Johannes Messner

Johannes Messner resting on a hike.

I was recently chosen to serve on the board of the Johannes Messner Geselschaft in Vienna, a society formed to promote the work and the memory of a great Austrian social ethicist. We have a new website now, to which I have added a section in English. Continue reading

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Orientation and the Vertical

In practical sense experience, the vertical field appears to be the field of the common world in which we find ourselves thrown together with objects. And the horizontal field, by way of contrast, appears to be the field of our experience in this world. We orient ourselves in our horizontal field by orienting ourselves in respect to objects we find in this field, which is itself centered in us. But we orient ourselves in our vertical field by orienting ourselves in respect to the field itself, which is not centered in us; we find ourselves near the ground, near the bottom of the vertical field, in like manner with the objects around us. As active percipients we are, to be sure, at the center of a low-ceilinged practical field of vertical movement. What we must stoop to reach, appears “down;” and what we must stretch or leap to reach, appears “up.” But the point is that this entire practical field of vertical movement is itself perceived to be at the lower end of a downgraded vertical field directed from the heavens to the earth.

Being oriented in respect to the vertical field itself, we can be properly or improperly so oriented. That is, we can be right-side-up or up-side-down in it. The vertical field is the field in which our body direction is oriented. On the other hand, being oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field but not to the horizontal field itself, it makes no sense to speak of a generally proper or improper horizontal orientation. That is, it makes no sense to speak of our being left-side right or front-side-back. For our orientation in our horizontal field, whatever it may be, is what first gives this field its order; its order must be consonant with our orientation in it. What is to our left is eo ipso the left-hand region of our horizontal field, and so for the other quadrants. The horizontal field of objects is the field of our body direction.

We may be improperly oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field, not facing them when we should; but we cannot be improperly oriented in respect to our field itself. We may, more- over, be disoriented in respect to some objects in our horizontal field, lacking all sense where they are while still retaining a sense of an ordered horizontal field about us. A disorientation of this sort is the only failure of orientation possible in respect to our horizon- tal field. Any further disorientation involves a disappearance of the field itself; a loss of the sense of its order, not merely a sense of the loss of our right order in respect to it. I may sense that I am upside- down in the vertically ordered field; and I may try to “right” myself, bring myself into an upright, proper and effective orientation in this field. But I can have no corresponding sense of an ordered horizontal field in respect to which my body direction is out of order.

Objects thus appear to be encounterable and determinable only in virtue of our appearing to be thrown together with them, stuck with them for better or worse, in the vertical field of a common world. Active determination of an object in the horizontal field of our experience is our way of accommodating ourselves to it as in the same vertical world-field with it. The particular determination or significance that is effective is the one that meets the requirements of our living with the object in a common vertically ordered world. It is our contribution to actually bestow this significance on the object. But it is the world’s contribution to set the heaven-earth ordered stage on which, and conformably to which, this bestowal is possible.

There is then a phenomenological priority of the world-field—in which we must orient our off-centered selves—over the horizontal field of our self-centered experience in the world. This priority is reflected by the phenomenological priority of balance over poise; that is, the priority of our capacity for proper vertical orientation, in the world, over our capacity for effective orientation toward objects in our horizontal field of experience in the world. Balance in the vertical dimension may exist without poise in respect to circumstantial objects; but poise in respect to circumstantial ob- jects is impossible without balance. Poise is our capacity to cope effectively with circumstantial objects. We first have this capacity in virtue of our ability to stand erect, to balance ourselves in the vertical world-field. The equi-poise of balancing ourselves makes us capable of the directed-poise for responding effectively to our circumstances. Directed poise flows from equi-poise as from a gyroscopic center of our activity. As soon as we lose the central equi- poise of balance, our directed poise issuing from it flies off into an uncontrollable clumsiness. But our central equi-poise need not be lost by withdrawal back into it of all circumstantially directed poise. Our capacity to stand up21 normally gives us the capacity to act; but not vice versa. An effective poise or stance is an effective balanced poise. But good balance is not a well-balanced poise (in respect to something in our circumstances). (Samuel Todes)

Why do apples fall?

All of us have had the experience of falling, and we fall just like apples.  We don’t have to speculate about how apples fall as though examining a specimen under a microscope, because we can see the event “falling” from the inside.  Before we study science or philosophize about nature, even as children we grasp the falling of other bodies by sympathy, by identifying imaginatively with the falling object sometimes even to the point of feeling vertigo when we see an object fall from a great height or flinching when we see bodies about to collide.

From this insider’s perspective, we know that there is a big difference between falling and being pushed. When I am pushed, pulled, or thrown, the experience is of having something done to me. But when I roll off a ledge and fall, the sensation is of my own body falling. The falling comes somehow from within; it is my body’s own thing.

But we must attend carefully here: each of us is a house divided.  While the body rushes downward, some inner animal claws and scratches to prevent the fall.  Think of the high dive:  I walk to the edge, look down, and my reason issues an order to my limbs:  “Jump!”  And yet I do not jump, because animal-me cringes away from the dizzying height to cling to the diving board.  This same animal-me resists mightily when I roll off a ledge:  rational-me may judge that everything will be fine; mineral-me falls from within; but animal-me cries out in betrayal.  The desires of the mineral are against the animal, and the desires of the animal are against the mineral.

So when I say that the body falls of itself, this is not to say that everything within me owns the fall.  But beneath my animal outrage at the victory of my lowest nature, I can still see that there is a vital difference between falling and being pushed or pulled.  It’s all the same to animal-me:  push, pull, or fall, animal-me resists with tooth and claw.  But the experience is entirely different for that side of me that I share with the rocks.  At that level, the falling is mine:  I own it. (Jeremy Holmes)

Cf. the latest episode of The Josias Podcast.

“It seems that we were better in our childhood”

Born into this world, an infant inherits two essential needs. The first is for meat, drink and sleep. These are the requirements of the flesh, without which the body cannot be the house of the soul and will not grow in height and strength. The other is a craving for knowledge. A baby will grasp at brightly coloured objects, it will put them in its mouth, taste them and press them against its cheek. It will start at the sound of a pipe. Later, when a child hears the barking of a dog, the noises of animals, the laughter or weeping of people, it gets excited and asks about all that it sees and hears: «What’s that? What’s that for? Why is he doing that?» This is but the natural desire of the soul, the wish to see everything, hear everything and learn everything. Without trying to fathom the mysteries of the universe, visible and invisible, without seeking an explanation for everything, one can never be what one should be — a human being. Otherwise, the spiritual life of a person will not differ from the existence of any other living creature. From the very beginning God separated man from beast by breathing the soul into him. Why then, on growing up and gaining in wisdom, do we not seek to gratify our curiosity, which in childhood made us forget about food and sleep? Why do we not tread in the path of those who seek knowledge? It behoves us to strive to broaden our interests and Increase the wisdom that nourishes our souls. We should come to realise that spiritual virtues are far superior to bodily endowments, and so learn to subordinate our carnal desires to the dictates of our soul. But no, we have been loath to do that! Raving and croaking, we have not moved farther than the dunghill next to our village. Only in our childhood are we ruled by the soul. When we grew up and gained in strength, we rejected its dictates, we subjugated our soul to the body, and contemplated the things around us with our eyes, but not our minds; we do not trust the impulses of the soul. […] There is not a flicker of fire in our bosom nor any faith in our soul. In what way, then, do we differ from animals if we perceive things only with our eyes? It seems that we were better in our childhood. We were human then, for we sought to learn as much as possible. But today we are worse than the beasts. An animal knows nothing and has no aim in life. We know nothing, but will argue until we are hoarse; defending our obtusity, we try to pass off our ignorance as knowledge. (Abai Kunanbaev, Book of Words, Word 7)

Second Spring

Second Spring, the journal founded by the late Stratford Caldecott, that extraordinary and wonderful man, with his wife Leonie, has a beautiful new website. The header image of the new website is a painting of an oak tree by the Caldecott’s daughter Rose. In a reflection thereon, Leonie Caldecott writes:

As well as being the symbol of England, the oak tree is surely an apt symbol of the resilience needed to remain productive and fertile in the midst of inhospitable conditions. Wood: that substance on which God-made-man stretched himself out in that mysterium tremendum, is conceived of here as a sign of new life being added to the old. In place of the rainbow which normally unites sunshine and rain, the sign of the ancient covenant cast above the floodwaters, our noble tree roots the crux of the matter back in the earth. It is surely no coincidence that in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf the White, rescued miraculously from the maw of the Balrog, is discovered after the encounter with the Ents of Fanghorn Forest. Ents are slow-moving, considered creatures. For an Ent, as for any tree, there is no such thing as a state of emergency.

I’m so glad that Second Spring has itself shown something of the oak’s resilience. It’s continuation after Strat’s death is a fitting act of piety towards him, and of generosity toward the rest of us.

“The Integrists in Quebec”

In the midst of the controversy over Charles de Koninck’s book, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Jacques Maritain dismissed de Koninck and those who followed him as reactionary intégristes, unable to meet the true challenges of the age:

I was deeply touched by the article of Fr. Eschman in The Modern Schoolman. He has masterfully exploded Koninck, and we can now enjoy entering a fine period of scholastic controversy worthy of the Baroque age. While the world is in its agony, and Monsieur Sartre offers to the intellectuals an existentialism of nothingness, the integrists of Quebec will doubtless raise the cry of alarm in the presbyteries of the New World against the Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and, as our good friends at the Tablet call it, Neo-Pelagianism menacing the Holy Church.

J ’ai été profondément touché par l’article du Pére Eschmann dans The Modern Schoolman. Il a mouché Koninck de main de maître et nous aurons la joie d’entrer ainsi dans une belle période de controverses scolastiques dignes de l’age baroque. Pendant que le monde agonise et que M. Sartre propose aux intellectuels l’existentialisme du néant, les intégristes de Québec vont sans doute jeter dans les presbytères du nouveau continent le cri d’alarme contre le néolibéralisme, le néo-individualisme et, comme disent nos bons amis du Tablet, le néopélagianisme qui menacent la sainte Église. (Jacques Maritain to Etienne Gilson, November 15, 1945; via Francesca Aran Murphy, to whom I owe part of the translation)

And yet, seven decades later, de Koninck’s book, and those who used it to combat certain forms of “personalism” seem remarkably prescient. There was indeed in the thought of certain Catholic intellectuals eager to speak to the concerns of the age a danger of neo-liberalism, neo-individualism, and, neo-Pelagianism. The effects of it are ever more apparent.

Christian Roy has argued that de Koninck’s book was,

in some ways… a prophetic warning of a notable drift towards hedonistic secular individualism, which progressive Christian personalism unwittingly helped usher in Catholic societies such as Quebec.

That is, it was a warning that the attempt of a certain kind of attempt by Catholic intellectuals to, as it were, co-opt or subvert the spirit of the age was counter productive, and led to the opposite result of that hoped. Instead of a reversal of secularization there was a huge acceleration. But it was also a warning that even among those who remained in the Church a new liberalism and a new Pelagianism would take hold. A candid examination of debates within the Church in the past few decades— especially in Western Europe— show just how prophetic such warnings were. This is one reason, why, to the great annoyance of a certain relation of mine, I have tried to reclaim the (to his mind sinister) term integrist/integralist to name my own approach to thinking about the common good as a Catholic in the modern world.

Freedom and the Philosophy of Nature

In my recent lecture on freedom I claimed that the true father of the modern conception of freedom is not one of the great political thinkers such as Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, but rather the father of modern philosophy in general: Descartes. Descartes’s philosophy, backed up by the spectacular successes of the application of his new mathematics, gave dominance to a non-teleological account of nature. And therefore he and his many successors did not understand human freedom as the ability to understand given ends and to pursue them, but rather as a quasi-creative power, making those ends good which it chose. Thus a key question for settling which conception of freedom is right is the question of the which philosophy of nature is true: the teleological philosophy of nature in the tradition of Aristotle, or the so-called “mechanistic” natural science of the Cartesian tradition.

In the introduction to Natural Right and History Leo Strauss, showing his remarkable ability to  go straight to the fundamental questions, presents the issue as follows:

Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the non teleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved. (pp. 7-8; emphasis supplied)

The alternative that Strauss shows as opening up once the decision has already been made for a non-teleological account of nature has been made is a trivial one compared to the original decision. Even if a science of man that is in some sense “teleological” is preserved alongside a thoroughly non-teleological science of nature, the sort of freedom given to man ends up being rather different than the sort of freedom that follows from classical teleology (witness Hegel). The real problem  that needs “an adequate solution” is therefore the problem of teleology in nature.

It is not entirely clear what Strauss himself thought about the issue of that basic problem. He says that he cannot deal with it adequately in Natural Right and History, in which he works (ostensibly) within the confines of “social science,” and does not address the cosmological question. His friend Jacob Klein’s profound inquiries into the significance of modern science, would, I think, have given him the tools he needed had he decided to attempt an answer to the question.

In any case, Strauss is not quite right to say that  “modern followers of Thomas Aquinas” have accepted the anti-teleological conception of the heavenly bodies— not all them have. Charles De Koninck certainly did not. A contemporary thinker, deeply influenced by De Koninck, who has faced the question head on, and given a powerful argument for a teleological cosmology that takes the insights of modern science seriously is Sean Collins. I believe that his 2009 lecture, “Animals, Inertia, and the Concept of Force” (pdf, html), is one of the most important recent works of philosophy.

Contrasting Concepts of Freedom

I have posted an expanded version of the talk on freedom that I gave at a recent Catholic-Shi’a conference to the ViQo website, and The JosiasI attempt to give an account of freedom as understood in the Catholic tradition, and contrast it with the modern, liberal account. Here’s a snip from the introduction:

One can consider freedom on many different levels. For the sake of clarity I shall distinguish between three such levels: 1) exterior or political freedom, 2) interior or natural freedom, 3) moral freedom. The secular and Christian concepts of freedom differ on all three levels. I shall summarize the differences briefly before considering each view more closely.

1) For the Christian tradition external freedom means not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good— a good that is truly good for them. For the secular tradition of the Enlightenment in contrast, external freedom means not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. Negatively this kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good. Positively it is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule— so that everyone can claim to be “self-ruled.”

2) Interior or natural freedom is taken in the mainstream of the Christian tradition to mean the ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions. On the secular view, however, internal or natural freedom is taken to mean a completely undetermined self-movement of will. On the secular view man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.

3) Moral freedom, according to the Christian tradition, means knowing what the true good for man is, and what means are necessary to attain it, and being able to make use of those means. Moral freedom means being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us— it is to be virtuous and wise. For secular culture on the other hand, moral freedom means not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of “authenticity” and “originality” deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own “freely chosen” (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) “values.” (Read the rest here or here).

Christian Spaemann on Transsexuals

The psychiatrist Christian Spaemann, son of the great Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, has written a remarkably intelligent and balanced article on “transsexuals” and how the Church ought to give them pastoral care. The article was so good that I agreed to help translate it for First Things.

As a psychiatrist Spaeman has a lot to say about the psychological suffering of those who consider themselves transsexuals, and about the appalling way in which that suffering is being instrumentalized today, and the appalling haste with which young persons are being lead into drastic measures: Continue reading