“Technique is the metaphysic of the age”

Yuval Levin has a clever post at National Review in which he discusses three different senses of “nature” at work in Laudato Si’: Continue reading


Some notable appreciations and critiques of Laudato Si’

Over at The Josias I defend the section of Laudato Si’ on world government, in the introduction a section of Henri Grenier neo-scholastic proof of the necessity of such an institution. At the same time, however, I wriggle out of the conclusion that the UN’s authority ought to be expanded by claiming that such a world government could only be just if it recognized the social kingship of Christ. Continue reading

On the Utility and the Disadvantage of Neo-Scholastic Manuals for Intellectual Life

I have been reading Henri Grenier’s manual of moral philosophy. We have posted passages on personalism, on the subject of civil authority, and on private property at The Josias with introductory notes. I have found Grenier tremendously exciting and enjoyable, but I realize though that my enjoyment depends on a good deal of Vorbildung. Only to someone who has thought about the questions that he treats a good deal before hand, and seen the many difficulties involved in trying to answer could Grenier’s highly formal and apodictic presentation be enjoyable and exciting. James Chastek reports of his first discovery of Grenier: «I had the sense of having found the answer key to Thomistic thought.» I had the very same sense. But this is precisely the reason why I think that Grenier’s manual was completely unsuited to it’s original purpose: to be a text book for the seminarians beginning philosophy. Continue reading

Avicenna and Michael Bolin

Listening to Peter Adamson’s brilliant podcasts on Islamic philosophy, it struck me that al-Farabi and Avicenna had a theory about the the genesis of substantial form similar to that proposed recently by Michael Bolin. According to al-Farabi, the parents of an animal (say) merely dispose the matter, which is then informed by the lowest created intellegence (angel),  whom he famously identifies with the agent intellect, and which would later come to be called the dator formarum, the giver of forms. Avicenna develops him further and argues that spontaneous generation of a human being is possible in principle, since if the elements happened to be mixed in the right way, the dator formarum would infuse the form. I think this is basically the same as Bolin’s idea that the artificial construction of a living being is (in principle) possible. Bolin, however, thinks that the form is immediately given by the highest universal cause (God), rather than by a created universal cause. At first glance, al-Farabi’s idea that it is done by a created universal cause seems much more probable—especially in the light of De Koninck’s work on universal causality in The Cosmos— but I would like to look at al-Farabi’s and Avicenna’s arguments in detail.

In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

Alan Jacobs recently posted an outline of an argument against a certain sort of story about the origins of modernity told by many Thomists—the sort of account given by Gilson in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and by Maritain in Three Reformers; the Ockham→ Luther→ Calvin→ Bacon→ Descartes→ modernity tale of decline. Jacob’s makes six complaints about this sort of account. No two versions of the account are the same, and so Jacobs focuses on the versions of it presented by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation  and Thomas Pfau in Minding the Modern. I haven’t read Pfau, but I have read Gregory, and while I would quibble with some of his points, I agree with the basic outline of his argument. So I disagree with Jacobs, and in what follows I give a brief response to all six of his complaints. Continue reading

Fanaticism vs. Devotion

In a comment on my last post Michael Bolin does a good job of defending the Newman passage that I used to show that one should not be for moderation in religion, even in false religion. Nevertheless, I think Samantha Cohoe is right that the passage is not applicable to the case of St Paul before his conversion. Even after one has dismissed the bogus moderate/extreme distinction in religion one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes provided the following distinction on Facebook (quoted with permission): Continue reading

Varieties of Neopelagianism

Of all of Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI’s books the one that I have read most often is a little volume of spiritual exercises on the theological virtues (variously titled Auf Christus schauenThe Yes of Jesus Christ, and To Look on Christ)I have an audiobook of it that I often listen to in the car. The exercises are based on a close reading of Josef Pieper’s little books on faith, hope, and love, adapted for the purposes of a retreat. I have just been reading Pieper on hope, and it is interesting to see how Ratzinger modifies some of Pieper’s thoughts. A striking example is Ratzinger’s discussion of two forms of “Pelagianism.” This is perhaps the most famous passage in the whole book, since, according to Andrea Tornielli, the second of the two forms is the source of Pope Francis’s repeated (and somewhat puzzling) use of the term to describe traditionalists. I was struck by the fact that although Pieper discusses both of the phenomena that Ratzinger calls “Pelagian,” he only uses the term Pelagian for the first form— it is Ratzinger’s idea to call the second form by the same name. The context of both discussions is the analysis of presumption as a vice opposed to hope. Pieper discusses two basic forms of presumption, with a another form between them:

Presumption reveals itself in two basic forms that correspond to the mutually opposed pretexts on which it bases its inordinate satisfaction.
Theology calls the first kind of presumption “Pelagian”. It is characterized by the more or less explicit thesis that man is able by his own human nature to win eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. Associated with it is the typically liberal, bourgeois moralism that, for no apparent reason, is antagonistic not only to dogma per se but also to the sacramental reality of the Church: solely on the basis of his own moral “performance”, an “upright” and “decent” individual who “does his duty” will be able to “stand the test before God” as well.
Between this first basic kind of presumption and the second lies that pseudoreligious activism that believes it can construct, out of a thousand “exercises”, a claim to the kingdom of heaven that is rightful and absolutely valid and able, as it were, to pit itself against God.
The second form of presumption, in which, admittedly, its basic character as a kind of premature certainty is obscured, has its roots in the heresy propagated by the Reformation: the sole efficacy of God’s redemptive and engracing action. By teaching the absolute certainty of salvation solely by virtue of the merits of Christ, this heresy destroys the true pilgrim character of Christian existence by making as certain for the individual Christian as the revealed fact of redemption the belief that he had already “actually” achieved the goal of salvation. (IV)

Note that Pieper only calls the first form Pelagian, the second basic form form is in a sense the opposite of Pelagianism— one might call it Jansenist or Calvinist. But what about the form “between” the Pelagian and the Calvinist? It is this “between” to which Ratzinger extends the term Pelagian, and he makes of it the second basic form, omitting any mention of the form that Pieper associates with the Reformation. I quote Ratzinger at length: Ratzinger extends the term “Pelagian” to the middle form

[The foundation] lies in the error of thinking in the error of thinking that one does not need God for the realization and fulfillment of one’s own being. Following Josef Pieper closely, I would like merely to try to offer a few comments on two widespread forms in which [presumption] finds expression and which from a purely superficial point of view can appear harmless.
The first variation of presumption that we need to talk about is the bourgeois liberal Pelagianism that rests on considerations such as these: “If God really does exist and if he does in fact bother about people he cannot be so fearfully demanding as is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover I’m no worse than the others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that,’ In this widespread attitude to life we find the human self-belittlement that we have already described in the case of accidie and the self-sufficiency with regard to infinite love that people think they do not need in their bourgeois self-satisfaction. Perhaps in times of peace one can live for quite a long time in this frame of mind. But at the moment of crisis people will either be converted from it or fall victim to despair.
The other face of this same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want any forgiveness from God, nor indeed any gift at all from him, They want to be okay thernselves, wanting not forgiveness but their just reward. They want security, not hope. By means of a tough and rigorous system of religious practices, by means of prayers and actions, they want to create for themselves a right to blessedness. What they lack is the humility essential to any love— the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved. The denial of hope in favor of security that we are faced with here rests on the inability to bear the tension of waiting for what is to come and to abandon oneself to God’s goodness. This kind of Pelagianism is thus an apostasy from love and from hope but also at the profoundest level from faith too. Man hardens his heart against himself, against others and ultimately against God: man needs God’s divinity but no longer his love. He puts himself in the right, and a God that does not co-operate becomes his enemy. The Pharisees of the New Testament are an eternally valid representation of this deformation of religion. The core of this Pelagianism is a religion without love that in this way degenerates into a sad and miserable caricature of religion. (pp. 81-82)

It seems that the reason why Ratzinger extends the “Pelagian” to Pieper’s “between” form of presumption is that it too makes salvation a something that one can achieve oneself. In a foreword to a book by Charles De Koninck, Cardinal Villeneuve called Pelagianism a “many-headed monster,” like Lernaean Hydra it grows two heads for every one that is struck off. If “bourgeois liberal Pelagianism” is the mark of our time, then it makes sense that it engenders other forms which might be outwardly in opposition to it, but share it’s internal logic. De Koninck himself writes, in a footnote, “It has become most urgent to spread the writings of St. Augustine against the Pelagian exaltation of man and of liberty.” Perhaps this is the reason why Ratzinger does not mention Pieper’s “second form of presumption”— the pressing danger facing us to today is not a distorted Augustinianism, but rather a complete rejection of the true Augustinian doctrine of the primacy of grace.

The Ends of Writing, and the Purpose of this Blog

In blog-post reflection on blogging Elliot Milco considers blogging mostly insofar as it is communication with others:

The purposes of communication are: to convey the truth, to express one’s will, and to delight.  These are respectively the virtuous, useful, and pleasant goods of speaking.

But when I think about why I began this blog it seems to me that my main purpose was not so much to teach, sway, or delight my readers, but rather to clarify my own thoughts. In a recent post on Jacob Klein and Charles De Koninck I discussed the idea of philosophy, and therefore of philosophical writing, as a clarification of what is contained in a confused way in the first movements of the mind. Peter Kalkavage, an SJC tutor very much in the tradition of Klein, has a wonderful little essay “Writing to Learn,” in which he writes:

writing — the sort of writing that pertains to us as human beings rather than as professionals — is primarily for oneself and only secondarily, if importantly, for others. Why write? Not primarily to communicate but rather to inquire, that is, to grasp a thought with greater clarity and depth. The true beginning of such writing is the desire to know…

That is the kind of writing for which I started this blog. Of course, a blog is not a private notebook; people sometimes actually read what I write here, and this affects my writing in all sorts of ways. James Chastek, whose blog is my beau ideal of this sort of blogging, writes something about his readers that I would like to apply to my own:

I’m very thankful for those who read the things I write here. I would have abandoned a mere private diary or a blog with no readers after two entries, and so each of you had an essential role to play in the project.

And then of course once there are readers some posts are written for the sake of persuading or delighting them. But I think that this leads to a different kind of writing, with its own ends—namely those that Milco enumerated: teaching, or moving to action, or delighting.

Milco writes, “One should not desire an audience for its own sake,” and “the audience is the incidental recipient.” But I think that this is more true of the kind of writing that one does for one’s own learning. In the kind of writing that is ordered to communication the readers are often not incidental. If, for example, I am writing about the immorality of marijuana smoking in order to clarify my own thoughts about the matter, then the readers are incidental, if however I am writing because I want to persuade my countrymen that they should not legalize marijuana then I ought to find a medium which will be read by many influential people of the sort likely to be persuadable by my sort of argument.

Milco’s post was occasioned by the first post of modestinus’s new blog. Modestinus writes that he had been considering abandoning blogging for the sake of writing in web-magazines such as Ethika Politika or print media such the The Remnant. If Modestinus is primarily interested in didactic, rhetorical, or poetic writing—that is, writing that is primarily for its readers—then he probably should have done so, but if he is interested in “writing to learn,” a personal blog is an excellent medium for that purpose.

Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck  was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.

In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows: Continue reading