustrate each other's natures, and that only insofar as a further good may come of it. The point is that there is no inconsistency in hypothesizing an all-good God.

Now let us consider the parallel universe evil god, the one who is omniscient and omnipotent like the good god, but tries to maximize evil. In converse to the good god, he will do everything he can to frustrate nature, both the natures of his creatures and himself. We hit an immediate snag: Why would this god ever create anything at all? Since god is the greatest being there is, the greatest evil would be to frustrate his own nature, and so god would always do evil to himself (frustrate himself) before doing evil to anything else. But to create a universe for the purpose of doing evil to creatures (doing good that evil may come of it) is to perform the greater good for a lesser evil, since the evil done to god is always the greater evil compared to an evil done to creatures. So the evil god would always choose to frustrate himself rather than create a universe he could torture.

There is a further problem, for the parallel between good and evil can't hold. The good god permits evil that good may come of it, but he never directly does evil himself; the evil god must directly perform the good of creating a universe if he is ever to engage in the evil of frustrating his creatures. This reveals the asymmetry between good and evil that is latent in even a pre-theoretical understanding of the terms.

There is a more subtle problem with the notion of an evil god creating a universe so that he may commit evil. He commits evil by frustrating the natures of the beings he has created; so when he creates creatures, he does so for the purpose of later frustrating them. When he in fact later frustrates them, he is therefore fulfilling his own purposes; in other words, he is not frustrating his own nature but fulfilling it and, to that extent, he is good rather than evil. But the good god doesn't ever resort to evil; he is purely good. The evil god can't be purely evil; he must in part be good - so there is no real parallel between an all-good and an all-evil god.

In summary, if we use a pre-theoretical understanding of good as what enhances nature, and evil as what frustrates it, then we can see that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-evil god doesn't make sense. This god would frustrate himself before he frustrates anything else, since he is the greatest thing that can be frustrated. And if he did attempt to create a world on which he could perform evil, he could only do so by contradicting his own nature. This all-evil God that parallels the good God can't exist.