The Josias Podcast, Episode IV: Nature, Natural Ends, and the Enlightenment

The Josias

Do rocks have purpose? Are they essentially headed somewhere? What about plants? Humans? The stars? In this episode (iTunes, Soundcloud, Google Play) we touch on a bunch of questions related to the idea that the universe is ordered and things have intrinsic ends. The episode kicks off with some awesome music taken from the film Koyaanisqatsi, and continues with a riveting discussion of Aristotle, celestial bodies, and the implications of the idea of intrinsic ends for our worldview at large.

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“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)

“They are to be laughed at”

Now ‘principle’ [beginning] is placed in the definition of nature as its genus, and not as something absolute, for the name ‘nature’ involves a relation to a principle. For those things are said to be born which are generated after having been joined to a generator, as is clear in plants and animals, thus the principle of generation or motion is called nature. Hence they are to be laughed at who, wishing to correct the definition of Aristotle, tried to define nature by something absolute, saying that nature is a power seated in things or something of this sort.

Ponitur autem in definitione naturae principium, quasi genus, et non aliquid absolutum, quia nomen naturae importat habitudinem principii. Quia enim nasci dicuntur ea quae generantur coniuncta generanti, ut patet in plantis et animalibus, ideo principium generationis vel motus natura nominatur. Unde deridendi sunt qui volentes definitionem Aristotelis corrigere, naturam per aliquid absolutum definire conati sunt, dicentes quod natura est vis insita rebus, vel aliquid huiusmodi. (S. Thomae Aquinatis, In Phys. II)

On the City of God Against the Pagans

The Josias

Alan Fimister

The doctrine of the two cities, which finds its greatest expression in the work we are to examine today, is not the construct of some theologian, however great. It is an essential element in God’s revelation to mankind, vital to the correct understanding of the personal and institutional history of each individual and society and of every book of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The great Pope Leo XIII frequently alluded to this doctrine in his encyclical letters, not least in the thundering opening of Humanum Genus promulgated in 1884.

“The race of man, after its miserable fall from God, the Creator and the Giver of heavenly gifts, ‘through the envy of the devil,’ separated into two diverse and opposite parts, of which the one steadfastly contends for truth and virtue, the other for those things which are contrary to virtue and to truth. The one is the kingdom…

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New Episode of The Josias Podcast on Rights

For the third episode of The Josias Podcast, we had Pedro José Izquierdo on to talk about rights and law. (And also to hear him call the drafter of the current Austrian Constitution “the Jedi-Master of positivism”).

We wanted to have Pedro on, because earlier this year, he wrote a brilliant piece at The Josias on right and law. To me it was the blogpost of the year. I found it tremendously illuminating, because it clarified for me the relation between the meaning of ‘right’ (ius) that St. Thomas uses, and the meaning common now— as in ‘human rights’. (I remember one of my classmates in college wrote his senior thesis on this question, and I was more confused after hearing his arguments than before).

St. Thomas uses ius in the sense of the object of the virtue of justice. That is, most basically, the thing due to another. For example, the bread that a baker owes someone who has paid him for bread. The modern sense of right is of a moral power, that is what someone ought to be allowed to do without interference. As Pedro shows, the modern sense is an analogical extension (made by Baroque Schoolmen such as Suárez), and originally means that if a thing is one’s right, then the power or licence that one has to do certain things to or with the thing is also due to one, i.e. one’s right. For example, if a piece of bread is someone’s ius, then eating the bread is also his ius. That is, he ought to be allowed to eat the bread.

But in the Enlightenment a fatal switch takes place. The analogical extension of ius, right as a power, comes to be seen as the prime analogate, and objective right, the object owed to the other, as an analogical extension. The Enlightenment theorists hold that something is due to another, because of the inviolable moral power that he has of demanding it. Rather than the power being an effect of his being owed something. Henri Grenier explains the consequences with his customary concision:

If objective right is understood as right in the strict sense, it follows that subjective right, i.e., right as a power, is measured by the just thing, according to conformity to law. Moreover, since law is an ordinance for the common good, it follows that the whole juridical order is directed to the com­mon good. But, if subjective right is understood as right in the primary, strict, and formal meaning of the term, it follows that the juridical order consists in a certain autonomy, independence, and liberty. For subjective right is not measured by the just thing, but the just thing is measured by the inviolable faculty, which is a certain liberty. Therefore, according to moderns, the juridical order is di­rected to liberty rather than to the common good. This gives rise to errors among moderns, who speak of liberty of speech, liberty of worship, economic liberty, — economic liberalism, — without any consideration of their relation to the common good. (Moral Philosophy § 960).

Grenier’s passage shows how the relation of law and right is also reversed by the reversal of the order of rights. For the moderns, law is a limit on rights for the sake of preserving them. That is, it limits the moral power to do things for the sake of preserving the maximum moral power of doing things in the greatest number of persons. Thus, for example, it limits the power of taking stuff away from others, in order to increase the power of amassing possessions. The end ultimately is for each person to be able to exercise there will (whatever its object) to the maximum extent compatible with others doing the same.

But on the classical view, law is an ordinance of reason for the common good. And it is the ratio iuris, that is it is the measure by which one judges which things are due to whom. Thus, in the ancient conception, everything goes back deliberations of reason about the common good, and what serves it. So, for example, the distribution of private property will be regulated with a view to what serves the common good. Therefore, the law can put limits on the acquisition of wealth, if it judges that too great an acquisition damages social peace. Or it can forbid certain kinds of contracts or loans that are judged to be prejudicial civic friendship.

On the modern view, on the contrary, everything finally goes back to individual will. This is (of course) grounded in two understandings of the good. On the ancient view the good is desired because it is good, at it found primarily in the common good. But on the modern, desire or will is primary, and things are only called good because they happen to be desired or willed. Hence the primary realities grounding society in Enlightenment thought are the moral powers to do what one wills, i.e. rights in the sense with which we are familiar.

New Volume on Dignitatis Humanae and Tradition

The Dialogos Institute has published the proceedings of a colloquium held in Norcia on Dignitatis Humanae and tradition. The volume is particularly helpful, because all of the interventions agree that the traditional condemnations of religious liberty as found, say, in Quanta cura, are irreformable, but they give different explanations of the apparent conflict between Dignitatis and previous teaching. This gives the collection more focus and precision than is usual in such discussions. Alan Fimister’s provocative final essay attempts a synthesis of the main positions by a remarkable application of Augustinian ecclesiology. Tolle lege!

All Times Are Bad Times


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Gloriosus apparuisti inter principes Austriae, sancte Leopolde, ideo diadema suscepisti de manu Domini; ora pro nobis ad Deum qui te elegit. (Magnificat Antiphon for the Feast of Saint Leopold)

Earlier this month the Austrian Bishop’s Conference met here in Heiligenkreuz. By some chance the first day of the Conference coincided with the Feast of Saint Leopold, the great Margrave of Austria and founder of Stift Heiligenkreuz (November 15th). These are, shall we say, challenging times for the Church of Austria, and one could not but be struck by the contrast between our times and those of Saint Leopold. But perhaps there is more illusion than reality in the contrast.

Certainly the impression that one gets from the liturgical texts etc. for Saint Leopold is of a kind of golden age in which everything went right for the Holy Prince. The antiphon for the Dixit Dominus at vespers goes, “Dominus…

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